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Making Art for Art’s Sake? 3 Non-Mainstream Artists and Their Whimsical Figures

Monsters can be adorable, but they're not always the most friendly and down-to-earth creatures. The same can be said about artists whose alternative styles may not be the most readily received by the general public. We chat with three Hong Kong-based artists for a glimpse into their quirky art and the imagined figures within. 

By Ashlyn Chak
September 20, 2022

Despite being often referred to as a cultural desert”, there are many creative souls in Hong Kong that contribute to our city’s booming arts and culture scene. However, with Hong Kong being such a commercial hub, it can be difficult for artists whose styles deviate from the mainstream. Making art for art’s sake is beautiful and noble and all, but at the end of the day, dreams don’t pay the bills, and the art world’s most brutal truth is that art ultimately has to be sellable for the artists to survive on their trade. ECHELON inquires three local artists with distinctive visual styles and whimsical characters for some insight into their unusual practice. 

Photo: Mooncasket

Evie Chan, better known by her artist name and Instagram handle Mooncasket, is inspired by subcultures and her upbringing. As a teen, she was deeply intrigued by graffiti and the general street art in skateboarding culture—from bold board graphics to the lowbrow visual style. She found them raw, authentic, and inspiring. 

As for the quirky figures in her work, Mooncasket says, “I really enjoy anything fuzzy, weird, and cute. A lot of my inspirations in character design come from retro cartoons and movies from the 70s-90s within the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genre.” The element of nostalgia in her work is enduring, as she cites Maurice Sendak, the American Children’s illustrator and writer who created the 1963 Where the Wild Things Are, as one of her biggest influences. 

Regardless of her different aesthetic, the Australian-Hong Kong artist Angela Ho’s (aka “Ahoy”) figures are similarly inspired by nostalgia. “The forms of my characters are influenced by 1930s Fleischer Studios animations, early Disney cartoons, and vintage advertising characters, books, and artworks,” she divulges. “Their antics are based on my life and the people around me.” Compared to Mooncasket’s fluffy monsters, Angela Ho’s figures are rather on the dreamier side, like reimagined versions of fairies, animals, and mythical creatures in Alice’s Wonderland. 

The Way Of The Mooncakes | Photo: Angela Ho

Benson Koo’s monsters, however, are on the slightly darker side. Unlike the previously mentioned artists’ colourful characters, Koo creates unnatural beings with horns, batwings, and protruding teeth that are quirky but almost nightmarish, against a solely (and dare I say it—depressingly) black-and-white backdrop. “When I’m drawing, it’s like I can feel that there is a little monster inside of my body. It’s almost as if I can express its feelings through my brushstrokes.” He continues, "And when I’m done with the process, many of my desires and emotions are released onto the canvas.” 

With these cursed-looking, freakish little monsters, how does an artist like Benson Koo make it work in a city like Hong Kong? Instead of compromising his style and vision, he chooses to take on diverse roles as a multidisciplinary creative. “I’m a director for indie films, a bass guitarist, and a graphic designer,” he explains. “All these other mediums of creativity have a great influence on my identity as a painter. At the end of the day, painting is the one job that touches my heart and soul the most; but at the same time, it is the one that takes the most out of me.” Koo also recognises that most of the time, the people that enjoy his work are alternative musicians, artists, and other creatives.  

Mooncasket, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic approach to her paintings. I am still learning how to balance between making art for myself and being able to make a living off what I do. I started off doing strictly black-and-white work, which did not get me anywhere.” She elaborates, Eventually, I started dropping in more colours and coming up with happier characters where they’re mostly smiling—characters that still align with my style, but more adaptable and commercially viable.” It’s a delicate balance, yet she firmly believes, It’s important that not only the collector, but also myself, is happy with the work.” 

Photo: Benson Koo

Although also driven by the personal urge for self-expression, Angela Ho’s art seems to come from a more optimistic perspective, as she reveals that she is driven by the need to bring something forth which may add something positive to the world”. Because of her dreamy and kids-friendly aesthetic, her commissioned work mostly come from clients that already agree with her vision and give her enough creative freedom. She elaborates, There doesn’t feel like a huge distinction between what I create for myself and what may be commissioned. I will only take on commercial projects which resonate with me, too, so there’s no friction within me when it comes to these projects.”  

There seems to be a specific genre of cuteness in Hong Kong that dominates the creative world. The spectrum of these three artists’ divergent aesthetics and their different levels of comfort and ease is a perfect example of how the general public seems to be more drawn to those that are easier on the eyes. When it comes to saleability, are creepy monsters always trumped by dream-like fairies? At some point, every artist has to ultimately choose between making art for oneself and making art for commercial purposes; but if they’re lucky, they might just find their audience and a way to appeal to them the way they are.