Perth-born graffiti artist Drew Straker is known for his unique, neon murals that appear almost 3D in nature. His latest work in Hong Kong features a series of neon panels that will be on display from December 1 at China Hong Kong city, as well as a specially-designed Christmas lights display on the building’s exterior, which made its debut on November 6. We caught up with Drew ahead of his impressive installation to find out what inspires the artist’s distinctive style.
What led to your initial interest in graffiti?
I was a skateboarder in the mid-1990s. When you skated the streets (there were no skate parks back then), it took you to some strange areas, and in doing so, you would discover beautiful graffiti. After seeing it, I wanted to be involved in it. I went to the library and got out the one book they had on graffiti, and it all kind of started there. I come from the traditional New York-style of graffiti – writing your name. To cut a long story short, that’s turned into painting murals, and eventually developing a unique style which took the best part of 20 years to master.
Is graffiti a more accessible art form?
I guess it’s in your face. It’s there in the street and you can’t really avoid it – that’s probably why a lot of people hate it. Generally, the writing of names side of things isn’t often appreciated. A lot of people don’t really understand graffiti lettering culture, but I have to pay homage to it because it got me where I am today. That’s why I enjoy doing this kind of (what’s called) ‘street art’ now, because different parts of the community can enjoy it and there’s something for everyone to relate to. That’s a big part of my work – trying to do something for everyone to enjoy, young and old.
Who are some of the earlier artists you admired?
That book I picked up was called Spray Can Art, by Henry Chalfant and the photographer Martha Cooper. They are both still involved in the world of graffiti today. In there, there’s some interesting work by a guy called Revlon, or Revs. I still don’t know how he painted with such clean, thin lines. He is still doing amazing things, and he’s known for going down into the New York City subway, rolling a wall white, and writing a diary entry. They are beautiful journal entries. He is totally low key – no one even knows what he looks like.
Just like Banksy then?
Kind of, yes. I love the mystery of graffiti, and that is what I was attracted to. I love Banksy, what he does, and what he’s done for the culture. He’s brought a whole new argument to the graffiti world and the way it is treated. People will hate graffiti, but then if Banksy tags their wall, they immediately set about protecting it. It opens up all types of debates.
What do you make of the graffiti you’ve seen in Hong Kong so far?
There’s a fair amount of logo style graffiti and tags around, which I enjoy, but it’s leaning towards what would be deemed ‘vandalism’ style, I guess. I’ve seen some really cool things – not much in the way of big, colourful productions, but more in the little alleyways.
How did you come to develop your unique, ‘neon style’?
It started as a means to an end – of not being able to afford creating actual neon signs. I’ve always been attracted to neon signs, even as a child. There’s one big one in Perth, and every time we drove past it, I was captivated. It definitely sparked something inside of me. Neon is designed to be seen, so it seems to lend itself quite well to spray can culture.
And what do you make of Hong Kong’s own neon creations?
It’s on a grand scale here – on whole facades of buildings. I think they should really hold on to that. It’s a real source of inspiration and it’s really nice to be able to walk around. Even if the signs aren’t on or they’re dead, they still look fantastic. I like the way they age, and the rusty look of the boxes that hang out over the street. Even broken neon still looks nice – not everything has to be perfect, you know? To get the opportunity to create such a grand scale illuminated artwork is just such an honour. I’ve never had anything present itself to me like that – it’s really exciting for me.
Can you describe the design process for the light installation?
It’s been quite simple, really. It’s just about drawing little pictures on a scaled down image of the buildings. I generally just draw tiny little thumbnail sketches and from them, I can refine it and come up with some nice designs.
How does this differ from a conventional Christmas lights display?
I’ve always been frustrated (back home especially) with Christmas decorations being so generic and so standard, with the same ones each year. I always thought it was the perfect opportunity to engage artists and let them design the decorations. I wanted to embrace the culture of where I came from, of graffiti and skateboarding. By putting those elements into the final designs, I feel like I can kind of represent where I’m from.
What are the main themes and elements in the display?
It’s still a Christmas lights display. It’s got reindeers, but they just happen to be skateboarding! There are some presents and other things like that, too. The real joy of this project – and the added challenge in creating its design – is having it switch over to a Chinese New Year display. As it’s the Year of the Dog this year, I incorporated my own dog into the design. It was perfect to come here and see her on the building, and being a French Bulldog, she can easily be changed into a pig for next year. It’s like a two-for-the-price-of-one piece of artwork, and it’s exciting to be able to come back and check it out next year.
I’m also quite a fan of trains, so to be able to incorporate the new bullet train with the station that’s just across the street is really cool. I was hoping to put my signature on the lighting display somewhere. Originally, I put it under the Sino group sign, but they had the idea of putting it on the side of the train. After all, that’s where it all began – names on trains in New York.
Check out the stunning neon lights display at China Hong Kong City, and take a look at Drew’s Instagram shots.
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