Dom did not reveal his full name. His last name is Chan. He said he’s 30 years old but added that he faked his age. I could photograph every object in his studio except him.
Urban Diary had withheld the full name of our interviewees before. That was in the January edition. I did it to protect the two individuals that I spoke to from getting into trouble because they are living in industrial buildings, something that is liable to prosecution for unauthorised land use.
Similarly, it is not a good idea for Dom to disclose his full name or reveal his face because while his flash mob activities are not illegal, he has to maintain a semi-hidden profile if he’s to continue his stencils on walls from Sheung Wan and Central to Kwun Tong and Yuen Long.
Dom set up the street art group ‘Start From Zero’ 12 years ago. Today, the group consists of a three-men team. The name ‘Start From Zero’ has two layers of meaning. One refers to the reality that the city’s street art scene is starting from zero. The other is a reminder that we can always start again from zero, no matter what happens.
He explained that even though it’s over a decade ago that he formed ‘Start From Zero’, there are still no more than 3 street art groups in Hong Kong today, a very small number that’s reflected in the continued lack of public understanding of what constitutes street art.
The first time I noticed this group was three years ago, specifically at an art exhibition in the now demolished Tsoi Yuen Tsuen at Shek Kong.
The village was flattened to make way for a depot which the Mass Transit Railway Corporation will build as part of the highly controversial Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link. The high-speed rail, which is the world’s most expensive per kilometer, aims to speed up the city’s integration with the mainland.
A significant portion of the village had already gone under the bulldozers when the art exhibition took place. The villagers were working against the clock to negotiate a deal with the government so that they could rebuild their homes together in a new Tsoi Yuen Tsuen. At a village house, half destroyed, I saw “Start From Zero” painted on a wall amid the rubble.
Dom told me most of their paintings do not bear the group’s name: “People who know us know they are our work.” That is true, I can tell their stencils from others: they are always satirical messages, black-and-white, expressed in bold lines.
Dom’s team does not use spray paint for their street art. Instead, they use stencil posters. “We can get it done very quickly. We prepare everything in our studio so when we arrive at a spot, all we have to do is to stick the poster on the wall. It takes 30 seconds to one minute. We put the poster on the wall, photograph it and dash off,” Dom said.
While street art can come in the form of posters or stickers and isn’t restricted to works by spray paint, a major reason why Dom and his friends choose not to spray is because they don’t want to get into trouble with the police.
“Most people, including the police, still have no idea what stencil art is about. We have run into police officers before as we were putting up posters. They saw us, we took off the posters, they let us go. They also want to avoid the paperwork that they’ll have to do if they take us back to the police station. Many small businesses also put up posters on street walls to promote themselves, so the police doesn’t actually have any serious problem with this practice. But if we use spray paint, the police officers will get very nervous, and they won’t let us go.”
Start From Zero chooses busy streets for their stencil art but would only take action after most people have gone home for the night. “Our purpose is to let people see our art so of course we have to put up the posters at busy places. When I was much younger, I would go back to take photos and I would be upset if the posters were taken away. Now, I take photos immediately after we put up the posters, just for the record. I don’t get upset now if the posters are gone but of course, I’ll be happy if I see that the posters are still around.”
Dom does not only put up his stencil art in Hong Kong. Wherever he travels, he leaves his mark. He has lost count of how many pieces of street art he and his team have painted.
He has got into trouble twice over the years. Once in Tainan, a policeman caught him putting up some posters at a historical monument. He apologized to the officer and said that he respected their culture and history. Another time, he had to explain to a Shanghai policeman that he was just trying to spread the positive message behind the words ‘Start From Zero’. “The efficiency of the Shanghai police is stunning. I put up dozens (of posters) and they were all taken down an hour later.”
Dom moved to Kwun Tong nearly six years ago. He first rented a unit in an industrial building on Tai Yip Street. The team had to move out eight months later after the landlord sold the property. They relocated to nearby Lei Yp Street where they stayed for more than four years. A rent spike forced them to return to Tai Yip Street recently.
Their studio is not only a base where they produce their street art but it is also home to their fashion business. Dom studied garment trading at vocational school and his partner Katol is a designer. Dom had been a merchandiser for several years before he started his own design business. Now they sell designer T-shirts to overseas markets. They also have a boutique on Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan where they sell their own products.
Dom and Kimi share the same passion about Kwun Tong. Like Kimi, he calls it a village and says it is self-contained. “When I was a kid, I lived in a walk-up building and we didn’t have to close our door. We would pop over to our next door neighbour to borrow soya source every now and then. No one is doing that anymore. But we are now reproducing that kind of close inter-personal relationships here on Tai Yip Street.”
Dom shares Kimi’s distaste for the cruise terminal at Kai Tak. He calls it an eyesore. He is also vehemently against the Development Bureau’s wider ‘Energizing Kowloon East’ policy which aims to turn Kwun Tong into a new central business district. He believes it is only a way to boost up land prices for future land sales.
“They government wants to revitalise the industrial buildings but we have been doing this for years. The SARS outbreak 10 years ago nearly killed Kwun Tong. Then we moved in and brought the energy back. They don’t have a clue on what we are doing and they say they are revitalising the place. They said they would give us spaces to run our studios and the rent will be cheap. The problem is they don’t know what cheap really means. For instance, if the rent in Central is HK$100, they’ll think that HK$50 is cheap. But we are only paying HK$10,” he said.
Dom stresses that he and his friends at their ‘Kwun Tong village’ will not let the government do whatever they please and destroy their settlement.