It’s one of the ironies of contemporary China that gaps in the legal system bring infinite little freedoms to everyday life. To many Westerners living in its major cities, China is more liberal than their home countries – a place where you can park your bicycle wherever you like, or drink a beer in the street, without the municipal regulations that shape life in Western cities.
According to American graffiti artist, tag-named Mels, this flexibility extends to street art. “As long as you don’t write anything political, nobody is going to care what you’re doing,” he says, since graffiti in China is not strictly speaking illegal. Having moved to Shanghai a couple of years ago, Mels is a co-founder of Beast Mode Studios – a design studio (by day) and graffiti crew (by night), with artists from all over China.
Mels is my interviewee for this week’s post. Read on to hear about the budding subcultures of Wuhan and Changsha, and why in this American graffiti artist’s view China’s upcoming scene surpasses that of the United States.
Could you describe the graffiti scene in China at the moment?
The scene in China is way better than the scene in the US.
One because of all the lenient laws around graffiti in China. There’s technically no law that says you can’t do graffiti. As long as the graffiti is not political I don’t think there are ever extremely dire consequences, and the way the police will act towards you all depends on how they’re feeling that day. If they want to power trip on you, you’ll have to pay 1,000 kuai or something, which is like US$150. The repercussions here are nowhere near those in the United States. So it’s easier to get involved in the scene.
There’s also more spots here. There’s so much construction here, so many temporary structures you can paint. There are many small rivers running through Shanghai as well, places you can see while you’re riding the subway. New York had the subway system in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I think the Shanghai river system will start to turn the same kind of situation. We’ve already started doing the riversides, so I think other writers will start to follow that lead and do them too. Because they’re really good spots, they’re barely monitored at all, you have to watch out for a boat maybe once an hour and that’s about it.
Also, the community is really great here. It’s really open. Graffiti is not illegal so most people use their actual names when they’re painting, or their nickname will be their tag name, and they’ll openly introduce themselves to other people with their tag. It’s very strange.
Was it ever this way in the West?
No, never. In the States I went to High School and started painting with some guys, but aside from those guys I never met any other painters. I was never involved in any broader community, I sort of painted by myself and that was it. But in China, everybody knows each other. When people come into town to do a job they’ll stay at our studio – we have a couple of air mattresses there. And when you go to Beijing someone says I know this guy, and you go and you paint together. Everybody knows each other. We know everybody in Shanghai, we know everybody in Beijing. We know everybody in Wuhan, we know half the people in Kunming.
Are they the big cities for Chinese graffiti: Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Kunming?
Yes, and Changsha as well. Wuhan and Changsha are really big for graffiti. Wuhan is really big for a lot of things – there are a lot of cool things happening there. Wuhan was the birthplace of punk rock in China. After that a lot of musicians started coming out of there. A lot of artists are coming out of there now. I know the bicycle culture is really big there, street culture is big there, breakdancing too. And the same with Changsha.
They’re not big cities by Chinese standards so the authorities aren’t worried about the aesthetics of the city. They’re not worried about foreigners coming and what they might think, so they don’t buff the graffiti. So more people can keep the graffiti up, more people see it and want to start doing it, and more people have an incentive to keep doing it because their paintings will stay up on the walls. I think that’s why Changsha and Wuhan are kind of hot spots right now for graffiti.
Are the Chinese graffiti cultures competitive? Territorial?
There’s kind of a friendly rivalry. It’s not like the US where I’m going to kick your arse and steal your paint if I find you in my spot. If people are coming to Shanghai I invite them to stay at our studio or they ask if they can stay at our studio. We share paint. I usually share paint. I say you can stay here, you buy me dinner and I’ll share paint. There was recently a guy from Switzerland, there were two different Russian guys in the past few months, we painted with a German guy from Beijing. Frank from Hangzhou, a Chinese guy, was just here. Usually it’s a mix with Shanghai too because it’s big: you get international and Chinese people coming through.
What about the art? How does that compare with the American scene? Is it distinctive, is it trying new things?
I think the community is better – wanting to share, wanting to help each other get better. And there are a lot of really good artists here. Read, my crew mate is really good. I think he’s one of the best in China. There’s a guy, Ray, in Wuhan who’s really amazing; there is a guy in Kunming that’s doing really cool stuff with Chinese characters. And there are some really good guys in Beijing. With these people I think what they’re doing is really exceptional and really pushing the limits of what people think about graffiti – doing new things with colour palettes and design.
But then there are other people who don’t get graffiti organically. They don’t get it from the other guy at their high school who’s doing it, who says Here’s a spray can you should come out and do this with me and they’ll teach you there. They’ve seen people in videos online doing graffiti and they’re just copying them directly. So you get a lot of people with very similar, generic styles. There was a guy in Heilongjiang, Harbin, somewhere in the North who was literally copying people’s pieces and putting them up on walls! None of it was his original work. Of course he had the skill to do it, but none of the designs were his. Nothing. To even think that would be acceptable for a second kind of says something about the culture here.
What do the locals think of the graffiti? Are attitudes changing?
Some people are starting to understand it. But sometimes it’s as if nobody even sees it. People see a marking on a wall and unless it’s especially captivating they won’t pay attention to it. It’s just like squiggles on a wall.
The upsetting part of that is that you really have to struggle to get people to notice, because if people don’t notice the culture really won’t take off. There aren’t that many new writers in Shanghai. There are maybe one or two writers under 18 – one or two in the entire city, a city of 20 million or more people. It’s hard when nobody is noticing it because nobody wants to start. You can’t build a community if you’re invisible.
In Wuhan and Changsha, it’s easier and more visible because they don’t wash it off so fast, and I think there are more younger writers there. But not even in Beijing – most people are over 20 years old. If you have a moderately sized city in the US you have a few hundred writers that are all under 18. You need that base pool, you need that 100 people in the city that are going to start when they’re under 18, because by the time those 15 yr olds are 24 yr olds, out of the 100 or 200 people that were doing it, if 190 quit you still end up with 10 writers who are pretty good at what they do.
How does your community communicate?
Everybody’s on Weibo. I love Weibo. It’s such a good way to keep track of other people’s pieces. That’s how I keep track of other people’ work in Wuhan and Changhsa – they usually upload their images. And the identity thing isn’t usually a problem here – you don’t need to hide your identity as much as you do in the West. People just don’t care. They’ll have their real name on their Weibo and then they’ll post pictures of their illegal painting.
I guess the word illegal is really different in China. Because the law isn’t always upheld. What’s legal, what’s illegal: it’s all a lot more blurry. And it’s often very discretionary.
Yeah. Everything is like that in China. In a sense there are no rules a lot of the time. And sometimes it’s great. In the US in some states they’ll have a zero tolerance policy, so for example for drinking and driving, and if you drink a beer and ride your bicycle home you can get put in jail for riding your bicycle. I’m terrified of the police in the United States, because they’ll kick your arse and put you in jail for anything. They’ll search you for no reason at all. They want a reason to power trip on you. The police don’t really care in China. No one really cares if you drink a beer and ride your bike home in China. No one cares if you write on a wall. So you’re right, it’s really paradoxical. China’s supposed to be this really conservative government, but in the reality of the everyday there are a lot more freedoms than in the West.
I guess it makes you ask yourself what’s really important, and I don’t know … is it freedom of speech on a mass scale? Because in the States, if you do some graffiti and you are saying something political, the repercussions would be the same as if you were writing something non-political. But in China, if you’re writing is non-political there are no consequences – or you have to pay $100 – but if you are writing something political the consequences are that you might be thrown in jail for life. You have to take that into account.