Graffiti With Chinese Characteristics

Text by Jamie Barys

Photos by Janine Reichel

Last autumn, Shanghai Kaixuanmen Corporate Development Ltd announced that they were planning to tear down Moganshan Lu’s graffiti wall by the end of the year to make room for a commercial centre. Public outcry over the soulless irony managed to secure a temporary stay of execution for Shanghai’s most impressive monument to street art, but demolition plans are still very much underway. Undeterred, the city's graffiti writers have found new canvases for their work.

China is a country of walls. Apartment blocks, office buildings, schools, even construction zones are hewn in by stacks of bricks and concrete. But despite the abundance of blank canvases in public spaces, the Western art of graffiti has not yet reached a tipping point. Shanghai-based graffiti artists – or ‘writers’, as they call themselves – point to a lack of appreciation or understanding from the public, a shortage of dedicated Chinese writers, legal grey areas and the unavailability of quality paint, among other reasons, to explain why street art and graffiti have not proliferated. But perhaps the most important reason is the abundance of street sweepers.

Graffiti is, by its nature, a fleeting art, but in Shanghai, the speed at which the work is ‘buffed’ or covered up is record-breaking. “When we’re doing street spots at night, everything gets erased almost immediately,” Dezio, a French writer who has become one of the city’s most prolific, says. “I’ve even had times where the next day I came back to take a picture and the wall had been cemented over.”

Remnants of Dezio’s work from as far back as 2008 can still be found at Moganshan Lu, which amounts to a lifetime in the graffiti world, but other writers who stick to the more illicit practice of ‘bombing’ (when writers paint or tag a large number of surfaces in an area) have a much shorter shelf life.

Kami, a German street artist better known in the French Concession area for his ‘You Know Me Well’ tag, says, “I would do 100 posters and 98 of them would be taken down within the first five hours. I felt like someone was walking behind me.” He started to try to outsmart the buffers by tapping into content he thought would blend in better. Now you can see some of his stickers, copies of the Hai’er logo with his tag written below, covering air-con units around the Wulumuqi Lu area. But this sly creativity is already a big improvement from just a few years ago.

In the summer of 2007, the graffiti scene was almost entirely imported, and Moganshan Lu had only four pieces on its wall. The few foreign writers in town knew they could usually paint outside the art district without too much trouble from the authorities, although the police did eventually catch up with them. Luckily, the owners of the galleries asked the police to let them paint because the work was drawing people to the out-of-the-way area. Thus Moganshan Lu became a haven for foreign writers and a place where budding artists could congregate and trade ideas.

One of the original Chinese writers, Hurricane ‘Hurri’ Jin is now the co-founder of two crews (Oops Crew and Beast Mode) and one of Shanghai’s most successful writers. He first became interested in graffiti because of his career as a BMX rider. While looking up new tricks to try on the internet, he came across a video that featured a graffiti wall in the background.

“I wondered what it was and why people were doing [graffiti] in skateboard parks. So I started doing some research and found some videos of them painting at night with spray cans,” he says. “The feeling the movie gave me was kind of amazing. It was a kind of magic.”

Like Hurri and most other Chinese writers who are still building up their community, this month’s cover artist William Zhou is self-taught, but that’s something he hopes to change for the future. The founder of the Shanghai Graffiti Park in Zhabei District and the Reload crew, Zhou has spent the past six years trying to create a place where graffiti writers can practice their art without threat from the authorities, while also learning from experienced writers.

“One hundred years ago, photography was a noble hobby for a niche group of people. Today, anyone can do it – just buy a digital camera. Graffiti is the same. The spray can, to some people, may represent destruction of a public space,” he says. “But if some well-educated people use spray cans, they can do something really wonderful. Graffiti can also become noble.”

To help train the next generation of writers, Zhou and his crew are planning to launch formal graffiti classes at the CG Power Animation School. The eight week curriculum will teach middle and high school students the basics, from sketching and computer design to hands-on practice with more experienced writers at the park.

Zhou and his colleagues also run a successful graphic design business based out of the graffiti park that incorporates street art into corporate marketing and advertising campaigns. In fact, most of the writers interviewed for this article are peddling their graffiti talents to the business world.

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