Hong Kong Graffiti Challenges Chinese Artist's Arrest The face of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been spray-painted across Hong Kong in the month since he was detained. Many residents like the graffiti's aesthetic and message, but the campaign could lead to jail time for the graffiti artist. That has raised fears about the erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.
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Hong Kong Graffiti Challenges Chinese Artist's Arrest

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Hong Kong Graffiti Challenges Chinese Artist's Arrest

Hong Kong Graffiti Challenges Chinese Artist's Arrest

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The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of the most prominent people imprisoned in China right now. He was detained one month ago. So far, no charges have been announced.

Chinese reports hint that he's being investigated for tax evasion, among other things. In Hong Kong, images of Ai Weiwei's bearded face have become a political statement - a statement that could lead to a jail term for one young supporter. She's a graffiti artist.

And on a recent trip to Hong Kong, NPR's Louisa Lim met her.

LOUISA LIM: I'm in Lan Kwai Fong, the nightlife capital of Hong Kong, and I'm standing beside a nondescript gray wall. On it is spray-painted a picture of the detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over the words, who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?

This graffiti has been popping up all over Hong Kong, to the consternation of the authorities and the delight of many Hong Kongers.

Mr. PETER CHAN: It's cool. The graphic is cool, and the presentation of protest against China is cool.

Mr. LEONARDO GUZMAN: It's all over the place. I mean, before there was a graffiti here, there was graffiti there. It's kind of good.

LIM: First Peter Chan, then Leonard Guzman. The immediate official reaction was literally a whitewash. Crack teams of street cleaners took just three hours to wash off or cover up most of the Ai Weiwei stencils. These were the work of 22-year-old graffiti artist Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine. She wanted to warn Hong Kong people Ai Weiwei's detention does affect them.

Ms. TANG CHIN (Graffiti Artist): He's, you know, one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the world right now. If he can be arrested, then there's no identity that we can hide behind. Like being a Hong Kong citizen doesn't really help anymore, you know. Being rich or, you know, all kind of social status doesn't help. There's no shield anymore against this very naked power that is trying to engulf us.

LIM: But she's become an inadvertent counterculture icon. Few people know what she looks like, and I've been asked not to disclose where we met. She's not exactly on the run, but a police unit is investigating criminal damage charges against her, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. Ten years for graffiti. Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad which usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.

Tangerine is not fazed.

Ms. CHIN: I have to thank the police for, you know, drawing so much attention to this issue. Even if I have to go into jail, I think that would be a very, very worthy price to pay.

LIM: About two weeks ago, as many as 2,000 people marched in Hong Kong for Ai Weiwei. For many local artists, it was a political awakening of sorts, as they doused themselves in paint, drummed and sang. Many were disturbed by the official reaction to the graffiti.

Mr. KACEY WONG (Artist): For us, I think this is a big, big alarm.

LIM: March organizer Kacey Wong fears it's an act of political censorship, and Hong Kong risks losing its special freedoms if people don't defend them.

Mr. WONG: It's about an issue of morality rather than politic or not. I think when you have a chance to voice out, you must voice out before it's too late.

LIM: So now, teams of people are downloading Tangerine's stencil of the detained artist from the Internet, to do their own graffiti.

One activist has pioneered flash graffiti, flashing projections of a supersized Ai Weiwei onto famous Hong Kong buildings for a split second. His targets included a PLA Army barracks. The PLA says this is a breach of law, and it reserves the right to act. Such reactions offer one answer to the simple question - who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Indeed, it seems many in Hong Kong's corridors of power fear the potency of his image.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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