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Graffiti tests the limits of free expression in China

Graffiti in Beijing

(Getty)

A tiny street art culture is taking root in Beijing, adding a splash of colour in a grey, authoritarian city. Clarissa Sebag Montefiore reports.

“The city is like a system and graffiti is like a virus,” says ‘Camel’, a hip young Chinese graffiti artist who sports a cap, sunglasses, and wispy goatee. “The purpose is not to make the city more beautiful. We just want to try and say something in our own way.”

In 2009 Camel spray-painted a wall in Beijing with an image of a chengguan, one of China’s despised urban management police, seen by much of the population as brutish bullies. (In the same year a manual leaked online stated that chengguan should, when carrying out orders to quell dissent, “take care to leave no blood on the face, no wounds on the body, and [ensure that] no people [are] in the vicinity.”)

The portrait was painted over and the artist was asked to hand 3,000RMB ($500) to the police. It was, however, a small price to pay for the act of expression. “In China we can’t talk about things, we must find other ways to show we are angry,” shrugs the 22-year-old.

Camel, a member of the crew ‘Margin’ (“because we are marginal people,” he says), is one of only a handful of graffiti artists tagging or signing their names in public spaces in Beijing today. But while the numbers remain tiny – around 40 in a city of 20 million according to their own estimations – the culture is slowly taking root. Many are attracted by adding splashes of colour to the generic and drab architecture in China’s endlessly grey capital. Others, like Camel, want a new way to have their voice heard.

In America graffiti is often associated with poor, disintegrating neighbourhoods and is viewed as a tool for the dispossessed to carve out an identity. In China, however, graffiti artists occupy an altogether different space. On the one hand the art is reserved for the emerging middle classes who can afford expensive cans of paint and pricey fines. On the other, graffiti artists are attempting to make Chinese cities – long defined by pervasive politics and, more recently, commercial interests – their own. 

Just thirty years ago splashing cash on creating art that might get painted over tomorrow would have been unthinkable. As China’s economy has boomed, however, rising income levels, relative political stability, and the one-child policy has created a new generation of young people with money to burn. Lance Crayon, director of the documentary Spray Paint Beijing, has noted the change. “The idea of a 20-year-old having a disposable income, that’s a new thing in China. Can you afford to do [graffiti] and is your drive strong enough to do it?”

Red letter days

At a recently opened shop called 400ml dedicated to selling graffiti supplies in Beijing’s trendy 798 Art Zone, Taiwanese rap music blares out of the speaker system and artists from different crews loll on sofas chatting nonchalantly. Just outside, a graffiti-covered wall includes a striking illustration of two vast hands clutching a can of spray paint. Above are the words “EU-CN X-CHANGE”. They act as homage to the Europeans who travel to Beijing to paint alongside their Asian counterparts, tempted by what they see as a new frontier in graffiti art.

 

Graffiti in Beijing

(Clarissa Sebag Montefiore)

In Europe and America graffiti, is intertwined with hip hop culture. But China has its own history. In the 1920s revolutionary slogans and paintings were applied to public spaces to further the communist cause. During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese Communist Party daubed propaganda in red characters on neighborhood walls. And today, in a country that is capitalist in all but name, many interior walls of high-rise apartment blocks are covered in scrawlings by small businesses advertising their services. “It’s sort of in their blood to write on buildings,” explains Crayon.

Graffiti, which some argue in its purest form is the artistic rendering of letters and words, also speaks to the Chinese because of their tradition of calligraphy. “In the West people really don’t get it. We have to paint nice figures and landscapes [for them] to appreciate what we are doing,” points out German graffiti artist Norbert Kirbach who has lived in Beijing since 2006. “[But] for Chinese people handwriting is very important. How you transform something; how you use the letters.”

A short walk from the 798 Art Zone, half hidden among the trees under the airport express rail tracks, sits a long wall which Beijing’s graffiti artists started tagging in 2010. Today it is covered in images, the most striking of which is a giant pig with a Chinese kitchen knife stuck in its back. The animal’s body is already carved into gleaming chops but it smokes a cigar, defiant of its fate, its beady red eyes shining angrily. The image was created by 25-year-old ‘Scar’, an amicable fine art graduate whose cheery disposition stands at odds with his name.

Graffiti in Beijing

(Clarissa Sebag Montefiore)

“It is about pork prices getting higher and higher,” explains Scar, standing proudly next to his work as trains roar overhead. For years China has suffered from fluctuations in pork prices. “We can’t stand it. Pork is the most expensive thing in China and the government does nothing about it. We can’t do anything so we thought why not paint graffiti?”

Rebels without causes

Like Camel, Scar sees graffiti as a form of defiance. But he also knows where to draw the line. Artists do not tag anywhere near Tiananmen Square and they are careful to avoid government buildings. They are also cautious in their subject matter. “I don’t do many political things because it is a little bit dangerous,” Scar admits dolefully.

Crackdowns are a risk and punishments can be arbitrary, ranging from time behind bars to police extortion – graffiti is illegal in China, although it is sanctioned in the 798 Art Zone. Five years ago Scar and six other artists were arrested – he was only released when his well-connected parents paid 5,000RMB ($820). Despite this, authorities in China have shown relative leniency to graffiti artists. While artists in the West work under the cover of darkness in short bursts, in China they can take their time. Crayon elaborates: “The foreign artists will hold their cans in a bag because they are getting ready to run. In Europe or America you have maybe ten minutes to throw up a piece if a gang is going to come and beat them up or the police are going to come and arrest them. Chinese artists lay their cans out [on the ground]. They can take all day.”

Graffiti in China is protected, for now at least, by its very smallness. So far it has attracted scant official attention. But Crayon believes that in Beijing, China’s political nerve centre, an explosion of interest in the art form might “raise the wrong type of attention”.

Still, for Camel graffiti is there to make a difference. It has also given the wayward former high-school student focus, purpose and a community to call his own in a still largely conformist society. “Graffiti has already changed the world – because it has at least changed me, and I am part of the world,” says Camel. “Graffiti does not have the power to make society good or bad, it is just urban culture. But it can change a few people’s lives.”

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