Calligraphic graffiti in Hong Kong
Photo of Tsang Tsou-choi taken around 1997 (Lau Kin-wai)
It would have been a just another rags-to-riches tale -- except that the protagonist died before he reached true celebrity status.
The late street artist Tsang Tsou-choi, a welfare-receiving pariah, was initially dismissed as crazy for plastering the Kowloon peninsula of Hong Kong with rambling graffiti in which he declared his claims to the ruling class.
He believed that his ancestors had been royalty who were deeded land rights to that part of Hong Kong, and his calligraphic rants spelled out details of his family history, as if to publicly prove that the moniker he'd given himself -- the King of Kowloon -- was true.
He'd scrawl these diatribes on whatever surface he could find, from walls to lamp posts, and then the government would promptly paint over them. It was only in his later years, when he became too ill to leave his nursing home, that he put pen to actual paper. Though he gained some prominence before his death in 2007, including an inclusion in the 2003 Venice Biennale, it's unlikely he was ever completely aware that he was on the road to recognition as a contemporary artist.
An exhibition at Saamlung, an intimate gallery founded just last year, collected 22 of Tsang's works and is showcasing them until 11 February. Among the creative platforms Tsang used to convey his harangues is a map of Hong Kong that he covered in calligraphy, as well as an umbrella and two paper lanterns. The bold, distinctive character for "king" can be seen peppered throughout his works.
Rather than placing the calligraphy in the context of street art and design, "we are showing the works as art and sculpture pieces", said Natasha Whiffin, the gallery's manager.
After browsing the pieces themselves, make sure to peruse the large prints on display that photographer and art critic Lau Kin-wai took of Tsang and his (unintentional) masterpieces. They reveal a shabbily dressed man, hunched over a pair of crutches, painstakingly wielding a brush full of black paint to cover surfaces with text, all in the name of asserting ownership of what he believed was rightfully his.
Today at Saamlung, some of Tsang's works sell for hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars. Perhaps Tsang was right after all -- if not about his bloodline, than about his eventual fame.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel
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