Friday 3 May 2019

Street art and selfies - Hong Kong Stories 1.

Graffiti was once considered to be vandalism. Re-invented as street art, this now respectable genre has brought international recognition for its leading practitioners and cities such as London, Paris and New York now commission work for their streets. Hong Kong also makes use of high quality street art to revitalise neighbourhoods and to attract visitors. This includes a specific programme known as HK Walls that promotes and encourages locally based artists and brings their work to new and wider audiences.

Hong Kong's best known street art is located on the corner of Graham and Hollywood roads and was commissioned by the lifestyle store, GOD (Goods of Desire). Locally based artist Alex Croft was responsible for the piece which represents the Walled City, a huge, informal housing structure that was once home to 33,000 people, over 1,000 businesses and covered 6.4 acres. Demolished in 1994, it was immortalised in the photographers Ian Lambot and Greg Girard's book, City of Darkness. The Walled City was perhaps the most well known example of the tong lau - tenement buildings, usually with commercial use at ground floor level and residential units above. An official tong lau included shared bathrooms and kitchens with rent, electricity and water charges paid on a monthly basis. Once widespread, many of these structures were demolished in the 1960's making way for more luxurious, private developments. Others collapsed due to poor construction and or maintenance, including a fifty years old five story tong lau that collapsed in 2010 killing four people. Today only a handful of these buildings remain.

But back to the street art. I recently visited Graham Street on a weekday morning and found dozens of tourists and locals taking selfies and then immediately posting them to social media. There were also small groups of young women, elegantly dressed taking turns to pose for a series of shots, sharing hats and other accessories and taking it in turns to photograph each other. This is followed by much checking and discussion of the shots before choosing which ones to share on social media.They had clearly spent time preparing for this as they went through a series of poses that would fit the pages of a fashion magazine. The lives of these young women and the tourists could not be more different to those of the former inhabitants of the Walled City and I wondered how many of them understand the significance of the work and what it relates to.

Elegant as these women were, my favourite selfie-takers were a small family group consisting of two parents and two little boys. The father held a selfie stick as they posed for a group photo. Mum smiled. Dad looked serious - trying to make sure they had a good picture. The older boy raised a hand of greeting at the camera whilst the younger one seemed a little agitated, perhaps bored and ready to move on. I had noticed the boys a few minutes earlier when their parents positioned them against the wall for another picture. Two young people stood a step away from them, one engrossed with the art the other ready to leave having taken her selfie, her sole purpose for being there. Perhaps art, like  most things, means different things to different people.

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