Hong Kong is an incredibly dense, crowded, and loud city, but as I explored the neighborhoods of the Kowloon area, I often found myself suddenly alone in dank back alleys. It's here you'll find a kind of United Nations of graffiti, jumbles of tags by visiting writers from the US and other parts of Asia, some dating back to the early 2000s. KATSU, HYPE, COZONE, and the late JADE BTM have been here, as had UTAH, ETHER, RUKUS, and BUKET. OPTIMIST tags, instantly recognizable by their vertical strokes, mark countless doors. I saw that writers DABS and NOE had hopped over from their home in Taiwan to paint in Hong Kong, as had DIMZ from Seoul.
There were locals too, including XEME, with his handstyles characterized by an X formed from overlapping half-circles, and YUMOH, with his crisp, flared spray tags, were up just about everywhere. These two, everyone who knew Hong Kong graffiti told me, were the most active and connected writers around.
So who better to serve as my tour guides?
The duo picked me up in a beat-up car late one evening near the bustling Nathan Road, the city's main thoroughfare, along with a young writer named GRAVR visiting from the Philippines. The main mission of the night was to paint a highway spot. I quickly lost track of where we were as we drove through canyons of high-rises and tangles of highways, occasionally glancing a prominent throw-up or a tag on a roadside structure.
I expected that we would park somewhere and then have to hop fences, charge through bushes, and climb down steep embankments in order to get to the spot. Instead we pulled to the side of the road, right off the highway, which was still noisy with post–rush hour traffic. The three writers then set to work with military precision, knocking out multiple throw-ups as city buses, trucks, and cars streamed past, brazen and unfazed.
Later that night, we walked the streets of Mong Kok, a district in the western part of Kowloon, as the three writers left a trail of tags. It was a scene that played out exactly the same way as it would in the US or in Europe, testifying to the universal appeal of the acts of claiming a name, marking your territory, and committing to the act of vandalism.
My hosts explained that while graffiti is not prosecuted as vigorously in Hong Kong as it is in the US, the possibility of an arrest and painful fines is very real. While bombing, the guys kept one eye on the wall and on scanning for possible undercover cops. After a few hours of walking, we decided to split after someone pointed out an unmarked car that had been lingering too long for comfort. We didn't want to stretch our luck—painting the highway in plain sight was enough.
Hong Kong's art scene has come to embrace street art in recent years. France's Space Invader had a big solo show at the gallery PMQ in Sheung Wan last year, and other international artists have followed suit. But many people don't know what to make of illegal graffiti on the street. "I'm sure half the people sitting here know about the Space Invader show. Probably a quarter of them know about Banksy," YUMOH told me when I met up with him and XEME in a crowded Tsim Sha Tsui street cafe on another day. "Graffiti is Banksy, and everything else is vandalism. That's still a lot of people's impression."
The two were hopeful that a few kids might be inspired to dig deeper and to pick up a spray can. "We always hope for people to join the scene and start [bombing]," YUMOH said. But their heart has to be in the right place. According to the writers, youth culture in Hong Kong is increasingly driven by trends and the elusive lure of easy money. Few kids stick with graffiti long enough to get good at it.
"Everything moves so quickly," XEME explained. "People test-drive everything. [The attitude is] today I'll do graff, while next year I'll probably jump into tattooing. After tattooing, I'll DJ. They're not sticking with one thing in which they could get really good." As a result, the number of active graffiti writers in Hong Kong is small, there is little unity in the scene, and younger writers don't always follow walk-before-you-run best practices when it comes to style or conduct.
"We're always telling people not to get up on the front window of a car," XEME said, since it will just anger the owner and get removed quickly. "And they're like, Why is not cool that I paint this tag on a window and you're doing big throw-ups [on the side of trucks]?"
Some kids, YUMOH surmised, "feel graff is art, and [if it's art], then why do I have to listen to rules?" Perhaps that attitude is part of a larger social undercurrent. Hong Kong's denizens, XEME said, to their credit, "just don't like to be schooled or told what to do. They are very individualistic."
As the city's most active bombers and the face of Hong Kong graffiti to visiting foreign writers, XEME and YUMOH feel a certain responsibility to represent their hometown in the best possible light. "We don't want people to come here and be like, Hong Kong's kinda toy. It's so dead, no one's painting, no one's doing fill-ins, what's wrong with these kids? I don't want to hear that."
The pair's graffiti has absorbed international influences while retaining its own edge, proof that you can do your own thing and get it right. For now, they act as the torchbearers of Hong Kong graffiti, writing their own chapter in the city's graffiti history, and perhaps ultimately influencing a new generation of writers along the way.
See more photos from our graffiti columnist's Hong Kong visit below, and stay tuned for more dispatches from his trip throughout Asia.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.