GRAFF: Sowing seeds with Graffiti artist Dreams
The School of Dreams founder shares his thoughts on Hip Hop as well as his massive boombox collection
Born in the first golden age of Hip Hop - the 1980s - School of Dreams founder, Dreams, is a Hong Kong-based Hip Hop and graffiti OG who has been interviewed and featured on local TV and news. Well known as a boombox fanatic with a huge collection of boomboxes and cassette tapes, Dreams [also his graffiti tag] is a writer who has left his name all over Hong Kong’s, and the world’s walls.
We discovered Dreams from hanging out at the rapper Armie’s studio, which used to be Dreams’ place before 2022. After hearing the praise about this legendary artist for a while, LiFTED finally met up for an interview in his hood, Shun Tin Estate, a public estate in Kwun Tong where he has lived all his life. This is where he hangs out the most, getting around on his BMX, as he preferred to be interviewed in his most natural state.
Fearing rain, we were prepared to do the interview in a covered space where he hangs out, but we were blessed with sunshine and free to roam around and see the sights. First Dreams took us to an old-school Cha Chaan Tang for some tea-time takeaway snacks. Then, we sat in the park for an easy chat and chew.
After hearing of LiFTED’s interest in his collection of boomboxes, Dreams became excited to meet and catch up. We wanted to know whether he had ever returned to his old space after moving out, and he told us that he hasn’t been back due to his busy full-time job, and only having one day off per week. We thanked him for linking up with us on his day off for an interview with us. He said, “After not renting the studio last year, which is now taken over by Armie, I was upset for a while. I lost my little space that I had cultivated for years, so I didn’t have the motivation to go back to the studio.“
We asked if he was feeling heartbroken. “Not really heartbroken,” Dreams said “Now I am more open, looking back at the old pics I am actually very grateful and honored that I’ve done something this crazy, and have set up a studio room like this.”
Although LiFTED missed the original exhibitions and never saw the old space, we can get a sense of how intimate and special it was through videos and images. Back in September of 2020, Dreams collaborated with Openground to host a BoomBox Exhibition to educate people about Hip Hop culture through the iconic ‘80s imagery of the portable sound systems. There was music sharing, live MCing, and rare souvenirs were sold at the event. We can only imagine how evocative it was from the recap and hope that Dreams will host another exhibition like this in the future. So we asked him about it.
During the interview, nobody sat still, as the LiFTED team had to follow DREAMS around while he rode around the badminton court on his BMX, playing his very eclectic Hip Hop playlist on a Bluetooth speaker. It was a hot day, so we just went with the flow and sweated it out.
Can you tell us a bit about the Boombox Exhibition?
I had to resign from my full-time job for the exhibition, and right after the event I wanted a new job but then came COVID-19 - perfect timing - and I became jobless for a year. In that one year, there were a lot of psychological changes…being unemployed, and having to maintain the studio, maintain my hobbies. Originally I wanted to ride on and continue promoting Hip Hop culture like boomboxes after the exhibition. But then maybe because I’m not a social person, and the feedback wasn’t overwhelming, I felt like, “Damn it, nobody appreciates this” which is the classic artists’ mentality. But then luckily a year ago I bought this bike, and after doing more daily exercise I felt better.
Yeah something to find sustenance in and get the body moving?
Yeah, having a good sweat.
So why are you called Dreams?
It’s my graffiti name.
How did you come up with it?
Dreams: So all graffiti artists need a tag. Back in High School, I started drawing and was using my western name Fritz, without the I for my tag. But later I felt like maybe I shouldn’t use my name so I wanted to create a new name. I really love to daydream, so I decided to call myself Dreams. Why plural? I feel every single artwork or every single location I draw is a dream of mine. Like I see this spot and I think it’s cool and I wanna draw on it. It’s already a dream. Therefore when I tag on each work I don’t add the s, because each one is a dream itself, but my own tag has the s.
So you are the combination of all the dreams?
That’s where my name came from. For dreams, after so many years, I’m having a bit of a different perspective. I used to think dreams have to be big, to be huge, but over time I think not.
What are your recent dreams?
Recently, I just wanna ride my bike in my free time. That’s it. Not something big, just normal stuff like getting married, renting a new place, having my own space, doing what I love doing, and being with people I love. Last year, I realized that I stopped wanting to ‘sell’ dreams. You know in Hong Kong people always talk about how important dreams are but they are just using that as a gimmick to sell you something. In the past when I drew, I always wrote the word Dream, but since I started drawing in Chinese I’ve stopped using 夢想 [Dream]. In recent years I just draw the words of what I feel resonates in the moment or period.
When and how did you start connecting with Hip Hop?
When I was in Secondary 3 [about 14 years old,] in early 2000. LMF popped up and I knew about graffiti because of MC Yan from LMF. Luckily at that time Hong Kong had HMV [a British music and entertainment retail chain] and Eminem’s 8 Mile came out. Then, I started digging for songs from different artists, and the way to do it was so different from nowadays because you had to buy CDs to hear the music. I used to buy a CD, let’s say Dr Dre’s 2001, and then I loved to find out who’s featured and then find their CDs, too - to continuously and slowly expand my horizons. That's how we used to do it, but now we depend on others to tell us.
The styles I listened to kept changing. In the beginning I’d listen to Eminem, Dr Dre, Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg, and the more mainstream rappers. But recently, I think American Hip Hop has started to decline. Also, when I went to Australia for a Working Holiday I discovered Aussie Hip Hop and it’s really dope with a totally different sound. The Aussies will rap about daily life stuff, and because they are more relaxed, their rap is more chill. At every stage of my life, I listened to different Hip Hop from American to Australian, and for a while Japanese, and music from the UK.
What do you love most about Hip Hop?
Good question which brings another question, ‘What is Hip Hop?’ What do I love about Hip Hop the most? I really cannot answer that. It’s just like a girl asking you what you like about her, you cannot answer that. If I really love you, then I just love you. That’s it.
OK, then what is Hip Hop to you?
It all starts with the four pillars, the very basics that everyone needs to recite and answer. After experiencing Hip Hop for so many years, It suddenly resonated with me, what KRS One often says “I am Hip Hop.” I used to think he talked big, like how can he say such strong words? Have you heard of him saying that?
That’s because he’s already achieved it. In daily life, he already has the spirit…I think it’s the spirit of believing and being true to oneself. It doesn’t have to be on the surface, wearing a baggy tee and jeans and gold chains to be Hip Hop, but rather just trusting oneself, doing what you love. Keeping it real. There was a period before where ‘Keep it real’ was used like a mantra. Only those who ‘Keep it real’ can really be called Hip Hop. Yes, it’s true, but it doesn’t have to be spoken. Those who feel it can feel it. If you are Hip Hop, you just are. If you’re not, you’re not. If you’re not real, saying this slogan doesn’t make you real.
Do you think you are living Hip Hop then?
Hmm…trying. I don’t know…From hearing a music genre to paying attention to the Hip Hop culture, these almost 20 years, some things have become habits. So am I living Hip Hop? I don’t know, maybe. It’s like you’re used to breathing, then how would you remember how to do it? This is actually the lyric of a rap song.
What drew you to start collecting boomboxes? How many have you got now?
After writing graffiti for over a decade, and finally getting my own studio for the first time and having a space for things I love, I wanted to find an iconic item to represent Hip Hop. For graffiti most people would think of a spray can, for DJ it’s vinyl, for Bboys and Bgirls it would be a pair of Puma sneakers maybe. I just suddenly wanted to find a symbol for Hip Hop. Maybe I was getting something fresh in graffiti, so I thought of starting with the rest of the other elements from the four pillars.
Then, suddenly I thought, “Ay, boombox! The boombox represents Hip Hop and music” and I began to desire to have one. I’m someone who manifests desire easily, if I want it I will get it. I would go to Ap Liu Street, Sham Shui Po whenever I got a chance. One day I came across a very cool-looking boombox in a stall that I loved so much. I asked, and the price was HK$500(US$64). It seemed quite costly. So I started walking from the one end of the street, thinking about it, and then I thought wait…if I don't buy it and someone else does, then it’ll be gone, so I walked back to negotiate with the boss lady but she insisted on no discount. Alright then, I just paid for it and got my first boombox, Hitachi TRK-W2, and it’s super beautiful.
Then I started to play with it and listen to music, and found it quite fun and interesting. Soon I realized I was going to Ap Liu Street often, and found my second boombox, a third, etc. At first, of course, I’d find the functioning ones, but those are more costly because they’ve usually been repaired. I then started buying those under HK$100 or within HK$300, and guess whether they are still working from their appearance. One day I got one that had a bit of a problem, but I wasn’t willing to pay someone to fix it. So I thought maybe I can open and examine it myself, cause I have always been breaking stuff open to study it, and also making models. After opening it and seeing the structure, I became addicted and since then every new one I got I would open to check them out and clean them, then learn how to fix and maintain them, to preserve them. Eventually, I started fixing broken Boomboxes and giving them a new life in my studio, and now I have collected 90 of them.
For those who don’t know what a boombox is, it is a portable stereo radio cassette and/or CD player that used to rock the world with a new way to listen to music. It was first developed by the inventor of the audio compact cassette, Philips of the Netherlands, and was released in 1966. It was the first time people could share music on the street with so much freedom, and with the major amplification in the ‘80s it became well-loved by American rappers and street dancers and developed a strong cultural association with New York Hip Hop.
What was the purpose or intention of your previous studio space?
I started the studio in 2015. In the beginning I purely wanted to satisfy my own desire of having a small space to do what I love because there’s not a lot of private space living with my family. Later on, it turned into a Mini Store for people to come to buy cassette tapes or other vintage stuff that I love. Also, this was a community space for like-minded people to come chill and listen to good music. So even though now I don’t have the studio anymore, in the future once I can afford it, the Mini Store will appear again. My ultimate goal is to have a physical School of Dreams with all four major Hip Hop elements in it.
How long have you been writing graffiti? Have you ever counted how many tags or pieces you’ve done?
Since high school - around 2003 - I’ve been drawing and spraying around, so I have already lost count. There was a period when I challenged myself to do 100 pieces per year and there were two years that I did reach that goal. I have done graffiti everywhere I go - China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Belgrade, Serbia.
Which one is your favorite artwork?
<LAST ___TO___> is the last artwork I did in my studio back in 2021. I only realized it was a portrait after I finished it. This question came to my mind, “If the world ends tomorrow and I’m alone, how would I choose to spend it?” I will choose to listen to music, and one of the songs would be Thundamentals’ ‘21grams’. You can see how the skeleton’s finger is reaching the play button on the boombox. The last thing I would wanna do is press play on my boombox. The boombox I’ve used is a Hitachi TRK-W1 that I bought specially for this artwork, to resemble my very first boombox, so yeah I am that skeleton and this art is very much me.
What inspired you to do this graffiti on your BMX wheel?
Originally the sticker was my motto “Keep it rolling,” but it started peeling off so I thought let’s change it. Then I thought of spraying it. One day after smoking, this idea came through - now that I’m spending most of my time on my bike, not much time to write graffiti and other stuff, but how can I put graffiti onto my bike? Then I came up with this.
I chose to do a piece with過程 [Process in Chinese] for the wheel because cycling and practicing BMX tricks is a process. I can see the progress myself, and just then I was listening to Soft Lipa’s ‘過程’and totally feeling it.
So…Why did I say I’m lucky to be cycling? Because before that I was feeling like a failure. I felt like a loser after the exhibition because I was unable to find a job, and couldn’t sustain my life with things that I’m passionate about. However, as I started practicing BMX tricks, I used another angle to view ‘failure.’ I’ve started to appreciate failure thinking it’s actually cool. I don’t know whether I’ve gone haywire or something. Anyway, yeah, learning, accepting, and appreciating failure helps you stay strong and sturdy. After failure just keep trying. This type of stubbornness is actually very Hip Hop.
As we closed out the interview, Dreams was just chilling at a favorite hangout spot, next to a quiet road opposite a Primary school where he would play Hip Hop on his speaker and practice his tricks on his BMX - passively teaching the students and neighbors passing by about Hip Hop. We were just sitting there chatting and listening to his playlist. He shared a few different songs that he really liked and the reasons why. Suddenly he came back to the question of living Hip Hop. “I love to answer questions with songs,” Dreams said. “Just then you asked me ‘What is Hip Hop?’ Right, let me answer you with this song.” He then played KRS-One & Marley Marl ‘Hip Hop Lives.’ “This is hip hop, we gon’ last forever/Hip means to know, it's a form of intelligence/To be hip is to be updated and relevant/Hop is a form of movement/You can't just observe a hop, you gotta hop up and do it.”
LiFTED looks forward to Dreams turning the School of Dreams into a reality in the near future.