At three o’clock on Wednesday morning, the air beneath the Central Mid-Levels Escalator became thick with the fumes of spray paint as a young university student left a message on the escalator’s pillars: “Who’s afraid of Ai Wei Wei?”
Over the past week, the student, nicknamed Chin, has blitzed some of Hong Kong’s most high-profile locations with the message and hand-cut stencil portraits of Ai, the Beijing-based artist and activist who was arrested on April 3rd while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong.
Now Chin is on the run from the Hong Kong police’s Regional Crime Unit, which normally investigates serious crimes like rape and murder. She risks being charged with criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. But she says she remains unbowed.
“It will be worth it if just one person sees what I’ve done and asks themselves, ‘Why should Ai Wei Wei be silenced?’’” she said.
“What I’m doing is not random tagging. I expected there to be an investigation at some point, especially since there is a political message here. If I am arrested, I have trust in the Hong Kong legal system that my case can be heard fairly. In the worst case scenario, I know that I might have to pay a fine and go to jail, and I’m prepared for that.”
Chin launched her graffiti project shortly after she heard about Ai’s arrest. Beijing authorities have said that Ai is being investigated for “economic crimes,” but most observers see his arrest as part of a wave of intimidation against outspoken dissidents and intellectuals. Nearly 40 have disappeared into police custody in recent weeks.
“I’m not very politically sensitive normally, but this really touched some core values — there’s a line that should not be crossed,” said Chin.
Her work has already caused a stir online, attracting a band of supporters that includes Du Nan, a Hong Kong-based mainland dissident who has worked closely with Ai Wei Wei. (“Du Nan” is a pseudonym that he uses for public activities in Hong Kong, so that he can avoid trouble returning to the mainland.) After finding Chin on Facebook, he helped act as a lookout while she worked late at night.
“Her work is incredibly nicely done,” said Du. “Writing graffiti is a great way to honor Ai’s contribution to world of art, and remind people of him. Artists like Chin actually make their own piece out of Ai’s incident, speaking with their own voice, and that is what what Ai Wei Wei appreciates most.”
Activists and lawmakers are raising questions about why the police are pursuing Chin with such vigour when most other graffiti is ignored. “This is a case of selective law enforcement,” James To Sun-kun, the chairman of the Legislative Council’s Security Panel, told the South China Morning Post today. “Next time, police might deploy them to investigate a case of people planting jasmine in the city.”
The director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Law Yuk-kai, also told the Post: “Every day there are so many minor offences reported to the police which are not being handled and so many graffiti drawings in the city are not investigated. It is very clear that the police are under political pressure to pay special attention to the Ai Weiwei drawings.”
Meanwhile, other artists have responded vigorously to Ai’s arrest. Tomorrow, many are expected to gather in front of the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong for a global protest event called 1001 Chairs for Ai Wei.
Kobe Ho, who runs a bookstore and artists’ cooperative in Wan Chai, has created a poster based on a hand-written message that Ai’s mother wrote after he was detained.
“If more and more people do this on the streets, people will realize it’s really a big issue and they might give a second thought about what’s happening,” she said. “We still have freedom of speech in Hong Kong and this is how we can make ourselves heard.”
Another version of the above story was published in the South China Morning Post on April 16, 2011.
Tags: Art Installation, Hong Kong, Politics, Protest, Street Art