The prolific Californian artist was recently on the move again, this time creating artwork on the fringes of Asia in the urban spaces of Istanbul.
ISTANBUL STREET ART
Not yet a year has passed since San Fransisco artist DYoungV came through Hong Kong and left his signature style of art in the streets. The prolific Californian artist was recently on the move again, this time creating artwork on the fringes of Asia in the urban spaces of Istanbul – an idea hatched while chatting with Hong Kong’s own local tattoo artist Ross Dixon Turpin of the famed Star Crossed Tattoo. The promise of Istanbul’s ‘free reign’ to get up proved too great a draw, and soon DYoungV had booked his ticket to the enigmatic Turkish city, which did not disappoint. Style by Asia offers insight into the artist’s impressions of working in the Eurasian border city that has become a beacon of street art culture.
Of his experience working in Istanbul, the artist commented:
“In a city of nearly 15 million people that are up during all hours of the night, there is always someone around watching you. Even down the darkest and quietest alley at 5am, there are still people hanging out. This can make one very nervous when putting up work. What I learned… is just put your work up regardless, take your time to get it right and 99.9% of Istanbul people will not bother you at all.”
With this being the artist’s first visit to unfamiliar territory (where he had no long-standing contacts nor spoke the language), the trip was a crash course in Turkish culture and the individual local neighborhoods of Istanbul. He reports:
“Beyoglu is a neighborhood that is large in size and massively dense with people. Its walls are covered street to street with extremely well executed graffiti pieces. Literally thousands of pieces can be seen on every roller door, ground level wall, alley way and accessible rooftop. Finding it difficult to find open space in that area; most of my works in Beyoglu can be found in abandoned lots, on top of demolished buildings, rooftops above local markets and residential areas sightly off the more busy streets…”
In addition to Beyoglu, the Kadikoy neighborhood proved to be a quite impressive area for street art.
“Just over the Bosphorus Strait exists Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul. Kadikoy offers a variety of well executed graff pieces, enormous sanctioned and unsanctioned street murals and a very large street art scene. Unsolicited pieces done by the artists in this neighborhood can be seen covering whole sides of buildings, roof tops, freeway entrances and public parks.”
Despite a lack of contacts in the area, the artist was able to connect with creative local talents for collaborations through Istanbul’s Mixer Gallery. He says:
“The artists here are talented, courageous, ambitious, defiant, and very open to collaborating with travelling artists. Thankfully, through the help of Mixer Gallery I was able to connect with local artists: Canavar, Oneson, Ares Badsector and Gevsek. They took me around Kadikoy in search of walls. We spent the late evening/morning creating collaboration pieces all around that area.”
For DYoungV, the act of creating street art is both deliberate and meditative after careful consideration of a neighborhood. Regarding his process in unfamiliar international destinations, he offers:
“I believe that doing street art in foreign cities adds a unique perspective on the dynamics of that city’s culture. For me, a neighborhood has to be visited three times. One day to scout, one night to get work up and a third follow up visit to photograph and interact with the completed work. This allows for hours upon hours of exploring new alleyways, residential areas, visiting mosques, eating at local cafes and interacting with locals all while working. It’s a very rewarding experience. The perspective of getting work up allows for visits to areas that one may not travel to otherwise.”
British artist J.Fishy shares his process for creating the surreal ‘Fruit and Veg On’ pasteup series in Hong Kong.
HONG KONG STREET ART
China’s bustling Southern harbor city has recently experienced a new artist-in-residence crafting surreal encounters in urban spaces. Walking down the street in Sai Ying Pun, a vibrant neighborhood enclave West of Central, one might come upon a young man with an eggplant on his head. Or, for that matter, you could pass a young lady carefully balancing an ear of corn atop her crown. Further in Pok Fu Lam, a child can be found wearing a sprig of spring onion, and a couple has appeared in Po Hing Fong steadily balancing oranges upon their heads. The observer of street art on Hong Kong Island would surely have seen such phenomena by now, as you’re practically bound to meet one of these figures around town. An unsigned enigma, one cannot help but wonder of the origins of this exceptionally prolific series.
Turns out, the images are part of a new photographic portraiture street art series entitled ‘Fruit and Veg On’ by a British artist who prefers to be called J.Fishy. Luckily, UrbanDNA was able to catch up with the artist just as he wraps up his 6 month stint in Hong Kong. He shares insight into his latest work that can be found throughout the city (no, the fruits and veggies are not photoshopped in!) and his inspiration. Funny enough, the series was sparked simply by the artist’s friend playfully placing a carrot on her head. Of this he says, “It was so simple yet had this beauty to it that I kind of became transfixed with.” Also, if you have been candidly asked on the street to pose with a piece of fruit on your head, you might just find yourself featured as a work of art!
Read on for the entire interview with the artist.
:::::INTERVIEW | J.Fishy & UrbanDNA:::::
Where are you from, and how has your background shaped your artistic practice?
J.Fishy: I’m from London but also had the pleasure of living in Bristol for a few years and have now been based in Hong Kong for the past 6 months. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel through quite a few other countries and getting to experience different environments and cultures has definitely influenced what I make.
Can you describe your creative training? What mediums are you drawn to?
J.Fishy: I studied art at university and was initially interested in sculpture and installation work. At that time I was casting bits of my body and growing plants out of them. I then increasingly became interested in people rather than objects as such. It was at this point I started primarily working with video and photography.
Have you always been interested in ‘street art’? When did you begin making public artworks?
J.Fishy: While most of what I’ve previously made hasn’t been ‘street art’, I have always liked encountering work outside and been interested in its accessibility to a wider audience than art shown in a gallery. While I’ve got a lot of love for art galleries, I think for many people they are this cultural entity that they feel disconnected from. Putting work outside removes this barrier between ‘the art world’ and the general public. I also think there becomes a more natural dialogue between what is made, the viewer and peoples environment. The first work I put outside was a series of text based pieces about 5 years ago… I initially started by getting pieces of wood out of skips and spraying onto them and leaving them in places.. I then moved on to getting ‘for-sale’ sign’s and old doors, giving them a bit of a makeover and then locking them to fences or street lamps. I found this way they stayed where I left them for much longer. I’ve only very recently begun wheat-pasting.
How would you describe your practice – primarily studio based?
J.Fishy: While some stuff is studio based, the majority of what I’ve produced over the past couple years has been created in public. There is an immediacy between myself, what is being made and other people that seems to keep driving me to work in this way.
Why did you choose Hong Kong for your most recent street art series, and how did you select specific site locations?
J.Fishy: Hong Kong is where I’ve been living for the past six months so that’s where I’ve been producing work. That said, quite a few of the pieces I’ve recently put up are from photos taken in other countries. As far as finding specific locations for each piece, I tend to travel on foot and keep my eyes peeled for good spots.
Can you describe your process for creating your Hong Kong series?
J.Fishy: The ‘Fruit & Veg On’ series started with a friend simply putting a carrot on her head. It was so simple yet had this beauty to it that I kind of became transfixed with. Two ordinary things (a carrot and someone’s head), took on this obscure relationship to one another through the simple action of putting one on top of the other. After this initial event of the carrot on the head, I decided to go buy some fruit and vegetables and walk around asking people to choose a piece to put on their head. While it takes me a while to ask the first person on any given day, once I start I’m hooked. I find the brief interactions with people somewhat therapeutic.
Are all the models posing with items on their heads, or is there any element of Photoshop involved?
J.Fishy: All the people are posing with the actual fruit or vegetables on their head. The only editing involved is blowing the images up and also slightly brightening them, as I generally choose to shoot slightly underexposed.
Do you know all the people who are subjects of your work? If not, how do you ask strangers to be photographed with fruits and vegetables on their heads? Have potential subjects ever refused your offer?
J.Fishy: Nearly all the photos are of just random people on the street. I simply approach them and ask if they’d mind putting a piece of fruit or veg on their head for a photo. Lots of people inevitably refuse but thankfully lots are happy to get involved.
What is the resolution of your images – do you shoot in raw?
J.Fishy: I have never shot in raw until about a month ago… I use photo zoom to blow the images up to get them nice and big and it was only once I started doing this that I started to realise the benefits of shooting in raw for what I do.. I generally choose to shoot slightly underexposed and raw images respond much better to being brightened than jpegs.
I notice you don’t sign your street art works with your name or pseudonym – any particularreason for this?
J.Fishy: I feel the works being signed would slightly detract from their obscurity. I prefer the idea of people encountering a lady with a bunch of bananas on her head with no explanation of it being owned by anyone, or necessarily even being a piece of art.
What type of printer do you use to create the Hong Kong paste-ups? Do you have access to this equipment in Hong Kong, or did you prepare your printed materials before leaving?
J.Fishy: The works I’ve pasted up so far have been made by splitting the images over lots of A3 pages and then printing them at a local printers in Sheung Wan. Each page is then cut out and stuck together before heading out to paste them up.
What is your overall impression of the Hong Kong street art scene?
J.Fishy: I think the scene here is at an interesting point. It is much younger than in London but feels like it’s definitely growing. There seems to be a real interest and desire for more of it from the local people.
Have you ever had any problems with authorities when installing your artworks?
J.Fishy: Thankfully not yet.
How long will you remain in the region? Will you be creating street art elsewhere in Asia?
J.Fishy: I leave in a weeks time and will be making a couple of other stops in Asia before heading back to the U.K.
What is inspiring you now, and how has your time in Hong Kong affected you creatively?
J.Fishy: The biggest source of inspiration is people I encounter on the street, MTR or wherever. I love the peculiarities of people and how they interact and operate with one another. Prior to coming here I was simply taking the photos and occasionally showing them at exhibitions… I’m now taking the pictures back out onto the streets to exhibit which seems to make far more sense.
What’s next for you – can we look forward to further showings in Asia?
J.Fishy: I’m preparing 20 new pieces at the moment that will be going up in the next week before I leave.. keep your eyes peeled.
Belgian contemporary artist Phil Akashi catches up with UrbanDNA to discuss his new street art series begun in Hong Kong, his creative journey and why illicit art is just another creative medium.
HONG KONG STREET ART
Phil Akashi is a contemporary artist who sees no boundaries in expressive mediums. To this fine studio artist, creating illicit art on the street is just another way to convey his creative message – by happenstance, some of his creative works can be described as street art. The Belgian artist can be found most often working in his studio in the blossoming South Island Cultural District in Hong Kong, yet is undeterred by policy preventing his work from being seen in outdoor locations. Akashi’s most recent endeavor involving an unsanctioned element is his new ‘Legend of the Dragon’ street art project (with both illicit and permitted artworks) that will be displayed throughout Asia in nine different cities (one chapter corresponding to one city – with one or several artworks per city). The project reflects upon cultural identity through rethinking the use of traditional Chinese seals.
Two artworks from the ‘Legend’ street art project have already been created in mindfully chosen, unsanctioned locations in Hong Kong. The first piece was installed by the artist at the Deepwater Bay beachside boardwalk in March, during the week of Art Basel in Hong Kong. The timing of this first piece incidentally provides fascinating insight into the handling of high caliber street art during Hong Kong’s much-touted art week – would the art survive? Sadly, not. The unpermitted Deepwater Bay mural lasted hardly a week before city crews returned the wall to its original, blank (in this case, blue) state. This, despite the interest and thanks of the many onlookers who witnessed the work’s creation. On another note, the artist was surprised by the unwaning crowds of nighttime swimmers that continued through the wee hours of the morning. Hong Kong’s elderly do love a good evening dip and, apparently, street art.
The second unsanctioned installment in the ‘Legend’ series went up in Wong Chuk Hang in mid-May, and can still be viewed along the highway at 55 Wong Chuk Hang Road, at the opposite side of the street from the L Hotel.
Although Akashi’s creative repertoire may include street artworks, he identifies simply as an ‘artist’. He says, “I am just an artist… who likes to express myself from time to time through street art…” His use of unsanctioned space stands out as a solidly ‘post-graffiti’ practice, part of a new era of illicitly created, fine street art that has evolved beyond territorial markings and spreading one’s name into a recognized medium of contemporary art. Unlike some traditional street art, it isn’t concerned with its own illicit nature. Rather, Akashi is executing painstaking, studio-quality painted works with or without permission in highly visible locations that address cultural identity. Rather than being a street art purist who only works with or without permission, Akashi’s creative practice blurs the lines of placing importance on permission at all, offering a fresh freedom.
Phil Akashi is a young artist to watch going forward. His exhibition with Fashion Art E.U., which selected him to represent Belgium, is currently on display at the European Parliament in Brussels and will soon begin traveling across European capitals. He also embarks upon a notable brand collaboration at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Artist Residency in Shanghai – fascinating as Swatch is especially supportive of contemporary art and is a main partner of the Venice Biennale.
Style by Asia catches up with Phil before his departure for the Swatch artist residency in China, getting the scoop on his latest street artworks in Hong Kong. Read on for the uncut, exclusive interview with the artist.
UrbanDNA and Phil Akashi | May 2015
Where are you from, and how has your background shaped your artistic practice?
I am a Belgian-born artist based in Hong Kong. Born in 1978 and raised in Brussels in the multicultural capital of Europe, I quickly developed a curiosity and a passion for art. As a nomadic artist, I later lived in Los Angeles, Madrid, Wellington (New Zealand), and then Shanghai, where I enjoyed stimulating artistic environments and further deepened my interest in Asian cultures. I now live and work in Hong Kong. Passionate about Asian seals and Asian characters, I have built my artistic identity with an Asian essence. I chose the pseudonym “Akashi” for the vocal strength and for the diversity it represents. Living in China, I have also created a Chinese name, 涛程, meaning “big wave journey” and I intentionally reversed the two characters to play with the rules and to make my Chinese name unique. With these names, I play with paradoxes, talk about my inner world and how I view the world as a transcultural element.
Can you describe your creative training? What are your preferred mediums to work with?
I have never been to an art school but I have always been curious about art in general and experimented with creative things as a hobby. Four years ago during a trip around China, I fell in love with Asian seals and when I arrived in Shanghai, I decided to become a full time artist and started experimenting with Chinese chops. Today I reinvent the traditional use of Asian seals working with a broad range of media. My arts practice involves using the power of language with a transcultural and conceptual approach to question the contemporary world around me. As a result of my usage of traditional Asian seals, I forge my own artistic language that links East and West and places the past in the service of the present.
What inspires you? Who are your favorite artists?
I am inspired every day by the life of all my grandparents who have been very hard workers and taught me very good values in life. I am also trying to be surrounded by optimistic people who live unconventional and unique lifestyles, who dare to take risks and who enjoy achieving their dreams.
My favorite artists are Axel Pauporté, Keith Haring and Ado Chale. Axel Pauporté is a big mountain snowboarding legend. He was such a creative artist in the mountains. I was following him when I was a teenager and he inspired me to take risks, follow my intuition and to do what I love early in my life. I have been passionate about Keith Haring since I was a kid for his widely recognized visual language and for his social activism. It’s probably thanks to him I do some street art projects today. Ado Chale is an artist, designer and most importantly sculptor of time – passionate about mineralogy, gems and stones. I visited his studio in Brussels when I was 15 years old and it was an eye-opening experience for me… I am also very sensitive to the work of Jaume Plenza, the collective Enra and Gregor Hildebrand.
How does your street practice fit into your overall creative practice? What came first for you – the street or the studio?
The street practice is one way to express myself and to escape my comfort zone and my studio. I need a lot of freedom and diversity as a person so it is good for me to change regularly of environments. The first painting I did, I wanted to do it on a canvas and I finally ended painting it on an entire wall.
Can you describe your process for creating street art? What comes first, the content or the location?
My process of creating street art is the same as creating art in general. I have ideas everyday when I am thinking, when I am meeting people, when I am commuting, traveling, reading… then I take notes and ‘sleep’ on the ideas for a while. When I come back to my notes, if I still feel the idea has potential, I develop the concept and decide later to create a project or series around it. The content and the message are keys as I like to add meaning and symbols in my art. The way I do it and where I do it come next. In my street art process, the choice of the location is important. It has to bring me a special emotion, either it’s the environment, the location or the architecture. It has to be a bit funky or unique. I can also discover a cool spot and start to build content for it. It’s like making the spot your own and creating your own ‘carte blanche’ commissioned project. But I always do it with a sense of ‘respect’ and try to create something meaningful and aesthetic.
What themes or motifs do you usually paint? Has this focus changed recently?
For the moment, my arts practice involves using the power of Asian language with a transcultural and conceptual approach to question the contemporary world around me. So you can see some Asian characters, words, poems either from China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea appearing as seal imprints. That’s my way of creating a visual signature and to forge my own artistic language that links East and West and places the past in the service of the present. It is also an exciting way to escape my comfort zone and to sustain the very old tradition of Asian seals with passion, emotion and innovation.
What brings you to Hong Kong, and why is painting Hong Kong important to you? Does painting Hong Kong offer any special opportunities or difficulties that aren’t found elsewhere?
Two years ago while we were living in Shanghai, my girlfriend received a business opportunity to move to Hong Kong with an expatriate package. After 3 years in mainland, it was a cool opportunity for us to discover Asia from another angle so we decided to go for it. I feel really lucky to have the chance to be able to live and work in Hong Kong without having to worry about paying the rent. Hong Kong has so much to offer and it is all about finding the right balance to enjoy the best of it. I really appreciate the nature, the ocean and the central location in Asia. Painting Hong Kong is important for me to leave a trace of my passage. It is also a way to immortalize into my work the influence of Hong Kong as a cultural, political, social environment.
How does the graffiti scene in Hong Kong compare to other cities you’ve worked?
The graffiti scene in Hong Kong is still in its infancy. It’s the same for street art and the art scene in general. Hong Kong is so expensive that makes it almost impossible for locals to have the chance to express themselves as full time artists. The potential is here but it is just tougher compared to other cities. Also the government doesn’t seem to be 100% ready to understand the benefits of street art initiatives.
What is your ‘dream canvas’ in Hong Kong? Are there any particular obstacles that complicate gaining access to that space?
Well I do have a couple of funky street spots in Hong Kong I would like to appropriate but this is top secret information! Apart from that I would be very excited to create a monumental artwork on the entire bottom of the swimming pool of the Four Seasons Hotel, or on the entire floor at Pearl Lam, Gagosian or Galerie Perrotin. I don’t really see any obstacles, they just have to call me ;o)
Where else have you painted? What are your favorite cities and countries to work, and where do you plan to create work in your ‘Legend of the Dragon’ series?
I lived and created in Brussels, Los Angeles, Madrid, Wellington (New Zealand), Shanghai and Hong Kong. For the ‘Legend of the Dragon’ street art project, I plan to work in 9 different cities of China and S.A.R. You can follow me on Instagram (@philakashi) to discover every step of the journey.
How fast do you generally work? How long did it take you to create the illicit piece in Deepwater Bay, the first in your ‘Legend of the Dragon’ series?
It depends of the artwork, the environment, the size, if it is legal or not…the longest artwork I did was the ‘Tribute to Mandela’ in Shanghai in the summer 2013. It took me three weeks and I lost 7 kilos! I attached a seal embedded with the Chinese characters ”自由” (meaning ‘freedom’) to a boxing glove, and imprinted a monumental portrait into a mural with 27,000 punches.
The piece in Deepwater Bay Beach took me one night. I started at midnight and finished with the sunrise. I was surprised to see so many people who were going to swim at every hour of the night in the dark.
Can you describe your experience creating the first piece in the ‘Legend of the Dragon’ series in Deepwater Bay? What about the second piece in Wong Chuk Hang?
Creating a monumental piece during the night along the Deepwater Bay beach was really unconventional for me. Having the “green” in front of me while hearing the noise of the ocean behind me made it a peaceful moment. I finished the piece with a wonderful sunrise. I was also impressed by the number of old people going to swim at every hour of the night in the darkness. The majority came by to check me working, they all were very kind and supportive of my work which was a good surprise too.
The second piece in Wong Chuk Hang was a bit less peaceful as it was on a main street. It needed a couple of hours to be achieved as I had to do it in several steps. I had to paint the backgrounds first then I had to wait 2 hours to make it dry then I added the characters with the sprays. One of my friends joined me to record some videos and we’ve had two funny moments. The first one was when a public bus with passengers stopped in front of me to observe me spraying. We exchanged a smile with the driver then he left with a long supportive claxon! Then an hour later we had a small stress when we heard a police car siren arriving. But it was finally an ambulance and after it passed, we just had a big laugh.
Do you see a meaningful difference between illicit and permitted pieces within your street practice?
Honestly, no. When I create, I just want to express myself. I choose a location to add significance or emotion to my message. If it is an illegal location, I always try to respect it and beautify it. This is art. I am an artist, not a vandal. And if someone doesn’t like my artwork, wants to remove it or cover it, I respect that.
For the ‘Legend of the Dragon’ series, is the illicit nature important to the overall meaning of the works? Will all the pieces be unauthorized?
The meaning is in the technique, the message and in the choice of cities and locations. The location might add significance and emotion, not the illicit nature. I plan to have a mix of unauthorized and commissioned pieces but I will do with what I manage to get. I would like for instance to do a mural in Macau, why not for a casino, but it is not going to be easy. If you own a wall or know someone I could contact, please let me know through my website contact page.
Where will the next piece in your ‘Legend’ series be located? Will it be a permission piece or not?
It will be unsanctioned in mainland China but the precise location is a surprise…
What are your expectations for the illicitly created pieces? Does it matter they may not remain in situ for long? After documenting the art photographically, does it matter whether it remains intact?
Of course I would prefer an artwork remains intact for a certain time but this is street art and I respect if it is removed, covered, or not liked.
Does the source of permission matter within your understanding of street art? Do you perceive government authorized painting differently from private permission?
I am just an artist… who likes to express myself from time to time through street art. I respect the fact some artists are less opened minded about street art, commercial, or public commissioned artwork. But honestly I don’t have so much time to care about that. I know what I will accept and prefer to focus on what’s exciting or inspiring me.
Does the description ‘street artist’ apply to you?
Yes of course, even though I like the freedom to consider myself simply as an artist. The street practice is a real passion and one of my ways to express myself and to escape my comfort zone and my studio.
Where do you see as the center of global street art culture– or is there one at all? Where do you see as the biggest graffiti scene within Asia?
I am not an expert of the street art culture and the graffiti scene. I am just an artist.
Have you ever experienced legal issues for creating work without permission in the public space? How was this resolved?
No, but if it happens I will try to explain I am doing art with respect and passion.
Do you abide by any street art ‘code’ or etiquette? How do you evaluate a site’s propriety for displaying your work?
I just follow my intuition and try to respect others.
Where are your works available? Are you working with any particular galleries?
I am still in the early stages of my artistic career as I started only 4 years ago. I have spent my first two years in Shanghai experimenting with techniques and mediums. Then I focused the last 2 years on creating various series of more elaborate and collaborative projects. At the same time, I have participated in solo and group exhibitions in Belgium, China and the United States, which was good experience – not to sell high volume but rather to pay the bills, to learn and to build up my CV. So I was not ready to be represented. Today I feel I know more about who I am as an artist, about where I want to go and I feel my work has started to become more consistent. I start to have more and more interest from collectors, curators, galleries and media from different parts of the world. So I feel ready this year to start talking with galleries and I believe the next twelve months will be exciting for my development. Anyway, finding galleries is not complicated but finding the right long-term matches requires some patience.
Regarding exhibitions, I am participating right now in the Fashion Art E.U. exhibition in the European Parliament in Brussels till the end of May 2015. Then the show will travel to several capitals in Europe. This ambitious project aims to gather “ARTE y MODA” to promote creativity in Europe. This exhibition is curated by the Fashion Art Institute that has selected 28 artists from the European Union – each of the artists using their personal technique to communicate European values in their particular manner. I have been selected to represent my country, Belgium and I created a dress mixing Japanese sumi ink and cinnabar paste with seal imprints with Chinese characters: 文/“culture” and 乐观/”optimism” as I hope Europe will start to re-build together a culture of optimism. You can find more information on my website.
What’s next for you, and where are you working? When can we expect you back in Hong Kong?
In May, I will embark on new challenge and join the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Artist Residency in Shanghai as a residing artist for a 6 month period. I have been selected by the Swatch Artists Selection Committee, composed by François-Henri Pinault, George Clooney, Nayla and Nick Hayek, Esther Grether, Mikhail Kusnirovich and Sir Francis Yeoh. Thank you guys!
I have my studio in Hong Kong in Wong Chuk Hang in the South Island Cultural District, a new destination for contemporary art in Hong Kong. However, it will soon be temporarily closed for 6 months. After Shanghai I will come back to Hong Kong probably around November this year. Apart from that, I am in discussion for a commissioned project of sculpture in Japan in a ski resort so I might have the chance to go to Hokkaido this summer. I am also preparing a street art project in Bali for 2016!
In an exclusive interview, Invader shares his feelings on Hong Kong’s ‘Wipe Out’ and whether street art should be legal (spoiler: he says, “it has to stay illegal”).
HONG KONG STREET ARTIST INTERVIEW
It was only last year the Hong Kong government removed the most prolific public art project ever undertaken by the renowned French street artist ‘Invader’, which proved to be the catalyst for a series of unprecedented twists for the art world and the increasingly favorable position of street art. The removal of a popular, meticulously crafted mosaic by the artist of Pac-Man even inspired the local arts community to rise up and recreate the piece in posterity, although this effigy also eventually met its demise. Clearly the cheerful glimpses of video-game themed nostalgia had captured local hearts, but urban policy was more uncaring – in the eyes of the government, the rules are the rules, and who is to judge what is art?
Although administrators have been unwilling to discuss the artistic merits of unsanctioned public works, the commercial market happily weighed in. In January of this year, an ‘alias’ work (a studio-made reenactment of an illicitly created piece) removed by Hong Kong street cleaners from its original placement, sold on the Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales floor for just shy of HK$2 million – achieving US$252,000. Regarding the success of his work in this elite commercial space, the artist comments, “It is a step in my career and an evolution. Some people don’t look at me the same way now. I am taken more seriously which is actually a good thing. It is also a significant symbol that street art is gaining increased attention and credibility in the art world and that’s a good thing.”
In the wake of his successful exhibition ‘Wipe Out’ with HOCA, the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation, the artist describes himself as an ‘ULA’, or ‘unidentified living artist’– perhaps a new way to understand contemporary artists whose work relies upon anonymity? In an exclusive interview with Style by Asia, Invader shares his feelings on the legality of street art (spoiler: he says, “it has to stay illegal”). However, he also provokes the mindful reconsideration of urban policy, adding: “The people who have ordered my pieces to be removed should have asked themselves before if they were artworks or vandalism. A piece like the Kung Fu Dog in Happy Valley for example was obviously to me an artwork to be protected, not to be destroyed!”
Read on for the entire, uncut Style by Asia interview with Invader.
::::: INTERVIEW :::::
INVADER & UrbanDNA | May 2015
Where are you from, and how has your background shaped your artistic practice?
Invader: I define myself as an ULA, an unidentified living artist. I chose Invader as my pseudonym and I always appear behind a mask. As such, I can visit my own exhibitions without any visitors knowing who I really am even if I stand a few steps away from them. Since 1998, I have developed a large-scale project, code name: Space Invaders.
What brings you to Hong Kong? How many times have you visited and created work here?
Invader: This is my fifth time in Hong Kong since 2001, and up to now I have launched four waves of my “invasion”. My latest invasion wave of Hong Kong in 2014 was one of the biggest and the nicest I’ve ever made, even worldwide. The pieces were bigger and I really thought about their iconography. I spent 3 weeks on site just dedicated to this invasion!
Why is creating work in Hong Kong important to you? Does creating in Hong Kong offer any special opportunities or difficulties that aren’t found elsewhere?
Invader: Hong Kong is a nice playground for my street pieces as the architecture is very different from my home city. It’s also a great opportunity to take place in a dynamic city of the global art scene.
What is the message of your show with HOCA at PMQ?
Invader: The idea was to create something big after the wipe out of my work in Hong Kong by the government. The message could be that after the destruction of my work I am here again and still creating. Nothing can stop an artist from creating. I also wanted to offer a nice show for all the citizens who have defended my work and were saddened by the artworks’ removal.
What are your plans for Hong Kong this visit? Do you plan to create more public works? How might this ‘Invasion’ differ from previous times?
Invader: Yes, absolutely I already have put up 7 new pieces (with the one inside the show). It is a continuity of my previous work with new directions, new themes. For this 5th wave I have worked around the figures of Dragons and Ming vases.
Do you abide by any street art ‘code’ or etiquette? How do you select locations and evaluate a site’s propriety for displaying your work?
Invader: It is an essential part of the invasion and it is a very subjective decision. I need to identify the nerve center of the cities I visit. It takes a lot of time as it is a long scouting process. I often compare it to urban acupuncture. It takes a lot of scouting.
Do you install the works by yourself or ever have assistance? How long does it generally take to install a work?
Invader: I am surrounded by a small team and this is a very confidential operation. The time taken to install a work depends. I have developed several techniques that allow me to adapt myself to different situations such as the time and the place of the invasion, the size of the mosaic, the height of the wall…in order to be the quickest and the most discreet possible.
You had the honor to meet a revered Hong Kong street artist, the King of Kowloon, during a previous visit to Hong Kong – can you describe your exchange with him?
Invader: I remember him as a very nice and kind person. We spent some time together and he offered me several objects that he covered with his calligraphy. I also installed a space invader in his home!
You’ve created some ambitious pieces in Hong Kong, notably the Pac Man in Tin Hau and Hong Kong Phooey. Are these Hong Kong works at all unique from pieces created in other places? Do any pieces created for Hong Kong represent a new or special endeavor for you?
Invader: Each piece that I put in the street is unique. I never make the same piece twice. For Hong Kong, like for every city where I have worked, I try to adapt my work to the culture and the ‘colors’ of the city.
What is the most ambitious – or tricky – piece you’ve ever installed in any public space?
Invader: The one which was sent to the International Space Station a few month ago. You can learn more about it by the watching one of the films at the exhibition.
It has been well over a year since the January 2014 ‘Invasion’ of Hong Kong – how many pieces do you estimate still remain in situ, and does this number surprise you? How did you feel about the government’s campaign to remove your work?
Invader: Something like 5 of the 55 pieces I’ve installed in 2014 are left. I am surprised by the reaction of the government because most of them were so beautiful that I was sure that nobody would remove them… It is as if they have destroyed a gift I was offering to them. But it actually had a positive effect because that gave me the energy to set up “Wipe Out”, a big show about that destruction.
Your work became an accidental symbol for street art policy reform in Hong Kong after the ‘resurrection’ of Pac Man in Tin Hau. How did you feel about the Hong Kong local arts community rallying around this removed work, recreating the piece to protest its removal?
Invader: That really warmed my heart! It was nice to see that the local artists were sensitive to what happened and wanted to show that they were on my side. I even think that this was the case of a big part of the population.
What insight does your art offer a city like Hong Kong, which perceived your last large-scale ‘Invasion’ as a breach of policy? Do you see a need for technical street art policy reform or a stronger culture of tolerance for unsanctioned public art?
Invader: I think that street art is illegal and it has to stay illegal. I have played and I have lost! That said, the people who have ordered my pieces to be removed should have asked themselves before if they were artworks or vandalism. A piece like the Kung Fu Dog in Happy Valley for example was obviously to me an artwork to be protected, not to be destroyed!
What is your ‘dream canvas’ in Hong Kong? Are there any particular obstacles that complicate gaining access to that space?
Invader: Playing with the light of a huge building (like the ICC) but another artist has already done it!
Is the illicit nature important to the overall meaning of your public works? Have you ever installed work on the street with permission?
Invader: I like the illicit nature of street art, but I won’t miss the opportunity to make a nice piece because it is legal. I’ve for example just installed 2-pieces on the pillar of the PMQ with their permission.
Have you ever experienced legal issues for creating work without permission? How were these situations resolved?
Invader: I’ve been arrested a few times, but I’ve never been in real trouble. Because what I do is art and even if it is illegal, Art is a universal activity, and artists are generally respected.
Regarding your works available on the commercial market, how did you come up with your concept of creating an ‘alias’ of a publicly installed piece of street art? When did you begin this practice, and how do you determine which of your illicit works has a commercially viable alias?
Invader: I’ve always done this, from the beginning. I create one alias piece for each work I place on the street. I like the idea that the mosaics sold on the art market are linked with the ones in the streets. I think it is conceptually strong. But it took to me some years to find a perfect form for this. Now, my aliases are perfect. The mosaic is fixed on a black perspex panel which has a slot in which to place the ID card with all the information about the street piece.
You have indicated in past interviews that you are not interested in the ‘art establishment’ as an aim in itself, although your recent auction success in Hong Kong has set you firmly within the realm of ‘established’ contemporary artists and set new world records. What are your feelings on the success of your work in an elite commercial space?
Invader: It is a step in my career and an evolution. Some people don’t look at me the same way now. I am taken more seriously which is actually a good thing. It is also a significant symbol that street art is gaining increased attention and credibility in the art world and that’s a good thing.
How do you feel about your street installed pieces removed from in situ placement – are they still art? And how are such works kept from the commercial market – do you certify works similar to Banksy and Pest Control?
Invader: Once removed from their situ placement, my pieces become nothing–just some pieces of tiles that you could buy in Mong Kok for few dollars. I, myself, could not even authenticate a piece taken from the street because a tile looks like any other tile.
Do you sell your work in the gallery space – if so, where? And how might this work differ from your street work?
Invader: I now have an exclusive gallery that takes care of the all of my artworks. I want to stay focused on the art and of creating and let my gallery take care of the more commercial aspects. What I am doing is what you can see at my show: some mosaics pieces (alias) but also many other things and continually experimenting and innovating.
What’s next for you? What’s inspiring you now, and where are you working? When can we expect you back in Hong Kong?
Invader: I am still in Hong Kong and I am about to stay a bit more to install some new street pieces… After that I will have a rest because this show took me six months of hard work!
WIPE OUT: An ‘Explosition’ by Invader
Dates: May 2-17
Venue: The Qube, PMQ, 35 Aberdeen Street, Central, Hong Kong
Amidst Art Basel Hong Kong and D*Face’s sold-out show at the local Above Second gallery, the exhibition’s curator Richard Scarry of ‘Coates & Scarry’ talks with UrbanDNA.
Street Art/ Fine Art Curator & Exhibition Producer Interview, Hong Kong
In the flurry of Art Basel Hong Kong and D*Face’s sold-out Honestly Dishonest show at the city’s local Above Second gallery, Richard Scarry of the London-based art curation and production design superduo ‘Coates & Scarry’ talks with Style by Asia.
As a leading international expert on the integration of street art into the fine art world, whose many credits include introducing the works of D*Face to Hong Kong and Asia, Scarry offers rare insight into how the international perception of street art has evolved in the past decade. In light of this, we discover once-ambiguous ‘street art’ is becoming better understood, and has been embraced by “the validator’s collections,” as it enjoys recent and upcoming high-profile museum retrospectives visiting upon the topic.
Read on for a detailed, intimate chat with Richard from Coates & Scarry, as he discusses the unique work of D*Face in Hong Kong, his personal journey from the fine art auction environment to the contemporary art world, and tackles some of the difficult questions surrounding urban art– including issues of permission, public funding, and administrative policy.
::::: INTERVIEW / Richard Scarry with Erin Wooters Yip for Style by Asia :::::
How does Above Second’s Honestly Dishonest show represent something new and different in D*Face’s work?
RS: When I talk about D*Face, he’s a fine artist who is street slash pop, who may or may not do work on the street… We started working on this show with D*Face last September. All of these pieces are brand new pieces only for Hong Kong that will not be available anywhere else. That’s what I love, if he’s going to [do a project] he wants to do something special for each city.
These works are in really high-gloss paint, baby blues and yellows, candy colors, which he has never done before… I think whenever D*Face does a body of work, whether it be for New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo– every time he’s asked to do a show he wants to create a new theme and tell a new story. Because all of his work is hand-painted, hand-screened, and everything is made by him from beginning to end, I think that makes it more exciting for him. When I asked him to come to Hong Kong during Art Basel he was very excited to do something specifically for the city. These pieces are also homage to how everybody in this city lives very much on top of each other… We decided to do our show this week because it was Art Basel Hong Kong week, it’s one of the biggest dates on the globe– the entire planet– for art. We believe so strongly in what we’re doing that this was the week to do it… By doing work on the street we’re bringing people out of Basel to see art outside the convention center.
How has D*Face’s work evolved from being created in the public environment to the canvas and studio environment?
RS: It’s been about a twelve year journey for D*Face. Originally he worked in design and advertising, and that’s why he’s so hyper-aware of the garbage that’s being thrown at us everyday– buy this, go there, do this, be this. We are constantly being told, ‘This is who you should be, this is acceptable, this is the status quo.’ What D was doing in the beginning was taking some of those advertising methods and gimmicks and spinning them to show you what they’re really saying. To take you behind the scenes. The gallery thing started because as soon as people saw the work on the streets, they wanted it in their house. This connection happened organically and naturally because his fan base was so instant.
How did you get your start in the art world?
RS: I started in a small fine art auction house with good integrity and a great history that works with collectors all over the world… So, I spent years working with dead artist’s work, clearing out estates and working with Rauschenbergs, Rosenquists, Lichtensteins and Ellsworth Kellys. Twentieth century fine art, Americana. So it was exciting for me because I spent quite a long time in auction houses and looking at older works and helping people find the value…
Before that I worked in HIV prevention testing, and ran a men’s wellness clinic. I did frontline work within the gay community and all communities as an activist. I had a friend who worked at the auction house and I wanted a job in art, so I started packing paintings and holding things up. Within three years I was the head of the decorative arts department. That was my history of art course– that was my degree in the art world. The knowledge and experience was great. And then, when I went from the auction house to the non-profit gallery, I learned how a gallery works. I found that I came naturally to what I was doing… It was interesting, I ran a non-profit graffiti street art gallery in Los Angeles called Scion. It was sponsored by Toyota– they wanted their brand to be hip, so they gave us a big space and said ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ With their funding, all the money from the sales was able to go to artists. My very first show was Shepard Fairey, David Choe, D*Face, Saber, Retna– this was back in 2005. I was headhunted by a collector and ran his space until I moved to England.
Tell me more about how you work as Coates & Scarry.
RS: My partner Chippy is such a great balance for me because he is very much an academic. He curates very differently than I do. When I bring up artists, he’s like, consider the work and justify the show. Why does the show matter here in this location? And what can we do with education around it? How can we bring more people in and benefit the local community? How can we make this a symbiotic relationship between the art, the street that it’s in, the gallery, press, and the audience?
…One of our greatest privileges is going to artist’s studios and doing talks and interviews. On our blog, Coates & Scarry, we interview artists from all over the world. That’s how we started, interviewing artists on our blog… We were interviewing artists, we were fans and we were reaching out to artists who we respected. We ended up with a blogspot on Juxtapoz for three years and on DailyDuJour, and we were being picked up by blogs all over the world. The word got out there… We ended up with about 250,000 followers a year for our interviews. Our little blog has grown into a business but it takes a lot of work. We have seven artists that we represent on a full-time basis and do their shows internationally and in the U.K. It’s a work of passion, we love what we do, but there’s a lot of work involved as well.
Would you say the early 2000’s represented a resurgence of graffiti within the gallery scene?
RS: In the 80’s when you talk about guys like Crash and Futura and Kenny Scharf, it was more about tagging and trains, and the integrity only lasted because it was on the streets of New York at the time. However, Los Angeles never really had a moment with street art. It wasn’t until we were able to get funding behind it and get spaces that we were able to get people to come and see it as art…
There was also a great magazine at the time looking at graffiti and street art called Swindle Magazine. Also Juxtapoz and Beautiful/Decay are art magazines with a twist because they look at graffiti and street art and things outside of the contemporary gallery space. They were also looking at skate culture and punk rock, and how that all kind of crossed in music and art and fashion. It captured what was going on in the West Coast of America in the vanguard of culture.
So the early 2000’s were L.A.’s first confrontation with street art as fine art?
RS: Absolutely. Because as much as the West Coast of America is about movies and music, it was pretty conservative about art. There was a lot of photography and some lowbrow comic book illustration coming on, but until the street artists and graffiti artists merged together and started creating works together– that’s how street art gained integrity… [Around that time] Saber did the biggest piece of street art in the world in the L.A. River, which could actually be seen from space. So, it was an exciting time, especially for someone like myself…
Where New York had its big pop art moment in the late 60’s and 70’s with Warhol and the Factory, and England had its YBA [Young British Artist] moment in the 90’s with the Damiens and the Emins and that crowd, I think street art is now having its moment. This is its time. What’s interesting now is that we’re selling to some of the biggest collectors in the world who buy the big stuff. They’re realizing these artists matter and the work matters. The validation and integrity is there… It’s realizing, what these ladies and men are doing on the street is extraordinary work because it’s now hanging in museums with some of the most prestigious organizations in the world. It’s in the validator’s collections. It’s become more and more well respected. It’s arriving and evolving. This is a very exciting time.
What notable collections is street art present within?
RS: It’s in the Kohn Collections, it’s in the McRobbie Collections, it’s in the Kevin Wall Collections, the Rubell Collection, the Sandra Powell and Andy King Collection… [It’s collected by] Jose Mugrabi, Damien Hirst, Jeffrey Deitch, Charles Saatchi… The Obama’s have a painting by Ben Eine… The interesting thing is street artists or fine artists who put work on the streets are now making their way into some very important permanent collections after being supported by music, fashion and film actors and producers for the past ten years.
Where do you see as the center of street art culture globally?
RS: Where do I see the gravitational pull of street art? I still see it in London. Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve been to New York and worked on a show recently with quite a famous stencil artist… New York is very much photography, painting, sculpture, a little installation. I think New York is coming along and becoming more educated about the value of street art. The great thing about London and Europe is that the young guys and young girls who have grown up and now become the middle aged generation, they would see something on the street and find the artist. The artist was trying to make a living and they were young collectors, and they would make deals. The art made it into collections much faster… People are now realizing that [street art] is part of a relevant art collection.
What do you see as the difference between graffiti and street art?
RS: Everything should be well thought out and have meaning– that’s the difference between tagging and writing and street art. Because tagging is spontaneous and about getting away with it– it’s about breaking the law. The more risky the location, the better the location. It has nothing to do with what they’re saying… I think street art is much more considerate. It also takes a lot longer… When we talk about street art, we talk about the work as paintings. And now the work is going from the gallery back out into the street. The show is designed in the gallery and then it goes out into the street to reflect the show… Most street art is pop art, it comes from popular culture– it’s subversive. There is a message in some way or another– that’s why they’re putting it on the street. If you took it out of the context of appearing on the street saw it only within the gallery, most of it would be [seen as] pop, political, and propaganda driven art.
Do you view permission as important?
RS: When artists are doing work that is as labor intensive as D*Face’s work, if it’s a permission wall it gives him space to know it will stay for awhile. A permission wall is working with the city, so it’s leaving a gift for Hong Kong. It’s been curated, this has been okayed… What I don’t necessarily advocate is the people who run around hustling buildings and then selling walls to artists and making a whole industry around finding walls. What would be amazing is if the city went around to all of their people who have walls and buildings and spaces, and said, let’s do something beautiful and extraordinary… Coates and Scarry, Above Second, we’re all big advocates of public art and finding ways to give back to the community. There are positive ways to do that. I know it’s difficult in Hong Kong because of the size of the buildings and available wall space. But I know HKwalls is actively curating walls and getting walls licensed.
Can you think of a pivotal moment in the past decade when street art entered the popular consciousness as fine art?
RS: The Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum exhibition at the Bristol Museum [June 13-August 31, 2009], which broke all records of attendance for a regional museum– people queued up for six hours a day. That was the pivotal moment for public spaces and museums and city officials to start taking notice. And the amazing thing about the people in the queue was, there were little kids, and then grannies up to the age of ninety. It created the understanding that street art can be the people’s art. Everybody has a reaction, even if they don’t like it, at least they have an opinion…
What’s amazing about that show is that it was organized without the knowledge of most the museum administrators and city officials themselves– only a small handful of people really were in on it. There was a very small team, and Phil Walker, an extraordinary exhibitions manager at the Bristol City Museum, is the one who worked with Banksy’s team. He was the only one in the know that worked on the show, and he’s taking the secrets to his grave. It was one of the most successful museum shows outside of London in all of Europe that year. It put Bristol on the map as a tourist destination for people from all over Europe and Asia and America to come to, and Bristol has carried on with that legacy… All the sudden, Bristol had arrived, art-wise. It was interpreted as a city that was willing to take risks, take artists from outside, bring them in, and not lose the integrity.
In ‘Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum’ there was one particular piece– Peckham Rock– that was originally displayed in the British Museum and rumored as a new addition to its permanent collection, which later disappeared into obscurity. However, it appeared to mysteriously resurface at the Bristol Museum show…
RS: Everything there was very well considered. That’s why the show worked. Another thing they did, other than having a main gallery space for the show, it integrated his work with the permanent collections. So, you had to go through five floors of art history, antiquities, decorative arts and taxidermy, to actually see the whole show. It made people re-engage with their city and their city’s history while they looked for what they really wanted to find, which was the [Banksy] piece. It was very much like an Easter egg hunt. And we like a bit of mystery and we love the chase. It’s fun to seek and find.
In light of the recent trend in the U.K. of valuable street art works being removed from the public environment to be sold at auction, do you think controls are needed to keep valued street art in situ?
RS: That’s a very interesting question. I have some acquaintances who have had to deal with this on a regular basis. It’s lovely to see neighborhoods rise up and fight to keep what has been given to them by the artists… There are artists out there for whom they’re cutting up walls… There are galleries out there who are not street art galleries but they’re hiring people to cut up walls to place the work at auctions, and auction houses are putting them up without any provenance… The truth of it is, especially with the Banksy work– not that I’m an authority– artists who don’t sign their work on the street, they do this so you can’t take it and sell it. Because I came from an auction house background, when things come to auction, people want provenance. They’re like, ok, I like it, but where did this come from, where has it been, who originally sold, and tell me this piece’s history, because I’m also buying into the history. You need the proof because some stencil work is so replicated.
In light of the changing attitudes taking place within street art, have you seen the administrative approach change in the policy environment? It is becoming more tolerated or still taboo and risky?
RS: We have friends who are city planners, friends who work in the city council because we’re now in that age group. Our friends have grown up jobs. To put it in perspective, D*Face is doing a retrospective at the Malaga Museum of Contemporary Art in Spain in 2015. Massive– the whole museum. Shepard Fairey has done the Boston Museum. Swoon has just done the Brooklyn Museum. Jeffrey Deitch curated Art in the Streets with Barry McGee, Shepard, Eine, all these guys. Istanbul is having a street art show in their contemporary museum. All these publicly funded spaces have to answer to a council for their budgets and funding. If they’re inviting street artists to exhibit in their public spaces, it’s because they’re fostering and endorsing the art, and they want what the street artist brings, which is a young, smart demographic. It’s not becoming demystified, but it is becoming more understood… I’m getting calls from Beijing, Shanghai, saying we’ll give you a wall – we’ll get you a government wall! We want this, but we don’t know how to have this without it being chaos.
Do you see graffiti now as part of Britain’s national heritage?
RS: I see it as a lot of countries’ national heritage, definitely in the U.K… It’s becoming part of the Hong Kong heritage. This is our third show at Above Second and the reason we keep coming back to Hong Kong three times in just a year is, for one, we’ve been well received, but two, we’ve found a very sophisticated and smart base of fans and collectors who know what they want. They’re not buying it because they’re told this is the next thing. They’re connecting with it on an intellectual and emotional level. That’s what good street art does. Sometimes you don’t even need to know who made the piece, and the fun is trying to figure out who it was… It draws you in, and invites you into their story. Keeping up with the men and ladies of street art is like a modern day Easter egg hunt for art fans… It’s creating a story all over the world. In South America it’s very much a part of their culture as well. Brazil financially supports their street artists, endorses their street artists, gives them public gallery space, finances the festivals… That’s the one place where I believe the public sector can get more involved, is creating space for outside and inside work to coexist together. Also, we should do more education. Why aren’t school kids taken on street art tours?
What do you think of Space Invader’s recent invasion of Hong Kong, most of which was quickly removed by the Highways Department?
RS: That’s a shame because they were probably thrown away if they didn’t know what they were. That’s the whole thing about education. But the resilient street artists will come back and do it again and again, and people will learn about it, and those stories will eventually get to the people who sit in local government and do policing and management and planning. They’ll understand that art has its place. We live really hectic lives… and just supporting public art creates space in the city to breathe. It creates space to pause, sit back, and take something in. It slows your headspace down, and then you go back to the daily grind.
Where can people find D*Face’s work on the streets of Hong Kong?
RS: At PMQ [the former Police Married Quarters turned art space in Central], he did an extraordinary piece… Along Hollywood Road [for HKwalls], and we’ve taken over Evisu Jeans [on Wellington Street in Central]. Evisu has wrapped their four-story building with his images and he’s done an installation in the lobby downstairs. He’s done a capsule collection with Evisu, and we’ve spent the last two nights at Evisu, he’s painted the inside of the store. That’s an amazing way art and fashion can work together, and Evisu has been an amazing brand to work with…They gave D*Face free range, saying, what do you want? He said, ‘I want to wrap your building,’ and they’ve done it. They’ve done an installation downstairs and there’s a beautiful piece of sculpture there. So the exhibition is actually split over two locations. The new paintings are all at Above Second, and the archive print collection and rotatable monolith sculpture [are at Evisu]– it’s a six-foot tall, twenty-four panel piece of sculpture that you can go in and turn and look at…
There’s also a restaurant here, Bibo– there’s a piece going into Bibo. Bibo has KAWS, Invader, and Banksy, and for them not to have D*Face doesn’t make sense. When they found out we were here, they found us. D*Face has very graciously committed to doing a small piece in the restaurant itself. That’s how hardworking he is– we’ve been here ten days, and his last wall will be his fourth. He’s been painting from nine in the morning till ten, eleven o’clock at night. He’s a hardworking man.
Has D*Face painted elsewhere in Asia?
RS: Yes, he’s done some extraordinary walls in Tokyo. I know he’s done some off the cuff things while he was traveling, so he’s left his mark in other areas. There are three big walls in Tokyo that they’ve committed to keeping for him. Sometimes, D will go in and do a wall and the people will commit to keeping it after they see it, even if it’s not a permission wall to start with. They’re so delighted to have the piece and so excited– it brings visitors and tourists. Sometimes these artists will do this– they think about this– they go to a neighborhood that’s struggling a little bit, where the businesses maybe aren’t as busy as they think they should be, and if they can drive some traffic in, a few more people buy a coffee, do a bit of shopping… It’s a win-situation for everybody. It’s a good thing.
What’s next for you and D*Face?
RS: For D*Face we have his solo show in Los Angeles which he’s in the midst of now. The space is between six and seven thousand square feet– it’s going to be the largest show he’s ever done with an entirely new body of work that he’s been working on for the last year as well. That’s with PMM Art Projects. His last show in L.A. a few years ago completely sold out. He’ll also be doing some big installations on the street– his schedule is full. He just came back from doing work at Coachella, and the Malaga Museum show is coming up, which they started working on a year ago…
For Coates and Scarry, we have the space in London where we’re doing the seven solo shows in the next two years. We’d love to do something in Beijing, and we’d love to come back to Hong Kong. We love Asia… I just came back from the Armory, I’m here for Basel, and I’ll be in Basel, Switzerland for all the shows. Coates and Scarry will be going to all the graduate shows of all the art colleges in England so we can be aware of what’s happening and what’s coming… On our blog, we put up new interviews at least twice a month, so we’re still fans. We still find artists, and we still get butterflies and sweaty palms. We still get excited and reach out to people, like, ‘Do you think they’ll talk to us? Let’s interview them!’ For us, our journey for Coates and Scarry is to keep growing as a brand, keep producing shows and working with the artist, but also not losing the wonder… Art is a privilege to be involved with. A good artist rips his guts out and shows you, and our job is to take care of that and help them along their way. It is a privilege. ♦
Although it is sold-out, D*Face’s Honestly Dishonest show is up at the Above Second gallery in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong, till July 6, 2014.
New York graffitist turned Parisian contemporary artist John ‘JonOne’ Perello reinterprets the calligraphic street style of his youth as ecstatic, joyful revelations in oil. On display in Hong Kong at the Art Statements Gallery through June 21st.
Hong Kong Exhibition | Art Statements Gallery | May 8-June 21, 2014
Graffiti art has evolved since bursting onto New York City’s cultural scene in the late 70’s… and so has John ‘JonOne’ Perello, a child of this early graffiti movement.
Born in 1963, the Harlem-raised artist developed his nonfigurative painting style through youthful adventures ‘tagging’ the subway trains of New York City in the 80’s and rose to embody an iconic stature in the street art world. However, JonOne’s artistic development took a unique turn upon his decision 26 years ago to move to Paris. The painter has since adopted a more traditional role as a fine contemporary artist, and now favors canvas surfaces in the studio to the outdoor walls of his younger days. Inspired by the raw energy and movement of urban calligraphic style, this latest showing by JonOne at Art Statements in Hong Kong reinterprets traditional aerosol graffiti tagging in the medium of oil paint upon (quite large) canvas, and recalls the frenzied, ecstatic influences of Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet.
JonOne’s creative journey reminds the art world the idea of ‘graffiti’ cannot be so easily contained. Although his painterly origins are deeply rooted in the most conflicted -and frankly dangerous- era of urban graffiti street culture, this master has metamorphosed to elevate the concept of urban ‘tagging’ to new levels that can best be described as high art.
Style by Asia was lucky enough to catch up with JonOne at Art Statements in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong prior to the show’s opening. He discusses his graffiti roots, the current street art cultural ‘capital’ of the world, painting in extreme locations – including the subway trains of New York City and the Berlin Wall, and why the label of ‘street artist’ is such a complicated and misleading term.
JonOne speaks with UrbanDNA | May 6, 2014 in Hong Kong
How did growing up in New York City in the 1980’s shape your artistic style?
JonOne: My generation from the 80’s, we were just coming out from the period of civil rights, the Cold War, the revolution, the Black Panthers, South Africa, Nicaragua… The world was sort of boiling and it was very inspirational to want to change things. My generation was really the aftermath of the hippie generation… The way we expressed that we wanted to change things was by writing our names.
What was it like to paint the trains?
JonOne: It was like a moving gallery. Instead of being something that was fixed, it went from one area to another. In today’s generation people have the internet and people communicate like that, with Facebook and Instagram. We were communicating with the trains… But even though we were trying to do something good, there were a lot of people who were offended by what we were doing. There was like a red line between the poor and the rich. It was like a war. These people, they had it good, but still they felt their privileges were threatened… I guess we represented something they’d like to have put away, and by us being so present all over the city they felt threatened. Nowadays New York City has changed so much.
Do you think graffiti culture thrives amidst struggle? Does opposition somehow move it forward or make it stronger?
JonOne: I never really asked myself those questions because I wasn’t in that logical sort of mode, whether it was good, or bad. In my head I wasn’t functioning in a way of whether it was right or wrong. One of the hardest jobs I had to do as a young artist was to justify my actions. Imagine everything that is involved in wanting to express yourself like that… literally, having to climb a wall or a building like Spiderman. And once you start to do something people are going to knock you down – like, oh, you shouldn’t do that, you’re wasting your time, it’s illegal. Even before you even start, whatever you’re going to do in life people will try to knock you down. One of the biggest jobs I had to do was not listen to people and just focus on what I was doing and believing in it. So I wasn’t focused on logic, I was just on a mission to paint, and I felt that by painting it was one of the most beautiful actions for any community or group of people… My friends around me, instead of staying home and watching TV, we were outside and being poetic. Dudes were like, oh, should I use a bright yellow, like a cadmium yellow or a red deep? I was like, where was this coming from? They didn’t go to museums and weren’t culturally sophisticated or exposed to this type of culture, but here they are, trying to mix colors and express something. I was like, this is cool.
How did your work evolve from being outdoors in the urban environment to being on canvas?
JonOne: I was very lucky from starting as a guy who is scribble-scrabbling his name, I was lucky that I was able to meet a lot of artists, hang out outside, and go to clubs. I used to be a big club head, and I was meeting a lot of creative people. So when you’re around a lot of creative people… you start to listen to these people and put this into your own life. So I used to visit studios, hang out with artists, go to openings, and from there my art started to evolve. My life was just art, art, art, art, art… All the time.
Do you travel through Hong Kong and Asia often?
JonOne: Yea, I come here every now and then. I don’t know how many times I’ve been here. Dominique [at Art Statements] was one of the first galleries to show contemporary Western artists here in Hong Kong, so he brought me over to do his first show here. I think that was in 2006. From there I used to go to Japan a lot and China and all these other places in Asia. My wife is Vietnamese.
Do you have a most inspiring place or graffiti scene in Asia?
JonOne: Oh, these people are like my family, like a part of me… They live in Tokyo, Kami and Sasu. They are a husband and wife team of graffiti writers or street artists – more painters than anything else. I love what they do. If there is any place or people who inspire me it would be them.
Where do you see as the graffiti cultural capital of the world?
JonOne: The graffiti cultural capital of the world today is dot com – the internet world. It’s moving on the internet. It’s not just about the piece itself, it’s what you make of the piece that’s just as important. The new generation, they’ll make a film around it, or market themselves around several pieces they do. It’s not just about affecting the people that pass by or just doing community activism for the local neighborhood, but how can you do it in such a way that it spreads? So it’s more about the dot com world now, and my generation was just doing it… So there’s not exactly a ‘place’ it comes from anymore. If you try to follow it you become crazy.
Do you think graffiti should be preserved?
JonOne: Not everything, and especially not things done without meaning or purpose… In New York nowadays I don’t think they have the mindset to value art in the city, because it’s all about money. You can compare it to some sort of oppression. When I went to Germany one of my dreams was to paint on the Berlin Wall, so I got to paint during the 80’s when the Berlin Wall was still there. On the Western side it was all graffiti, it was completely covered with it. On the East side it was all gray and clean. But people would prefer to live on the Western side where people could express themselves. I guess preservation is just a matter of what is your mentality.
Do you see Hong Kong as the Asian art hub?
JonOne: I see Hong Kong as a money art hub, and money doesn’t necessarily mean creativity. What artists need is cheap rent… Here I think the rent is too expensive.
Did you follow Space Invader’s project in Hong Kong?
JonOne: Not really, but someone told me they took it all off. I guess they didn’t like it. Art is sometimes very political. It’s sad because it was good stuff. I don’t see it as something that harms… I don’t see Space Invader’s work as something that is anywhere near offensive or politically charged. I see it as happy art.
What’s next for you?
JonOne: I’m doing some shows in Paris and I’m enjoying. I’m excited because I’m now working in oils – it’s a big, big thing for me. It took me 30 years to feel ready to express myself with such a noble material. So that’s the new thing for me. My work has expanded and yet become more institutional, which is hallucinatory for me. It is so easy to enter the cliché of the typical graffiti writer, and people think I still use spray paint. Yet I have evolved from being an urban artist to being a traditional artist. Nowadays people can’t just say one is a ‘street artist’.
Art Statements Gallery Gee Chang Hong Centre, Factory D, 8/F 65 Wong Chuk Hang Road Hong Kong
Hong Kong, you say you aspire to be an art hub, and I truly want to believe you. But really, it’s time we had a talk, because I’m not sure you know what an ‘art hub’ is.
COMMENTARY: HONG KONG STREET ART
Hong Kong, you say you aspire to be an art hub, and I truly want to believe you. Heck, I want to live in an art hub!
I was among the crowd at Art Basel Hong Kong and the gallery scene has been steadily improving in recent years. It’s all been very promising.
But really, it’s time we had a talk, because I’m not sure you know what an ‘art hub’ is. You seem to have the term confused with something to do with numbers and dollar signs, like if the most art is sold here, then our city would somehow become a cultural leader. This, my friend, is a nonsense. Contrary to the popular belief that you so poignantly stated at ART HK 12, money does not create taste, class, or culture. And this is why Hong Kong’s status as a top logistical art market alone will never elevate the city to the ranks of the actual art hubs, New York City, London, and Paris.
So what does create create taste, class, and culture – and dare I say, an art hub? Perhaps tolerance of expression. Maybe the ability to mindfully operate outside of rote mechanical habit, or allowing a little individual dignity. For starters, you can stop removing every piece of stray art you find in the streets. The point of such a removal is lost in its incongruence to the city’s goals.
I know it’s hard to formulate new ways of doing things. Urban art preservation policy is a tricky issue that can easily ensnare one into circular, incoherent arguments. After thorough research into Hong Kong’s urban art preservation policies, it is apparent your administrative difficulties are self inflicted. Of course art is uncategorized when you haven’t yet devised a category for it! Haven’t you learned anything from the ‘King of Kowloon’? You need to find a sensible way of dealing with the preservation of unsanctioned art because the issue isn’t going away. Remember, administrative procedure is meant to serve the interests of the city, and Hong Kong is not at the mercy of its own outdated policies. If you need to dream up a new law/ordinance/public art designation to serve your interests, that’s what you must do – be creative! This city is not going to develop a reputation for the arts by stamping out the little creative sparks that try to bloom within its borders. A city that is trying to develop its ‘brand’ as an globally relevant art hub that also zealously removes valuable gifts of art left upon its streets simply looks foolish. In any case, it’s very poor branding.
So Hong Kong, I must ask you, do you want to be an art hub, or do you wish to continue with your old ways? Because the old ways and the new path aren’t compatible. It is your task to devise new ways of thinking about art, beauty, expression – fleeting moments of human connection and happenstance – and their place in everyday life. A leading intellectual atmosphere that can forge new ways of thinking about art and life – this is the secret ingredient of an art hub that all the money-made taste in the world can never provide.
Also, be optimistic and have a little faith in people. Just because you practice tolerance doesn’t mean people will take to the streets writing unsavoryness upon every surface. In fact, the opposite might happen- it might just raise the bar.
It’s time to match your actions to your words. Think of urban art policy development as an experimental investment in yourself. If you can see the problem clearly, it is actually an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate Hong Kong’s progressive leadership in an administrative space that has been puzzling the world for years now. Just please, for your own sake, leave the peoples’ art alone.