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Slums to cities: street art's Pied Piper

By Natalie Robehmed, for CNN
  • Street artist Kaid Ashton pastes portraits to raise awareness of world's poor
  • Ashton travels globe photographing residents before turning their pictures into posters
  • Ashton set up the Homeschool project to teach art to Manila's slum children

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Another humid summer night in Hong Kong and another fly-poster is discretely pasting what looks like a photograph of an emaciated girl onto a wall on a busy side street.

But this is no ordinary fly-poster.

He is unassuming Canadian street artist Kaid Ashton, and the subject in the print is a young girl he recently photographed in the Filipino capital, Manila.

For the past seven years he's been traveling to some of the world's most dangerous slums documenting the people he meets with his camera. He then posts his work on walls around the cities he visits.

Now he's in Hong Kong, bringing his images of slum life to the busy streets of one of Asia's financial hubs. One of the world's wealthiest cities may seem an incongruous setting for Ashton's work -- but that's what he wants.

His current project, "People in Poverty," consists of 30 intimate portraits snapped during Ashton's travels to some of Asia's poorest places -- including the Tondo district and Maharlika settlement of Manila, Philippines. Ashton prints the photographs on wallpaper-like material before sticking them outdoors using a technique known as "wheatpasting."

I find that if you tell someone a personal story of poverty, they are much more receptive to it
--Kaid Ashton, street artist

Ashton aims to make people reconsider their surroundings by placing his photographs in unexpected locations, be it the wall of a housing estate or the pillar of an underpass.

He is always on the lookout for a potential spot, and spends his days scouring the city to find the perfect place.

"I look for something opposite the photo or something related to the colors," Ashton said. "Anything to frame the picture so it grabs people's attention and makes the background just as interesting as the image."

Wheatpasting -- a method that allows street artists to quickly put up a ready-made poster -- has been made famous by JR, a TED winner whose works have appeared worldwide, displaying highly-personal images of a town's residents on buildings, bridges and walls.

Ashton also pastes a caption next to the image, explaining the subject's story in English and Chinese.

"I find that if you tell someone a personal story of poverty, they are much more receptive to it," he said.

Ashton's street art is not political. It is about crossing cultures and getting to know people in the process.

"It's really nice to bring a portrait from Bogotá, Colombia, to the streets of Hong Kong and put it underneath a Chinese sign."

The cook at the Wai Kee Congee restaurant, located opposite Ashton's image of a starving child, was initially reluctant to praise the photograph, saying the girl looked hungry. He mused that she could be from India, the Philippines or maybe even Hong Kong. After reading the caption explaining the plight of malnourished children in Manila, however, the man's empathy was not limited by nationality. "It is very nice," he said.

A photographer and teacher by trade, Ashton's nocturnal activities are not exactly legal. In Hong Kong, criminal damage charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

He goes to the most dangerous areas in Manila, and they all adore him. He's like the Pied Piper -- everyone loves him
--Clara Balaguer, owner of The Office of Culture and Design
  • Street Art
  • Photography
  • Poverty
  • Manila

Hong Kong's Police Public Relations Bureau explained that graffiti cases differ depending on the situation. "If such articles are noticed in public places, police will look into the case and see if any criminal element is involved," they said.

Ashton, however, does not consider what he does to be a crime.

"I'm just having an art show for the people," Ashton explained. "At the end of the day, it is only paper on a wall."

Ashton prefers the outdoors to exhibiting in a more traditional space. "I feel quite intimidated going into a gallery," he said. "This is for everyday people and that's who I take photos of."

On his travels, Ashton resists the formulaic city regurgitated by guidebooks, preferring to explore by himself. Ashton explains: "The heart of the city is in the back alleys and the streets and the dilapidated buildings. That's what gives it its culture, flavor and color."

His wanderings have taken him to neighborhoods where few Westerners dare to venture. In Manila, Ashton carried out reconnaissance missions by day, befriending the locals by playing basketball with them and taking their picture. Later, he would return to put up his photographs. It was during one such trip to the Philippines that Ashton felt the need to give something back.

"It just came to me that I keep going to these communities and putting up my pictures and, yes, they are grateful for them, but it doesn't really do anything."

With funding from family and friends, Ashton set up the Homeschool project, a charity that teaches art classes in Manila's slums. From March through May, Ashton led lessons for children in 20 different communities, feeding everyone at the end of the afternoon.

The backdrop to Ashton's classrooms include the Valenzuala and Las Piñas garbage dumps to the north and south of Manila, where residents eke out an existence amid piles of rubbish. But of all the neighborhoods he visited, Ashton remains most shaken by a community he found living in a cemetery.

"Because it's isolated from everything else, it's a totally different world. All the adults were hooked on drugs," explained Ashton. "When I went there, [the kids] were just playing on the graves, and one of the volunteers tried to give them some spaghetti. This kid said, 'I don't want this,' and the volunteer said, 'what do you want?' and the kid said, 'I want money to gamble.' He's nine years old and that mentality is already there."

Ashton remains modest about his achievements, insisting that he could not have done anything without the help of local street artists and friends who volunteered. The Office of Culture and Design (OCD), a Manila-based start-up that lobbies funding for arts ventures, continues to run the Homeschool project in Ashton's absence. Clara Balaguer, the owner of OCD, said the nonchalance with which Ashton helps children makes him unlike anyone she has ever met.

"He goes to the most dangerous areas in Manila and they all adore him," Balaguer said. "He's like the Pied Piper -- everyone loves him."