Claiming Territory with Ink_ a street calligraphy graffiti artist in Hong Kong Favorite 

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Jul 5 1980

Location: 

Hong Kong

A toothless garbageman who once wandered Hong Kong’s streets with dingy bags of ink and brushes tied to his crutches is now the subject of a major retrospective. About 300 calligraphic works by the late Tsang Tsou-choi — who is best known by his self-dubbed title, the King of Kowloon — are showing at the ArtisTree art space in a high glass tower.

Tsang Tsou Choi—or the King of Kowloon, as he would prefer to be remembered—was one of the premier graffiti artists of Hong Kong, his career spanning 50 years until his death from a sudden heart attack at Hong Kong United Hospital on July 15, 2007. There remain in the streets and alleyways of Hong Kong numerous examples of his “calligraphic graffiti.” In contrast to undercover graffiti artists who ply their trade under the cloak of night, Tsang Tsou Choi worked a brave daylight beat for decades, undeterred by wind and rain, leaving behind works ranging from small-scale mailboxes and electrical boxes to entire walls of railway and subway stations. Having persisted in working outside the law despite repeated fines and punishments, then supported by Hong Kong welfare services in his later years, his life story reads like a fairy tale of the graffiti world.

Tsang Tsou Choi—born Tsang Choi on November 12, 1921 in Liantang Village, Guangdong, China—only received two years of formal education. At 16 he moved to Hong Kong to live with an uncle, later receiving citizenship. He worked as a laborer at construction sites and garbage collection facilities until 1980, when his legs were crushed in a work accident. Thereafter, he walked only with the assistance of crutches.

While visiting his hometown at age 35, he discovered records indicating an illustrious family history. His ancestor Zeng Guangzhen had been a senior official at the court of the Zhou dynasty, and possessed extensive land titles in Sau Mau Ping, in eastern Kowloon. Zeng Chaofeng, one generation removed from Zeng Guangzhen, was son-in-law to the Zhou emperor, and had lived for a time in Kowloon. Thus, Tsang Tsou Choi began to view himself as the thirty-fifth generation claimant to the Sau Mau Ping estates, and further extrapolated that the whole of Hong Kong would be the rightful inheritance of the Tsang family had legal matters not been complicated by the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, which had ceded the territory to England.

When faced with loss of land and rights, common people often have no choice but to align themselves to the motion of the great wheels of history, and capitulate to the powers that be. Yet in the midst of the 1960s, when the grip of the British colonial government was exerting maximal force, Tsang Tsou Choi turned to graffiti as a means of peaceful protest, retelling the distinguished history of his ancestors, denouncing the incursions of the British government, and even cursing the name of the queen.

The anti-colonialist sentiments embodied by this innovative approach to asserting his rights were a direct mockery of Hong Kong government claims to power, making use of public spaces to progressively delineate the territory of his personal empire.

The particular nature of Tsang Tsou Choi’s art makes his works inseparable from their background context. On a certain level, separating his graffiti from the situational context to which it refers would negate its inherent meaning.

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