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. Portraits by Nic Gaunt.
Jason Dembski expertly weaves through the busy streets of Sham Shui Po, passing by a multicoloured geometric bear painted on a towering building on Tai Nan Street by Spanish artist Okuda and a woman’s face drilled into an alleyway off Yu Chau Street by Portuguese artist Vhils. These artworks appeared in the district in March as part of HKwalls, which was founded by Dembski and graffiti artist Stan Wu with the mission to help street artists showcase their work in Hong Kong. Throughout the week-long event, people strolled through the streets and alleyways, using maps or the smell and sound of spray paint to discover new works.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Dembski studied architecture before moving to Hong Kong in 2009. He took a job with his former professors at design firm Davidclovers before establishing his own design practice in 2012 and founding HKwalls in 2013. “The art scene was very small and commercial, and largely uninteresting back then,” says Dembski as we sit down for coffee in Sham Shui Po. “Like most of the creative culture, it was underdeveloped.”
Dembski began documenting street art on his blog Hong Kong Street Art (hkstreetart.com) and got involved with projects like the Work in Progress exhibition in collaboration with Swire Properties, which inspired the idea for HKwalls. “There wasn’t a lot going on with street art and what was happening was super commercial,” he says.
HKwalls changes location each year, with Dembski and Wu reaching out to shop and building owners to obtain permission for artists to paint on their walls. This not only allows the artists greater exposure, but also gives them a way to express themselves on the streets. HKwalls works closely with both property owners and artists, ensuring there is a dialogue between them so they can reach a compromise should the owners have any concerns.
The first iteration of HKwalls was two years ago in Sheung Wan, an area where the founders had connections and thought their goal of securing 10 walls was achievable. They managed to get 15 walls to paint on, and last year had some artists painting in Sheung Wan as well as Stanley Market.
The most recent edition took place from March 21-27, and saw HKwalls grow considerably and move to the rural area of Sham Shui Po. “I’ve always been fascinated by this area,” says Dembski. “People can find things they knew nothing about while they hunt for the art and discover new corners of the neighbourhood.” HKwalls partnered with Vans, which helped them obtain a space to house an HKwalls print gallery, showcase the work of skate photographer Mike O’Meally, and hold stencil art, shoe customisation and skateboard grip-tape art workshops for local schoolchildren. “Sponsorship helps fuel what we can do,” explains Dembski. “It’s a mutual support network as we have similar interests, and allowed us to be more engaging with the community rather than just create art.” The hub also hosted film screenings and a block party for people to understand street art and get a taste of street culture.
The decision to move the festival to Sham Shui Po was lambasted online, with some believing it was indicative of a rising tide of gentrification occurring in poorer districts, especially given that local stores are struggling to cope with rising rents. “We want the festival to affect the neighbourhood positively, and to support the independent businesses here,” responds Dembski. “We just want to make art available to the public.”
HKwalls’ goal is also to introduce street artists who are relatively unknown. “We did feature fewer Hong Kong artists [this year], as we want to expose people to new artists and types of art,” Dembski explains. “Some people think that because there are so many international artists we were dropping foreign ideas on the neighbourhood, but the artists were heavily influenced by Hong Kong.” Malaysian artist Kenji, for example, painted a bird made from various commercial objects. “It’s not a bird. It’s a collection of objects that make a bird,” Dembski says. “It’s a statement about Hong Kong’s rapid commercialisation and that if we keep going this way, we aren’t going to have nature, just things that look like nature.”
Dembski believes the street art scene can still develop further, given the right amount of exposure and support. “Art isn’t as encouraged here as elsewhere, and to go beyond that one step and take it to the street independently is a whole different level,” he says. “The public has definitely embraced street art as it has become more mainstream and accessible. I just hope it grows, and people create art they want to create, as opposed to what they think people want them to create.”