Thursday, 23 February 2017

Noble Sketchbook

Meet Noble, a Hongkonger who works in the IT industry and has a passion for sketching, with some of his art pieces travelling as far as Lectoure, in the southwest of France. If you happened to be in the areas of Wanchai, Sai Ying Pun or Sheung Wan during the Chinese New Year earlier this year, chances are you’d have seen the original paintings he did for some of the old shop shutters. Initially participating in the project as an artist, he never expected the appreciation of the locals in the neighbourhoods - among the oldest in Hong Kong. 

His reminiscence for the good old days of Hong Kong is by no means the only thing that many would find an emotional resonance with, but his decision to focus on the now, despite all the madness that is taking place in Hong Kong as well: “The rapid changes in society makes it feel as if this is no longer the city I grew up in. If I must be completely honest, I’m pessimistic about the future of hong Kong. But I try not to get bogged down in the negativity of it all. Things that I do, like sketching, hiking and jogging are helpful in relieving the pessimism pent up inside. There’s very little I can do with what’s happened already, why not focus on the good things that I can make happen?”

When and why did you start sketching? 
It all began in 2014. I’ve always been interested in drawing and I’ve been drawing since a young age. Three years ago, I did a portrait and the model introduced me to a group of sketching enthusiasts. It was nice to find a sense of belonging in that group, where everyone would motivate each other - there was a lot of encouragement going on, as well as exchange of skills and ideas. We were actively organising sketching activities, and that provided me with a way to further practise my skills. 

Tell us about the shutter painting project? 
Earlier this year, the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation organised a community project which asked artists to paint the shutters or door fronts of old iconic and independent stores in Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan and Wanchai. I happened to be among the artists they recruited. So we would have a chat with the shop owners, learn about their history and business, so that we would have a better idea of how to paint their shutters. The purpose of the project was to reinvigorate the community by introducing colourful elements to the shop shutters, which were rather rusty. 

I remember one of the local residents coming over when I was painting the shutter. They were extremely grateful to what we were doing to the community, giving it a new face, in a way. The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation is planning to collaborate with the Conservancy Association to introduce a guided tour of said areas, now given a facelift. 

Which shops’ shutters did you paint? 
I was assigned the shutters of two shops: the long-established undergarments brand Lee Kung Man in Wanchai, and a goldfish shop in Sai Ying Pun; other artists were assigned to pain the shutters of tofu shop, grocery store, and a place that specialises in the bamboo steamers used for dim sums. 

The owner of Lee Kung Man was fairly specific with what he wanted on the shutters - it’s an esteemed brand, after all. He is from a younger generation, and he wants a more youthful image for the brand. So I incorporated the artistic concepts of Henri Matisse in my painting of a few dancers; the deer, joining in the dance, is really part of the brand’s identity as the ‘golden deer’ is the name of its line of high-quality undergarments. 

The greatest takeaway from this project?
I learnt a set of different painting skills from fellow artists, and it was gratifying to learn the extremely positive response from the locals and netizens, as the posts were uploaded and shared on social media platforms. 

What are the best things about Hong Kong in the eyes of an illustrator like yourself? 
Diversity: the juxtaposition of the old and the new in Hong Kong is simply amazing. The people as well - all these people in such a high-density city who have their own stories. There was this once when I was sketching on the street in Yuen Long. It was very crowded, but pedestrians were respectful to me, someone sketching the street scene, to the extent that they would leave space for me instead of bumping into me. 

In August last year, two of your sketches were displayed at an art gallery in Lectoure, in the southwest of France.

I got to know this French artist called Camille Levert, who has been based in Hong Kong for a few years. From her observation, Hong Kong, despite its hustle and bustle, also has a quiet, therapeutic, and rustic side. She wanted to show these sides of Hong Kong to the people in France, and so she got me and a few other artists to put in paint the lesser-known aspects of Hong Kong, to be displayed at an exhibition called ‘Hong Kong Lentement'. 

That time sketching in Kyoto, Japan? 
I was at Arashiyama, sketching a bridge, when an old lady approached me. We got into chatting - she with the few words of Mandarin she knew, and I with the limited Japanese I speak. We connected on Facebook, and she would comment on my sketches. I’m glad I’m able to show people the world over the various aspects of Hong Kong through my sketches. 

You have recently started food sketching - what’s that about? 
Among the sketching enthusiasts I hang out with, there are some who are interested in architecture, some are more interested in sketching food. Food sketch was never really my thing. I think it’s best to eat the food when it’s served hot and fresh! My friends who do food sketches would order an additional serving of food just to be used as the object of their sketches. But somehow I began to appreciate the beauty of food sketches, and onto the bandwagon I hopped! 

Food sketch is more challenging than environment sketch in the sense that extra effort is paid to portray the texture of the food. My most recent food sketch of a pizza was manageable, thanks to the contrast of colours enabled by the tomatoes and green peppers. 

What’s the best thing about being yourself right now?

There are many unpleasant things in the city we live in right now - urban sprawl, materialism, you name it. I often reminisce about the kind of life I had when growing up. It was much simpler, there was less everyday stress, and there were fewer constraints. Happiness back then was indulging in a bit of street food in Sham Shui Po, but most of those mom and pop stores are gone now; what was once easily affordable are no more. The rapid changes in society makes it feel as if this is no longer the city I grew up in. If I must be completely honest, I’m pessimistic about the future of hong Kong. But I try not to get bogged down in the negativity of it all. Things that I do, like sketching, hiking and jogging are helpful in relieving the pessimism pent up inside. There’s very little I can do with what’s happened already, why not focus on the good things that I can make happen? 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Alex Rodriguez: The Timelapser Who Loves the Dark Side

If you ever venture to the ‘dark side’, all the way to Sham Shui Po, chances are you’ll run into a Spanish bloke manoeuvring through the small alleyways, backpack and heavy gear on his back, until he disappears up a dilapidated building. His name is Alex Rodriguez, or ‘Alex Timelapse’, as he is known on social media. With a studio overlooking Nam Cheong Street and Ap Liu Street, Alex will gladly be your local pointer on the best place to get your wanton noodles in Sham Shui Po. 

But Rodriguez hasn’t always lived in Sham Shui Po. Until he came to Hong Kong in 2011, he was working at a local TV news station in Galicia, Spain, making occasional trips to Barcelona in search of better opportunities. Like many expats in Hong Kong, Rodriguez first settled down in Discovery Bay, until it dawned on him that D-Bay was “nothing like Hong Kong”. And so to Sham Shui Po he moved, and has been fascinated by the dynamics of the area since. 

As fellow Hongkongers, we have his relocation decision to thank, for it was in Sham Shui Po where the ‘DIY freak’ (in his own words) with a passion for photography and videography discovered the plethora of easily affordable equipment and parts, which would later enable his creation of spectacular time-lapse videos of Hong Kong and beyond. That his ‘Hong Kong Urban Tour’ won the Sony #NoLimits 2015 competition came as little surprise, for he was able to capture not just the metropolitan skyscrapers and dazzling skyline, but also quintessentially Hong Kong tidbits such as cardboard collectors, fishmongers at wet markets, a ride on the minibus, the locals’ favourite Cantonese barbecue, and bamboo scaffolding that has laid the foundation of the city. 

Readily confessing his love of Hong Kong, Rodriguez says he is grateful to the city for the endless opportunities it offers. “After my time-lapse video Hong Kong Urban Tour won the Sony award in 2015, I was contacted by many companies to work on different time-lapse jobs. I was even offered by the mayor in Galicia the opportunity to shoot a time-lapse video of my hometown, to be promoted by travel agencies in Hong Kong and China - Hong Kong Urban Tour’s winning of an award was in the local news there. The real prize of the Sony competition isn’t really the camera, it’s the opportunities that I’ve been given since. It’s crazy how one things leads to another, I still find it pretty unbelievable.”

1. Tell us a bit about yourself? 
I’ve been a professional videographer since 2005, and I’ve been living in Hong Kong since 2011. I started my career with a local news channel in Spain, for five years, but I also like to shoot action sports videos. It was after coming to Hong Kong that I discovered my new passion in time-lapse videography. 

I came from Galicia, in the northwest of Spain. My childhood was spent in the countryside, I’ve always had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. I would spent whole days on the street doing whatever I wanted, and I think that contributes to my creativity and the way I see things in the world. I’m a guy who has never experienced something like the MTR until I came to Hong Kong. I came from a small city, with small thinking. When you’re from such a tiny place you’d want to go to the capital, to find work and kickstart your career in Barcelona or Madrid, even if you don’t have the ambition to go elsewhere in the world, to places like Hong Kong, for instance. 

2. What brought you to Hong Kong in 2011? 
I was on my way back home from one of the many trips to Barcelona, where I was looking to find a job, and then I met this girl from Hong Kong. She told me that she was coming back to Hong Kong, and I said to her to visit me in my hometown one day. Which she did, and we became a couple! 

She stayed at my home for a few months. When it came time for her to return to Hong Kong for work, I was already in love, and she convinced me - quite a silly idea at the time - to try living in Hong Kong. 

3. Your first impression of Hong Kong? 
It’s an extremely dynamic city. It’s very obvious that the city is among the most densely populated in the world, and it is very safe. I’d be out and about with expensive equipment on me, and I don’t feel the danger of being robbed anytime of the day, even very late at night. It’s different in Spain, you’d better not go out with such expensive equipment after midnight. 

I’ve lived a life of the biggest contrast ever. Coming from this small city in Spain, where nobody spoke English or have the intention of travelling abroad, to the international city called Hong Kong, offering me big opportunities with big companies and big clients. I’ve come so far that I wouldn’t have dreamt of even in Barcelona. 

I first had to learn the English language, now I’ve started learning Cantonese, so I can get myself something to eat here in Sham Shui Po. I love wanton noodles. I usually walk around the local area and see which shop has the most customers. 

4. Why did you decide to live in Sham Shui Po? 
At first I was living in Discovery Bay, but I had the feeling that I wasn’t living in Hong Kong at all. I love the real, local Hong Kong style, and so when I happened upon Sham Shui Po one day, I spent the whole day just walking around, discovering various Hong Kong elements. For someone like me, who makes a living with all these equipment and gear, Sham Shui Po is a paradise. I’m a DIY freak. At the beginning of my career as a time-lapser I used to make my own equipment, and living in Ap Liu Street makes it so much easier. 

5. When did you become interested in time-lapse videography? 
Around four years ago, I became interested in this fast-forward technique that is used to make time-lapse videos. I downloaded an app onto my phone which would allow me to make time-lapse videos. I discovered the different settings: for instance, for every five seconds I can record the beautiful movements of the clouds, every eight seconds I can record car movements. But my love of time-lapse videography is more than that, it is also that this city is amazing with all the different kinds of movements, making it easy to create a fascinating time-lapse video. 

When I wanted to create videos with better quality, I upgraded my gear from my mobile app to camera - you can’t get desirable quality if you take a time-lapse video with your phone at night. 

6. What was the main inspiration behind your award-winning Hong Kong Urban Tour time-lapse video? 
Because of my background in news production, I feel compelled to tell a story. It’s not just a nice time-lapse video with random music, it is very important to create a story board for the video to tell something. 

For instance, the Hong Kong Urban Tour is a tour of the real Hong Kong. If you’ve never been to Hong Kong before, the time-lapse video will give you a glimpse of the dynamics of the city. Many of the time-lapse videos of Hong Kong that I’ve seen seem to be created by people who don’t actually live here. My guess is that they are tourists who didn’t have enough time to discover the city, because their time-lapse videos cover mostly Hong Kong Island, while in my opinion, Kowloon is where the real Hong Kong experience is. I included many local elements with shots taken in Sham Shui Po, such as the cardboard box collector, noodle places, as well as shots taken on public transport, from the MTR to the minibus, bus and the tram. I couldn’t include clips taken on the ferry because that would be difficult to take, but I’ll include that in my next challenge. What I’d also like to include in my next Hong Kong time-lapse would be my new technique called ‘walk-lapse’, which is done by me hand-holding the camera, following another person closely. I think it’s quite cool because it works magic in transitional scenes, so one minute you’re at the Peak, and the next you’ll be in a restaurant. 

7. What are the pros and cons of shooting a time-lapse video of Hong Kong? 
Sometimes you may encounter issues with the security guards when shooting, but to be honest, you have more problems in this aspect in other countries. The air pollution is a problem, however. The air can be very polluted sometimes that you have to wait for the sky to clear to shoot - I had to wait two months just to get a shot of a clear - but not cloudless - sky. When shooting time-lapse I’ll need to show movements, it can be the motion of the clouds, the people, the cars. When I’m shooting the skyline, the buildings of course won’t move, so I’ll need the motion of the clouds. But if it turns out to be a fine, cloudless day, I won’t get a good time-lapse clip, and it gets stressful when I am not left with many days to finish the shooting. I’ve learnt to improvise: if there is no motion in the sky, look for places where there are motions. But since Hong Kong is a dynamic city, the resultant time-lapse video is amazing. 

8. How long did it take you to produce Hong Kong Urban Tour, from filming to final editing? 
I spent a week on devising the story board and checking the different locations, so that they would help the audience make sense of the journey. Once I’ve decided on the locations and the kind of set-ups I needed, I spent two weeks shooting, working 16 hours every day. I had only one week for editing because the deadline of the Sony ‘No Limits’ competition was approaching.  

9. Your favourite aspects of Hong Kong? 
I love Hong Kong. I like the transportation system. Despite being an expensive city to live in, the fares for Hong Kong’s public transportation are fairly reasonable. In Barcelona, if you want to travel the distance of Sham Shui Po to Prince Edward, you’ll have to pay around HKD20; in Hong Kong, I can go from Sham Shui Po to Central in around 15 minutes, and it costs me only around HKD11. If I speak better Cantonese, I can get around even more cheaply because then I can take the minibus and the bus. Sometimes I may need to take a clip of the sunrise and I’ll be working until 4am, I can always take the Star Ferry and then a minibus to get home, and it wouldn’t cost me much.

I like the fact that Hong Kong is a city that never sleeps. There were times when I was editing until 5am. I’d be hungry and there’d always be a good cha chaan teng open for breakfast service - I enjoy the food and the atmosphere of cha chaan teng in Sham Shui Po.

10. You were a volunteer with European youth exchange programmes from year 2003 to 2006 - how do you think that has influenced your life? 
That was the first time in my life that I got to travel abroad, meet people from other countries, and also to speak English. It was at that time that I discovered my passion for travelling. 

11. What’s the best thing about being Alex Rodriguez right now? 
I came from a place with very few job opportunities, not even if I wanted to work at the local supermarket. In Hong Kong, I’m happy because I get to make a living by doing what I’m passionate about - it’s incredible. Back in Spain, it took me four years to find a job at the local TV news production company. The pay wasn’t much, but I had to hold onto it because the economy is bad, and it’s better to have a job than not. 

When I first came to Hong Kong I worked as a freelance videographer, and as a hobby I started shooting time-lapse videos. After my time-lapse video Hong Kong Urban Tour won the Sony award in 2015, I was contacted by many companies to work on different time-lapse jobs. I was even offered by the mayor in Galicia the opportunity to shoot a time-lapse video of my hometown, to be promoted by travel agencies in Hong Kong and China - Hong Kong Urban Tour’s winning of an award was in the local news there. The real prize of the Sony competition isn’t really the camera, it’s the opportunities that I’ve been given since. It’s crazy how one things leads to another, I still find it pretty unbelievable.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Elizabeth Or: The Road from Kindergarten Teacher to Tattoo Artist

Bonhomie is how one would describe Elizabeth Or’s White Walls Tattoo Studio. For a change, there are no sketches of sinister-looking skulls or a temperature-controlled tank of exotic animals, though Godzilla figurines of various sizes are bound to put whatever speculation of yours in sightings of Hello Kitty dolls at bay. The truth is Elizabeth can almost pass for Miss Congenial, if you don’t rub her up the wrong way, that is. That you find an instant liking to her, and feel compelled to lay things off your chest despite being there only for a tattoo consultation, is perhaps to do with the fact that she was once a kindergarten teacher, or that she has been through so much that she knows how it feels to be branded as ‘inadequate’. If you come to White Walls with the intention of having your deceased pets inked on you, chances are Elizabeth will blubber away in grief with you, with the compassion and empathy she has developed as a long-time animal lover, and current ‘mum’ of four cats and two dogs, all rescues. 

It was a long time coming, with the technicalities of apprenticeship further complicated by the financial issue called ‘having scarcely little saving in your bank account’, and all the intricacies that are unique to Elizabeth’s reality. A little over a year later today, the proud owner of her own tattoo studio will tell you that all her convenient excuses were mere BS, and that there always is a silver lining. 

1. You were a kindergarten teacher before becoming a tattoo artist. What’s the story? 
I used to be quite self-conscious, constantly concerned about how other people saw me. I think everyone is a bit like that. Now I would remind myself that how other people see me isn’t as important as how I feel about myself. My parents have high expectations of what I do to make a living, but a point was reached when I realised that nothing I do would please them, because we have very different perspectives on life. 

I became a kindergarten teacher upon graduation. I enjoyed teaching children, because they reminded me of the innocence and many other things that I used to have, but somehow forgotten about while growing up. Every day spent with these children was a happy day, although there wasn’t a minute I didn’t feel a right hypocrite whenever I encouraged them to have faith in themselves, and to pursue their dreams.

The truth is I’ve always wanted to be a tattoo artist. I have immense respect for tattoo artists, who can turn a sketch into a permanent piece of body art. One day, in class, I asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some of them said they wanted to be a teacher, just like teacher Elizabeth. And I remember thinking, “Aw, that’s very sweet, but I don’t even want to be myself.” That was a wake-up call. It made me realise that I should really be doing something that my students would be proud of me for. 

Not long after that, I resigned and sent in my resume to a tattoo parlour to apply for apprenticeship. That’s how my career as a tattoo artist started. It was a drastic change for me, going from having a stable income to zero income. I wasn’t so well-prepared to have enough money in the bank to keep me going, but then I thought I’d given myself more than enough excuses - I knew I could always find a part-time job.

2. When did you become interested in tattoo? 
I got my first tattoo - a heart on my ankle - aged 21. But I remember being fascinated by those bubble gums with temporary tattoo wrappers when I was three years old. I would stick them all over my body, and my parents would scare me into thinking that I could get cancer from those! I also vividly remember my mum saying that she would never spend a penny for me to learn art, because I would only end up wasting her money. My parents are ‘traditional’ in the sense that they want me to work for the government or in the police force. Even my grandmother, when she sees me, she’d still ask why I didn’t apply for civil service jobs. My answer is invariably that that isn’t what I want to do. I can’t imagine myself in a uniform. Besides, I have issues with authority and I have the tendency to challenge it. 

3. The appeal of being the creator of the art form that you love so much? 
It’s a great feeling, despite people asking me weird questions like, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” - meaning having tattoos on my body. There are myriad reasons people want to have certain things inked on their body, and I’m happy that I get to be the person who can help them make that happen. 

It is important that people tell me what they want for their tattoos. Some of my clients aren’t very forthcoming about the ideas they have for their tattoo, at times they would need some kind of encouragement, because at the end of the day, I can only produce the tattoo they want if they give me enough materials to work with. 

4. Memorable experiences in your career so far?
I had a client whose sexuality was kept a secret, and I was the first person he ever confided to. I told him that I was very proud of him, but I also said that he had to tell it to someone - I was only his tattoo artist, I was nobody. Some time later, he told me that he’s come out to his best friends and some other friends. I think getting a tattoo helps you understand yourself.

Very often, people would come to me to have a tattoo done to honour their deceased pets, and just as often, I’d cry with them when they told me the stories of their pets - as the mum of two dogs and four cats, I know how it feels to lose your pets. 

I’ve got people coming here, initially to get a tattoo, but eventually telling me their life stories, setbacks and struggles in life, so much so that I often feel like a shrink. I think I should start charging them an hourly rate for that! (laughs) But really, it’s part of my plan for people to tell me more about themselves, so then I’ll have a better idea about the kind of tattoo to create for them. In fact, the studio is furbished with the comfort of the home in mind, precisely for this reason. 

5. The stories behind the tattoos on you? 
I have a half-sleeve of purple roses. On the first day of my apprenticeship, I made a mental note to get a purple rose tattoo when I become a tattoo artist. Roses are an ubiquitous element in the world of tattoo art, and since I don’t like the colour red, I chose purple. I had the half-sleeve done on the day I became a tattoo artist - that day when my dream came true still seems very surreal to me. 

6. What does it take to be a good tattoo artist? 
A passion for the art of tattoo. Being a tattoo artist isn’t just a way to make a living - it’s about embracing the art as a part of your life. Which is another way of saying that you’re crazy about tattoos, that you’d think about tattoos day and night. Take, for instance, when I go furniture shopping, I’d see a certain pattern on a piece of furniture, and I’d think, maybe I can incorporate that into my next tattoo creation! 

7. What was the greatest challenge when opening your own tattoo studio? 
That would be building my portfolio. I’m fortunate to have clients who remember me, and who trust me enough to come to my studio and have really cool pieces done. 

8. What’s the best thing about being Elizabeth Or right now? 
That my dream has come true! To quote a friend, I apparently have the semblance of a halo above my head, and I apparently exude a ‘glow’. I feel very lucky to have realised my dream, and along the way I realised that you should not let your own excuses get in the way, that there is always a silver lining. 

9. What’s next? 

I will be attending expos around the world to hone in on my skills, and I plan to write a book with a theme on the revelation of people’s perception of tattoos.