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Graffiti artists risk breaking National Security Law

A graffiti of three figures wearing yellow helmets has been outside Glorious Fast Food restaurant at Sheung Wan since 1998.  It’s the work of a visiting French graffiti artist, Catherine Grossrieder. 

The tiny eatery on Ladder Street belongs to Mrs. Cheng’s family. 

“She said the outside of our restaurant was too plain, so she wanted to draw something on the sliding door and the wall,” Cheng said.

“There happened to be a group of construction workers sitting on the steps and eating, which inspired her,” she explained.

The wall outside Glorious Fast Food Restaurant in Sheung Wan as shown on their Facebook account on November 14, 2016.

But in 2019, the yellow helmet became a symbol of  protest. The Home Affairs Department received a bunch of complaints about the artwork. So last month, the Chengs painted over the graffiti.

“The office warned us that there was a risk that the images could be perceived as violating the National Security Law,” said Cheng. “But they didn’t specify which articles might be breached.”

Cheng’s family painted over the images with yellow helmets “at their own will”, according to the Central and Western District Office under the Home Affairs Department.
Large murals outside residential buildings in Sheung Wan. Graffiti has integrated into the city lives in Hong Kong.

Graffitis are common on the streets of Hong Kong. But the Summary Offences Ordinance doesn’t allow writing upon, soiling, defacing or marking any building without the owner’s consent.

The calligraphy graffiti from the late Tsang Tsou-choi, advertising  “the king of plumbers” can still be spotted in many places, ranging from lamposts, utility boxes, pillars, pavements, building walls to occasionally cars.

Graffiti from “the king of plumber” has been painted down since 50 years ago, and is still commonly seen today.

“Graffiti is a good way to express emotions and appeal because it is anonymous,” said Mr Wee, a Hong Kong graffiti artist who has more than 6000 followers on Instagram. “Some graffiti is written with the expectation that it will be scrubbed.”

The Central and Western District Office under the Home Affairs Department has removed about 150 graffiti, especially those with explicit political slogans, since the social movement in Hong Kong three years ago.

The slogan of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” can still be spotted along the street.

“We can use fewer and fewer words and images, and more and more works are scrubbed out,”  said Wee. “It’s a pity for our society and culture that governments and people become more and more sensitive to certain art.”

“We don’t know where the redline is, but what we know is art is not a crime, ” Wee said.

James Chou, a regular of Glorious Fast Food restaurant, said one day he suddenly found that the graffiti on the outside of the wall had been painted over.

“Only after asking the waitress did I find out what was going on. I had never associated that graffiti with the incitement of Hong Kong independence,” the 31-year-old added.

James said he can understand that obvious reactionary remarks or graffiti should be banned, but graffiti that is more about artistic creation with less obvious metaphors should not be cancelled after random speculation.

A large mural near the Glory fast food restaurant. Yellow is widely used in murals at Sheung Wan.

Ella Sun, 24, a graffiti lover, said graffiti displayed on urban streets has unique public attributes. 

“If you just paint on paper and hang it at home, no one will care what you paint, but if you use the wall in a public area as your canvas, you have to consider the feelings of all viewers,” Sun added.

“It is understandable that graffiti that suggests pornography and violence is erased, so why can't graffiti that is provocative be erased especially in this sensitive period after the protest in 2019? ” she asked.

How to determine if a piece of graffiti may be politically sensitive and needs to be removed is still unclear. The Home Affairs Department did not respond directly to The Young Reporter’s question on this.  

According to a non-profit arts organisation HKwalls, in all their graffiti cases, they need to have the artist and the design of the artwork approved by the government in advance. 

“For example, we made proposals to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and have painted a wall in one of their parks in Wong Chuk Hang and another in Sai Kung,” said Jason Dembski, a Co-Founder of  HKwalls, a non-profit arts organisation. “There are no areas where anyone can paint anytime for the public,” Dembski said.

“We understand all organisations have to curate and work within the law, but I want to hear the government’s point of view as to what the perimeters are,” said Maria Wong, the managing director of HKwalls.




《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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