Last June, Hong Kong was rocked by months of large-scale protests over a now-axed extradition bill. Streets descended into chaos as pro-democracy protesters clashed with police, but the demonstrations have since ebbed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

While it appears that calm has been restored, indelible marks left by the unrest remain visible across the city. From paper scraps of torn down posters left on Lennon Walls, to the botched paint jobs to cover up protest slogans, these scenes were visually shocking in the eyes of local artist Giraffe Leung.

A piece from Paper Over the Cracks in Tseung Kwan O. Photo: Giraffe Leung

“If you look around Hong Kong, it is not hard to spot these awful-looking scenes, but people don’t really talk about it,” he told HKFP.

The area that struck Leung the most was Mong Kok – a protest hotspot – where bricks had been dug up during police-protester skirmishes, while slogans were written all over walls and roads.

As a quick fix, the government used concrete to fill the gaps on the brick pavement, and hid familiar slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” with a few paint strokes in a shade that did not match with the original colour of the wall.

In the hope of drawing Hongkongers’ attention to these “half-hearted repairs,” the 27-year-old artist began a collection called Paper Over the Cracks in late February, where he uses bright yellow tapes to “frame” the repair works and gave them an “artwork label.”

Giraffe Leung uses yellow tapes to frame paint works that covered protest slogans on the wall. Photo: Giraffe Leung.

The label details the date, size and medium of the work, and most importantly the artist’s name – the Hong Kong government.

“The repair works are attempts by the government to paper over the cracks, but it was such a half-hearted effort, just like their governance,” Leung said. “The things that the government is cleaning up are only on the surface, they have little intention to solve the underlying issues.”

He added: “I hope when people look at the collection, they will ask themselves: is this normal?”

The artist, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has shared his works on Facebook, Instagram and local discussion forum Lihkg. He also encouraged other citizens to take part in expanding the collection by scouting odd repair works in their own districts.

An art label of a piece in the Paper Over the Cracks collection. Photo: Giraffe Leung.

As of mid-March, the Paper Over the Cracks pieces can be found in more than ten areas in Hong Kong, some even morphed into “mini-exhibitions” including in Tai Koo and Tseung Kwan O. With the involvement of other citizens, there have been variations in the artworks, which Leung gladly welcomed.

“Some people used other colours of tapes, while some used spray paint to draw the frames. I enjoy seeing people coming up with different ways to enhance the collection,” he said.

Leung admitted not everyone would appreciate the collection – many of his works had been taken down, and then put back up. He said he didn’t mind those actions, as he saw it as an opportunity to interact with his audience.

A smeared protest slogan and torn down posters in frame. Photo: Giraffe Leung.

“There has been a saying among protesters – ‘you tear one poster down, we stick up 100 more’ – this is essentially what I’ve been doing,” Leung said.

Long before the inception of Paper Over the Cracks, Leung has been using his artistic talent to document and show support for the pro-democracy movement. On June 9th last year, Leung brought his sketchbook to paint the sea of people that took part in Hong Kong’s million-strong march, in opposition to the proposed legal amendment which would have allowed fugitive transfers to mainland China.

Looking back on how the movement has transformed throughout nine months, Leung said the intention and message behind his artwork have become different as well.

“At first, my work highlighted the passion of the movement. I, too, thought our demands could be achieved with one or two big marches,” he said. “But as the movement dragged on, and now seems to have tailed off because of the epidemic, I hope my work can remind people of the importance of the movement.”

While his latest street art collection has attracted media attention, Leung has been well known for using 20-cent coins to make stunning art pieces. In September last year, the artist displayed his collection Coins – Memories of Hong Kong at La Galerie Paris 1839 – a gallery in Central.

Leung explained his work and the medium he uses often reflect on social phenomena. The use of coins was inspired by the rise of digital currency, while in another collection, the use of leaves conveyed the loss of rural scenery under rapid urban development.

He said that art pieces in these collections would take months to make, which is very different from those in Paper Over the Cracks.

“What I like about street art is it narrows the distance between the art piece and its audience. Compared with the work I spent two months to make, the Paper Over the Cracks pieces would be completed in less than two hours, but may have a much more profound impact on society,” he said.

As the artist continued to explore different forms of artistic expression, in his latest experiment, Leung gathered a group of friends to stand on the street and stare at the “scars of the protests.” He hopes by doing so, other passers-by would be intrigued to stop by and find out what they were looking at, and reflect on what has happened in the city.

“It’s interesting that when artists make art about social issues, they often find themselves standing on the opposite side to those in power. There must be [some] hindrance in what I’m trying to do, but with more experiments, I think it will work,” he said.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.