“The Lennon Wall,” which was formed as part of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, photographed on October 22, 2014. Courtesy Jimmy Lau.

The Dilemma of “Illegal” Art

Hong Kong

On January 20, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold at auction an exact replica of a work by the French street artist known as Invader. Entitled Alias HK_58 (2014), the two-meter-wide ceramic-tile mosaic depicts cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey from a popular American animated series. It was originally installed by Invader on an exterior wall in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley neighborhood and later removed by local government authorities on unspecified “safety grounds.” The final price paid? HKD 1.96 million.

Alias HK_58 is not the first notable work of art to be whitewashed from Hong Kong’s streets only to return later—and with a significant price tag—at auction. Hong Kong artist Tsang Tsou-choi, better known by his pseudonym, the “King of Kowloon,” covered walls, lampposts and utility boxes across Hong Kong with his unique calligraphy over a 50-year career. Tsang passed away in 2007; today, his works on canvas and paper regularly fetch six-figure sums at auction. Yet most of Tsang’s original street works have been gradually removed by Hong Kong’s real estate developers and Highways Department—the same department that expunged Invader’s so-called illegal artwork. In doing so, it erased an important part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.

Street art often creates a dilemma for government authorities. In many countries, it is illegal in the sense that it is installed without permission on—and may in some cases cause damage to—public or private property. In Hong Kong, for example, ordinances outlawing painting and posting on public property can carry steep fines and punishments of up to three months imprisonment, while doing so on private property can lead to civil damages claims. Often, it is up to private organizations and individuals to take on the protection and preservation of this art.

Hong Kong’s most recent—and largest—outbreak of unsanctioned urban art came in tandem with the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests that occupied key streets, brought the city to a standstill for 75 days and prompted a cultural renaissance in the international business hub. A vast amount of artwork, much of it public, was created in response to the movement: posters, banners, fliers, a series of paintings by local artists Perry Dino and Miso, photography by Martin Witness, monumental works such as Milk’s Umbrella Man sculpture and a patchwork canopy of umbrellas damaged by tear gas and pepper spray created by art students at Hong Kong’s Baptist University. Perhaps most iconic was the “Lennon Wall Hong Kong.” A sprawling ocean of colorful Post-it notes containing messages of support from protesters and visitors, it grew spontaneously along a ten-meter stretch of wall outside government headquarters.

As the protests continued and artwork flourished, concerns were raised over what would happen to the artwork when the demonstrations ended. There was widespread expectation that the government would discard it; many doubted whether the authorities would provide an opportunity to collect and preserve the art prior to cleanup of the protest sites. In response, a number of organizations formed with the aim of conserving the artwork, including the Umbrella Movement Art Preservation Group and also the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective. Through the work of these and other concerned groups, key pieces of artwork were rescued and preserved. Even the entire “Lennon Wall” was photographed and then painstakingly removed, item by item, for archiving.

Sotheby’s has described Invader’s Alias HK_58—the replica of the removed Happy Valley street installation—as a “lone testimony to an ‘invasion’ that is no longer there.” While the Umbrella Movement’s “invasion” of Hong Kong’s streets is also no longer present, the artwork that the movement inspired remains, and will be an important testimony for future generations of Hong Kongers.

At the same time that the Umbrella Movement was unfolding in Hong Kong, protest artwork was cropping up across the globe, in the United States. Ferguson, Missouri, was the site of protests and riots in the aftermath of a local teen’s death by police shooting. Protective plywood installed over storefront windows became a surface for colorful murals by local artists on a mission to inspire positive sentiments and healing in the community. In danger of being discarded after the riots, these artworks were rescued by the Missouri History Museum and the Regional Art Commission, which moved quickly to launch a preservation initiative.

Street art can take many forms. It may be an expression of community sentiment, as in the case of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and in Ferguson, as well as an important part of a city’s cultural heritage, as in the King of Kowloon’s work. Or, like Invader’s practice, it can be an amusing piece of art by a prominent figure that engages a city’s cultural scene in a global dialogue. Above all, street art is democratic. “Not everybody goes or can go to museums or galleries, but everybody walks or drives in the street going through their daily lives,” Invader told the Wall Street Journal at the time of his visit to Hong Kong in February 2014, when the original Alias HK_58 work was installed.

Many governments have found ways to balance the competing interests surrounding street art in ways that enable them to preserve, rather than remove, such works. Several administrations have gone to great efforts to preserve genuine—but nevertheless “illegal”—works by acclaimed British street artist and activist Banksy, whose expressions have sold for upward of USD 1 million. 

The way governments handle this type of illegal art—and whether they can find a stance that respects both art and law—is fast becoming an important barometer of a city’s cultural capital.