17 October 2019
Stern Rockwell says both New York and Hong Kong offer people a high degree of freedom to create. Photo: HKEJ
Stern Rockwell says both New York and Hong Kong offer people a high degree of freedom to create. Photo: HKEJ

For Brooklyn street artist, Hong Kong captivates and inspires

When one thinks of street art, it’s easier to imagine those vibrant and colorful graffiti on pavements, walls and exteriors of buildings in the urban landscapes of the United States than in the streets of Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, Stern Rockwell, a street artist from Brooklyn, New York City, got so captivated by Hong Kong that he has been staying in the city for four years now.

He thinks both New York and Hong Kong offer people a high degree of freedom to create. “No matter where you are, as long as you spend time and effort, you will be able to create something you can be proud of and make a living out of it.”

Rockwell has been doing graffiti for over 30 years now. He was first fascinated by this art form in 1979. “I didn’t choose graffiti. It chose me.”

New York was full of spectacular works at that time. Going down the stairs into the subway, Rockwell feasted his eyes on myriads of graffiti on the platform. New and exciting designs and colors would pop up in the city every day. “I have learned a lot in the streets.”

Rockwell first tried out making graffiti on the walls of his neighborhood. He loved spraying colors on trains as well. It did not take long for him to become an active street artist.

“I can’t help doing graffiti,” Rockwell confesses. He believes graffiti can make people happy and turn a drab neighborhood into an exciting place.

In fact, he hopes other artists will replace his old graffiti with fresh works since “everyone can decide what to keep or not to keep” in the streets.

From 1995, Rockwell travelled frequently to Hong Kong for business and each time he would stay here for months. He soon regarded Hong Kong as his second home and now he is a freelancer in town.

Rockwell describes himself as a “HongYorker”. His works feature cartoonized images of people he has met in the two cities. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether the people are Caucasians or Asians, especially in two of his works in which Rockwell has drawn only the outlines of people. “I want the audience to interpret my works freely by themselves,” he explains.

Rockwell loves Hong Kong because it reminds him of New York City in the 1980s, with people cherishing social relationships between family, friends and neighbors. Nowadays people just come and go in New York City, and the atmosphere is also different — New Yorkers in creative industries are more ambitious than their Hong Kong counterparts.

Hong Kong’s graffiti art culture is developing with an increasing number of events organized by HKwalls or self-initiated by street artist communities.

Rockwell himself has been invited to paint graffiti on old buildings in Sheung Wan and on roll-up doors in Stanley Market by HKwalls. Nevertheless, he believes graffiti should not be only in confined areas but must be allowed to blossom throughout the city.

Rockwell has met quite a lot of local graffiti artists and he is amazed that some of their works have a strong New York flavor. Local street artists do graffiti in Chinese or in English, though he could often spot spelling mistakes in their English works.

The colorful graffiti of Hong Kong artists motivated Rockwell to apply more colors in his own works.

“This city always makes people happy,” he says. Though he knows he will have to return to the States someday, he would like to stay in Hong Kong for a little while longer “for the community and the people here”.

Rockwell has noticed there are many changes going on in this global city but he remains optimistic because Hong Kong people are willing to come together to preserve their own culture and fight for what is right.

“Hope comes from the people,” he notes and points out that a campaign like Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement is simply not possible in New York.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 8.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Rockwell’s works feature cartoonized images of people he has met in Hong Kong and New York. Photo: HKEJ

He believes graffiti can make people happy. Photo: HKEJ

Rockwell has been staying in Hong Kong for four years now. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal