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Humans of Hong Kong: Painting the town with Alex Croft

By Localiiz 24 June 2020

Graffiti artist Alex Croft speaks out about making art on the streets of Hong Kong

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new video series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. In this episode, we explore the subculture of Hong Kong’s street art with Alex Croft, who tells us about his artistic career and being a “local expat.”

Everyone who walks past Central on a good day has experienced having to dodge the crowds constantly milling around the junction of Lyndhurst Terrace, Hollywood Road, and Graham Street. Chances are, 90 percent of these people are waiting their turn to pose against the mural round the corner from the G.O.D. flagship store, which has become hugely famous since making the rounds on social media.

The creative mind behind this piece of public art is Alex Croft, a British-born Hong Kong resident. Croft was 12 years old when his family relocated here from Bahrain in 2001, and he distinctly recalls Hong Kong’s buildings making a big impression on him. “The architecture really stood out to me. [They] are so different to what I was used to seeing.” He had to grapple with learning Cantonese—an ongoing process to this day—but with his parents moving around the world, Croft was already used to meeting all sorts of people, and quickly established lasting friendships here.

He does think knowledge of the Cantonese language, or rather a lack thereof, is a barrier to getting to “real local culture,” and laments the fact that even through the years he still sometimes “feels like an observer—sort of just [looking in] from the outside.” A contemplative look settles over Croft’s boyish features as he muses, “I think I’m an expat [because] I wasn’t born here, but I feel at home here... I guess I’m a local expat.” His sense of diasporic displacement is ubiquitous among expats everywhere, but Croft puts a positive spin on the difficulties, maintaining that integrating into local society is already easier in Hong Kong because English is so highly used, allowing for more opportunities to bring people together. That’s why for Croft, “Hong Kong [is] a great place to meet people from all over the world.”

Influenced by hip hop music, Croft and a few friends started dabbling in graffiti and street art with aliases when they were in Form 3. “This was a time before MySpace,” he grins, telling us about an online forum where people would find and share graffiti works. They were already aware of a local Hong Kong graffiti artist who goes by Start From Zero—Dom Chan—having seen his work around, and also on the forum. So Croft started posting pictures of his work as well, and ended up connecting with local artists. As luck would have it, one of the artists working with Start From Zero was Big Matt, who happened to live in the same village in Sai Kung as Croft.

He ended up being Croft’s mentor of sorts: an older figure who was doing exactly what he was interested in, and would actively encourage his pursuits. Though his father was artistically inclined as well, Croft’s parents didn’t approve of him being involved with street art at first. “My parents were always saying you shouldn’t be doing graffiti... You should focus on something else. [They felt] like I was creating a mess.” He does smilingly concede that he didn’t start off making amazing art, and adds that luckily, once he started getting small commission jobs, his parents started becoming more supportive.

Croft’s connection to artistic pursuits started early—his father worked as an art teacher. He later went back to the UK for further education and completed his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art and Photography from Kingston University, specialising in illustration to hone his skills. Seeing the business and cultural potential in Hong Kong, even for the competitive art industry, he moved back home after his studies. “I’m just kind of lucky that the thing I was interested in as a kid has continued [so] I can survive off it.”

When asked about what he feels is most rewarding about being a graffiti artist, Croft says it’s that people get to see his work for free publicly: ”You don’t have to be interested in art to look at it, and people can have their own interpretations of it.” He also clarifies that graffiti and street art are two different things: the latter is image-based, while the former relies more heavily on lettering. Because viewers can more easily take in a picture than read stylised words, Croft thinks people are less likely to relate to graffiti as compared to street art. This is why his work is mainly street art, “because it speaks to a wider audience.”

As for his most famous piece of work, Croft says the Graham Street mural was inspired by the old Kowloon Walled City. He’d never seen the city in person, but cites City of Darkness by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot as his main source of inspiration for the painting. The old gritty district was the foundational idea, and details were sparked by the buildings he would see while going through modern day Mong Kok and Kowloon City. His mural may have been done in eye catchingly bright tones, but it was the dark underbelly of Hong Kong which grabbed Croft’s interest, thinking of the Kowloon Walled City as “an off-the-radar place [where] people would go in, disappear, and never come out.”

Indeed, it is Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s that Croft feels is particularly interesting. The little pockets scattered around Hong Kong where historical old buildings have been preserved are full of character, different to anywhere else in the world. “That’s something I really like about Hong Kong. And milk tea. Hong Kong milk tea is the best,” he adds cheekily.

As with most careers in the arts, one of the most challenging aspects is stability. Artists may not consistently get commissioned, which means their income is unstable. Croft himself has had some cancelled projects recently, one of which was supposed to be with the Rugby Sevens. He advises artists going through this to “be confident in what you do, be flexible, and don’t lose motivation.” He feels deeply that there are opportunities here in the city which sparked his craft, and it’s all just a matter of time before things improve. “People in Hong Kong aren’t giving up hope completely. I think everything must continue. We have to keep calm and carry on.”

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