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Hong Kong hates street art—until it is worth a lot of money

Reuters/Bobby Yip
A copy of Invader’s Pac Man mural in Hong Kong. The original was destroyed for “safety” reasons.
By Ilaria Maria Sala
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hong Kong has not been a welcoming place for graffiti artists.

In 1997, Tsang Tsou Choi, aka the King of Kowloon, was drawing his characteristic calligraphy on any possible surface, obsessively repeating that the British had stolen his family land in Kowloon, and that he was stating his birthright wherever he could. In his seventies, homeless, uneducated and mentally unstable, he was as obsessively erased by the local authorities.

Reuters/Bobby Yip
A gown based on “King of Kowloon” designs, 2007

The local art community grew desperate in its attempt to defend him, but most was lost. Then, the esthetic attractiveness of his brush turned his works into a symbol of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousand of dollars have been made by those who have been quick enough in taking pictures and reproducing his works on everything from bed sheets to to high fashion to mousepads. Tsang never saw a penny, though, and died a pauper in 2007.

Now, a show by Sotheby’s, running in parallel with this week’s Art Basel 2016 Hong Kong edition, “They Would Be Kings,” is selling five of his works for up to $75,000 each (all prices are in US dollars), on behalf of a private collector.

The show is part of an apparent new-found appreciation for street art in Hong Kong, that seems especially ironic in light of the senseless destruction of Tsang’s works, now worth tens of thousands of dollars. A similar destruction was carried out at the end of 2014, when the local authorities decided to bulldoze over all the remnants of Hong Kong’s most recent “urban art,” the one produced by the Umbrella Movement.

Undoubtedly a few years from now some Umbrella Movement art will pop up in private galleries, commanding high prices too.

Zevs 2009 Hong Kong logo.

Zevs, a French spray-paint artist. famously spent six weeks in jail in Hong Kong in 2009 for having sprayed Chanel’s logo onto an Armani store.He’s at the Sotheby’s exhibition with some of his “Liquidated Logos” —including Apple’s apple, McDonald’s “M,” and the CocaCola signature, all dripping paint as if they were about to melt. They have been selling fast, for upwards of $30,000 each.

Invader, also from France, is selling some of his trademark mosaics inspired by the Space Invaders video game, with a price tag that goes up to $120,000. In 2014 his Hong Kong adventures did not end with time spent behind bars, but with an outcry as the police, relentless in their clean-walls pursuit, removed and destroyed all 35 of the works he had peppered about the city, like the Pac Man mural above.

Other artists present at the Sotheby’s exhibition, like Keith Haring and Basquiat, died tragically and prematurely, and the whiff of exploitation hangs unavoidably around the sale of their works: “The same can be argued for many other artists,” Steve Lazarides, a self-defined “accidental art dealer” who represents many urban artists and curated the Sotheby’s show in Hong Kong, told Quartz.

“It is the same thing for rappers, right? They started off from the streets, and they are making a lot of money.”

The living ones on show, however, command high prices for their own benefit, “and I see nothing wrong with that!”, Fru Tholstrup, Sotheby’s Gallery director in London told Quartz. “It is the same thing for rappers, right? They started off from the streets, and they are making a lot of money.”

At the ongoing Art Basel Hong Kong show, “raw” artists, from the street to the galleries, can be seen, like the Portuguese street artist Vhils, with a solo exhibition called Debris, or Faust, from New York, and Xeme, from Hong Kong, who have joined hands for works that unite graffiti with Chinese calligraphy.

Even a mainstream Hong Kong real estate developer like Henderson Land has decided to get in on the trend, with its newest project, H Queen’s, a soon to be completed “purpose-built 24-storey gallery and lifestyle tower” in central Hong Kong. Henderson Land has asked ten Hong Kong artists to decorate the hoardings surrounding the building site – a 2500 square foot canvas of sorts, for a temporary installation.

It is all very exciting – even if the words “co-opt much?” unavoidably keep popping into my mind as I look on. After all, the sight of Hong Kong police clearing off and destroying the art that had been created in Admiralty and Mong Kok during the 79 days of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 are still fresh in everybody’s memory.

AP Photo/Vincent Yu
“Umbrella man” was erected during the 2014 protests.

Instead, Hong Kong’s established art community should credit the Umbrella Movement for proving that Hong Kong truly and deeply cares about art, and has an untapped and explosive creative potential. As Sampson Wong, convenor of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive and Research Collection, said at a recent M+ debate, the protesters in 2014 “actively took over the control of space” when they sat for months in central Hong Kong, bending the normally inaccessible space to their own creativity.

And as Hong Kong courts rich collectors and art-related gala events, its citizens still have not had a chance to claim any space for their own. Impossibly high rents make it possible for real estate tycoons to collect subversive street art, but kill many local artists’ dreams.

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