The Street Art Beat: Hong Kong Graffiti by Plumbers and Dissidents
While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the worlds largest military force—have been in Hong Kong since 1997, their presence has been generally innocuous. That is, an anonymous artist, Cpak Ming, decide to project the words “Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei” onto the PLA barracks in April. Along with a portrait of Ai Weiwei, the projected image lasted only mere seconds and left no trace, but it was certainly enough to rouse the sleeping Communist dragon out of its nest in this mostly autonomous region. A PLA spokesman stated, “No one can paint or project pictures and images onto the outer wall of the barracks with the garrison’s permission. Such an offense is a breach of Hong Kong law. The PLA reserve its legal rights,” Later, two members of Hong Kong’s radical pro-democracy party (League of Social Democrats) were detained after they were caught spray painting graffiti of the projection at a small rally.
Despite this heavy-handed reaction to these particular images, however, most graffiti in Hong Kong is left untouched for months, even years.
There is a wide range of artists who work and who have worked in Hong Kong. Hong Kong certainly has its share of notable, western-imported, bright, colorful graffiti, artists, but for this post I’d like to focus on artists who take a more local approach to street art, using calligraphy instead of spray paint.
One such artist is the “King of Kowloon“, or Tsang Tsou Choi, a Hong Kong native who regularly defaced electricity junction boxes and walls with his calligraphy until his death in 2007. He worked into his 80s, a crippled, often shirtless old man on crutches; disowned by his family and considered insane, he never saw his own work as art – his words were often obscene and included criticisms of Queen Elizabeth – yet his admirers call him an cultural icon of Hong Kong. He’s had work exhibited at the Venice Biennale (2003) and sold at Sotheby’s, albeit posthumously. Despite his fame, he was detained with relative regularity during his lifetime and often had his work effaced. Now his public works are all but gone, with only a few conserved, including one at Tsim Sha Tsui’s ferry pier.
(via sea-cow’s Flickr)
In a NY Times article, an artist and curator remembers an encounter with the “King of Kowloon”:
“He was working at a busy intersection and the crowd around him was so great that I didn’t even see him at first… There was this shirtless old man, sitting on a trash can, painting. I stood there transfixed for an hour, but he didn’t notice me until he ran out of ink and started hollering for more. He never said please. He was the king, and kings don’t have to say ‘please’ to their subjects.”
And then there’s this second artist who has flown largely under the radar – in fact, those of you who live in Hong Kong have definitely seen his works, though perhaps you may not have thought of it as artwork at all.
The artist in question is a plumber, and his graffiti is simply advertisement for his plumbing. His words read “tong kui tso hau” (unclogs drains, repairs pipes), and he signs off with “Kui Wong” (the Plumber King). CNNGo did a feature on this ‘artist’ last December, and though they made “Plumber King” into a clear reference to “King of Kowloon”, I am suspicious about whether or not Kui Wong sees himself that way.
Kui Wong is one of several artists who also advertise their services on the walls of Hong Kong. You can see in the photo above that there is another advertisement painted on the wall, in red. Though often overlooked, this form of advertising is no doubt a dying art, a vestige of old Hong Kong. Next time you’re out and about in the city, stop and take a look – and maybe take down his number. Everyone needs a plumber at some point.
Stay tuned for part two of this Hong Kong series, as we turn our attention to artists who employ western graffiti styles!
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TAGS: Ai Weiwei • Graffiti • Hong Kong • King of Kowloon • Plumber King • street art
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