Writing on the Wall: Hong Kong Artists Campaign for Ai Weiwei

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(Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)

My neighborhood has changed. The street’s sole piece of graffiti — a spray-painted picture of Hello Kitty defecating — has vanished. In its place: a portrait of missing Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.

It’s been more than a month since Ai was seen in mainland China. But, suddenly, he’s everywhere in Hong Kong. I’ve seen his face painted on sidewalks and photocopied on fliers hanging about. Some read “MISSING” in bold, black letters. Others simply ask: ‘Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?’

Well, China, for one. Ai is one of the country’s most outspoken artists, a provocateur whose work is unabashedly, unsubtley political. He was detained by Chinese authorities on April 3 and hasn’t been seen since. He is one of dozens of lawyers and activists who’ve been detained or ‘disappeared’ since unrest in North Africa sparked fear of a Chinese-style Jasmine Revolution.

His status in Hong Kong is more complex. A former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong operates semi-autonomously, enjoying a range of rights but beholden, ultimately, to Beijing. The campaign for Ai has once again tested the limits of the so-called “One Country, Two Systems” model.

On April 23, about 2000 people marched through the city, completely unencumbered, to call for his release.  Later, a group of artists used a technique called ‘flash graffiti’ to briefly project Ai’s image onto the Chinese People’s Liberation Army barracks in Hong Kong. This act of protest solicited an angry response from the Chinese, who, instead of ignoring the stunt, denounced it as illegal.

As NPR’s Louisa Lim details in her excellent piece on the campaign, Hong Kong appears to be taking an unusually hard line on pro-Ai graffiti, despite support from much of the public.

 The campaign could yet lead to a jail term for the young graffiti artist responsible. And that fact has led to fears about the erosion of Hong Kong’s distinct freedoms, which are a legacy of its colonial past under the British.

Despite causing consternation for the authorities, many Hong Kong residents like both the graffiti’s aesthetic and its political message.

“It’s cool,” says passerby Peter Chan. “The graphic is cool, and the presentation of protest against China is cool.”

“It’s all over the place,” says Leonardo Guzman, gesturing left and right. “Before there was graffiti here, there was graffiti there. It’s kind of good.”

But as his words indicate, the immediate official reaction was literally a whitewash.

Crack teams of street cleaners took just three hours to remove or cover up many of the Ai Weiwei stencils sprayed around Victoria Harbor, while other instances of the same graffiti elsewhere were dispatched with similar speed. That’s in stark contrast to other graffiti in Hong Kong, which is often ignored for months, if not years.

The artist who spear-headed the movement, 22-year-old Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine, is reportedly being investigated by a serious crimes squad that is usually reserved for murder and rape.  She faces up to ten years in prison. Tangerine told NPR  she plans to continue the effort and has published her stencil online to encourage others to join her.  “I have to thank the police for drawing attention to this issue,” she joked.

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