The smell of spray paint filled the air on Tai Nan Street as a crowd of people stood watching a delivery truck as it was transformed into a mobile mural. Around the corner, next to a paste-up portrait of beloved singer Leslie Cheung, a Japanese artist named Suiko painted an egg-shaped mask on the concrete wall of an alleyway.

This was the scene two weeks ago when HKWalls brought 32 local and international artists to the streets of Sham Shui Po, where they used the neighbourhood’s blank walls, shop shutters and hawker stalls as canvases for their work. It was the third edition of HKWalls’ annual street art festival, which has previously taken place in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market. This time, founder Jason Dembski felt it was time for the event to leave its Hong Kong Island comfort zone. “There’s a lot going on in Sham Shui Po,” he says. “It’s super local, but you have this creative community, the Golden Centre computer market, Apliu Street – some crazy stuff.”

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Kristopher applying final touches – Courtesy of HKWalls

It took a bit of extra effort to convince shopowners and landlords in Sham Shui Po to let artists paint their walls. “People are a lot more guarded, asking, ‘Will my landlord get mad at me?’ or ‘Will you paint anything that will offend the government?’” he says. “But it’s literally a two minute conversation and they’re convinced.”

What Dembski didn’t anticipate was that, even before the paint was dry on the last of the festival’s murals, HKWalls would be pulled into a stormy debate over the gentrification of Sham Shui Po, which is one of Hong Kong’s last bastions of affordable shops and housing.

“Whoever participated [in] this event made [life in] the poorest Hong Kong community harder than ever, thanks to your ‘art’ and top-down ‘aesthetics,’” wrote musician and activist Ah Kok Wong on HKWalls’ Facebook page. “Shame on HK Wall who used the artists as [a] tool for gentrification, without providing the non-local artists the cultural context of the [Sham Shui Po] community.”

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Smiling Dog overwatchin Sham Shui Po by Okuda – Courtesy of HKWalls

That outburst rattled a few cages. Many rallied to HKWalls’ defence, but a larger question remained about the role of art in neighbourhood change. Sham Shui Po is often described as Hong Kong’s poorest neighbourhood, but it is perhaps more accurately a haven for marginalised communities, with buzzing flea markets and cheap apartments that are home to migrants from mainland China, South Asia and Africa.

“Sham Shui Po is actually the richest place in Hong Kong, not based on GDP but [on] compassion and social capital,” says designer Patricia Choi, whose family owns a building on Lai Chi Kok Road, which she has converted into the creative hub Wontonmeen.

It is also an old neighbourhood where family-run garment businesses have plied their trades for generations, both in hawker bazaars like the so-called Pang Jai fabric market and in well-established enterprises in the wholesale fashion accessory district around Tai Nan Street. Many of those wholesale businesses are shutting down, unable to compete with markets in China, while the government has slated Pang Jai for demolition, prompting a backlash from the local community as well as fashion designers, who rely on the market’s vendors for unusual fabric.

Controversy aside, these layers of complexities made this edition of HKWalls the most memorable yet. Sham Shui Po’s legacy of family business has left it with entire buildings owned by one landlord — a rarity in Hong Kong — which gave artists the opportunity to work on an enormous scale.

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Okuda at rest – Courtesy of HKWalls

That was the case with Wontonmeen, which now hosts a multi-storey mural by local artists Parents Parents and UK artist Dilk. On Tai Nan Street, Spanish artist Okuda used the entire façade of a building to paint a dazzling geometric pattern that culminates in a trompe l’oeil portrait of a smiling dog. “My family was really wowed,” said Jackaline Chow, whose family has owned the building for decades.

When HKWalls approached shopowners in the Golden Centre computer market about painting their shutters, one of them suggested they talk to the building management about using the building’s blank façade, which had previously been occupied by billboards. “I thought, ‘This would be amazing, but there’s no way,’” says Dembski. To his surprise, management was keen, and a huge mural by Italian artist Peeta has now taken the place of advertisements.

The reaction from many neighbourhood residents has been positive. When the Okuda mural was complete, Dembski and Chow asked a neighbour if they could climb up to her roof to take pictures. “She said, ‘ho leng, ho leng – can you put one on my building?’” Dembski recalls.

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Peeta at work – Courtesy of HKWalls

And yet when Ah Kok Wong issued his online missive against HKWalls, it hit a nerve, sparking a debate that has spread across social media and local news outlets. It’s a discussion that extends far beyond Sham Shui Po. Graffiti and street art began life as subversive acts of creative vandalism, but they are now as likely to be sponsored by corporate brands as they are to be illegal interventions in the urban landscape. HKWalls is no exception, with sponsorship from shoe brand Vans.

“At its worst, graffiti is appropriated by neoliberal development schemes, used to populate barren tracts of the urban landscape in the name of capital, christening them for speedy demolition and redevelopment,” wrote art critic Ming Lin last year. That is precisely the fear in Sham Shui Po, where blocks of affordable housing are being bulldozed for luxury Urban Renewal Authority developments. Last year, entrepreneurs Alan Lo and Yenn Wong bought a building on Apliu Street that is now being used as contemporary art space Things That Can Happen, but which will ultimately be torn down for a luxury hostel designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Wong calls Sham Shui Po “[an area] we can gentrify in a good way.”

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Last touches by Satr – Courtesy of HKWalls

Similar stories are playing out in neighbourhoods around the world. In response, some street artists have begun removing their own work, lest it be used as a branding tool by property developers. In Berlin, artist Lutz Henke painted over a mural that had become a symbol of gentrified Kreutzberg, while in Bologna, street artist Blu removed all of his murals after landlords began removing them from walls and selling them on the art market.

Other artists are taking a different tack by working on projects that more explicitly involve the community. Last year, local street art crew Smile Makers interviewed shopowners in To Kwa Wan and used their stories as inspiration for shutter murals. “A lot of Hong Kong or Chinese people are very private, but we asked a lot of people and finally got 10 – they’re very funny, very open-minded,” says artist Tim Yan, who worked on the project.

Ah Kok Wong recommends artist Barbara Holub’s book Planning Unplanned: Towards a New Positioning of Art in the Context of Urban Development, which explores how artists can be aware of their role in urban transformation. He is hoping to hold a formal discussion later this month about art and gentrification, but the dialogue has already started about art, gentrification and Sham Shui Po. It seems this year’s HKWalls will leave behind more than just murals.

Take a tour of Sham Shui Po’s street art murals by following the map at hkwalls.org.