Hong Kong-based street artist and b-boy BOMS, speaks on his growth as a creative individual and the influence that street dancing and hip hop have on his art pieces. Sharing his thoughts on modern-day graffiti art, he explains how COVID-19 and the Hong Kong movement has had an impact on the art scene.
Image Courtesy of BOMS (via Instagram)
Paradigm Haus: I heard you started as a truck driver, how did that lead on from then going into graffiti and street art?
Boms: Well, actually I was not the driver though. I didn't even have my driving license. I was just an assistant to the truck driver. So the truck driver is like a team leader to me. I'm just a little boy working with him. We need to carry on a bunch of silver and then deliver it to different doors.
After I resigned from my nine to five full-time job, I was just seeking my bread and butter, and then I took in a lot of different types of stuff, like a delivery boy and even a painter just to put my foot on the table. I was fascinated by the truck driver, like all those road rages and maybe some clients made him super angry while he was driving on the road.
The truck to me, it’s like traditional graffiti. For graffiti, there are some trains running around New York City, but in Hong Kong, it's so hard to get inside the train station to paint all the trains. So a truck will become the train in Hong Kong. They drive around the city. We paint on the truck and it runs. That's pretty fascinating to me. So for my artwork, I also projected some kind of experience with the trucks. So I'm a truck man, I love to paint and I also worked inside. It's pretty close to me, I think.
Image Courtesy of BOMS (via Instagram)
PH: How did you get started with b-boy and hip hop influences as well?
B: After I graduated from high school, I went to IVE which is an education center. We have different kinds of subjects. I was in design because I have loved to paint since I was little. I started to get to know a lot of different societies and clubs. I went straight to the dancing scene because I love to listen to hip hop music, like Eminem and Linkin Park. I liked the music, so I wanted to get involved with the music, but I don't have the ability to play instruments. I thought why don't I just move my body around? So I got into the dancing society, doing choreography, being a b-boy and going inside the hip hop culture.
PH: How does that work? Does it ever intersect in terms of your dancing and being kind of like a multidisciplinary artist? Do you see yourself in that sense?
B: At the beginning, I think it's like two separate things because I love dancing and I also love painting, but once I dig inside two different things, I started to realize that some things are similar. When I'm writing a word or painting a big word, we have a flow. We also have a flow when dancing. It’s like some water or liquid flowing around. I'm using the pen or I'm using my whole body to express that kind of flow. So those two things are pretty similar. It’s like I'm visualizing the rhythm.
PH: Have you seen the dancing and the street art changing since you started?
B: I think on the street art scene, like the graffiti, more and more people grab the spray and then go to the street. I think it's because, after the movements in Hong Kong, people need some ways to express their emotions. I think using spray it's a pretty nice medium to express ourselves. People start to know maybe they can grab their own spray and spread messages, whether it's a name or some other message. More and more people are doing this, so I am feeling good about it.
PH: What kind of groups and individuals are you seeing getting more involved in this scene? For example, are there any kinds of patterns that you've noticed?
B: Anyone and everyone. Because you know graffiti is ghetto stuff, which came from the street, they don't need to receive a lot of education to get to know that medium. I think it's suitable for everybody.
PH: It's quite interesting because I think there's quite a big contrast between Hong Kong. Some places are industrial, kind of underground, grimey, still like a developing city. While there's also the finance sector and the high glam. Do you see it ever intersecting at all?
B: I think we are in different categories, because most of the people who are doing the gallery stuff are more artsy, which is not a popular lifestyle. I think street art is pretty down-to-earth. But I am not really familiar with the gallery stuff, so I worked with that gallery team to explore more about it.
PH: How do you categorize the lifestyle of street artists?
B: The people surrounding me all have a similar background. They are all from the public houses and then go to the society and find a full-time job, but maybe the job is not the best for them, so they quit and started to do street art. For me, I would say it’s pretty down-to-earth. However, there are also some other artists from different backgrounds, such as being from a more wealthy family. I can’t represent all of them.
Image Courtesy of BOMS (via Instagram)
PH: How does storytelling play into your artwork? I remember I saw some of your art with anime, Godzilla-like aesthetic with the Hong Kong skyline too.
B: In recent years, I have been trying to explore my hometown. After the movement, I think what is more important for me is where I come from. I can show you this artwork from Arthur Hacker called Lap Sap Chung. This one is a rubbish worm, promoted by the Hong Kong government during the 1960s to 1990s and used as a city ambassador for city cleaning.
I tried to develop these characters from past pop culture references. It's different because for the early years, what I did was some original characters, some myths like Godzilla. Like you said. For example, there’s a fisherman in some old story and then I pick it up and design another character. I think that’s the biggest difference between my past artwork and what I did recently.
PH: What caused that change? Why did you start choosing these new more Hong Kong-based characters?
B: I think what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong is the age between 1980’s to 1990’s. So that's why I try to travel back as if I have a time machine and then find some characters while Hong Kong is Hong Kong, then just make them pop out today.
PH: Do you feel some nostalgia towards those 1980s and 1990s characters or the time in general? Also, why do you think Hong Kong was more Hong Kong-style back at that time?
B: What people know about Hong Kong is that Hong Kong is a mixture of Western culture and Eastern culture. Many Westerners lived here and built a lot of Western-style architecture. So back to that time, the old Chinese architecture and new Western architecture all blended in this city. However, nowadays some historical Western architecture got torn down and replaced by skyscrapers. I can’t say it’s not Hong Kong but it’s what Hong Kong is like today. It’s an Eastern mindset that portrays the whole city landscape today.
PH: Do you think that era was more authentic? How would you categorize today? Are people being real about what they're trying to say? I guess because sometimes I feel people can create art in a way that they just want to cater to the XYZ audience or to a new market. But I feel with street art, there’s a lot to it. That's more about what we feel and what the people feel.
B: Yeah. I love the buildings in the past, because nobody can tell how Hong Kong will go in the future. I can just become a narrator and watch back, and then pick up something about Hong Kong stuff to portray in my art. But I think for today it's pretty hard that you need to be brave to be real in the Eastern culture, especially after the movement. But before the movement, people didn’t really care about politics and society so they didn’t realize what was happening in the world.
PH: Do you think street art is becoming better or worse?
B: I think it’s like a battle between street artists and the government. The government forced us to do more street art! It’s nice that many of my friends I know are doing graffiti in other countries. When they come back to Hong Kong, they will say “Oh, Hong Kong is too peaceful. You’re pretty safe doing graffiti in Hong Kong, you can paint whatever you want”. But now, there are more and more people getting involved so you can't be lazy. You need to go out to the street, maybe a couple of times a week and then get yourself up to date with the city. So yeah, I would say it's a good thing.
PH: It’s a good thing. There's more rebellion out of everyone now.
B: Yeah, graffiti came from the rebellion mindset. We can't be good boys 24-7.
PH: Do you think there is more opportunity for emerging artists to get known?
B: I don't care who is watching, but I believe the people outside are watching Hong Kong and what's happening in the art scene. To me, the most important thing is just being real and being honest to yourself. Also, of course, be honest about your art. I don't care about marketing, just about what I did in my art. It’s not very popular in the market, but I don't want to twist my style because of any other comments. I started doing some business so that I can protect my little operation space, then I can keep doing what I want to do. All about achieving a balance.
PH: Who do you think you're inspired by in terms of your art?
B: In technical terms, I'm watching Stefano Bloch from LA. I'm also watching Helio Bray and Sofles of course. They are all super well-known graffiti street artists. They have some unique skills. I really love their artwork. In Hong Kong, after I resigned from my job, I tried to do different stuff. I went into a company called Egg Shell Sticker. It's a pretty well-known sticker company in the world. At that moment, the company was owned by my friend Dan, who is also an artist.
I tried to learn from him because he is an experienced artist in Hong Kong. I got some inspiration from him. After I did it for two years, I found my partners doing my business and they also inspired me in a mental way. In the past, I didn't really care what was happening around me. After I had my partners, I started to be aware of what was happening around me, which really changed a lot of my life and my artwork. So, I'm pretty grateful that I met all these guys.
PH: What effect do you think it's had on your artwork?
B: I think it's the message and the storytelling. Recently I'm not only focusing on some fantasy stories but some cultural stuff and some slang from my hometown. I turned them into my art. I keep creating a logo to represent my hometown in the way I think it should be, which is the main difference between what I did previously and now.
PH: What do you think a logo should be?
B: I think a logo should be a super expert on our language, Cantonese. As you did mention I mixed two languages, English and Cantonese in my art, this is a norm for every single Hong Konger here. For example, we have some English words like ‘shopping’ pronounced by the local Cantonese accent. It's inside our culture. Therefore, I think Cantonese is definitely one of the ways to present who we are.
PH: Outside of graffiti, do you think language as a medium is another one of your favorites?
B: Yes. We will call ourselves writers because graffiti is mainly a writing thing and that's definitely the medium. My mother tongue is Chinese, so I started to explore how to write Chinese for graffiti.
PH: What do you value in terms of the art that you create? What message would you like to send?
B: I think it's basically every story that happens around me and also some cultural stuff, such as Cantonese. I wish I could make a guide for people about Cantonese because there are a lot of local slang with double meanings, which are super fun. I wish I could present the fun part of Cantonese.
PH: Yeah. I feel whenever I learn Cantonese, it's more about profanities. That’s fun.
B: It's so interesting. Last year I created some allegorical sayings in Cantonese. I turned the first part of the meaning into a piece of art, and I kept the second part to let people think about it and guess the story behind it.
PH: I want to ask as well about the light trucks that you're making, the sculptural works. Are you still working? What came first? When did you start getting into sculptural pieces?
B: Actually it's a toy project. My first exhibition was in 2017. The monster truck you saw was my original character. My friend visited my exhibition in 2017 and he invited me to make it into a sculpture. Then I gave him the design. Now the project's hanging in the air. We originally planned the whole project to be launched in 2020, but the movement and COVID-19 made everything get postponed. We all wish to restart the project now.
‘Squeeze the Middle Finger’ sculpture (揸緊中指), Image Courtesy of BOMS (via Instagram)
PH: Do you think your art changed a lot because of the movement?
B: I think I focused more on the Cantonese stuff after the movement. As I said, I want to present Cantonese to the people, which is who we are, but I still love to paint a character.
PH: What are you working on at the moment and what do you hope for? What will you be doing in the future?
B: Recently, we opened a retail shop and I am working there. For my art, I have some projects with some galleries. We are collaborating with many artists, including tattoo artists and pop artists, to present a group show together. I want to keep doing the gallery work because I think it provides me with power. I also continue to paint when I'm hanging out with my friends.
PH: Can you tell me more about your retail shop?
B: This is one of my parts of the business. My friends were running different brands and products. Some of my artist friends may have made some artworks but they didn’t have a place to display and sell. Therefore, we opened a shop to let our friends put their brands, products or artworks at our shop.
We also have some trendy stuff, such as Northface and Carhartt, so we can guide people to that trendy stuff. I am also doing some business importing cans, so I will put them at my store for styling. My artist friends can also find a place to show their work. We hope to have a space to build our community and stay united.
PH: Are most of the products or artworks you're showcasing in your retail store locally sourced?
B: No, not only local, because one of our partners is actually from LA, he also brings some American brands and jewelry to our store.
PH: That sounds really interesting. I'm excited to see it!
Find BOMS on Instagram at @boms_boming_here
Discover more on BOMS and his latest portfolio on bomsblackbook.com