For graffiti artist Catherine Grossrieder, aka Cath Love, becoming engrossed with the world of hip hop aesthetics as an adolescent Hongkonger was a solitary experience. Born in 1984 to Swiss-Thai parents, she first became curious about the countercultural medium of graffiti on summer trips visiting her grandmother in Switzerland, where she would spot tags on train journeys that were unlike anything she had seen in Hong Kong.
She was thrilled by the colour and the audacity of these pieces, igniting a lifelong relationship with the world of spray paint and transgressive art. Back at school in Hong Kong, she felt isolated and alone – none of her peers shared her enthusiasm for graffiti, art and hip hop, something which made those years of self-discovery and experimentation rather lonely.
But her parents supported her passions. When Cath Love was 12 years old, her father, noticing her enthusiasm, gave her books on graffiti culture, most memorably the classic text Subway Art. These explained the history behind an art form that grew out of disadvantaged areas of New York to become the global phenomenon that exists today.
While the renegade act of marking names and slogans on walls has existed for centuries, the rise of so-called hip hop graffiti began towards the end of the 1960s, sparked by the increasing appearances of stylised signatures called tags in the Bronx, and later Brooklyn and Manhattan. Teenagers from disadvantaged social strata — particularly in African-American and Puerto Rican communities — crafted a unique and enduring aesthetic as they marked public spaces and properties, provoking the ire of public order enforcers. This coincided with the rise of hip-hop and breakdancing, art forms that, like graffiti, rejected established standards and appropriated public spaces for artistic expression.
Graffiti “writers” garnered notoriety by spraying their signatures in secret, creeping into subway yards at night to paint vast murals on trains. Starting off with simple signatures, the phenomenon grew to incorporate vast, colourful and impressive murals, with distinctive elements like the bubble font and 3D shading. Experimentation and innovation came hand in hand with the reckless egoism and tireless anti-authoritarian spirit that fuelled the phenomenon.
These creative and audacious flourishes are now so pervasive in pop culture as to have been appropriated by the advertising world, and adopted into the fine art world. Earlier this year, an artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started his career as part of enigmatic graffiti duo SAMO © on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 1970s, set a new record high for any US artist at auction. His 1982 work “Untitled” depicting a black skull with gnashing teeth against a blue graffiti wall sold to Japanese collector and entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa for US$110.5 million, putting Basquiat in the same financial category as Pablo Picasso.
Like many counter-cultural movements, the aesthetics and attitudes of graffiti that once chimed with the disenfranchised have entered a new chapter of appropriation, gentrification, and transnationalism. Graffiti now exists as a renegade subset – and the precursor of what is now much more broadly known as street art. To Cath Love, the shifting attitude towards street art is not wholly a good thing. For her, the idea that street art is now socially acceptable, even pleasant, is something of an annoyance.
She is talking at the vernissage of Fast Taste, her first solo exhibition at the relatively new gallery Over the Influence, which aims to promote contemporary artists who are defined by mediums outside the more traditional canon that they use, encouraging collectors to diversify their portfolios while offering platforms for artists like Cath Love, who has been an important figure in Hong Kong’s burgeoning street art scene. Over the Influence is not the first gallery to showcase the work of a local street artist. Previously, Cath Love featured her works alongside a roster of local street artists, including Bao, 4Get, Anny and Sinic, at Pearl Lam Galleries’ group show Hidden Walls. Art space Above Second, which opened in 2010, has also played an integral role in promoting street art in Hong Kong.
When Cath Love first fell in love with graffiti, Hong Kong’s walls had seen little of the American inspired tags that are increasingly common. Nor was hip hop particularly popular. Unlike Japan and South Korea, Hong Kong has never had a close history with American culture. Hong Kong did have its very own renegade graffiti artist, however: the King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou-choi. His calligraphic and politically-charged graffiti, which has slowly and surely been rubbed away by law enforcers — despite efforts to preserve it — was before Cath Love’s time.
Cath Love first started seeing tags in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, with bright colours offsetting the utilitarian and rather grim urban environment. In the last five or so years, mural art has ballooned here amid a growing scene with local and international artists and increasingly favourable attitudes towards art in the public, by the public. 2013 saw the launch of HKWalls, a street art festival that has helped ferment discussion about public art spaces in the city. The following year saw the Occupy movement and its accompanying flurry of creative expression in public spaces. In the ensuing years, murals spread across Hong Kong, with diverging degrees of style, quality and message.
Cath Love’s own murals are part of that phenomenon. She has created a character called Jeliboo that exists on t-shirts, and she has received commissions from brands to work on spaces and projects. But she tries to keep the provocative spirit of graffiti in her work. Fast Taste playfully explores attitudes to fast food, health, and beauty while drawing from 1980s hip hop aesthetics and imagery. Her fixations are tapped into the zeitgeist, interrogating our associations with fast food and the taboos around so-called clean eating, health, and manufactured food and beauty.
With a fondness for the superhero-like characters that are common in classic graffiti, Cath Love peppers her images with mutant chickens, anime-inspired cartoons, and other wild flights of imagination that play on fears that surround GMO foods and fast food. Her compositions brim with characters, references and private jokes. She also plays with attitudes towards sexuality and the female form, drawing a parallel between the experience of eating fast food and the experience of female sexuality as perceived through the hyper-sexualised hip hop aesthetic.
Dripping with processed cooking oil, peppered with zany three-eyed chicken nuggets, and American iconography and pop cultural references, including a pastiche on Kim Kardashian, these works are quirky and intriguing, and they’re not always pleasant; some smack of the nightmarish. There’s a universality to the imagery that will chime with anyone who grew up listening to Beastie Boys, watching Cartoon Network, and experiencing the ubiquity of Colonel Sanders and the golden arches. That’s a broad and international demographic that speaks to the increasing universality of experiences in a globalised world.
In this way, her works reflect everything and nothing about Hong Kong culture, just as Hong Kong is everything and nothing to a so-called third culture kid like Cath Love. These are children who might have grown up here, but who have roots and influences elsewhere, and who feel somewhat unmoored and unconvinced that this city, or any other city, is their home. For this demographic, which will only grow with time, it might well be subcultures gone global (and perhaps distanced from their origins) that unite them far more than borders and place.
Fast Taste runs until August 31, 2017 at Over the Influence. Click here for more information.