Sitting in a quaint café hidden within the ancient courtyards of Beijing, Lance Crayon, producer of the documentary Spray Paint Beijing, cautiously takes a sip of his steaming Americano while looking out the fingerprint-covered window. “My favorite graffiti piece to date is that of a giant rosy pig up on Ji Ming Lu created by ABS Crew. About the inflation of pork prices, it has somewhat of a political meaning, increasing its dimensionality.” Walking around 798, Beijing’s most well known art district, spray-painted works can be seen on almost every wall. Although most of the city’s graffiti is still limited to the roads of 798, slowly but surely, crews are moving out of this confined area and into more central locations within Beijing to produce their work.
Crayon describes to me his interest in Chinese street art. “I started out making videos for China Radio International (CRI)’s website around two and half years ago. I did a report on urban art and there was a graffiti art show in the basement’s parking garage, which sparked my interest. I asked the artists to contact me when they went painting at night so that I could film them. The rest is history.”
Abstracted head shapes formed by ragged lines cover the demolished walls of Beijing’s age-old architecture. Zhang Dali is considered to be the “father of Chinese graffiti art”. At the foundation of his pieces lay his negative view towards the government’s demolition of age-old structures rich with history and culture. In an interview with CNN, Zhang mentions that his early fascination with spray paint dealt with his lack of funds while studying in Europe—this material allowed him to create pieces outside the realm of the studio. He chose “AK-47” as his tag to reflect the violent destruction of Beijing physically and of its local culture throughout the city’s ongoing modernization. By using structures painted with 拆 (“to be demolished”) as his canvas, Zhang highlights the walls’ impending destruction to make way for modern architectural projects.
However, Zhang Dali and his political agenda are exceptions amongst Chinese graffiti artists. Crayon clarifies the disparities between graffiti in the West and in China. “For the most part, artists in Beijing try to stay away from political topics, especially when it comes to public art. The themes of graffiti here in Beijing are more aesthetic. Focusing more on cartoons, abstract images, and vivid colors. The one political piece I have seen is on Ji Ming Lu regarding the inflation of pork prices. That’s the extent of politics in street art here in Beijing.”
Unlike in the States, where graffiti is associated with gangs and the claiming of “territory”, strict government restrictions severely limit street art in China. Crayon observed that “a lot of the work is not dangerous, neither gang nor drug-related. They aren’t painting on government buildings or private property, but rather, on the walls of highways and roads. The punishment for graffiti artists here in Beijing is usually a fine of 100RMB, or a night in jail, which is a slap on the hand compared to the consequences that some graffiti artists can face in the States and in Europe. Therefore, artists in Beijing can take their time in creating their pieces without facing a time limit of 10 to 15 minutes.
According to Luo Zhongli, head of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, “Graffiti art in China has [gotten] rid of the strong rebelliousness and confrontational attitude in Western graffiti.” Regardless of whether or not their works have a political agenda, artists are faced with the possibility that their piece might be destroyed within a few short hours.
In China, graffiti is actually an upper-middle class activity, as people do not have the resources to invest 300RMB into a piece that could potentially be destroyed overnight. In the States, however, graffiti is more prevalent in poverty-stricken areas. It is not really about legalities, but financial issues. Compared to Seattle, which has a population of fewer than one million, but has around 2,000 graffiti artists, Beijing has a minute 30 artists amongst its millions of residents.
Chinese public opinion towards graffiti vastly differs from that of Westerners. “For the most party, street art is considered to be vandalism, whereas here in Beijing, people are more open to this art form as it adds color to the drab highways and roads. Being a pretty recent phenomenon, graffiti has not yet been paired with negative connotations,” Crayon noted. Although there has been heightened attention from both the media and the government to this slowly growing “culture”, the wider Chinese population is still very much unaware of this pastime.
Chinese graffiti culture is becoming increasingly commercialized with crews working for international brands such as Audi and Nike, hired to paint for commercials and advertisements. ABS, which stands for “Active. Brilliant. Significant.” is a graffiti crew established in 2007 based in Beijing that focuses on creating “unique and interesting image formations.” Recently, they have partnered up with Audi, Nike, and other well-known brands, along with having participated in international graffiti competitions. In contrast with US crews that remain very much underground, many crews in China paint out in the open, opening up graffiti stores and entering competitions.
The Chinese government continues to contribute to the increasing commercialization of this “potentially rebellious act.” By organizing publicly staged events such as the Olympic Graffiti Wall near Renmin University in 2005 or the More Than + Pop Art Festival in Sanlitun Soho in 2010, the government has been eliminating the art’s “rebellious” character. The pieces created for the Olympics exemplify how the state has marshaled graffiti to affirm its authority along with the narrative of nationhood. Artists were required to submit an outline of their piece prior to painting, ensuring that the work would conform to government regulations. By commercializing what some consider to be an act of rebellion, the Chinese government has taken away the “risk,” an element that attracts many artists in the first place.
So what is in store for the future of Chinese graffiti? Looking down to check for any coffee stains on his crisp white button-down, Crayon stated, “Graffiti still needs to grow a lot here in Beijing, but people are starting to not only see the art’s bright aesthetic, but also, commercial appeal. Because Beijing is the political center of the nation, locals are, for the most part, better behaved and more hesitant to break the rules. What street art really needs is a push from the younger generation…I see street art growing gradually, but continuously, depending on whether or not artists begin to develop their own style, setting them apart from their Western counterparts. Modern works have lost their meaning. Although the number of followers may increase, if the content of their work remains apolitical, Chinese street art will not splash onto the international global stage as did those of Banksy and other Western artists.”
As Lance and I walked out of the aged wooden door of the café and said our goodbyes, I turn a left to safe a spray-painted head onto the dilapidated wall in front of me.