A Hong Kong man who tagged the word “freedom” across Hong Kong’s streets has pleaded guilty to criminal damage.

freedom graffiti
Graffiti showing the Chinese characters for the word “freedom.” Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chan King-fai, an artist, appeared at Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts on Friday for the first time since his arrest nine months ago. The 40-year-old was arrested in February on suspicion of tagging structures and public facilities including buildings, shops, fuse boxes and bridges across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories between January and February.

The graffiti involved the Chinese characters for “freedom” with dollar signs. The tag was spotted in areas including Quarry Bay, Mong Kok and Fo Tan.

According to The Witness, Chan admitted under police caution that the declining economy took a hit on his income and savings, causing him to feel financial pressure. The graffiti was a form of venting his emotions, he said, adding that the tag expressed the importance of financial freedom.

Kowloon City Magistrates' Courts
Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chan’s lawyer pleaded for a lighter sentence for the artist, asking the court to consider that Chan had cooperated with law enforcement and promised not to offend again.

Magistrate Peter Yu said that Chan did not only tag public property, but also private vehicles.

“Did you think about how other people would feel when you did this?” Yu said, adding that not everything could be done in the name of art.

Yu also said he would not comment on whether graffiti was considered art, but ordered Chan to pay HK$26,500 as compensation.

freedom graffiti
Graffiti showing the Chinese characters for the word “freedom.”

The magistrate said he took into account that Chan’s guilty plea and remorse into account, and sought a probation order and community service reports to assess the possibility of alternative forms of punishment.

But Yu said all types of penalties were on the table, including imprisonment. He will deliver the sentence on December 7, and Chan will continue to be released on bail in the meantime.

Criminal damage is punishable by up to 10 years in jail, but cases heard at the magistrate court – Hong Kong’s lowest court – see a maximum of two years imprisonment for a single offence.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.