11:33am

Wed May 4, 2011
Asia

Hong Kong Graffiti Challenges Chinese Artist's Arrest

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:52 am

The bearded face of the detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is spray-painted on a nondescript gray wall overlooking the steep lanes of Hong Kong's nightlife capital, Lan Kwai Fong.

Given his real-life circumstances — summarily disappeared at the hands of the Chinese authorities with no charges yet laid — the furrowed forehead and hooded, tired eyes of the image now seem a representation of suffering. Underneath his face is one simple question, "Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?"

This graffiti, appearing all over Hong Kong, has become a political statement, more than a month after the world-famous artist was detained by the authorities at Beijing airport. 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.

Graffiti Artist: A Counterculture Icon

This campaign is the work of 22-year-old graffiti artist Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine, whose aim is to warn Hong Kong people that Ai Weiwei's detention does affect them.

"He's one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the world right now," she explains. "And if he can be arrested, then there's no identity we can hide behind: Being a Hong Kong citizen doesn't help anymore; being rich or social status doesn't help. There's no shield any more against this very naked power that's trying to engulf us."

Tangerine's graffiti campaign has turned her into an inadvertent counterculture icon. Few people know what she looks like. She's not exactly on the run, but a police unit is investigating criminal damage charges against her, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

Such a stiff sentence for graffiti is extremely unusual, especially since a lesser offense of "graffiti" exists, which carries a maximum penalty of a fine and three months' imprisonment. Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad that usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.

Tangerine's unusual treatment unleashed a furor among Hong Kong's outspoken press. But she is unfazed, retorting, "I have to thank the police for drawing so much attention to this issue. Even if I have to go to jail, I think that would be a very, very worth it price to pay."

'An Issue Of Morality Rather Than Politics'

"For us, this is a big, big alarm," says local artist Kacey Wong, founder of a new concern group called Art Citizen. He believes recent events are galvanizing and politicizing local artists, who until now have lived in "a bubble."

About 2,000 of their number marched through Hong Kong's streets for Ai Weiwei on April 23. Some doused themselves in paint and others drummed, while Wong made his own slyly subversive statement, sitting on the back of a 6-foot-tall homemade Grass Mud Horse, an animal that bears some resemblance to an alpaca.

In his hand, Wong waved a photograph of a naked Ai Weiwei mounted atop his own Grass Mud Horse. This mythical animal is a political symbol of opposition to government censorship among Chinese Internet users. Its name sounds identical to a particularly obscene profanity, so it is used by netizens to circumvent official censors.

Now Wong fears that political censorship could be spreading to Hong Kong, which he worries could lose its special freedoms if people don't defend them.

"It's an issue of morality rather than politics," says Wong. "I think when you have a chance to voice out, you must voice out before it's too late."

And it appears the artistic community at least is paying heed. Now teams of people are downloading Tangerine's stencil of the detained artist from the Internet, to take on the work of spray-painting it around Hong Kong.

One art activist who calls himself Cpak Ming has even pioneered "flash graffiti": flashing projections of a supersized Ai Weiwei onto famous Hong Kong buildings for a split second.

His targets included a People's Liberation Army barracks. The PLA says this is a breach of law, and it reserves the right to act. Ming declined an interview with NPR, saying, "I just want to continue my work."

But the simple question the graffiti poses is, "Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?" And the heavy-handed reactions of Hong Kong authorities do offer one answer: It seems many in Hong Kong's corridors of power fear the potency of his image.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of the most prominent people imprisoned in China right now. He was detained one month ago. So far, no charges have been announced.

Chinese reports hint that he's being investigated for tax evasion, among other things. In Hong Kong, images of Ai Weiwei's bearded face have become a political statement - a statement that could lead to a jail term for one young supporter. She's a graffiti artist.

And on a recent trip to Hong Kong, NPR's Louisa Lim met her.

LOUISA LIM: I'm in Lan Kwai Fong, the nightlife capital of Hong Kong, and I'm standing beside a nondescript gray wall. On it is spray-painted a picture of the detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over the words, who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?

This graffiti has been popping up all over Hong Kong, to the consternation of the authorities and the delight of many Hong Kongers.

Mr. PETER CHAN: It's cool. The graphic is cool, and the presentation of protest against China is cool.

Mr. LEONARDO GUZMAN: It's all over the place. I mean, before there was a graffiti here, there was graffiti there. It's kind of good.

LIM: First Peter Chan, then Leonard Guzman. The immediate official reaction was literally a whitewash. Crack teams of street cleaners took just three hours to wash off or cover up most of the Ai Weiwei stencils. These were the work of 22-year-old graffiti artist Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine. She wanted to warn Hong Kong people Ai Weiwei's detention does affect them.

Ms. TANG CHIN (Graffiti Artist): He's, you know, one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the world right now. If he can be arrested, then there's no identity that we can hide behind. Like being a Hong Kong citizen doesn't really help anymore, you know. Being rich or, you know, all kind of social status doesn't help. There's no shield anymore against this very naked power that is trying to engulf us.

LIM: But she's become an inadvertent counterculture icon. Few people know what she looks like, and I've been asked not to disclose where we met. She's not exactly on the run, but a police unit is investigating criminal damage charges against her, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. Ten years for graffiti. Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad which usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.

Tangerine is not fazed.

Ms. CHIN: I have to thank the police for, you know, drawing so much attention to this issue. Even if I have to go into jail, I think that would be a very, very worthy price to pay.

LIM: About two weeks ago, as many as 2,000 people marched in Hong Kong for Ai Weiwei. For many local artists, it was a political awakening of sorts, as they doused themselves in paint, drummed and sang. Many were disturbed by the official reaction to the graffiti.

Mr. KACEY WONG (Artist): For us, I think this is a big, big alarm.

LIM: March organizer Kacey Wong fears it's an act of political censorship, and Hong Kong risks losing its special freedoms if people don't defend them.

Mr. WONG: It's about an issue of morality rather than politic or not. I think when you have a chance to voice out, you must voice out before it's too late.

LIM: So now, teams of people are downloading Tangerine's stencil of the detained artist from the Internet, to do their own graffiti.

One activist has pioneered flash graffiti, flashing projections of a supersized Ai Weiwei onto famous Hong Kong buildings for a split second. His targets included a PLA Army barracks. The PLA says this is a breach of law, and it reserves the right to act. Such reactions offer one answer to the simple question - who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Indeed, it seems many in Hong Kong's corridors of power fear the potency of his image.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.