“Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” Graffiti Campaign Challenges Chinese Artist’s Arrest

It’s now the second month since renowned artist Ai WeiWei was detained by Chinese authorities at the Beijing Airport, where he was to board a plane to Hong Kong. In the absence of any satisfactory information about the charges under which he is being held or his condition, his artwork is being unveiled in the West on schedule and Hong Kong artists have started a graffiti campaign asking “Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” As the New York Times reports, an exhibition of new work opened at the Neugerriemschneider Gallery in Berlin last weekend (with a giant banner asking “Where is Ai WeiWei” at the front of the building). On Wednesday in New York, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” opened at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.

The latter work is said to be Ai’s first public sculpture. The piece is comprised of a series of 12 heads of the creatures of the Chinese Zodiac, after which years are also named: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar. The heads are cast in bronze, are roughly four feet high, and set on a six-foot bronze base part of which looks like an abstracted lotus plant and stems.

“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” might seem “whimsical,” says the New York Times. But then one learns the backstory:

The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing. (Each of the originals spouted water for two hours a day, which may explain why the mouths of Mr. Ai’s copies are open, as if they are noisily expressing themselves.)

The heads were looted when this vast complex of buildings and gardens was ransacked and burned by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, an event that remains a signal symbol of national humiliation. They began to resurface in 2000, and at this point the Chinese government has retrieved five of them (ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar).

Another two (rat and rabbit) were part of the Paris sale of the collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berg, in 2009. The Chinese government sued unsuccessfully for their return; they were successfully bid on by a Chinese collector who then refused to pay for them as an act of patriotic protest, and they are now back in Mr. Berg’s hands. The remaining five may be lost forever.

Ai himself “sidestepped the importance of this knowledge, saying that it was not crucial for the public’s enjoyment of the work,” saying that a viewer should simply “see the connection” through his or her own experience.

The tangled history of the original animals, at times captured and missing and intertwined as it is with colonialism, cultural imperialism, and national identity, gives “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” a certain gravity and even a whiff of the ominous. With work’s creator himself imprisoned and unheard from, a viewer cannot but help fear that his fate might come to echo that of the original animal heads.

In Hong Kong, artists and activists have challenged Ai’s arrest through artwork of a different sort. NPR reports that 22-year-old graffiti artist Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine, has begun a campaign to warn people in Hong Kong that what happened to Ai WeiWei does affect them. Tangerine has spray-painted an image of Ai’s bearded face with the message “Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” beneath it all over Hong Kong:

“He’s one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the world right now,” she explains. “And if he can be arrested, then there’s no identity we can hide behind: Being a Hong Kong citizen doesn’t help anymore; being rich or social status doesn’t help. There’s no shield any more against this very naked power that’s trying to engulf us.”

Tangerine’s graffiti campaign has turned her into an inadvertent counterculture icon. Few people know what she looks like. She’s not exactly on the run, but a police unit is investigating criminal damage charges against her, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

Such a stiff sentence for graffiti is extremely unusual, especially since a lesser offense of “graffiti” exists, which carries a maximum penalty of a fine and three months’ imprisonment. Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad that usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.

Tangerine’s unusual treatment unleashed a furor among Hong Kong’s outspoken press. But she is unfazed, retorting, “I have to thank the police for drawing so much attention to this issue. Even if I have to go to jail, I think that would be a very, very worth it price to pay.”

Others have spoken in support of Tangerine’s campaign. About 2,000 marched through Hong Kong’s streets for Ai Weiwei on April 23. Teams of people are downloading Tangerine’s graphic and also spray-painting it around Hong Kong. As NPR notes,

“… the simple question the graffiti poses is, “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” the heavy-handed reactions of Hong Kong authorities do offer one answer: It seems many in Hong Kong’s corridors of power fear the potency of his image.

Indeed, it also seems that many in the Chinese government’s corridors of power fear the potency Ai WeiWei’s message.

“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” will be on view in New York until July 15 and will then travel to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington; another edition goes on view next week at Somerset House in London. But will we know of Ai WeiWei’s whereabouts by then? Or will it be the case that his work will travel farther than its creator ever will again?

Take Action: Sign the petition for the immediate release of Ai WeiWei.

Related Care2 Coverage

Ai Wei Wei’s Family Rejects China’s Charges Against Him

China Detains Artist Ai WeiWei

Photo with "Free Ai WeiWei" graffiti by 美国之音黎堡 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Danielle K.
Danielle K6 years ago

I think the graffiti artist should be recognised for her courage - though, it takes many more people than just Tangerine to change a regime like this. It sometimes takes many punishments and many deaths...I really admire Ai WeiWei, Tangerine and so many others for being the first to take that risk. It will not happen overnight...

KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B6 years ago

Already signed.

Andrea Mollgaard
Andrea Mollgaard6 years ago

The government can not exist without the people! educate the children and the government will fall! remember that the chinese government had to have teachers arressed and killed, and books burned, to cultivate a generation of youth to take over! ignorange is the chinese government's only strenth! when the people learn that their government is so bad that it can only stay in power by keeping the people ignorant, the government will be outnumbered by a billion at least! 1001 people with pitchforks, outgun one man with a gun and a thousand bullets! flash mob them so they can't reload! there will be causalties but they won't be as many deaths as the silent murders going on!

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers6 years ago

I pray for his release. I hope China is able to move forward towards reform and social progress without revolution. It is the hands of the government to prevent this.

DobieMax Wojcik
DobieMax WoBib6 years ago


Bernadette P.
berny p6 years ago

the chinese governement is absolutly scare stiff of any form of freedom because they know that if they give an inch they will not be able to stop it!

When you live there you quickly realise that as a foreigners there are certain things you can say and others not especially criticising the governement.

When you ask...normal quuestion about the governement the answer from chinese is...because that is what the govenement say...or wants...when you say ...if you dont like it try to change it...they look at you like if yoy were crazy....and answer BUT I cant do anything about it!!!!

They are brain wash from early schools days,their history books do not tell them ALL of their history...and most of them know that if they keep their mouth shut THEY will get a better deal.....

So the brave one who tried to say something or to try to change something or even ONLY asking the governement and the officials to OBEY their own laws...are put into jail BECAUSE....YOU NEVER question THEIR decision!!!!

Loo Samantha
Loo sam6 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Edith B.
Edith B6 years ago

I signed, I hope Ai Wei Wei is released soon.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener6 years ago


Robert Tedders
Robert T6 years ago

@Fred Krohn: You equate all Socialism with Communism - WHICH. IS. WRONG. In my view many parts of the world could do with a healthy does of pro-worker attitudes. That doesn't mean I want to support one-party Govt's or see ALL private enterprise banned!! *DISGUSTED*