Outdoor mural creation brings life and colour to Hong Kong

Elsa Jean de Dieu
Kristopher Ho
Vivian Ho
Lauren YS
Lauren YS
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Street Art Origins

Deeply rooted in subcultures of the anti-government bodies from New York and Philadelphia, anonymous artists graffitied in public spaces, frequently tackling social or political issues. It started with writings or letter-based designs that succinctly stated direct messages. Later, it became dominated by graphic symbols and logos, eventually evolving into conceptual compositions. As time passed, with the further influence of hip-hop and punk culture and acclaimed artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy making it into the spotlight, street art was no longer mistaken for vandalism.

Street Art and Graffiti as an Art Form

Today, street art is an inclusive term incorporating graffiti, wall murals, public sculptures, and even street performances. This is the exact impression HKwalls tries to convey. It has been nine years since co-founders Jason Dembski, Maria Wong and partner Stan Wu embarked on a journey to showcase regional and international talents through street art and street culture. Through their annual festival, they are propitiously transforming Hong Kong into a welcoming city that embraces all genres of the art form.

HKwalls Street Art Festival

In March 2023, after a one-year pandemic-imposed hiatus, HKwalls Street Art Festival returned with an incredible line-up of artists and programmes. In previous years, they focused on the locals and only hand-picked a few international artists. However, this is their first time trying a worldwide open call, with flights and accommodations fully covered. To their surprise, they received over 600 applications. The artists chosen are firstly based on the quality and aesthetics of their artworks. They are then carefully selected with a mixture of styles, including graffiti, illustration, and tattoo art, to demonstrate street art’s wide range of characteristics. Working without a theme, Dembski says he finds that artists work better without being confined to specific ideas. Instead, spontaneity is essential for making each piece suitable and site-specific to the environment.

Wong Chuk Hang Creative Hub

Over the years, HKwalls has proved that mural art functions beyond beautifying a wall surface. Sometimes it is an effective method to visualise social and political campaigns; at other times, a mural can illustrate a message that appeals within a neighbourhood. Dembski thinks this creates a bond that draws communities together through shared values. In addition, the art attracts outsiders to places normally less visited, even if it’s just temporarily. Wong Chuk Hang, a former industrial area that in the 1980s housed over one thousand factories, is a perfect example. An MTR station opened in 2016, and galleries and artists have gradually moved in, turning the area into a cultural hub. HKwalls was one of the first artistic groups that recognised the area’s potential and hosted the 2017 edition of the festival there. With the mission to bring street art to unexpected locations, this move was instrumental in transforming the area into the art district it is now.

Graffiti Designs

Dembski commented that street art is not meant for permanent preservation, as the art is exposed to the elements. Yet it is a global phenomenon preserved in other ways. Its notion is an element of hip-hop music that expresses resistance. Graffiti designs are an essential component of street fashion and occasionally for luxury brands. Mural art tours are popular tourist attractions and are widely promoted. Street art has almost become its own genre. However, giving it a specific label is still tricky, as it falls outside the conventions implicit within traditional arts. For that reason, HKwalls is prominent in enlightening people on the roles of this specific artistic practice. Dembski remembered that graffiti used to be merely a “cool element”. They experimented with different types of workshops and initiated live art battles, quickly discovering an audience eager to witness the impromptu creation of graffiti art.  

Street and Graffiti Art Movement

The graffiti movement has developed from an expression mechanism of the outcast to urban art to succeed pop art in reflecting the dynamics of postmodernism. Street art will continue to blur the meaning of “high art” and challenge the value of art in a non-institutional setting.  So, what are HKwalls’ follow-up plans? Dembski said that they are looking at possibilities offered by street sculptures. With the growing number of supporters and continuous rising appeal for street art, he foresees HKwalls’s projects getting bigger.

Text Shek Man / Photo Martin Wray