A top hat and bright bandana don’t exactly match with the hot and humid Hong Kong summer, but it’s Alec Monopoly’s classic look whenever he’s seen in public.
Rocking the get-up, the graffiti star live-painted an old-fashioned tram in Shek Tong Tsui last week.
An “art provocateur” (someone who creates slightly controversial works to spark debate) for Swiss watch brand TAG Heuer, Monopoly says it was a “dream come true” to have painted, and ridden, the tram across Hong Kong Island. The tram will continue to run until Monday.
Growing up in New York, which is known for its street art, Monopoly always dreamed of becoming a graffiti artist. But by the time he started spraying, subway graffiti was outlawed completely. While a tram may not be quite the same thing (and also illegal!), this special event allowed him to almost realise his dream.
He got his name from his favourite fictional character, the Monopoly man, from the well-known board game Monopoly. The idea came to him in 2008 when he was playing the game and watching news about that year’s financial crisis.
“[The idea] came to me like a light bulb [being switched on],” Monopoly says.
“I thought it was the perfect symbol of what was going on [at the time].” He then went out and sprayed a bunch of Monopoly men on the streets of Los Angeles and, the moniker Alec Monopoly stuck.
It’s been almost a decade, but he’s having as much, if not more, fun than when he first adopted the persona. But the board game character isn’t the only one he paints: other favourites are comic book icon Richie Rich and musical legend Michael Jackson.
“These are all characters that have greatly influenced pop culture; everyone who sees them knows who they are,” says Monopoly.
“Someone walks by and sees my Michael Jackson piece, they [might] hear one of their favourite songs in their head. I try to convey the emotions and memories associated with these icons through my art.”
As his rise to fame continues, he has taken his characters from the streets and put them into galleries. Although street art is his true passion, he says that gallery work is a “necessary evil”.
“Painting on the canvas seems more like work, but to solidify yourself in art history and for your legacy to live on after you’re dead, you have to do canvas work and have your work preserved in galleries,” explains Monopoly.
“One day the walls will be painted over and buildings will be knocked down, but canvases can last forever.”
Monopoly first made money from art when he was 12 years old, selling a painting for US$500. “It felt like a million dollars at the time,” he says, fondly recalling buying candy for all his friends after the “big” sale.
Painting is“second nature” to Monopoly, whose mother is also a painter: he learned how to draw at the same time he learned to write.
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“There was never a moment when I thought: ‘I’m gonna be an artist’. I was always an artist,” says Monopoly, whose pieces now sell for tens of thousands of US dollars.
Despite being one of the world’s most recognised graffiti artists, and having been arrested for illegal spray-painting several times, Monopoly’s true identity is still shrouded in mystery. Although a bandana does a good job of keep his identity a secret, he has added surgical masks to his disguise.
“I actually learned that through travelling in Asia and seeing everyone wearing them. They are the most comfortable,” he says.
That’s not the only inspiration he got from Asia. “The architecture and the cool boats in the harbour are incredible,” says Monopoly, adding that he loves Hong Kong, especially the food. “You’ll see a dim sum piece soon, trust me.”