The Lonely Life of the Chinese Graffiti Writer

Spray-painting walls in Beijing isn't actually all that dangerous. So why are there so few people doing it?

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Debra Bruno

BEIJING—Leave it to China to figure out a way to make graffiti a luxury item.

A couple of years ago, the state-owned newspaper China Daily featured the trend of "indoor graffiti," with Chinese apartment-dwellers hiring artists to paint their walls. The story is illustrated with a picture of one artist's two anime-style cherubs sitting on hot pink toadstools. Having commissioned "graffiti" painted on an apartment wall means "a totally free and luxurious life for young people," says a client who hired a graffiti writer for his place.

In China, a place not known for encouraging dissent, graffiti is a little less in your face.

Take the concrete wall not far from the littered entrance to Beijing’s Sihui subway station, where a line of works by Beijing’s graffiti writers lives.

The writer who calls himself Tin points to a carefully painted creation with a black background and stylized Chinese characters in red, orange, and yellow. "It says, 'You see it but you don’t know the meaning,'" Tin says in Mandarin translated by his wife, Rity.

Westerners think of graffiti art as actively thumbing its nose at the establishment, but this is about as subversive as it gets inside the People’s Republic of China.

"If you’re really not pissing anybody off or offending anybody, they’ll kind of let it go," says filmmaker Lance Crayon, a Beijing-based Texan who recently finished a documentary on Beijing’s graffiti world.

Spray Paint Beijing features a handful of the city’s young artists. And that’s all there is: a handful. Out of a city of more than 22 million, about 30 people call themselves graffiti writers here, and only about 15 of them actively “tag” walls around the city at night. With a soundtrack of Chinese hip-hop music, the film shows the writers, almost all of them male, creating art under the cover of darkness. You get the sense that there’s danger in doing this in this particular city.

But the reality is a little more nuanced than that. Graffiti in China is very much a case of don’t-see-don’t-tell. Many of the tag spots in the city are hidden, tucked away from the general public. Crayon says that when he first started filming the writers – graffiti practitioners prefer to call themselves "writers" rather than "artists," which they say better describes the work they do – "I was sort of scared, filming, thinking you know, you can’t film these guys with cameras, you got to get out, you have to hide, too. Lot of graffiti artists don’t want to be followed because it attracts attention."

After six months, he says, he realized he could go out with the writers at 8 or 9 at night, set up his tripod, and take his time filming. Occasionally the police would come by, but often they would tell the writers they were free to keep tagging. Sometimes walls get painted over, but that’s true for graffiti everywhere. The penalties for tagging are so light, says Crayon, that writers will carefully draw their pieces based on sketches they’ve made ahead of time. "They’ll take an hour, which is an ungodly amount of time for any graffiti piece."

What Chinese graffiti writers do shy away from is making political statements in their art or talking politics. The graffiti writers he interviewed for his film "didn’t want to talk about anything political, and I didn’t want to ask," Crayon says. "There’s no place for it."

Tin, part of a nine-member gang called Kwan-Yin Clan, says he’s often approached – by stores, one university, shopping malls – to paint something edgy for them on a wall or a canvas. He’s also painted apartment walls for clients.

Tin recently tagged a wall near Sihui with a picture that a friend of his asked him to paint, a tag commemorating the engagement of two of his friends. It was the young man’s engagement present for his soon-to-be wife.

Whether it’s subversive or safe, Crayon predicts that graffiti is going to take off in Beijing in the next five years. "Five years from now, when graffiti explodes in China, and I think it will, I think other European artists or American artists, when they see this documentary, will say, we thought China was this totalitarian police state where you’d be thrown in jail for painting a wall for a year. Nothing could be further from the truth."

About the Author

  • Debra Bruno is a Beijing-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.