About a month ago I posted an interview with the American, yet Shanghai-based, graffiti artist Mels from Beast Mode Crew. Mels gave an excellent overview of the contemporary Chinese graffiti scene and the way it’s growing in the grey zones of China’s municipal consciousness. China might have some of the world’s biggest cities, but these cities are all pretty much in flux, and the laws that state what you can do with them are not always clear or policed.
I thought it would be good to follow this up with a feature on a local artist, and even better one who is from the city of Wuhan – one of the Chinese cities best known for street and general counter-cultural activity, from hip hop to art to rock. Ray was one of the first to start spray-painting the Wuhan streets in the early to mid-2000s, and speaks confidently about why he hasn’t moved to Beijing or Shanghai yet.
Ray’s work is like rock and roll sherbet for the eyes, dazzling with bright colours and industrial graphics. Check out the pictures below, or Ray’s blog for stacks more examples. Of course it would be best to see these pieces in situ, jazzing up a wall with the high gloss appearance of 3D animation. My guess is they would light up a back alley, both gritty and slick all at once.
Do you normally just write your name?
Usually I just paint my name, but I use that to develop my style. Everybody has his own graffiti style – this is the best thing about it. If you’re talking about skill, everybody has skill. But the most important thing is style.
Where does your style come from do you think?
It’s hard to say. A lot of people are very influenced by ‘old school’ stuff, but I don’t always do this kind of work. I do sometimes, but I would never label myself in this way. Labels aren’t so important. Generally I just respond to what I like.
And the name, Ray?
It sounds like my Chinese name, Rui. Hubest is the name of my crew.
It’s interesting that you write in romantic script, rather than Chinese characters.
I used to write in Chinese. I don’t really mind which I use now except that English is a bit easier to communicate. Chinese can be a hassle to write. It’s a bit too much like doing calligraphy, so most of us use numbers and English.
Is it also because your influences have come from English language graffiti you’ve seen on the Internet?
Perhaps, but it’s not really a question of specific influences. Most graffiti from around the world is in English. Pretty much all of it, whether it’s from Japan, Australia, England, America. Personally I think that Japanese and English words are the best for graffiti. Chinese is a bit too complex. But really I don’t care too much about it these days. I’m able to write Chinese or English if I want to.
When did you start to do graffiti?
I started around 2004. So 8 years ago.
Were you the first person in Wuhan to do it?
Actually, there was a group who were earlier than me called JEJ Crew. In 2001 they were already very popular because they put a lot of their work on the Internet. I was at university in those days so I didn’t have time to do those kinds of things. I used to check it out online though, and by the time I started my own graffiti in 2001 I knew most of the people who were doing it. So if you’re talking about who started graffiti in Wuhan though it was really the JEJ Crew. At least, they were the first to be well-known.
Do all the graffiti artists in Wuhan know each other?
Basically everybody knows each other. Sometimes you can see some text you’re not familiar with, but these people probably haven’t been doing graffiti for very long. If they have we’d have got to know them somehow. The Wuhan graffiti crowd is a pretty small set.
Is everyone about the same age?
Pretty much the same. Everyone’s in their ‘teens or twenties.
Do most people have jobs?
Nope. Most don’t have jobs. If they had jobs they wouldn’t really have time for graffiti.
Do they want jobs?
Most people don’t want jobs, they don’t want to change in this way. Sometimes because of financial pressures, or expectations from their family, people have to go off to work, but then their lives don’t suit the lifestyle anymore. Graffiti is like rock music, or hip hop – if you choose stability you’re no longer living the attitude. It’s a way of life, a point of view.
Is this more possible in Wuhan than in Beijing or Shanghai? Is there less economic pressure?
Actually, the real difference is that if you’re doing graffiti in Shanghai you’re more likely to run into the authorities than in Wuhan. In Shanghai your graffiti is more likely to be removed, and you could get in trouble. In Wuhan I haven’t really experienced any problems – the authorities might just talk with you about what you’ve painted, ask you what it is.
Wuhan a good city for subculture though, no?
It is. Some good rock musicians and artists come out of here. But the really good ones mostly end up moving to the big cities to seek better opportunities. Shanghai has the market, the foreigners, more opportunities … so a lot of Chinese people go there to develop themselves. This is a common situation; it’s the same all over. In the States a musician might be from a small town but if they’re really good they’re likely to move to the big city in order to advance their work.
Sure. But some cities seem to produce more artists than others. Why do you think so much alternative culture come out of Wuhan?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a because of the spirit of the place, and the graffiti scene here has a particular spirit of its own. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what kind of art you’re producing – it’s the spirit in which you do it that matters.
So a few years ago, when graffiti in Wuhan was actually better than it is now, it was basically just a bunch of people hanging out together, going to bars together, and then maybe doing some painting on the side. It didn’t matter whether you were good at graffiti or not, or how long you might have been doing it. What mattered was that you were friends.
People are more aware of graffiti around China now, but perhaps in Wuhan the friendship is still more important. We’re friends before we’re graffiti friends.
Would you like to move to a big city?
I might like to go for a period of time, but I wouldn’t want to stay too long. And I don’t think my time for a move to the big city has come quite yet. [laughs] Again, it’s about attitude – a move to a big city would affect my attitude, and my way of life. I have everything I need in Wuhan right now. If I moved to Shanghai I might be more successful commercially, I might have more opportunities, but I’d be limited in other ways as well.
Do you have a job right now?
No. But actually, doing commercial graffiti work does allow you to develop your skills, and you still have a lot of your own time to do your own graffiti. It forces you to hone your skills, and can be a kind of exercise for your techniques. Also, after you’ve done commercial work you’re also better resourced financially to do your own graffiti, so I think this could be a pretty good fit for me – for the attitude that I want to keep.
What would you like to be doing in ten years?
I guess I’ll have to think more about the best way to make a living. The way you make your living is also a kind of creative direction.
That said, I don’t want to rely on my graffiti to make a living. I’d rather keep the graffiti pure, something I do for the sake of it. Because if you use your graffiti to for advertising you have to consider whether or not people understand it, whether your style is too extreme, too abstract. There are completely different expectations. Graffiti is more than just a hobby for me – by now, it’s become my lifestyle. It’s not something I could suddenly change.