TAKING IT TO THE STREETS.
Creative expression comes in all forms and can appear in the most unexpected of places. Riva Hiranand meets four individuals who are turning Hong Kong’s streets into their personal canvas and creating a thriving new art scene across the city. Portrait by Nic Gaunt.
Talk about street art in Hong Kong, and you’ll inevitably hear the name Bao. Bao Ho is the artist in question, and though she only became a street artist last year, she has already participated in festivals like HKwalls and worked on a wide variety of commercial projects. Black and white characters, both human and animal, feature prominently alongside flowers and patterns in Ho’s work. Much of it appears cute but there is a dark undercurrent running through some pieces, perhaps from the beady eyes or oversized body parts that seem to emerge from the wall.
Some wouldn’t expect such darkness from Ho but her soft-spoken, friendly demeanor – much like her work – masks a different side. “I call this character Bao,” she says, pointing at a girl with long hair on her mural on the side of Mana Cafe in Sheung Wan. “A few years ago I suffered from depression, and it was quite serious. When I started painting and created this character, it felt like I was talking to that side of me. It’s a part of myself.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ho worked as a graphic designer for six years before deciding to quit her job in 2013 and spend a year in Australia. She moved around Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns, eventually travelling on to Taiwan, Japan and Europe. An artist from a young age, Ho began to sell her artwork on the streets of Melbourne. It wasn’t until the end of 2014, when she met a group of street artists in Italy, that the thought of making a living as an artist occurred to her. “They asked me to do a mural, and I loved it,” Ho recalls.
After returning to Hong Kong last year, Ho thought about getting a part-time design job, but her timing was fortuitous as the city’s street art scene was flourishing. “I met Jason [Dembski, of HKwalls] and he introduced me to more artists. I didn’t pay attention to street art before Italy, and it wasn’t popular when I was living in Hong Kong,” she explains. Although she worried about establishing a stable income, Ho quickly realised there was potential to meet brands and get paid for her work – so she embarked on her career as an artist.
Since last year, Ho has participated in HKwalls, painted murals for Starbucks in Mong Kok’s Gala Place, collaborated with Microsoft for the launch of its Surface Pro 4 tablet and transformed a 2,000-square-foot Tai Kok Tsui rooftop into a sprawling, enthralling piece of art. In July, she won a round of art battle Secret Walls, in which artists create work in front of a live audience. Even her parents, who initially disapproved of her career choice, have come around as Ho’s popularity has taken off.
While some artists face criticism for being too commercial, Ho insists that there is a middle ground. “It’s not easy to make a living without branded or commercial projects,” she says, noting that the brands she has worked with so far have not asked her to compromise on key elements of her style and that she is willing to incorporate aspects of the brand into her work. “Maybe it’s because I was a graphic designer, so I know how to work with clients. Maybe it’s just that my style allows for collaboration.”
While she has run into some trouble – when painting for HKwalls, the police approached her several times to check her ID card – Ho is optimistic about the future of her profession. She hopes that through education and involving herself in events or community art groups she can inspire people to understand and learn more about street art. “People are beginning to accept street art more,” she says. “This is a good thing for the scene, and for the artists.”