In Hong Kong, the ongoing protest movement immortalizes its political action in real time through art. On boarded-up buildings and in public spaces, illustrations and designs depict heavily armed police officers facing off against black-clad protestors with yellow hardhats, umbrellas, and gas masks. Artists disseminate this work anonymously from all over the world on the encrypted messaging app Telegram — the same method organizers use to plot demonstrations, which are decentralized and leaderless. Art and politics are uniquely linked in the city, reinforcing the youth-driven struggle against human rights abuses.
Newly empowered by electoral success, demonstrations now stretch for miles. Police push back with brute force, throwing tear gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets. Officers seriously injure anyone they label as “rioters” and arrest them for decades-long sentences — a residual statute from the British colonial era. As tensions increase, artists actualize these confrontations for audiences worldwide. An illustration that circulated on Telegram even maps out 45 specific incidents since June.
In skirmishes with police, Hongkongers wield street signs to protect themselves. Signs and flags appear sporadically among the crowds, bearing images of the city’s flower — the Bauhinia — as well as the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” The artist Harcourt Romanticist applies this imagery to Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” with a protestor at the center waving a black Bauhinia flag. On the right, a figure in a yellow raincoat faces away from the viewer with hood drawn in homage to the first death of the movement, a banner-hanging protestor who fell off of scaffolding in June. The adaptation quickly went viral and appeared in public displays across the city.
Of the movement’s five original demands — the withdrawal of the extradition bill, an inquiry into police brutality, a rejection of the “rioters” label, amnesty for arrested protestors, and universal suffrage — only the first has been met. In the past month, artists have shifted their attention away from electoral politics, focusing on the toxicity of excess policing. In a recent comic strip, a young girl watches multiple cops beat and violate a young man. She tries to push back against commissioner Chris Tang Ping-Keung’s condoning the arrest of all protestors, to no avail. In the final panel, she dons a mask and hardhat, stating, “From tonight onwards, I will be the new ‘valiant’” — a reference to the frontline demonstrators who directly clash with police.
Hongkongers have developed innovative measures of self-defense, from bonfires to makeshift fortresses. University students build barricades guarded by archers and catapults. The artist Three Hands Monkey links these defenders with incarcerated activists in two striking illustrations. In one, an archer notches an arrow lit by torches from prisoners behind a brick wall. In another, hardhat protestors stand on each other’s shoulders to pass a yellow umbrella over a similar barrier. This is a reference to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a similar wave of protests carried out by students in favor of more transparent elections. Then and now, umbrellas help defend against pepper spray and tear gas when police attempt to disperse crowds.
The 2014 movement also saw the first appearance of “Lennon Walls,” pop-up displays of brightly colored sticky notes with anonymous messages. Chinese-Australian political cartoonist Badiucao recently designed a flag based on the concept — a checkerboard pattern in shades of yellow, orange and pink. In a recent work, he appropriates “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by placing yellow hardhats on the men and replacing the flag with his design. He sets the scene atop a prone Winnie the Pooh (an icon banned on social media in China, allegedly due to critics comically comparing President Xi Jinping to the cartoon character). Badiucao also spreads a message of victory in similar installations around the world. His “We Will Win” poster shows a lone civilian in a hardhat racing on a track against flailing cops. This design currently appears on Lennon Walls at the Berlin Wall Memorial and in Sydney.
Most of these works are copyright-free and designed for sharing in public as well as on social media. Organizing strategies such as “Be water” and “Blossom everywhere” serve as the basis for drawings and illustrations in promotions for demonstrations. Some artists appropriate branded content, and many write messages in English to spread the cause globally. The proliferation of protest art speaks to the ubiquity of unrest in Hong Kong, honoring the courageous sacrifices made by ordinary people.