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

Updated: Mar 18

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.

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)


“The Lennon Walls over the past few months have been scattered across different districts,” Arto says. “It is the ground communication channel for the Hong Kong people to know all about the events. The visual arts, comics, and illustrations are a very powerful, influential, and direct way to raise the concerns of the public. With the Lennon Road, what we’re seeing is a whole brand-new way of expressing this: to stick it on the ground.”


Arto began his weekly comics column with Yahoo! in Hong Kong in 2015 after the start of the Umbrella Movement—the last wave of major protests in the city—so his work has always been political.


His best-known character, Primary School Chick, is a large yellow bird protestor often garbed in a gas mask and a hard hat. In Cantonese, Primary School Chick’s name is a double entendre meaning naïve or childish—and in Arto’s comics, he’s presented as a childlike figure with a “genuine heart” for the city. Primary School Chick acts as an emotional and political symbol for the protestors, reacting with sadness, joy, or anger depending on the week’s events.


With the emergence of protests over issues that have been unsolved since their creation, Arto’s characters have rediscovered their relevance. “The extradition bill was an introduction to the core, unsolved problem in Hong Kong,” he explains. “It revealed the whole weakness of our political structure. To put it simply, the hopelessness expressed by the movement five years ago has still not been settled.”


What’s different this time round, he says, is the unprecedented scale of police brutality. The tone of both Arto’s work and the graphics on the Lennon Walls has become angrier as the situation has escalated. “The violence is bigger than ever, even compared to the 1967 riots. This is a political issue which should not be settled or solved by police suppression, yet the violence they are using has actually angered people more. People elsewhere can see it is not helping us return to a peaceful solution at all.”

A collection of Arto's recent work (Credit: Arto HK)


Local artists taking action


The protests haven’t only galvanised Hong Kong locals into producing their own street art.


They’ve also changed the way local artists approach their usual work. Joanne is one half of All Things Bright and Beautiful (ATBB). Part-webcomic, part-visual diary, ATBB began in 2011 as a means of self-expression for Joanne and her friend Ah Li. However, like Arto’s work, Joanne’s comics have taken on a distinctly political turn since the protests began.


“If you’re brave enough or fast enough, you go out to the frontline and fight. But most people can’t run that fast,” says Joanne. “So a lot of people create art to promote ideas or activities that are going on—it’s the relatively safer thing to do.”

She adds: “My friend and I wanted to do something to help the movement. A few weeks ago, we printed out a whole bunch of posters using the art I drew, and we handed them out at the protests. So while the comics started out personal, the response we’ve seen from people has made us want to use it for a bigger purpose.”


Joanne’s sketches feature many of the defining visual icons of the movement so far. There’s the protestors’ gear and colour scheme—the yellow helmet and the black clothing. But ATBB’s illustrations are also distinctly grounded in the city and its people. They’re brightly coloured, frequently funny, and even cute. Most of all, their comics are able to maintain a sense of joy about Hong Kong—even during the difficult times the city is facing.

Some of Joanne and Ah Li's work (Credit: All Things Bright And Beautiful)


An art 'renaissance' in Hong Kong


Hong Kong has never been the most welcoming city for artists.


While it is home to a number of art galleries where globally famous artists are exhibited regularly, these private commercial spaces are largely off-limits to the local community and artists. The emergence of the Lennon Walls is, then, a sea change.


“What we’ve seen over the past few months is quite stunning for the local art community as well as society as a whole,” explains Rachel Cheung, a Hong Kong native and culture reporter who has covered the protests extensively since their inception. “An artist I spoke to described this as a renaissance. The Lennon Wall is not just an art exhibition space where only art deemed worthy can be displayed to the audience. It’s a space that everyone can use.”


Street art itself was, says Rachel, practically unheard of prior to the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The tragedy is that it has only emerged out of desperation.


“I think the sad thing that people don’t realise is that this sudden creative output is driven by fear—the fear that we may not have this space to speak out in the future,” says Rachel. “This is why everyone is suddenly making use of this space and really treasuring it—because we realise it’s not going to be here for much longer.”


The urgency of this realisation has been compounded by coordinated efforts to remove the installations. The Lennon Walls have not gone unnoticed—or unopposed—by the authorities. ‘Counterattacks’ are frequent; eyewitness accounts and videos show tour buses dropping off groups of Chinese nationalists in the middle of the night, to tear down the artworks or plaster them with Chinese flags.


In one particularly offensive instance, a group covered a Lennon Wall in funeral flowers and portraits of pro-democracy activists and legislators —which, in traditional Chinese culture, amounts to a death curse. (In response, protestors went on to replace these portraits with photos of government leaders).


Following a failed clean-up operation initiated by city legislator Junius Ho which saw Lennon Walls pop back up immediately after being torn down, they have become hotspots of escalating violence. In one such instance, one reporter was hospitalised after being stabbed in the back and the neck.


The Lennon Wall: frontline of protestors' information war with China

Masks of Hong Kong (Credit: Studio Incendo)


Why would someone get stabbed just for making art?


The answer lies in the wider conflict for which the Lennon Walls are but mere flashpoints. They are the frontline of information war between Hong Kong protestors and the authorities—between networked demonstrators using art to get the message out, and China’s gargantuan propaganda machine. The art on the walls is then raw, viral ammunition in a much larger battle for the airwaves.


Since the start of the protests, the Chinese state has been engaged in a well-documented campaign of disinformation and fake news designed to smear and delegitimise pro-democracy protestors. They have repeatedly depicted protestors as cockroaches and foreign agents hellbent on independence in an effort to sideline the four key demands that continue to fuel the protests.


This has taken place both domestically and internationally through state-owned media outlets such as CGTN and China Central Television. When one female medic was infamously blinded by a police beanbag round in August, the latter quickly alleged that she had been blinded by paid protestors—not the police. Protestors responded en masse by covering one eye in solidarity and producing a spate of artworks depicting the woman as a martyr.


The concerted efforts to discredit the protestors can be directly linked to the proliferation of the Lennon Walls, and, critically, their usage online. For the Lennon Walls aren’t just used to win back the streets. The art that appears on them is being used to win support online through social media—specifically, WeChat and Telegram, where huge encrypted group chats emerged at the beginning of the protests to circulate graphics, artworks, instructions, videos, and news with both protestors and the wider world. On the mainland, this is considered a threat.


“We’ve seen the Chinese state media try to counter the artworks that are produced by Hong Kong, and some of it is outrageous,” says Rachel. “Hong Kong has a very small population compared to China. We don’t have the same resources, or a propaganda machine to distribute all these things. But this is perhaps the only thing we can fight them on and win in terms of soft power, because under such a strict political system, there’s just no way for them to be as creative.”


While the Chinese state media has attempted to paint the protestors as pro-independence radicals, for the protestors, the blame still falls squarely on the Hong Kong government. “This is a government that’s focused on its own business and financial interests and political interests and defending itself,” Rachel argues. “It has ignored all the people, which is why you even see the middle class coming out on the streets. They have a good living, but it’s not prosperity that we’re looking for. We’re asking for democracy, we’re asking for justice, we’re asking for freedom - and we’ve seen all those three shrinking in shocking proportions over the past few years.”

'Glory to Hong Kong' - the protestors' anthem, which has been flashmobbed in shopping centres across the city


The fight isn't over


While we can find solace in the small victories and the sheer stamina of the protestors, the endgame is unclear.


Nobody knows if any sense of catharsis or finality lies around the corner; whether the protestors’ demands will be met, or if Hong Kong’s much larger and more powerful neighbour will finally wake up.


Across the world today, there is a sense of unending crisis. All over, the rich and powerful are pulling up the drawbridges. But the fight isn’t over. From Lebanon and Chile to Catalonia and Hong Kong, the seed of something new is growing.

The day will come when the last hand-drawn flier falls from the wall of the Tai Po underpass—how and when is unclear. What is certain is that the messages on the city walls, and the people now united behind them, aren’t going away any time soon.


The Lennon Walls won't last forever, but painstaking efforts to preserve the work on them is already taking place. Head over to the Umbrella Movement Archive to support their work.

Ciarán Daly is the Co-Editor of The Radical Art Review. Reach him at radicalartreview@gmail.com

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The Radical Art Review is a non-profit cooperative platform fuelled purely by people power for those who think art holds the potential for social transformation. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream collectively of a better tomorrow.

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