Friday, 21 January 2011

Different and all the same

I spied graffiti in Hong Kong. Modest, isn't it? No colour, no unnecessary wastage of paint, no spilling lines, no jumbling letters. It's so neat; it stays within its borders. Black spray lines on a white background - an echo of the Hong Kong skyscrapers - then careful letters underneath, printed as a caption. They read: Art is not everything / But we need it.

If I saw this in England, I'd imagine it was the sort of fashionably minimalist graffiti that might be drawn by the artsy and intelligentsia middle-class teenagers who live around Clapham. Maybe hand-sprayed by Josh, who is desperate to carve out some creative facial hair for himself, and who is on a campaign of rebellion against his mother. I bet she works in financial accounting and underestimates the social significance of graphic design.

I guess in England, I'd find that message - Art is not everything / But we need it - difficult to take as a wise and incisive nugget of public information. After all, we're surrounded by artists exploring the merits of graffiti. When they're not nailing sticks of celery to walls, or decapitating sheep. In fact, if I did see this in England, it wouldn't come as any surprise to discover this section of wall was sprayed deliberately for an art portfolio, or that Josh drew it there with his heart pounding especially for Jilly who's taking the urban photographic course.

But here in Hong Kong, it's different. We're almost a graffiti free zone. Expressing your resistance by daubing the walls doesn't seem to be the Chinese way. This black-on-white presence feels like something that shouldn't be. A public slap in the face. Then the message. I assume the spraycan artist intended the message to be incisive and political (even though I might give it 7 out of 10 for the creative line). From the sprayer's point of view, I guess there's no point in making a risky late-night anti-social strike to tell the world that Kev is a knob. Straight off then, I'm thinking about the corporate development of urban space and the place of art at street level. The spraycan artist achieved that at least.

But these youthful wall art enthusiasts? I feel old. I bet Josh and Jilly or the Hong Kong activist are basically the same, whether they live in Hong Kong or Clapham. I bet they're otherwise industrious and scholarly, and expect to pass all their exams with an A grade.