Street artist Vladimir Grankovsky carefully adds the brushstrokes of the banned protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” and his painting of a pro-democracy protester standing in front of a full moon springs to life.

The Ukrainian turns his finished work around for inspection by a crowd of around 20 people watching him work in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district. He goes to work there for some two to three hours on Friday evenings and weekends, scouting for a spot in the old pedestrian zone on Sai Yeung Choi Street South and laying a cloth down before placing more than 20 cans of spray paint next to his small foldable table and chair.

Vladimir Grankovsky’s setup in Mong Kok on January 23, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

People come and go and take photos and videos as he works, using fire, brushes, stencils, a palette knife and other tools in addition to the paint cans to create images on canvas of the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests.

Since his printing business took a downturn a year ago during the coronavirus pandemic, the 30-year-old has been a regular performer in the buzzing commercial district. He told HKFP he had received many requests for protest-related artwork over the past year – half were his original designs, while the rest were based on works by other artists.

Grankovsky’s paintings range from HK$300 to HK$3,500 depending on the size, he also makes canvas prints for his original designs so people can purchase them at a cheaper price.

The artist, who used to travel full-time before settling down in Hong Kong in 2018, described his work as a reminder of the unity that Hongkongers had exhibited during the months-long unrest in 2019. It was also proof that people were “standing up for something,” he said.

Vladimir Grankovsky uses fire to dry the paint. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“I think there are several different ways that you can fight for the ideas of freedom. One of the ways is you can go out on the streets, to take part in a protest. The other way is, there must be some ways to fight within the minds of people,” he said.

He has however had some brushes with the law. In addition to street obstruction complaints, police had warned him against potential violations of the Beijing-imposed national security law, since his paintings often featured the popular protest slogan that was declared “secessionist,” “subversive” and “pro-independence” by the government.

“Police asked me twice to promise not to do such paintings again, and I did not argue with the officers. I don’t want to create any enemies for myself, it is not wise for the long term,” he said.

Vladimir Grankovsky. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The controversial security law enacted on June 30, 2020 outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts. The four offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Despite the government’s ban, Grankovsky told HKFP he did not see “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” as a sensitive or illegal phrase. The artist said he believed it was up to the courts – not the government – to decide whether the slogan was illegal, adding those arrested in connection with its use have yet to be tried.

“I have a feeling that those guys will be acquitted,” he said.

Over 100 people have been arrested under the national security law since its enactment last June. The first to be charged was 24-year-old Tong Ying-kit, who is accused of inciting secession by allegedly ramming a motorcycle displaying a “Liberate Hong Kong” flag into a group of police during a protest last July 1.

Vladimir Grankovsky holding a painting that features the banned slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Asked whether he was concerned about breaching the security law by including the protest slogan in his paintings, Grankovsky compared his work to news photos of people holding a protest flag or banner.

“I read the law completely and in my opinion, if I get arrested for this, I have a high chance of being acquitted, because it’s a painting containing the slogan, it doesn’t necessarily invite violence or subvert the state power.”

Still, Grankovsky took precautions by not posting artwork about the protests on his Instagram account, which has over 13,000 followers. He would only share protest-related paintings in the “Stories” section, which disappear 24 hours after posting.

Paintings about the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests by Vladimir Grankovsky. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Grankovsky said the 2019 protests had changed his impression of Hongkongers, whom he considered “a bit rude” when he first came to the city the year before.

People he met were friendly and displayed unprecedented unity and brotherhood by bringing food, protective gear and other supplies to the demonstrations. He memorised the Cantonese slogans even though he does not speak the language. “Everybody is much more determined about their position and willingness to fight for the future compared to the past.”

Grankovsky was particularly impressed by the colourful message boards that were once a feature of almost all districts in Hong Kong – expressions of the views of ordinary people as opposed to the advertising billboards of large companies or the government.

Vladimir Grankovsky uses fire to dry the paint. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Protesters widely used spray paint to scrawl slogans and phrases on walls. Asked whether he saw this as street art or vandalism, Grankovsky said it depended on whether the person intended to create art or simply express anger. But he admitted there was a fine line between the two.

Grankovsky said people who oppose the protests loathe the spray-painted slogans and see them as “destruction.” Protesters in Hong Kong should learn from the UK-based activist Banksy, whose murals carry subtler meanings.

“It would be much nicer if you could find a way to paint or write something on the wall that everybody, including people who don’t support the protests, would find it smart or catchy. So it would entertain not only the supporters but also the people against it. That would be nice.” 

Kelly Ho

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.