Who's a naughty monkey?
Is a cheeky graffiti image appearing around town the work of subversives or a bored artist? Clarence Tsui finds out
THERE'S A RENEGADE running amok across town. Lurking under flyovers or in dark alleys, he's pointing guns, spray cans or his middle finger at either himself or passers-by. He's seen practising kung fu outside the World Trade Centre in Causeway Bay, and squatting alongside bills offering a wide variety of products (bedsits, battered cars, escorts) in a dimly lit passageway off Nathan Road in Yau Ma Tei.
The individual launching this one-man urban guerilla movement calls himself Naughty Monkey, and he's very much a two-dimensional guy. For the gun-toting, Bruce Lee-aping prankster is a stencilled image sprayed on walls by someone dexterous enough to evade the law.
As most of the 'monkeys' - that are actually images of a young, face-painted man - appear in backstreets, few know much about them. People who frequent the site where the first image appeared in May - on a wall next to a small park on Pottinger Street, Central, and, remarkably, just metres from the Central police station - were subtly amused by it, although no one seemed particularly worked up by its presence. There's been little reaction from local stallholders and residents - remarkable considering the monkey is pointing a gun in his mouth. Six months on, the image is still there.
'Hong Kong is quite conservative and it seems like the naughty element is missing - and [the monkey's] not political and not meant to damage property, but to show the naughty spirit is still there in these places,' says Simon Birch, a British-born, Hong Kong-based painter-cum-DJ. 'As far as I understand, it's free art for the public.'
The appearance of Naughty Monkey is the latest twist in the development of graffiti art in Hong Kong. The sale of an art piece featuring the ink-calligraphy-on-walls by Tsang Tsou-choi, the 83-year-old self-styled 'King of Kowloon', who makes 'royal proclamations' about his sovereignty over vast tracts of land in Hong Kong, was seen as major acknowledgment for a form of street culture long derided as merely defacement of public property. The gradual increase in tolerance - if not approval - towards hip-hop and supplementary modes of expression such as graffiti has also made subcultural stars out of the likes of MC Yan, Hong Kong's most vocal advocate and practitioner of hip-hop and street culture. The anarchist aura surrounding Naughty Monkey, however, stands to push local graffiti art to a new level.
Birch, 35, says he 'knows' the person behind Naughty Monkey and that he only speaks on behalf of the graffiti artist behind the images. While talking of these images with much enthusiasm, he is careful to add in turns of phrases to distance himself from the work. So, his explanations of Naughty Monkey are peppered with caveats such as 'I think' and 'I guess', and the wall-sprayer is endlessly referred as 'the artist'.
'Simon doesn't do graffiti,' says a sneering Katie de Tilly, the owner of the upmarket gallery 10 Chancery Lane and Birch's de facto manager. Given Birch's highly figurative aesthetics in painting - reflected by the gritty portraits with which he made his name on the local art scene - he hardly looks like the prime suspect for Naughty Monkey images. De Tilly's disapproval of such forms of street art is more than obvious: as she leaves the gallery to run some errands she tells Birch not to try his hand at it - 'ever'.
Still, Birch bears a close resemblance to Naughty Monkey: both sport a punky hedgehog-like hairdo and dress in T-shirt, loose-fit trousers and trainers. In one of his publicity shots, Birch's face is painted in the style of the legendary Monkey King from the Chinese fable Journey to the West - like the Naughty Monkey figure on the walls.
Anonymity is vital to Naughty Monkey: graffiti, after all, is still illegal in Hong Kong. Not that 'the artist' has remained completely undetected: Birch says there have been several occasions when other people have been in close proximity while a Naughty Monkey image was sprayed on the wall. After all, the locations chosen are usually prominent - one was on a concrete pillar near the Hong Kong Island entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, while another near the World Trade Centre stands in the middle of an area filled with all-night eateries. 'Even if people can see the artist, they don't actually know what it is - they might think it was just someone putting up advertising,' Birch says with a chuckle. 'Well, it is advertising - just that there's no product behind it.'
Naughty Monkey sells the idea of rebellion or, as Birch says, the spirit of 'punk rock' in a city 'where most people live safe lives'. 'From my point of view, Naughty Monkey shares the same spirit with Long Hair or the King of Kowloon,' says Birch, referring to two of Hong Kong's mavericks - the legislator Leung Kwok-hung and Tsang. 'It's kind of saying f*** you, but in a more polite way.'
Wall paintings or scribblings more generous in the use of expletives are not uncommon in the city - a walk around downtrodden public estates reveals a few locals lucid in expressing venom towards particular individuals or social groups. Tagging - the art of signing walls with a word or name identifying the artist - and graffiti is also not unknown. The use of provocative and media-savvy images that engage viewers directly, however, has been a rarity - until Naughty Monkey came along.
Birch is not an advocate of narcissistic street art. 'In my opinion - not that I'm a graffiti artist - tagging is pointless. It's ugly and it's not art,' he says. 'The King of Kowloon is closer to art by printing similar images many times with no profit in mind. He is there just to make a point.
'If you produce a work in a public area, it should be of value, there should be a message and a clear agenda. Making anything without a point is like vandalism - it's like smashing windows with stones.'
Birch's analogy is ironic when one examines the historical roots of contemporary stencil graffiti. This particular form of artistic expression came to prominence as a more sophisticated and non-violent supplement to stone-throwing politics during the left-wing student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. A combination of graffiti, mural art and political sloganeering, the stencils - known as pouchoirs - were used to subvert the superficial, image-driven culture that permeated society. Among the most famous stencil graffiti is the image of a demonstrator flinging not stones, but a bouquet.
Decades later and stencil art is still seen as cutting-edge. The fact that a complete image could be reproduced in just 'two minutes' with basic materials - a spray can and pre-prepared paper cut-outs - makes it ideal for activists to make a point on the run. It's also used to subvert existing images in popular culture - with just a photocopier and a box cutter.
Stencil graffiti has been propelled to the forefront again in recent years, as the anti-globalisation movement took up the art from their predecessors in the 1960s and used similar artistic gestures to mock dominant social values. The form found its star activist in British graffiti artist Banksy, whose work included the Grim Reaper with yellow smiley faces, and also daubing the bottom of the Nelson Column at London's Trafalgar Square with the words 'Designated Riot Area'.
Naughty Monkey comes from the same traditions, according to Birch - who says he knows Banksy as well as many of Britain's subversive graffiti artists. 'I have organised rave parties for a long time and I was p***** off because there was no underground culture in Hong Kong - there are tiny elements like street car racing or rave parties, but most people prefer simple lives with karaoke and Canto-pop,' he says.
Given his working-class leanings, Birch is suitably dismayed by some of the so-called street culture aficionados in Hong Kong - the wealthy 'in crowd' who appropriate hip-hop fashion and gestures while neglecting its background as a form of anti-establishment expression.
'Well, each to their own,' says Birch. 'But hip-hop is about social dissatisfaction - and in Hong Kong people aren't that dissatisfied with society I suppose. In England, people have more things to be angry about - maybe that spirit isn't necessary in Hong Kong.'