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Plumber King

Updated: Apr 16

Photograph: Calvin Sit

Graffiti (plural; singular graffiti or graffito, the latter rarely used except in archeology) is art that is written, painted or drawn on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view.

The above is what Wikipedia defines as graffiti. Now who lives up to that definition the most in Hong Kong? Perhaps the infamous Utah and Ether duo who put up "CRIME TIME" train piece back in 2012? The all-city "病" (aka SICKO) in recent years? Or the disappearing street calligraphy written by the "royal" King of Kowloon (R.I.P. 12 Nov, 11915 — 15 Jul, 2007)? I'd like to take this blog to shine a lot on a more atypical graffiti artist. Although if you're from Hong Kong, this legend needs no introduction.

Photograph: Billy Potts

A stroll in almost any suburb of Hong kong will expose you to the works of Plumber King. Who advertises his plumbing services in the signature unorthodox style.

The Plumber King is the pen name of Yim Chiu-Tong, a plumber who works jobs all over Hong Kong. Yim grew up rural Shenzhen. At the time, China was plagued by the horrors of the Great Leap forward. Yim recounts, “I was going to school every day, but to make ends meet, I was farming in the afternoons as well, China was suffering from a famine at the time so it was hard to get by. I barely had anything to eat and spent my time in a constant state of hunger (1).” Yim knew that things were bleak in China, but he never had solid plans to migrate until a happy-go-lucky accident.

Lifestyle Asia explains:

When he was around 14, he found himself trekking to Shenzhen with his friend in a bid to get ice cream. By the time they arrived in the Chinese city, night had fallen. Not even daring to think about what they were about to do, the two teenagers lingered for a bit, then headed upriver and approached the border fence. "It was completely on a whim. We pulled aside the fence and snuck into Hong Kong. We walked all the way to Tuen Mun, then Tai Po, where my friend’s aunt took us in for a bit."

Yim's first few months in the dazzling city of Hong Kong was chaotic. Struggling to find well-paying jobs, it was barely better than life in famine-stricken China. But after a few stints in different jobs, Yim began his career in plumbing.

Yim's signature advertisements was born from a need, the need to attract attention to his business. After all, how else was he going survive? Painted in large, bold characters, Yim's handiwork set him apart from the competition. Yim's signature style uses blocky, uniform characters that often uses a simple colour pallet of white or black. From a practical standpoint, this makes sense; the letters and colours are simple and easy to read and eye-catching, no extravagant "extra-ness" to distract from the advertising message itself.

Photograph: the.plumber.king via Instagram

By chance, Friendly from Invasian met Yim around 10 years ago, before he started his artistic career. Yim was sitting on the street and writing his trademark advert on an electricity box, catching the eye of passer-by Friendly. Stopping for a quick chat, Friendly learnt that he had plans to retire from the profession of plumbing; Yim's daughter was worried about him. But the Plumber King himself did not feel all that old. Yim explained, things would've become boring if he quit his job. More than a job, fixing sewage pipes and putting up his advertisement everywhere was his loyal hobby; the only thing he does and loves to do. He has had numerous run-ins with the police for his less-than-legal advertising methods, but he wasn't phased.

We at Invasian couldn't agree more that the Plumber King truly deserves the title "King." Not only is his writing is up everywhere. But more importantly, he has the spirit that deserves such a title: a young and fresh spirit, just like his writing.

As I was writing this blog, I thought to myself: so what does it mean to be an artist?

Yim doesn't consider himself an artist. But the Plumber King's works meets all the criteria of graffiti. It's a form of urban typography, certainly an art form in itself, that written on walls without permission, for the very purpose of attracting public view. And yet, Plumber King developed his style and work independent from the influences of traditional graffiti. Plumber King's intentions did not stem from creativity and expression. But rather, it was the necessity for his plumbing business. The Plumber King is a product of his environment, and how he adapted to his needs. It's a curious example of the influences of one's environment.

For more Plumber King, here's the Instagram account for his official archive. The bio sections reads a quote by Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Mr. Yim Chiu-Tong, never stop looking at the stars.

Photograph: Billy Potts




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