Brick Lane Graffiti: who owns the public space?

Reflection on the Ownership of public space – physical or intangible

A procedural depiction of a futuristic world is characterised by a sophisticated metropolis, with a jungle of high-risers and floating cars. Cities are regarded as the pinnacles of civilisations – from Jericho to Manhattan – displaying the glory of our collective effort and wisdom. For some, however, cities are synonymous for crime and danger, where deceit and lies crouch; for some, cities are apathetic, every one looks after no more than themselves.

Moving from one overpopulated city to another, it wasn’t until awhile ago that I got the chance to visit Brick Lane. With no exception, I too was stunned by the vast display of creativity in the form of street graffiti. This kind of artistic expression is almost never seen in Hong Kong, where the art form is largely associated with outlaws and delinquents. My friendly tour guide explained that the graffiti at Brick Lane is tightly regulated – art pieces are regularly brushed off the walls and replaced by others’ work, popular ones might get a 2-year airtime. Perhaps this is how “Graffiti at Brick Lane” differentiated itself from “malicious defacement of public property” to one of the most popular tourist hotspots in London.

Graffiti in Hanbury Street, accessed via
Graffiti on Hanbury Street, accessed via

“Regulated graffiti”, I have to applaud the tenacity of the governing party’s attempt to “valorise” the art form. By putting order in disorder, graffiti at Brick Lane became a formal route of artistic expression; one can proudly sign one’s name next to their work, without having to worry about the legal consequences. Having one’s work displayed at Brick Lane became a sought-after honour. Your artwork’s intended audience expands from local bobs to tourists around the world. Comparing to unregulated graffiti, or just “normal graffiti”, rules and regulations freed one’s work from the laws of the jungle: your work won’t be vandalised or painted over just because you’ve painted on the wrong side of the road, or that you’ve taken a “better” spot. Popularity becomes a fair estimation of how long one’s work should stay up, reducing the risk of a horrible work occupying the public space.

However, it wouldn’t take one too long to smell the irony of such practice. One could go as far as saying “regulated graffiti” is an oxymoron. Graffiti emerged as an anti-establishment form of public art. With regulation, with no exception, comes censorship. This compromised version of graffiti sold their soul to buy airtime and public acceptance.

Graffiti at Parkland Walk, North London, photo taken 2020

This short case study of Brick Lane graffiti invites deeper deliberation on the ownership of public spaces. In a framework that relies on rules and regulation, the responsibility of implementing and policing these rules fall onto the governing institute. It became no ones’ but the institute’s responsibility to delegate and manage the public space. With great power comes responsibility (No Way Home!), I’d think the reverse is equally true. The institute, by design, manifest the power of the many, with such power comes freedom to shape the rules in the forms they see fit – no swearing, no nudity, or, no disturbance of public order (…) or national security(…) (almost seems like I’m endorsing anarchy). The institute owns the public space. One might suggest that institute is the least of the evil, assuming the only alternative for an unregulated system leads to barbaric chaos where iron fists and crime rules. I would argue otherwise.

Graffiti is a public art form. The essence of graffiti lies in the public sphere – anyone with a can of paint could chip in. There is a natural selection mechanism – messages that the mass agreed with would be replicated; messages few agreed with would be ignored, and probably soon scratched; only messages most strongly disagreed with would be “cancelled”. There is no singular institute that decides what to censor, it is but a shared power, hence responsibility for all in the community. The public space is then, co-owned by the public. Correspondingly, this system of public space management requires members of the public to take an active role in co-creating, maintaining and cultivating the public ecosystem to ensure people’s artistic expressions could be sufficiently captured.

The elephant on the street, near Brixton, London. Photo taken 2021.

The elephant in the room is, perhaps regardless of how eye-catching the graffiti are, quite a number of us just don’t want paints on our properties. Similarly, not everyone wants to take part in the public sphere. This is a nature of the crowd, and coincidentally the downfall of a completely non-regulated community. The silent majority is how the mafia could take ownership of the streets by brute force. The opportunity to paint on walls would be stifled, when mutual dependency of the public is broken, and that the powerful abuse ones with less power, not respecting their stakes in the community.

Never an easy way to please everyone, ay? There is no one superior way to manage any public spaces, it largely depends on their compositions. I guess a lesson from this is, we should try to be appreciative of opinions shared in the public sphere, be it graffiti, podcasts, or blog posts. They may not occupy the BBC headlines, or shine amongst the Brick Lane graffiti, they nevertheless are part of our voices that deserves to be listened. Pray that the institute have the breadth of mind to reflect on the power imbalance and empower the public; and that the public would feel safe and ready to share and co-create our public space.

Graffiti at Camberwell, photo taken 2021


$5,000 “reward” for getting COVID-19: A peek into Collectivism in Hong Kong

On the 22nd Nov (2020), as Hong Kong was faced with yet another wave of Covid-19 outbreak with numerous cases with undetermined source, the government announced a $5,000 one-off incentive for all people who tested positive to Covid, aimed at encouraging people to take Covid-19 tests by relieving concerns on loss income in quarantine. The government faced immediate backlash against the proposal, as the public teased the non-means-tested subsidy meaningless. Non-selective, Non-targeted, Non-sufficient. Rather disheartening, but understandably, sarcastic comments about the proposal flooded the internet, with many saying they’re would purposefully get Covid-19 for the 5K “reward”. There is little discussion around whether the amount is sufficient for the unfortunate in desperate needs. Anger and disappointment, instead of empathy and compassion, was elicited by the announcement. However, as always, public discourse has to be viewed in the larger picture, as cross-sectional observations could only depict a snapshot of the undercurrents. The attitudes towards the persons in power in Hong Kong is massively polarised. It is hard to identify the root cause of distrust in the population, to disentangle poor governance, questionable response to Covid-19, and more. It could have been the case that no matter how well-planned the proposal would be, it would not be well-received in the public eye. Sparing myself from the politics (today), this blog will try to shed light on how conceiving the subsidy as a “reward” tells us about how collectivism remains defining a cultural feature of people of Hong Kong.

“Reward” – a potential reason of the disapproval may stem from the sense that the government is using a monetary reward to degrade what is a moral responsibility. That is, one should have the obligation to seek treatment if one might have gotten Covid-19, and that one should be doing so regardless of situation or social economic hardship. This is a defining feature of collectivism, where the cohesion and benefit of the community is placed before the individuals. This was also demonstrated in the 99% populational surgical mask (not whimsy cotton masks) usage in Hong Kong in the first 3 weeks of the pandemic. Whilst it is true mask wearing has been a socially acceptable behaviour, and it is also true that Hong Kong people still aches from the scars SARS left not long ago, both of these reasons are indications of the care for community weigh over individual inconvenience, that collectivism run in our veins.

If this notion of a degrading “reward” stands, we’d expect a similar level of dissatisfaction from the community if we were to say, an incentive was introduced to encourage mask-wearing. Perhaps another way of seeing it, would be the lack of compensation to the public comparing to the extent of economic activity loss in Hong Kong, but dissatisfaction did not reflect through poor adherence to guidelines. This could explain that strict social isolating measures were well-tolerated, such as 14-day mandatory quarantine for inbound overseas travelers, mandatory quarantine camps for people who had close contacts with confirmed cases, school closures etc. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated city in the world, housing 7.4 million people, thus highly susceptible to mass outbreak. Yet compared to the England capital of 7.5 million people, London has 25 times the number of Covid-19 infections (30th Nov figure), whilst being 30% larger than Hong Kong (in km2), and Hong Kong’s infinite times closer to the first identified cases of Covid-19. Outbreak risks would have been considered negligible in the UK parliament were faced with measures no tier could match, and welcomed by its people. This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.

This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.
This is a price Hong Kong people willing to pay for the community.

Collectivism is a treasure in a contagious virus outbreak, but it does not come at no cost. The benefit of the community do not always align with the benefit of all individuals. Whilst this do not necessarily always translate into the deprivation of individual freedom, this is the case regarding Hong Kong Mental Health Ordinance (MHO). The MHO is the legislation in Hong Kong that gives medical practitioners power to assess and treat patients with mental incapacity, including intellectual disability (the legal terms were loosely defined). MHO resembles the Mental Health Act (MHA) in the UK. Conditional Discharge (CD) is part of the MHO, it refers to

A legal provision that mandates a person with mental illness who meets certain criteria to follow a course of treatment while living in the community, non-compliance of which may result in a recall to inpatient treatment (Cheung, 2017)

Without going too much in detail, CD is similar to Community Treatment Orders in the UK & Europe. CD could be issued based on a”disposition to commit violence”. In Hong Kong, approximately 2.5% of all patients with severe mental illness are put on CD. There is no limit to the length of CD, and their liberty could be stripped away when the patient was deemed to pose risk of harm to self or others. There is no strong international nor local evidence that CD achieved what it proposed. In a naturalistic cohort of 140 people under CD, only 5% had any forensic contacts after 12 months – meaning the vast majority of them has restricted freedom, and this would continue be so indefinitely. CD could be appealed via Mental Health Review Tribunal, yet there is no available data on the number of people applied or success rate whatsoever. Patients were often left stranded with no money, knowledge and power, when public stigma against mental illness disproportionately weighed in the legal system. I have only scratched the surface on the topic, pleasure to have been inspired by Prof. Daisy Cheung (Hong Kong University) in our chat. Please do follow her series on pragmatic suggestions on mental health law reform. (Twitter @daisytmcheung)

Countless challenges awaits Hong Kong people, as a collective. The search for post-colonial identity, diverse but discriminatory, greedy but generous, together but torn. The love for our community runs in our veins, it is a moral value we proudly upheld in times of crisis. The way forward is not naming, shaming, segregating and excluding, but appreciating unity in diversity, pushing for change without loosing respect for each another. As we share the love for the same community, we shall then share our honor, our pride, our misbehaves, our history, and only then, we can shape our future – collectively.

A Mental Health Enabling Society

Discussions of mental health cannot exist in a pure biological realm without considering how it is intersectionally embedded within our political and economic structures. There is mounting evidence on the social causation and social drift effects of poverty and poor mental health. It is the day-to-day lived-experience, negligence of the structure, disproportioned power and relationships – both historic and contemporary – that constructs the patterns of mental illness in our society (Nancy Krieger) – which shape the niche where people survive with mental illnesses (Rochell Burgess).

In Hong Kong, the government has invested on destigmatisation of mental illness – yet most work appeared to go south – but that is only to be expected whn mental health is viewed with a poorly focused lens, with healthcare, social welfare, housing & labour departments working in silos. Still awaiting evaluation reports from multi million dollars campaigns.

There is an extent destigmatisation workshops and talks are going to help, when the whole societal narrative has been horrendously stagnant. When people with mental illness continue to be ignored in work and pension system, struggling in underfunded and underresourced psychiatric care systems, and unsupported by community care running purely on charities by churches and NGOs. What, then, is the government’s role in building a mental health enabling society?

Photo by Max Mishin on

“What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice. A political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious….But austerity is also a social contract. People accept severe restraints in public spending, actively in democracies or passively in autocracies, because they accept the unpalatable prescription of abstinence…”

“…Yet the public too has a choice. And they are exercising that choice in countries across the globe……After a decade of cutting back the reach of government, the public is now demanding a stronger and more generous state. The (social) contract authorising austerity has been torn up…” Richard Horton (2017).

Ethics lies at the heart of policy-making. Open dialogue and knowledge exchange is essential in developing the consensual ethics standards that drive attitude change and destigmatisation. Ability to identify strengths locally, ensuring safe social spaces and partnership is indispensable in vitalising these ethical standards in policy making. These are what we can do – speak, act, adapt and live truthfully to your beliefs – the fruit of democracy.

Yet all these must align with a wider narrative that the Hong Kong Government listen to her people, and reflect her observations through the budget plans. There would be much more leveraging and bargaining in-between, precisely a role of the elected members in the LegCo. Change is not impossible.

I often end with brief remarks of encouragement – I’ll do the same here – A Change is gonna coming.