top of page

“Add Oil!”: Street Art On The Hong Kong Frontlines

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

by Ciaran Daly

"This sudden creative output is driven by fear—the fear that we may not have this space to speak out in the future."

(Credit: Studio Incendo)

The streets of Hong Kong have always moved quickly—and for the last six months, they’ve accelerated.

You might already know why. In mid-June, the largest protests in Hong Kong’s history began over a proposed law which would allow the Chinese government to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland.

A heavy-handed police response saw these protests escalate—and rapidly. What started as a single-issue protest has boiled over into a full-scale revolt against the police, the Hong Kong government, as well as encroaching Chinese influence over civic life. And it’s making a dent. Three weeks ago, Hong Kong’s economy—a bastion of neoliberalism and international free trade in the Pacific—officially entered recession.

‘The movement’—which has no formal name or organisation—is still fighting to secure all five of its key demands following the withdrawal of the extradition bill: an official inquiry into police brutality; amnesty for arrested protestors; a retraction of the classification of protestors as ‘rioters’; and, critically, universal suffrage for both the appointed Chief Executive and the Legislative Council.

However, the movement is still nothing more than the sum of Hong Kong citizens. They’re not just protesting a range of issues that have been quietly bubbling beneath the surface for many years—issues such as housing, democracy, and the city's relationship with China. They’re fighting for their survival.

At the time of writing, hundreds of protestors—almost exclusively young students—are under siege on the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Heavily armed police have blocked all entrances and exits to the campus and are threatening to use live ammunition unless the protestors surrender. Some protestors have taken up bows and arrows; some are building barricades. Others have abseiled off of buildings and escaped by motorbike or through the sewers. Most are trapped. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has ruled that the Hong Kong legislature does not have the authority to rule on the constitutionality of its actions - effectively rescinding the rule of law and Hong Kong's independent judiciary.

By the time you read this, things will have already moved on. Making sense of these rapidly-changing, decentralised protests is no easy feat—not least for a Western writer whose intervention would likely be both unwelcome and inaccurate. But beyond the fight for the streets, there’s another battle raging: for hearts and minds. It’s one that the protestors, thanks to the power of art, are winning.

A photograph of the Tai Po Lennon Wall. A busy underpass is filled with people as well as fliers, posters, and banners.
The Tai Po Lennon Tunnel (Credit: Studio Incendo)

Enter the Lennon Tunnel

In a busy underpass outside Tai Po Market in northern Hong Kong, thousands of sheets of paper line the tunnel walls.

This street canvas is comprised of flyers, artworks, sketches, and comics, providing an up-to-the-minute insight into what’s next for the protests. The works provide citizens with safety information, meeting points for protestors, and a creative outlet for their frustrations.

This living diary of the protests is the largest of many so-called Lennon Walls. These temporary public art spaces originate in the Admiralty district during the 2014 Umbrella movement, where the first Lennon Wall was installed. Since this year’s protests began, they’ve sprouted up all over a city not exactly known for its public space.

But the Lennon Walls are also a battleground. These walls and pavements, explains Arto, a prominent local artist and political cartoonist for Yahoo! News, are “at the frontline of the communication and information war in Hong Kong."

It’s around 1AM, and Arto and his wife—our acting translator—have returned home from Victoria Park in the Tin Hau district of Hong Kong, where the first so-called ‘Lennon Road’ has just appeared. It stretches all the way from the park along the harbour to Admiralty—a distance of around 1.8 miles—covering walls, pavements, and signage in posters, counterpropaganda, and artwork.

(Credit: Studio Incendo)