Street art in Hong Kong? In galleries only, please.

An exhibition of street art in Hong Kong is a start for graffiti artists to appeal to buttoned-up cities.

HONG KONG -- The place in Hong Kong to admire the handiwork of street artists is not on the street but in a 13th-floor unused warehouse. And it has a set expiration date of July 7.

It is an exhibition that is even slightly difficult to find. But the unexpected murals on the office building walls below help to signal: You’re getting warmer.

An industrial elevator leads up to the temporary gallery, a sprawling, windowless concrete space covered in paintings and installation pieces. On one wall, pieces of plaster are chipped off to create a more three-dimensional effect to the outsized portraits.

The show, called "Work in Progress," is a departure from anything that can be seen on street level anywhere else in Hong Kong.

The city is not completely free of graffiti, and stenciled images and lettering often crop up on building facades. But large, vibrant murals are almost nonexistent. In putting together this exhibition, the organizers and participants aimed to showcase graffiti for what it is not always seen as around the world: art.

“To put street art in a gallery in Hong Kong, maybe that was really necessary, you know. I think it was good to show that it was not this defacing thing -- it’s a beautifying thing,” said the artist who goes by the name Rabi, half of the duo who head Cyrcle, an Los Angeles-based art collective that was commissioned to create the exhibition.

Cyrcle produced about two-thirds of the art for the show, which was mostly painted directly onto the walls. The rest were contributions by local and international artists.

Rabi said he hoped that the show would shed light on how street art is not just about graffiti and vandalism. “And I thought that by putting on a show where we show that muralism is more than just tagging, I thought that would help the community and Hong Kong embrace doing public work more,” he said, referring to graffiti lettering.

Peter Yuill, one of the artists who is based in Hong Kong, said the relative lack of graffiti in the city may even give viewers a more open mind about the street art being shown at the exhibition.

In North America and Europe, he says, graffiti appeared heavily in the 1980s in areas that were in decline, giving it a negative connotation. “Whereas people in Hong Kong, they haven’t really had to deal with the overwhelming construction of graffiti. So for them you’re getting just the first impression of it as something that is not necessarily sanctioned but kind of condoned, in the sense that this is not just gang members or shitty kids just tagging stuff; it’s something that is kind of respectable.”

Yuill, who works as an illustrator, said the counterculture he grew up with, wherein a graffiti artist has to “live like a scumbag,” is something that does not really exist in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is an expensive city, it’s a very law-abiding city, it’s very safe. There’s a lot of culture of respect here that doesn’t necessarily exist in other countries,” he said.

Street artists tend to speak of the absence of graffiti as something of a deficiency. Where some people see defacement in street art, they see beauty and creativity.

“I really like the way it looks. You get that really gritty, that really lived-in city feel, with layers and layers of texture and color. But not everybody likes that,” Yuill says.

Rabi describes street art as a "new renaissance of public work" that allows artists and viewers true freedom.

“You don’t have to go anywhere to look at it. You don’t have to pay to get in somewhere to look at it. It’s just totally public, it’s in the street, it’s for everyone. And it’s the side of it where people don’t ask to paint, the illegal murals and the illegal street art, it’s something about just doing the art for arts’ sake,” he says.

Yet, the antithesis of illegal street art might be graffiti in a gallery. But Rabi strongly defends gallery settings for his murals as just another forum for producing art -- to each his own creative outlet.

As a skateboarding kid, he says, he picked up graffiti techniques. And as the goals of his art have evolved, so too have the settings. “It’s not just about writing your name on a wall anymore. It’s about communicating to the world.”

Photos: Vanessa Ko

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