It's been seen on T-shirts, magazine covers and in shopping mall windows. Graffiti in Hong Kong has moved into the mainstream - everywhere but on the streets. 'You go out to the streets and the walls are clean of graffiti,' said veteran graffiti artist Chan Kwong-yan, who laments the loss of the art form's edge. Although it is illegal, the 33-year-old, who is better known as rap-singer MC Yan, has been expressing himself with graffiti around the streets of Hong Kong and mainland cities for more than 10 years. 'Yes, there are a few underground graffiti artists, but most of them don't understand what they are doing - some of them follow my work and copy my style in the same place I leave my work,' he says. 'And there are people who claim they know graffiti by doing it for commercial products or cultural activities in the community.' Graffiti is part of the hip-hop phenomenon that began among African-Americans in the ghettos of New York City in the early 1970s. The culture focuses on how outcasts try to live out their dreams in the city's dark side. It's about racism, urbanism, struggles and broken families. There are themes on survival, fear, pain, love, dreams, art, freedom, and even God. Devoid of this history and cultural context in Hong Kong and on the mainland, hip-hop has entered mass popular culture as an art form. Far from evoking a rebellious spirit, at Granville Circuit in Tsim Sha Tsui graffiti is daubed on buildings with the owners' approval. The government allows young people - under the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups' supervision - to make graffiti art in Kwai Fong. In Shanghai, a graffiti exhibition was held by internet service providers last month under the title 'Painting a Picture of Our Beautiful Homeland' as part of National Day celebrations. The so-called King of Kowloon, 83-year-old graffiti artist Tsang Tsou-choi, has written the names of his family members with royal titles on public utilities all over Hong Kong for the past 50 years. But his eccentric work is now applauded by the international art world, with some of his works displayed at the prestigious Venice Biennale's 50th International Art Exhibition in 2003. Some was auctioned for $55,000 last year and others were splashed across the latest issue of Benetton's internationally renowned magazine Colors. Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, fine arts associate professor at Chinese University, says graffiti is being 'murdered'. 'Graffiti is, by nature, anti-institution and subversive,' says Professor Chan. 'It is revolutionary and even somehow violent in the sense that it is forced on the public audience. 'The creative art forms of graffiti spring from its nature. For example, spray-cans were used instead of brushes to allow graffiti artists to paint extensively and flee the scene in the shortest time possible. 'Telling graffiti artists what, when and where to paint is like taming a wild tiger and turning it into a pet dog. It takes away its energy and life.' But graffiti artist Jimmy Lam Wing-fai, now a 24-year-old graphic designer, is more amenable to institutionalised - or paid - graffiti. A Form Three graduate, he began his underground exploits at 18, splashing comics and characters on commercial buildings and street signs. 'I did that for the excitement, the risk of being caught, and the challenge of having to finish painting within a few minutes,' he says. 'There is also the satisfaction of my works being seen in public places. It's like, well, when I walked past a building and I found its blank walls too boring, I decided to do something about that. It's nothing about being anti-social or angry.' Lam was later given a free hand to apply his graffiti to commercial purposes, such as window displays and fashion. 'My clients appreciate my art styles and they never interfere with my design,' he says. 'I don't think people should impose a political definition on graffiti art, which is only a platform for artistic expression.' Designer Luke Yeung believes commercial designs can be a way to infiltrate hip-hop culture, a view challenged by Professor Chan, who says the best way to sustain hip-hop culture is by leaving it alone. He says the only way for graffiti art and hip-hop culture to survive in the context of mass culture is through the retention of the 'rebellious spirit of people'. 'I am not saying that everyone should go out and do something illegal, but the tension between sub-culture and the hegemony of legitimate cultures is what makes hip-hop culture thrive,' Professor Chan says.