Interview: The Year of Szabotage


It has been an eventful year for Szabotage, who made a splash in Hong Kong's visual culture scene with his bonanza show 'Gone Fishing!'.  The British street artist, who has resided in Hong Kong for over 3 years, resolutely made his mark with a confident solo showing held in the sprawling Loft22 space of California Tower in the heart of Central, Hong Kong in November 2016. 


This year witnessed the fruition of the Szabotage's creative energies channeled into a major solo exhibition after years of intriguing street art campaigns featuring the artist's notorious koi fish. Gone Fishing! represents a monumental accomplishment for the street artist, who is also an interior designer and trained architect. The show embodies 2 years of studio practice and over 50 original artworks, as well as Szabotage's first foray into large installation sculpture work– the Super Koi– made of deconstructed spray cans.


The show interestingly partnered with various creative collaborators– including Brazilian fashion designer Aila Pernambuco and the Hong Kong based fashion accessory brand Papilio– to realize an urban contemporary art offering inspired by Hong Kong localism, which elegantly crossed over into the fashion world.


A ubiquitous sight on the streets of Hong Kong, Szabotage's koi fish graffiti celebrates righteous defiance of authority and personal freedom. His artworks are inspired by Hong Kong visual identity– ranging from urban symbols to architecture– and reflect an evolving exploration of materials, including dissassembled metal spray cans, wood, and canvas. In his largest solo show yet in Asia, Szabotage offered deeper meaning and context for his graffiti symbolism present throughout Hong Kong.

In an exclusive interview with UrbanDNA, Szabotage discusses his creative process and the origin story of Hong Kong's koi fish graffiti. The moral of the story? Believe in yourself, and never let anyone tell you what you can't do. Hong Kong celebrates its cheeky koi!


::::: Interview: UrbanDNA & Szabotage :::::

Where are you from and what brought you to Hong Kong?
I am originally from Brighton, U.K., where I started my days training as an architect. I got the buzz and landed myself in London to continue my studies as an architect in University. I chose London as it was by far the coolest location and only an hour from home, as home life was important also. I situated myself in London for 20 years or so to establish connections with interior architectural firms. Little did I know how much the area I was living in Shoreditch would change over the years and influence me.

Can you tell me about your creative background and art training?
I was that kid the teacher always had make the class mural for that week’s class subject. I must have missed out on a lot of  academic work as my qualifications were borderline when I left school, barely scraping a pass. Armed with the ability to draw I persisted to pursue a career as an architect. My mother pushed me in that direction as my knowledge about the subject was limited– “make houses don’t they?” I actually got tired of writing letters and had the balls to photocopy my handwritten letters and send them out to prospective practices. This is an absolute no-no in the corporate field, but it got my foot in the door with one curious architect, Kevin Thornton.  I recall at my interview with the sole proprietor, he told me how he thought it was a genius way to get noticed– maybe not the best first impression but creative… He liked my work and gave me a go. I guess these early days paved and rewarded my way of thinking.  I got my chance to prove I could think outside of the classroom and apply myself, admittedly with a few big mistakes here and there, but that’s what £45 a week buys you in those days, a keen spotty trainee... It was drawing that pulled me through only to get thrown back into the classroom years later to study at uni, and progressed to develop my skills as a young trainee.

I have been fortunate to have worked with many of my heroes, Phillip Starck, Marcel Wonders, Richard Branson, Elle Macpherson, Kelly Hoppen, and John Hitchcox...

The best experiences are the firsthand ones– I will never forget the excitement of seeing a true professional, Philippe Starck, take my work I presented, and tweek it into something Philippe Starck would stick his name on for Yoo by Starck. Yoo being a co-owned business by Starck and Hitchcox.


What are your signature designs as a graffiti artist?
I consider myself as a situationist artist– I like to respond to what surrounds me. I love a project with depth as I can apply myself to a brief very well and have done so throughout my career, it is the architect in me I guess. I used to spin around clueless when a client wanting street art or graffiti would say, "Oh, do what you want.." It was so alien to not to have a proper brief and freedom to do as you wish. So I would say my work is varied. I am a strong believer in developing a range of skills for all occasions. This in itself takes you a lot longer to become recognised as your identity is diluted. I guess I love to explore colours, and bright ones at that, this is very distinctive in my work...

... I like to emulate run-down graffiti walls as backdrops in my canvas with tags everywhere. This very much gives me the freedom to work ad hoc and experiment whilst I work. As an artist I am never scared to make a mistake, as this is the best way to learn and progress. I am not precious about my stuff– it is a recording of my journey although I am learning it pays to be. Still, against my nature.

When did you first develop these signature designs?
The koi is now me, Szabotage. It is a very strong playful image and has so many powerful connotations. I see it as a symbol of revelation, freedom, and freedom of expression and empowerment. The fight against the norm.


Can you tell me about your inspiration for the koi fish? What does the koi fish represent to you?
I laugh about it now! I once very responsibly asked a Chinese restaurant owner if I could paint on his wall at the side of his restaurant free of charge.  I communicated with his daughter as she spoke good English and engaged in the conversations about the potentials, even had them check out my Facebook and Instagram page for references of my work.  I then sent them a design– but he said through his translator daughter that he liked my work but this wasn’t the image for him, and maybe a fish or even a koi would be more suitable. No problem I said, and redesigned with a koi in mind... 8 versions later still nothing was agreed. Another email response stated, “You cannot draw fish, maybe draw something else?” That was the final straw– 8 versions of designs for something I offered to paint for free?! This was too much and very insulting to me as a developing artist. As always my positivity shone, and I wanted to prove him wrong. I then went on to paint fish everywhere in the close area... People might argue I still can't draw them now but I guess it has become more than a drawing, it is a symbol of 'fuck you, I will do what I want, permission or no permission!' It brings me a lot of joy and other people have commented likewise. Another time I painted next to a good friend– mind his [painting] is a very nicely executed set of eyes– the following day his work was scrubbed and mine got painted around and saved?! I knew this was a great way to challenge the local community. Do they dare remove the lucky koi as its lucky connotations run deep? Another reason to use the koi! It definitely plays on local traditions and superstitions and maybe gives a chance for graffiti to exist.

Where have you painted the koi fish? How do you choose your locations?
The easy answer is to say where there’s room. Locations vary depending on the mood, and in-your-face locations take a bit of planning. I favour junctions or roads as this symbolises decisions in life. As an artist my route I walk is often determined by wanting to see artwork on the walls. To answer you– try Central and Sai Ying Pun.


Why do you make graffiti?
What’s the best comparison…? It’s very much showmanship, it is theatrical, it is poetic, and very much rehearsed– I love the notion of doing something enough you get to see improvements– 10,000 times I’ve heard, and I am on 7,999 koi’s. [Sometimes I] just watch an artist work normally and then when he is being filmed, [and] I notice this certain flick being added to the stroke, highly amusing. Look our it I am definitely a fan of it.. how professional it looks ruins the painting though.

How does the act of painting make you feel?
It makes me feel in my zone of genius, of course I can be challenged and someone can give their opinion but you know what... this is my work and I call the shout! More confident I guess?

How does your illicit practice influence your studio practice – and how do you see these as different?
What amazes me as an artist is the time you need to allocate to a variety of disciplines– design work, spray time, paid work, illicit work, graphic work, mates works, farting about! Illicit work is amazing practice for your aim and accuracy. You need to be fast and yet controlled. I can’t lie, the heart races a beautiful balance like that of a biathlon. Well, it’s the nearest I am gonna get to experience a top athlete's pressure. Control your breathing and spray and then [it's] legit, haha.

Where is your favorite place to paint in Hong Kong?
I don’t have a favourite spot, it is more the act of painting. If it is in the public eye I enjoy the social aspect, and anyone [who] wants to say hi, it's great for breaking the boundaries and there is an artist in everyone. We need to consciously engage in things that make us talk.

Do you have a favorite subject matter to paint?
I don’t have a particular favourite subject matter to paint. Keep it open I say, and keep it koi!


How does your background in architecture influence your work as a graffiti artist?

Loads of buildings maybe as my subject matter?  I never set out to design a piece of artwork the same way I create an interior design. Very often in my design work I look to create a strong statement and not clutter the work with unnecessary objects and pieces.. Strong and simple message is very much the key. I guess it’s taught me to persist and not settle until it feels right. I have a lot of freedom with my approach to my personal work, otherwise it ain’t interesting.

… Creating artwork for me is much the same– I try to stay strong and bold. I’ve never seen my skill as being able to draw or replicate something but one of having a creative thought and visualizing how to get to the end result. Too many people stop early and don’t know how to  foresee the end… This is an issue as you can lose focus on what you originally tried to achieve.

How has your practice evolved in recent years?
I am lately enjoying the accidental creation, splats and splashes, although this is super messy work and the challenge is trying to achieve something out of the mess. The hit and miss rate isn’t the best but when you get it right it is a stroke of genius any master would be proud of.


What does ‘urban art’ mean to you – and is this something you identify with?

Urban art is art for the people– free art where you least expect it. I love the idea that someone can witness art on the streets and experience a reaction. That’s so rewarding, I know this sounds so cliché but I have spent so much time pissing people off for not saying the right thing. This feels right, so I am saying it.

What materials and mediums are inspiring you now? How is this reflected in your work and the new direction for your upcoming show?
There’s so much to get inspired by and maybe this is my problem, focusing on a particular visual language…  Although that can [also] feel too predictable to me, so I prefer to run with several ideas at one time, and then the time comes when they merge cohesively. For my new collection I have been recycling my spray cans,  I’d like to do this in a cool way with recycled waste becoming the desired commodity.

What themes and emotions are inspiring your recent work? 
Throughout my time in Hong Kong there has been a great range of emotion…  Excitement and frustration as tourist and expat trying to settle in. My work tries to reflect the hysteria and extreme jubilation of this place.

What are you most excited to share with people in your show 'Gone Fishing!'?
I personally like the ’Can-Can’ collection, it takes on a new personality for my work and becomes very sexy and witty, as well as a hard piece of industrial-looking furniture for interiors. It is my subconscious working something for the day job to spec. In a way it reminds me of Ron Arad– the early days welding the found objects together to make cool furniture.


Erin Wooters Yip