Protests that go up against the wall

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am

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.

In the past year, Hong Kong's street artists have left their mark with posters, stickers and stencil graffiti attacking some of the city's prominent politicians and business people.

The most recent example is a poster of Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, modelled on US President Barack Obama's now-legendary 'Hope' campaign poster. It depicts the 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 the local street art group 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 about Hong Kong's growing wealth gap. Tang's well-publicised support for keeping functional constituencies 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 respond 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 They're very outdated in the way they see us.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. The Tang poster marked the crew's first attempt at an explicitly political message.

'I'm actually not too familiar with politics,' said Dom, 25. 'But this past year we felt we needed to do more about it, with [the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on] June 4 and the express rail [link to Guangzhou].'

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. They include Graphic Airlines, a crew known primarily for its light-hearted renditions of chubby-faced cartoon characters. Though none of its work makes overt political statements, some of it addresses social issues in the city, like the high cost of housing.

'We want to have more of a message, to say something about society and 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 4, when it began sticking up its posters around Causeway Bay. One was an illustration of the row of tanks that was famously stopped by a single pedestrian. '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 group's four members.

They were especially incensed by Donald Tsang's suggestion, shortly before June 4, that the majority of Hongkongers were willing to overlook the Tiananmen crackdown in light of China's economic development since 1989. That inspired a poster in which Tsang points angrily at passers-by under a hammer and sickle and a Chinese inscription that translates as: 'I represent your hair.' The Chinese word for hair sounds like Mao, referring to Mao Zedong.

Another poster is a portrait of tycoon Li Ka-shing with the inscription 'The people serve me,' a play on a famous Mao Zedong propaganda poster that reads: 'I serve the people.' Another of the group's artists, 21-year-old Ying, said: 'We're not against the government or the establishment per se, but the make-up of the government right now is unjust. There are 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 group 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 areas 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 spray-painted - 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.'

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 has 'more urgency' than art found in a gallery or on the internet. Ying said: 'You can express yourself and your anti-government views on Facebook, but street art is more direct. The streets belong to the people.'