“Artists don’t retire - artists die”
Sitting down with street artist Barlo, I learnt quickly that the artist is much more than paint to wall. The self professed geek and I covered just about everything from the printing press to the movement of culture and the technological age. Here’s a summary of our conversation on his art, inspiration and coming to Hong Kong.
Hometown: Barletta, Italy
Current Residence: Hong Kong, 4 years
Dream destination or project you’d love to work on? I would like to paint back in Italy. To paint downtown in my home town. I’d like, at some point, to return the influences I have absorbed being around.
Born in the small coastal town of Barletta in Italy, Barlo (a pseudonym adapted from his birthplace) describes his childhood growing up as boring...excuse the simplicity. “I don’t define myself as from a country town but small town sure. I personally grew up being bored to death and that’s why as soon as I had a chance, I got away.” He moved to Milan, which was a jump from a small town. “Italy doesn't really have a equivalent to a big city - even Milan, is still not big like Hong Kong. Rome would be the one city that would make an exception but to be fair it is an exception to any standard with all the layering and historical sites” He went on to study design, not to be confused with art, “Design is not art, not in Italy. In Italy we have a very clear distinction. Since the modernism era we take the idea of design very logically. At the time people were very rigid and put a lot of effort trying to affirm themselves as designers and not artists. My faculty of design, which would be one of the first in Italy, is part of the school of architecture and engineering so the process was very methodical. If there is no big idea behind what you are doing then it is probably not worth pursuing. I work in advertising now and still kind of use that concept of starting from an idea and structuring the work a little more. In design the most important thing is how you approach your research and how you really connect the execution to the idea and the user. But it’s nice when you spend days struggling on an issue and then it clicks - that’s when you feel like you’re doing something right and when it works, it works beautifully. Most practices now though are too self-referential and designers tend to do work that only other designers understand, which is fully against the original scope of design but it's the unfortunate way the practice has evolved.”
On how he got into graffiti he describes, “There were some graffiti around my hometown but nothing particularly original - still enough to interest me. I’ve always drawn, but never studied art properly, not even at university. I was doing a workshop when I was a kid which I guess is the only training I’ve ever done. There was a lot of emulation in the street and of course in a small town kids would see other kids doing something cool and try to be like that. There were people who would talk like they’ve come straight out of the Bronx and I of course was trying to fit in, wearing large pants you know, but it was all a bit grotesque as at the end of the day my mum would still call me saying dinner was ready and to go back home. Not so much of a tough life. Indeed most of the people I was hanging out with were more like middle class with a lot of attitude. Anyway, I started writing my name, you know, using spray cans and all that and then eventually got bored and moved to caricature. Graffiti has been around since the 80’s - technically late 60s and it flourished in the 70s in New York but it became a worldwide phenomenon in the 80’s. Of course though, without the internet at that time, it took a while to reach Italy. So the 90s was the big decade. When I started, around 2003, we were already 20 years late, kind of a second generation, and we were heavily emulating the ones before us. Now the scene there is quite dead whereas when we were starting we tried to move from the simple emulation to something a bit different, pushing it forward. Small town we had rules - projector you’re a cheater, stencil you’re a cheater, anything that is not your pure hand you’re a cheater. There was no real poetry in what we were doing at the time, boys being boys trying to one up each other. The most where you could show your skill was painting realism so there was a moment when with three or four guys we were really pushing each other to do better and better. As the spray cans in our town got better, the pressure control improved and we improved our skills. I was painting a lot of realistic faces and got really good. Then I got bored again and actually stopped. I stopped until I moved to Hong Kong.”
After Milan Barlo moved to Nottingham, met his fiancé and then together they moved onto London. He describes his lack of passion at the time in London and how Hong Kong invigorated that spark again. “It’s odd hey. I was living in Bethnal Green, right in Shoreditch, and behind my apartment was a super famous Banksy, on the side there was a gigantic porcupine by Roa and lots of other stuff. Everyday I would go out and literally be submerged by top notch guys and I think that, as a guy without a voice yet, this surrounding was intimidating. I also think I was out for so long that I didn’t have people to do it with. You need to have someone showing you how the city works, taking you to places, introducing you to the right people, or simply get hyped together. In the end I wasn’t enjoying London very much and I had the choice to either break up or to move to Hong Kong because my fiancé (girlfriend at the time) couldn't stay in London due to visa issues, so I decided to come to Hong Kong. I for real hated this place for a solid year and a half, then I started to pick it up and be a little more optimistic about life and things in general - but it was tough. The only reason I made it through I think is because I started painting again and that’s why it’s the most important thing to me. Part of the reason I stopped when I was younger is I didn’t feel I had anything to say, I was coming from a boring place, everything was average. Sure, I was attracted to things, but I didn’t fully own anything. In Hong Kong I felt somehow as an hermit, not surrounded by anyone painting in the way I do, but invested by so many new influences. So I took back spray cans - which were by far the tools I knew the best - being able to do almost anything I wanted and then I just moved away from it. It’s funny how you spend 10 years investing time into something and become very good at it then bye-bye, you stop doing that and go do something else. Spray cans have this aesthetic that is very clean, very sharp but I like more stuff that is dirty, dripping and mixing, and nothing beats acrylic on that - plus it’s cheaper and you can take a big extension pole and paint big walls from the ground. You can’t do that with spray cans.”
It was an abandoned building that reinvigorated that burn to paint again and a chance encounter with the founder of HK Walls led to further projects. “About 6 months after I moved here I got to the point I wanted to do something again, I headed to this abandoned building in Sai Kung which I’d googled and discovered it had become famous for street art and graffiti. I went there and met by chance the founder of HK Walls and Verymasa (another artist based here) and that was my first touch with the local painting community. Funny enough, in this abandoned place (except for us) there were probably about 40 or so people using bb-guns or talking pictures there which really shows how tired Hong Kong is of this nicely packaged “cultural” scene ‘You want the art, you go to PMQ, but wait a minute, it’s just another f*cking shopping mall!’.
Now Barlo spends his time between his job in advertising, commission works and his own personal pieces. Talking about the effects of painting he says “It’s highly addictive. Entering a status of flow, when you are doing something that is challenging enough but reachable your body and mind starts releasing adrenaline and you are literally drugging yourself. That’s why people can do marathons or paint or play music without the need to eat for hours, because their body is releasing natural kicks. Painting is my kick. I essentially was like a drug addict and went back into a pattern. You could argue you can have some kind of abstinence, I don't know how much is physical or psychological but you can get depressed when you don't do it for too long. For me the worst is when I have some kind of commission job that takes too much time and I cannot do any personal stuff then I question why I’m doing it. People come to Hong Kong to make a lot of money very quickly so they can retire when they're in their early forties. That’s a sort of diffused Hong Kong dream. If I had to choose I would never want to retire! Artists don't retire, they die. Because it’s not the job, its an attitude, a filter to your life, it’s this fragment of your very soul”.
He got to participate to HK Walls at the beginning which started in 2014. It’s a small community in Hong Kong with about 20 or 30 people, 50-50 split local and Gweilo. You’d think a city of 8 million people would have more of a following but certainly with the practice becoming safer, not running the risk of being fined or arrested so much it’s becoming more appealing. “The problem is that the entire street art thing got completely out of hand quite a long time ago. It started as something everybody hated and turned into this vanilla movement, where people draw something colorful and nice to have everybody saying them “how nice, good job”, like children that want parents to put their drawings up on the fridge. Day after day it is a race to who’s gonna do the cheesiest and most superficial shit. The other consequence of this “evolution” is that people feel much safer, therefore more and more people - from the most various background - are giving it a go as there is really no risk for anyone. In all of this Hong Kong is more of a late bloomer, and when street art got here it was already highly commercial. In comparison to other cities in the world, you can talk your way out of it even if the police come and in the end it's more about safety, which is great, but this lack of danger takes away a lot from it. It’s couchy, everyone feels comfortable. In the practice I benefit from it, everyone doing it benefits from it, but it makes everything a bit faker. The only kind of obstacle you still have in Hong Kong is the maintenance. It is so high and so fast sometimes you run the risk you do something and come back the next day to take a photo but the management has already painted over first thing in the morning. Since what I do which still requires time and take me at least 3-4 hours to make a complete piece it’s a bit of a struggle. I’m trying something new though which is paste up. It has the advantage of spending all the time in the studio and go and put just the final piece up as one pretty much wherever I want.”
“Everything in Hong Kong is a market and art makes no exception. The point about local street art is that, except a very few in this group, there is nothing really new going on. Having been in the scene for a while I’ve seen the trends coming in and out, and artists can pull it off just because people have short memory or are fundamentally ignorant. There is nothing more hilarious for me that seeing people thinking they have got this great thing going on which has been totally done before. To be fair, it’s not just Hong Kong, I’m finding it’s a problem worldwide. Even when I see worldwide street art I see stuff that’s periodically been done before and I wonder why is nobody calling out the bullshit. On the other hand I decided I wanted to be an artist, not a curator, and I believe it’s up to the art critics and curators to call the bullshit and call genius where due. Plus the information age we live in has probably made the task impossible. Internet - like every new technological development - implied a loss a quality as it made this accessible to whoever claiming themselves to be an artist or a curator. Street art is being afflicted by this idea that the public spaces must be places of happiness and joy. Bullshit. It’s just a way in for people who are frankly uneducated and are happy not challenging themselves.”
As for what he is working on right now? “Right now I’m in the phase of collecting - collecting experiences, collecting information and pushing myself way farther from my comfort zone. I guess after all the shit I just gave you about the scene it is a legit question to ask: why are you still doing it if it is so bad? There is something in this practice, the fact that you have to gets your hands dirty, explore abandoned places, having to deal with skeptical wall owners and stuff like that. It is quite unique and every wall brings a story and an influence. The final result is about 10% of it. This process is what counts. My hope is that at some point I’ll have a chance to return all this experience that I have accumulated and I can’t think of a better place than where I started in Italy. I am not so sure how though. I am not even sure I wanna be a full time artist. The more I learn about this world to less I like it. The most successful ones are often horrible individuals exploiting a system animated by a bunch of very wealthy individuals living in their own bubbles, totally irrelevant to the rest of the world. And as soon as you get it, generally speaking, your work starts becoming repetitive so that you can keep selling it. I guess that when your only problem in life is how high is your value on such a market you lose touch with reality and become, again, self-referential. It’s the saddest thing I could think of. One of the reasons I like Hong Kong is that somehow I can see how the misery is beneficial. It's a bit masochistic. My struggles may still be the ones of a privileged white expat though, but fortunately I have my fiancé who is a primary school teacher in a public school to bring me back to reality. Sometime she would come home to tell me very sad and touching stories of kids living in the most miserable conditions, having to deal with problems I was lucky enough to never encounter and all a sudden all of my art-crap sounds like total bullshit. This helps a lot putting things in perspective. Hong Kong is a place with the tendency of putting you down with this big narrative of the fear for money and control since when you are super young. A lot of local artists here shield themselves with “cuteness” which I find it extremely boring and overall a missed chance to say something true. I know there is more to them, some darkness, but they don't like exploring that voice.”
On his influence now? “You can see an obvious reliance on mythological elements which is coming pretty much from my explorations here. There is one thing I love about Hong Kong. Sure people are money, money, money but they are also highly superstitious. Don’t mess up that Feng Shui. Having a local girlfriend allowed me to access more sides to this and I find it extremely fascinating. On the other side I am always reading the most various things, from art to science and philosophy. Amongst recent readings the studies on Giorgio De Chirico’s work have probably had a huge impact on how I look at the painting practice and its meaning. But it is also a very fluid process, I can get very obsessed with something and then move on being equally obsessed by something else. The result of all of this is an approach focusing a lot on the “intensity” of things rather than their appearance. I don't like things that look the way they are, if I'm painting a tiger I don’t really give a sh*t about the tiger, it is very likely an excuse to talk about something else. I constantly absorb and combines things that I have seen or read but always trying to digest them properly before taking them out, being it a memory from my childhood or something from some dark corner of my mind. I like the fact the viewer won't be able to pull out all the parts. At the end of the day this layering of meanings and experiences I put in is the most valuable thing for me.”