The crowds are intense—and seemingly inexplicable. Every day, thousands of people flock to the corner of Graham Street and Hollywood Road to take pictures in front of a cheerful mural depicting a row of old Hong Kong buildings. Some carry selfie sticks, others pose for photos the traditional way. Most are speaking Mandarin or Korean. Some even wear the telltale red caps of mainland Chinese tour groups.
It is perhaps the worst possible spot for a large group of people to assemble. This block of Graham Street is narrow and extremely steep, its footpaths carved into rough steps barely wide enough for a single person. The crowd spills into the street, blocking the constant stream of traffic until angry taxi drivers blare their horns to clear a path uphill. Selfie-hungry visitors teeter precariously on the steps, waiting for a free spot in front of the wall.
Across the street, Toby Cooper pours a beer and grumbles about the constant gaggle of tourists. As the owner of The Globe, a stalwart British pub that has served the neighbourhood for more than 20 years, Cooper has seen the crowd in front of the mural grow and grow with every passing year. “A few people have been hit by cars,” he says, grimacing.
He calls it the Idiot Wall. That’s not because he dislikes public art; he has his own mural on the side wall of the Globe, painted by artist Dan Kitchener, although the tourists seem to ignore it. “I would have no issue with it if it weren’t the worst road in Hong Kong to have people sit around,” says Cooper.
More than that, it’s the absurdity of the whole situation that gets to him. There are thousands of murals around Hong Kong—hundreds in Central and Sheung Wan alone, such as Riya Chandiramani’s intricate black, gold and white illustrations, or Voyder’s retro-style graffiti throw-up, both painted as part of the annual HK Walls festival. So why is the Graham Street mural so inexplicably popular? Especially given its awkward, dangerous-to-photograph location on a narrow street with heavy traffic? “It’s become a necessary Hong Kong photograph you have to have,” says Cooper. But why?
It wasn’t always this way. When the mural was first unveiled, it was a pleasant addition to the streetscape—but like most murals, it was hardly a tourist attraction. “It wasn’t very popular at all,” says Goods of Desire co-founder Douglas Young. He had been looking for someone to paint a mural on the side of G.O.D.’s Hollywood Road shop when he thought of Alex Croft, a young street artist who grew up in Sai Kung. “I like his sense of colour and graphics,” says Young.
Croft was born in the UK, but his family moved to Bahrain when he was young, and they ended up in Hong Kong when he was 12 years old. He was interested in art from a young age—helped along by his father, who was an art teacher—and he began writing graffiti when he was still a student. After studying illustration in London, he returned to Hong Kong and began looking for work. It was a mural he did for a Sai Kung restaurant that got Douglas Young’s attention. He hired Croft to paint a mural on the side of the Sai Kung branch of G.O.D. and they began discussing ways to collaborate further.
It turns out that Croft and Young both shared an interest in the Kowloon Walled City. Croft first learnt about it from classmates at King George V School, and he began paying closer attention to the landscape around him as took the minibus to and from school. “When you go past Kowloon City it still has the same feeling as the Walled City,” he says. “It has this weird look of not being too old but having aged so much.”
When he came across Greg Girard and Ian Lambot’s book City of Darkness, he found himself captivated by the photographers’ images. One photo in particular stayed with him: a view looking across a football pitch towards the grimy walls of the Walled City, its clutter of window cages, drying laundry and television antennae rising against a pristine blue sky. “Each flat has its own character—no two windows look the same,” says Croft. He and Young decided to create a mural that evoked that kind of quintessential Hong Kong streetscape.
Croft completed the mural in 2013. “For three years, the wall sat there and slowly gained popularity with locals,” he says. Then came a tipping point. Korean actor Ji Chang-wook did a photoshoot in front of the mural, which made it instantly popular with the growing number of tourists from Korea, which is now the third-largest source of visitors to Hong Kong, after Taiwan and mainland China. Tour guides eventually added it to their itinerary, bringing big groups of mainland walking tours to see Croft’s work. At times, there are so many people taking photos at the mural, the crowd spills over onto the traffic island across Hollywood Road.
There’s another reason for the mural’s popularity, too: social media. Along with Choi Hung Estate and the so-called Instagram Pier, the mural is one of Hong Kong’s selfie hot spots. Some people have started calling it the Instagram Wall, adding it to a global network of Instagrammable destinations that have become popular around the world because of their easy-to-capture aesthetic quality, from the Tegalalang rice terrace in Bali to the graffiti-filled Hosier Lane in Melbourne to the big pink wall next to the Paul Smith boutique on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. “I was already browsing it [on Instagram] before I went to Hong Kong,” says Indonesian visitor Natasha Ayu Dondokambey, who took a series of photos in front of the mural last year.
On platforms like Instagram, popularity is self-reinforcing; tagging yourself at a hotspot can help boost your number of followers. “Social media breeds it,” says Toby Cooper. “You haven’t been somewhere until you’ve made people jealous of where you are. It’s the kind of tourism that’s just about ticking boxes.” Sure enough, the Hong Kong Tourism has jumped on the bandwagon, promoting the mural on social media and in advertising campaigns.
Even Croft is nonplussed by the mural’s success. “It’s totally weird to me,” he says. But Douglas Young seems to be enjoying the popularity. “We’ve had people deface it repeatedly,” he says, including an episode in which the entire mural was tagged by a Los Angeles graffiti writer. Croft says he was upset. “Because the rules of graffiti are that if you don’t do something bigger and better over it, don’t touch it.”
For now, Young says G.O.D. continues to maintain the mural, and the company has even begun selling products emblazoned with it, such as the “Alex Croft x G.O.D. Graffiti Wall” tote bag. But Young says there are limits to how much he is willing to monetise the mural. “I’ve been asked by a lot of people—internally and externally—to commercialise it such as putting a G.O.D. logo on it. I would like to resist that. I intend to keep it as it is. It is good to have something in Hong Kong that is more permanent.”
So the crowds keep coming, by the dozens and by the hundreds, mugging for the camera until the daylight disappears—and then it all starts over again the next day.
Thumbnail photo courtesy @aliskogrand