Hong Kong Street Art Goes Political

In a winter marked by rallies and protests, young people unhappy with Hong Kong’s government are taking to the streets in more ways than one. Over the past year, Hong Kong’s street artists have left their mark with posters, stickers and stencil graffiti that attack some of the city’s most prominent politicians and business leaders.

The most recent example is a poster of Henry Tang Ying-yen, modelled on Barack Obama’s now-legendary “Hope” campaign poster, that depicts the government’s chief secretary laughing, with horns on his head and the Chinese character for “kill” branded on his forehead. “Devil” is written at the bottom, in English, along with a short phrase in Chinese: “Political reform killer.”

The poster, which first appeared in the streets last December, is the work of local street art crew Start from Zero, which until now has been known more for its black-and-white stencil art and t-shirt designs than for biting political commentary.

What prompted them to make the poster, said Katol Lo, one of the crew’s two artists, was Tang’s behaviour in a YouTube clip of Legislative Council proceedings in which he appears to be mocking questions from lawmakers on Hong Kong’s growing wealth gap. Tang’s well-publicized support of maintaining functional constituencies after the 2012 constitutional reforms also raised Lo’s ire.

“After seeing that clip, I felt that with what people had available to them through the mass media, they wouldn’t get a fair picture of what is really happening in Hong Kong politics,” said Lo, 26. “The government ignores us. They don’t response to what people want, they don’t know what young people need. They’re very outdated in the way they see us. If young people see this poster, they’ll go on YouTube and see the clip of Henry Tang. If an older person sees it, they might get upset, but at least they’ll know we’re not happy.”

Since it emerged in the early 2000s, Start from Zero, which consists of Lo and another artist, Dom (who, like many street artists, insists on being identified by a pseudonym) has been responsible for some of Hong Kong’s most widely-seen street art. Its paste-ups — stencil-based paintings that are glued to walls with wheat paste — are visible throughout the city. Many depict the crew’s name with imagery meant to symbolize change and new beginnings, such as a hammer and nails. The Tang poster marked the crew’s first attempt at an explicitly political message.

“I’m actually not too familiar with politics, but this year we felt we needed to do more about it, with [the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on] June 4th and the express rail,” said Dom, 25. His list of grievances includes the lack of a minimum wage, powerful property developers and political influence from Beijing. “The Hong Kong government doesn’t work for the Hong Kong people, it works for the Chinese government,” he said.

Other street artists have been incorporating more social messages into their work, including Graphic Airlines, a crew that is known primarily for its light-hearted renditions of chubby-faced cartoon characters. Though none of its work makes overt political statements, some of its deals with some of Hong Kong’s social problems, like the high cost of housing.

“We want to have more of a message, to say something about society and the Hong Kong people,” said Vi, one of the crew’s members. “I think it’s good that nowadays young people are quite concerned about their city, and they’re trying to protest in a more creative way, with posters and art, not just marching in the street. Street art is a way to get the message out.”

Another street art crew, which goes by the name “It’s them, you and me,” made its debut last summer in the weeks leading up to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil on June 4th, when it began sticking its posters around Causeway Bay. One was an illustration of the row of tanks that was famously stopped by a single pedestrian in the days following the massacre.

“We wanted to replicate that scene because kids in primary schools here don’t learn about that. They don’t know what happened,” said Laki, 28, one of the crew’s four members.

The crew was especially incensed by Donald Tsang’s suggestion, uttered shortly before June 4th, that the majority of Hong Kong people are willing to overlook the Tiananmen massacre in light of China’s economic development since 1989. That inspired a poster in which Tsang points angrily at passersby under a hammer and sickle and a sarcastic Chinese inscription that translates as “I represent your hair.”

Another poster is a portrait of tycoon Li Ka-shing with the inscription “The people serve me,” a play on a famous propaganda poster of Mao Zedong that read “I serve the people.”

“We’re not against the government or the establishment per se, but the makeup of the government right now is unjust,” said another of the crew’s artists, 21-year-old Ying. “There’s a lot of inequalities that need to be corrected.”

Unlike Start from Zero, which creates its work by hand with spray-paint and stencils, Ying and Laki’s crew works primarily with computer illustration software, printing the images and quickly pasting them around town late at night, when there are fewer people on the street.

“A lot of people who do street art in Hong Kong care most about how it looks, but we care more about the message,” said Ying. “We want it to be pretty, of course, but we aren’t just concerned about the art.”

To spread the message as effectively as possible, both crews prefer to work in a few small areas where pedestrian traffic is high but posters, stickers and graffiti are left untouched. These include the neighbourhoods around Granville Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Graham Street in Central and Tang Lung Street in Causeway Bay, where posters can last for more than a year without being taken down.

In most cases, street art is illegal, and anyone caught spraying graffiti or gluing a poster to a wall without permission can risk a steep fine or even jail time. “We consider it criminal damage,” said Blake Hancock, the police district commander for Wan Chai district, which includes Causeway Bay. “Anything that’s written on something, or spraypainted — anything that costs money to remove, it’s criminal damage, and we’ll charge them with that.”

But street art is not yet pervasive enough for the police to consider it much of a problem, said Hancock. “We haven’t got any complaints about it. If it’s causing dirt and it’s a bit messy, I’ll ask the [Food and Environmental Hygiene Department] to go down and see what they think of it. If it’s something obscene, or if it’s a concern to public safety, we might intervene. But I’m personally not aware of it. What’s more of a problem is the advertising that causes an obstruction in the street.”

Whatever political message a poster might have is “completely irrelevant,” said Hancock. “It’s the nature of the poster that comes into consideration. If it’s a poster that’s criticizing government, that will be looked at on its own merits, whether it’s obstructing something or not.”

Start from Zero has had some run-ins with the police, but each time, they have been let off with a warning. “Every time they catch us they let us off because they don’t want to go to the trouble of taking us to the station and doing all of the paperwork,” said Dom. Still, the risk of running into legal trouble is one worth taking, he said, because street art is has “more urgency” than art found in a gallery or on the internet.

“You can express yourself and your anti-government views on Facebook but street art is more direct,” said Ying. “The streets belong to the people.”

This story appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on February 21, 2010.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday February 21 2010at 11:02 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Hong Kong Street Art Goes Political”

  • The ultimate irony of the Tsang poster is that the original Obama “Hope” design was heavily criticized for consciously embracing the overtones of socialist realist propaganda. In two moves it’s now considered a symbol of political liberalism and a means to mock an establishment that’s close to the Chinese Communist Party.

  • There’s another sticker based on the “Hope” design that I began noticing around town this weekend. Donald Tsang (the chief executive, known for his love of bow ties) is shown looking rather clownish, with a giant bow tie, and the word “Hopeless” written below.

  • jon says:

    I am looking for a stencil artist in Hong Kong please.