The Street Art Beat: Traditions of Hong Kong Graffiti
In my first post on Hong Kong’s graffiti, I chose to feature the King of Kowloon and the Plumber King because I found their use of the traditional Chinese medium, calligraphy, to be a refreshing addition to the genre of street art. This is because street art is, inherently, a Western import.
By definition, graffiti, unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface, exists and has existed in various forms across the globe and throughout history, but what we now consider a the genre of graffiti art consists of styles cultivated in the streets of Philadelphia, New York, and London in the late sixties. There are scores of innovative artists who have taken the genre far and beyond, like JR or Jef Aerosol (read about them on The Street Art Beat), but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the word “graffiti” calls to mind an image much like this one:
This image is of graffiti in Hong Kong, yet it could well be from any country – there’s nothing in the words or style to indicate that this was created in a city where the predominant language is not English, and the written language consists of characters, not letters. That’s not to say that street artists in Hong Kong are any less skilled than their western counter parts – though artists in Hong Kong are equal parts foreign and local – yet I often wonder about why Chinese cursive script, considered the most free-hand of art forms by Western art historians, is scarcely used. Consider Huai Su‘s “Autobiography” (730-770AD), one of the most revered Chinese paintings of all time (link to interactive image on the National Palace Museum site here):
The characters are written with a certain freedom, and a reckless sort of abandon and disregard for proper form. Huai Su worked at was greatly respected by contemporaries for his free spirit and unrestrained personality and was a pioneer for cursive calligraphy.
Strikingly similar were characteristics of the early street art movement of the sixties. There was social and cultural upheaval, discontent in the inner cities, and the voices of the people manifested themselves in free-from writing and artwork on the streets and subway cars, a simultaneous statement of identity, of freedom, and of a cry for help.
Given these similarities, I often wonder why Chinese characters are rarely seen in graffiti. This question is discussed in an interview with artist Xeme, of the crew KB (short for Kong Boys), by Bombing Science (full interview here):
BS: The use Chinese characters in graffiti is something North Americans rarely see done, here. This might sound like a silly question, being that you are from Hong Kong, but do you consciously use the characters to separate yourself from foreign artists? Or do you use the Chinese characters because they’re a part of your culture? Please explain your answer.
Xeme: I saw a documentary a few years ago that was asking some China writers why they never tried writing in Chinese and they replied that it’s too hard to write and develop. I felt a bit strange after hearing that answer since we wrote Chinese for most of our life and somehow they say it’s not comfortable writing it. As a result, I start writing different Chinese words every time I piece.
Of course, Xeme’s response to the question is only one answer to the question, but perhaps it is not too far off the mark. Street art in its present form is, at its core, a Western import, and is often centered on the manipulation of various Western alphabets. The absence of Chinese characters in the Hong Kong graffiti scene is concerning in a city often accused of having little local culture.
However, Hong Kong’s art scene is still vibrant – though local tradition may be lacking in graffiti, the works that adorn the streets of Hong Kong still reveal an active artistic spirit. Here’s to hoping that this spirit prevails. Below is an excerpt from the movie Graffiti Asia by The SRK that captures highlights from Hong Kong’s streets:
“The SRK is a creative studio that flows between the epicentres of London and Jakarta. Initiated by a director and producer partnership back in 2006 with a focus on documentary films, SRK grew in size to house a troupe of unique creatives whose skills encompass film-making, sound design, animation, illustration, publishing and events. “
Angela Kung also blogs daily at kokomo, sharing art/music/food and generally pretty good vibes.
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TAGS: Graffiti • Hong Kong • street art • Xeme
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