EVERY DAY, STREAMS of visitors pay to see the Venice Biennale's 50th International Art Exhibition in the Italian port's beautiful, centuries-old Arsenale. The exhibition, one of the planet's top shows, features works by world-famous artists such as the Italian master Michelangelo Pistoletto, who received this year's Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement; the award-winning Swiss video-installation artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss and the renowned Oliver Payne and Nick Relph from London. And Hong Kong's Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the graffiti artist 'The King of Kowloon'. Forty photographs and a video of Tsang's graffiti are on show until November 2 at the exhibition, Zone Of Urgency, which features the work of 40 inventive artists chosen by French-based mainland curator Hou Hanru. 'I found his art very important,' says Hou. 'He is not a conventional artist, he doesn't think of himself as an artist, he doesn't mind art style or language, and he uses the city to claim existence. It is very inventive and moving.' But for Tsang, 82, it is a bitter irony. Back in his homeland, his words are disappearing fast - the government is determined to wipe every trace of his anti-establishment 'art' from the streets - and Tsang, whose injured knees can no longer hold up his body, is too ill to continue his work. He is also about to give up his public-housing flat in Kwun Tong to live in a government-subsidised home for the elderly. A Social Welfare Department case worker who is helping him to find a home says he will live in four- to six-person rooms and won't be able to freely go out and write. 'I am poor. I have been a king for over 80 years. I can't walk and haven't gone out to write words for more than two months,' says Tsang, who sits inside the rusting gate of his tiny flat. For days the silver-haired man with grey nails and unwashed clothes hasn't left his fly-ridden home, where medicine boxes and rubbish are scattered on the floor and rotten oranges and cups of mouldy tea are strewn among his pile of tatty laundry. Tsang now writes only on paper and attaches his work to the walls. The contrast between the Venice Biennale - to which Hong Kong has made its own separate contribution as a city - and Tsang's life in the SAR illuminates a decade-long debate on whether his raw, spontaneous graffiti is art and worth preserving. Time is running out for Tsang's words as his remaining works are scubbed away. Although his scribbled rants filled with broken sentences are hard to understand, Tsang's words are attacks on the government which he claims snatched land from his clan which lived in Kowloon thousands of years ago. For 50 years Tsang daubed whatever he wanted on the city's post-office and electricity companies' boxes, pavement concrete, and flyover pillars. He wrote the names of his ancestors, deceased and living relatives, family members, places in Kowloon and even fictitious places, signed with the enlarged words 'King of Kowloon', so-called because of his ancestral claim to the peninsula. Born in a village in Guangdong, Tsang came to Hong Kong when he was 16. At 35 he married a maid who gave him eight children (three of whom later died). They lived in Sau Mau Ping but six years ago his wife and children moved to Tseung Kwan O, keeping their address secret, but bringing food weekly to Tsang at his tiny flat in the Tsui Ping Estate, where he lived on a $3,195 monthly social security payment. For many years, as Tsang's graffiti spread, the author was rumoured to be a madman who lived in a cave on Castle Peak Road. The secret that he was a cleaner at a rubbish-collection station was exposed in 1992 by art-critic Lau Kin-wai, who wrote about him in his art columns in Chinese-language newspapers. In 1997 Lau braved controversy to exhibit the graffiti at the Arts Centre, and overnight, with wide media coverage, Tsang became a symbol of Hong Kong art. Interest in him was stirred largely by people's search for Hong Kong's cultural identity during the handover, according to David Clark, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of fine arts. Clark, who has studied Tsang's graffiti, believes it is as much about remembering his family after being displaced. But he says that being seen as an anti-establishment symbol with a photogenic smile, Tsang was able to become popular. Suddenly the artist was seen everywhere in Hong Kong: in TV adverts, a documentary and a photographic exhibition. Fashion designer William Tang Tat-chi used his words on dresses; Louis Vuitton featured him in a handbag advertisement, and director Fruit Chan Kuo celebrated him in Hollywood Hong Kong. Lau had sparked a new round in the age-old debate: what is art? Lau says Tsang is a genuine artist; on spiritual and calligraphic levels, and adds that the 'King' expresses the 'feeling of loneliness and sense of self-respect of a figure standing on the margin of society, culture and family'. He also says Tsang's characters are much better than most trained calligraphers' - saying they are unintentional, natural and have an air of naivety, while the big structures with well-balanced words were pleasing to the eye. The fact they are graffiti doesn't devalue their quality, says Lau. 'You may say his words are illegal, but he represents the fight of a minority to reality. He doesn't follow the academic way of calligraphy but found his own expression.' Many artists work for the creation of 'art', but Tsang daubed from 'an urge from his inner self', Lau says, citing how, despite being repeatedly arrested by police and once sent to a mental hospital, he refused to stop writing. Hou agrees, saying: 'He has been doing it for 50 years and has formed an individual universe; many artists can't do it even though it was their dream.' By claiming to be the 'King of Kowloon', Tsang wrote an alternative history of Hong Kong, adds Hou, who, along with Lau, urges the government to keep his art on the streets. But the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has a policy of washing off any graffiti on sight. 'Words or signs painted by mischievous or mentally unbalanced persons will be obliterated in the same way,' a spokeswoman says, adding that it won't keep Tsang's work as 'graffiti is against the law and affects the city's look'. The Hong Kong Museum of Art is similarly dismissive of Tsang's art and says it won't collect it. 'His words are marginal art and controversial,' says the museum's chief curator, Christina Chu Kam-lun. 'Our advisers are divided, some say it is an expression of modern culture, some reject it saying its artistic level is low. Under our policy, we can't collect any controversial art. We have talked about his art for years, but we haven't got a consensus yet.' Chu states that if one of the advisers - the museum refuses to disclose the actual number - objects to the collection, then it cannot be collected. The Venice Biennale's choice is only an individual preference by the curator, she adds pointedly. There are other detractors too. 'Both artists and mentally disabled people are persistent in repeating something for decades,' says Lui Chun-kwong, assistant professor of the department of fine arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 'but the difference is an artist did it by intention of creating art, but Tsang doesn't realise his words are art and has no aim of refinement and no depth.' Also, recognising graffiti could encourage vandalism. Lau argues art is not defined by the recognition of its creator, adding that it was long existed in the west to include mental patients' works. Tsang doesn't seem to care. His words are being wiped out and his Kowloon kingdom will soon be gone, but all he frets about is finding a home and food. 'I don't care if they think it is art or not. I don't think it is art, it is king's writings, it is my complaints against the government,' he says.