In a discussion that concerns the modern history of graffiti, it is unnecessary to mention the complete account of the public message’s ancient story. The often uncommisioned work of artistically inclined individuals—who either have too much to say to keep to themselves, or too much time to remain idle—has been a part of urban life as long as there have been cities, and, if you count cave paintings, then it has been around longer than recorded time.
In the modern era, many look at these young people and see only social degenerates putting their own selfish interests before the good of the whole; that it is more important for them to pass the time by writing on walls like toddlers than it is to committing that talent to the creation of something constructive.
“In general, graffiti is vandalism, only a few people can turn it into art,” said Sank, a graduating senior from a Dongguan high school. Sank is not his real name. It is a code name.
“Our graffiti is vandalism, just a special kind of vandalism. Some people do it on the floor with 3D, that’s graffiti, too,” added Shor, a co-conspirator in the CET Crew graffiti team of which both Sank and he are members. Shor, a university student studying graphic design, and Sank are discussing the broad meaning of the word and how three dimensional street art, often made with chalk, is widely considered a treat for visitors to tourist attractions around the world, a direct contrast to the perception of their style work.
In Asia, the art form is a derivative of American soft culture. The popularity of graffiti in China is a part of the hip hop lifestyle which includes the MCs, DJs and break dancers and beatboxers, and practitioners of these street skills are quickly gaining high regard among the trend vulnerable youth.
“In the West, writers do graffiti simply to do something bad. But here if you do graffiti for this reason you will be under a lot of outside pressure. This is one of the influences of Chinese culture on graffiti. It has been changed into something that we can accept,” said Shor.
With much of the city built with characterless materials, the splashes of color on the white tiles and gray cement are a welcome change.“This thing actually brings vitality to the street, but I’d prefer some cute animals because I can’t understand these words,” said a passerby at a recent CET Crew project.
The art form has always been a safer way to make a public statement under the shade of night. But, with a few exceptions to the rule, Chinese just see the pop culture side of the process. The Dongguan crews don’t seem to have motivation beyond hobby,andrelease.Thetruthisthattheyare young and may need some more time to recognize what it is that they want to say.
“We just want to tell people, ‘every city has graffiti culture, that every city has someone to do this kind of street art.’ There is no specific meaning in our works. We just want people to know that Dongguan has its own graffiti culture,” said Shor. “And also, graffiti is an outlet to let out negative emotions. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. This is my way to vent anger.”
Like many in China they are looking for their voice in a crowd, and this crowd happens to be in the world’s biggest population. And while the graffiti artists of China have studied modern graffiti and its beginnings, they say that in China there are no implications of gang related warfare or violence.
“We are in a good atmosphere. No one will judge other’s work. We communicate with respect and modesty,” said Sank. “We won’t judge someone’s skill level. Even if I’m better, I will refrain from negative comments, giving only beneficial communication,” said Shor.
These young artists estimate that there are about 20 active graffiti writers in the city of Dongguan, and like the rest of the country’s graffiti writers, they have organized into small groups which they call crews. They said that their crew, the City Energy Team, is the first crew in Dongguan considering that they are made up of their previous crew.
“Our team was based on the old team Galaxy. At that time, there were a lot of young kids wanting to learn graffiti and came to us. In the end, the team was full of immature kids whose passion lasted only three minutes,” said Shor. “And eventually only four of us pushed on and we decided to build a new team, just the four of us plus two others.”
“I first grabbed the spray two years ago. Before I only practiced on paper. Then after my first real graffiti experience, I knew them, joined the team and gained more chances. I’m good at drafting and Sank has more experience in spray,” said Shor.
In an underground subculture like this, these crews serve as a community to exchange ideas and learn techniques. As opposed to what is known as gang graffiti, which is a group of individuals marking their territory, a crew is a group of writers working together for an end goal, whether that is simply improving their skills or working together on a competition piece.
There are, however, times when territory comes into play with the local Dongguan crew as well. “When we go out, walking on the street, we don’t watch girls like other boys do. Instead we look for good white walls for potential graffiti. If we find one, we will tag it first then later come again and do a bomb,” said Shor.
Like many in China they are looking for their voice in a crowd, and this crowd happens to be in the world’s biggest population.
Not surprisingly, the lifestyle has its own lingo. A “tag” is a quick, single color mark, often done with a permanent marker. A “throw up, or bomb,” is still simple, but progresses to bubble style writing with more than one color, and the final step in progression is the burner. This is a fully rendered, multi-dimensional piece, most often done with permission due to the time needed for its completion.
One major contributing factor in who becomes a writer in China, many will say, is that graffiti is a cost prohibitive hobby. “I remember I used the paint named 7shifu. The best paint at that time in the mainland was Nipon, it costs over RMB 20 per can,” said Jimmy. “The effect is still not as good as what the kids use now. I want to try this paint sometime.” Jimmy, a member of the last generation of Dongguan writers, said his virgin piece, made in 1998, still remains on a wall outside the retired officers’ activity center in Guancheng.
He turned to graffiti as a means of self-expression and fulfillment of artistic impulse after giving up on an art degree because of low high school grades. At the time, Jimmy says that the Internet was not an option and that he was forced to track down magazine and TV programs to study the art form. The techniques used today have advanced since the 90s. The CET Crew also honors a code of conduct that is not always, but often, upheld around the world. The three-principled code is pretty simple. Do not tag or bomb residential property or historical relics, and do your best to tag the city’s infrastructure as little as possible. “We mostly do it on the street and alleys with many people passing by. If we know we are breaking the rules, we will do it at night with fewer people,” said Sank.
Pros and Cons
Unfortunately, not all who are inclined to make their mark on the public surfaces feel the same way. One such story came only a few weeks after Vice Premier Wang Yang, attempting to save the reputation of the country, made harsh calls to the Chinese people to become more responsible tourists. Following a post by netizen Kongyou Wuyi that shared evidence showing carved graffiti on the 3,500-year- old Luxor Temple in Egypt was caused by a Chinese tourist, the identity of the responsible 15-year-old was ascertained, leading to the online lambasting of the Nanjing teen.
And while it is easier in China to get away with graffiti, there are of course two sides to the coin.
This is not the only reason that graffiti has been in the Dongguan presses recently. But there was a different commotion surrounding Xia Yitian. Better known in the local graffiti scene as Betta, Yitian gained popularity over Weibo back in April when he painted seven utility boxes around Dongguan with the likenesses of cartoon characters, including SpongeBob Squarepants and Doraemon.
Yitian is a resident and university student in Shandong Province, who had been visiting his parents for summer vacation. “When he did the signal boxes I asked him, ‘why do it there?’ He said he wanted to tell people, ‘graffiti is not just doodles, and it could make the city more beautiful,’” said Shor.
And while it is easier in China to get away with graffiti, there are of course two sides to the coin. Many worry that allowing youth to go about painting where they please could be dangerous. The utility boxes that Yitian transformed were not electrified, but that doesn’t mean that in the future, some youthful adventurer won’t try to turn an electrical transformer into a likeness of the Hasbro toy version—with disastrous effects. Other cons for graffiti writing are often moot here in China, due to the cultural differences and lack of gang violence, but some believe that it is a gateway crime that could lead to more lofty offenses.
Yitian plans to return to Dongguan to open a graffiti workshop where he can continue his work and expand his designs. This is the stage that Chinese graffiti becomes, well, Chinese, culturally speaking. Passion is all good and well, but there is a profit to be made. With the modern age of skilled and educated Chinese designers working their payroll hours serving the wishes of bosses and products, graffiti serves as a creative release. It is a world located below the radar and off the map where these young artists can paint what they want and how they like without having to convince a director or tolerate their over-the-shoulder stares.
“After several commercial graffiti jobs, people started to find us on their own. Most customers won’t have too many limitations for us. They let us create what we want,” said Shor.
As a matter of promoting the culture the CET Crew often work with a local hip hop dance troupe, the TNT Crew, at events around the city. At these gatherings, event coordinators are only required to provide the venue, canvas and supplies, but there are other opportunities for the young artists to make up to RMB 450 per sq. meter for their work. CET has pieces in a handful of businesses around town, including hair salons and a bar.
“Yes,we want to lead the culture. We want people to understand that graffiti is not just vandalism.”