Beijing — Few traces of tragedy remained when I drove through Sichuan Province last summer. Four years earlier, as many as 90,000 people had perished in a 7.9-magnitude earthquake or in the landslides and floods it triggered. The photos that emerged were apocalyptic — dusty survivors standing amid rubble dwarfed only by the mountains around it. In the days after the catastrophe, reporters wrote about the putrid smell of decomposition, later replaced by the sharp odor of lime, used to help stem the spread of infectious disease.
Yet as I passed through the county of Beichuan, where nearly half the inhabitants had died, I strained to see any evidence of tragedy at all. A farmer’s tiny house had an off-kilter roof, and one fence was interrupted by rubble. The region’s most defining features were the cheaply built, grey-and-white concrete high-rises, in neat rows that extended for miles and miles. They were tidy, impersonal, and — most important — new.
Sichuan’s earthquake zones looked exactly like the rest of China.
The country’s rapid modernization and urbanization have eradicated nearly all the charm from its urban landscapes. Quaint old neighborhoods are razed to make room for Soviet-influenced high-rises that appear almost by mitosis. More than 160 cities now report a million or more inhabitants. Further driving the construction boom, many Chinese see real estate as a safe investment; they are buying homes that, for the short term at least, are destined to remain uninhabited. According to the research firm IBISWorld, for the past five years, China’s construction industry has grown at an average rate of 22 percent a year, to $1.54 trillion.
China’s new urban architecture is fundamentally ugly, a fact that even the government acknowledges occasionally. The former vice minister of construction commented in 2007 that China is now home to “a thousand cities with the same appearance.” The state-run People’s Daily editorialized last year against buildings that lack culture, dubbing them “construction waste.”
In actuality, the problem is not a lack of culture; China’s present-day urban landscape is a highly accurate representation of its ugly Communist roots. The old things that made Chinese architecture distinctive have been forsaken or cheaply reconstructed to draw tourists. And the new buildings literally put the Chinese people in a box, valuing collective utility above individuals or their preferences. The style is efficient, but the structure is often rotten.
China’s youth are answering this drab landscape with color. In recent years, graffiti has exploded across China.
On a warm March day in Beijing, I met up with three graffiti artists — “writers,” as they prefer to call themselves — for a graffiti tour. Wreck, a denim-clad man with a cigarette dangling from his hand, tells me his art helps break up the monotony of China’s urban landscape.
“If the walls are very clean and have nothing, it’s terrible,” Wreck says through a translator. “There should be graffiti or something special. All the cities in China look alike, but graffiti makes them different. The graffiti is spread all over cities, especially big cities, but the graffiti is always different.”
We walk along Jingmi Lu, a wall-lined street that runs parallel to the airport express rail line. It’s Beijing’s most famed graffiti tag spot, a long stretch of wall hidden from sight by trees at ground level. But from the train above, the splashy art is easily visible, greeting passengers on their way in and out of the city. Chinese characters mingle with English and several other languages. And every hundred feet or so, there’s a spot where someone has decided to whitewash, fighting what’s clearly a losing battle.
Wreck is accompanied by Aigor, who is not Chinese, but who has become a fixture of Beijing’s graffiti scene; he was one of the original graffiti artists to paint at Jingmi Lu.
“We didn’t know it was going to be a hall of fame,” Aigor says. “But after two months, we started to see more. It’s great!” Now, he says, he paints between five and seven times each month, bringing his friends and a few beers.
Like the other graffiti artists I spoke to, Aigor insists he’s not engaging in vandalism. They see their work more as a public service, unlike the phone numbers that often deface walls and buildings in China — call them, and you can obtain everything from fake IDs to fake driver’s licenses to fake university diplomas. That’s the real vandalism, but Aigor says that graffiti is instead “another underground movement, something special, something cool.”
He and his fellow writers avoid painting at sites owned by a businessman who might see their work as an eyesore. Aigor says he never paints on new buildings, temples, government buildings, or historical sites, and he always picks up his empty cans afterward, never littering. “When we paint, we don’t destroy,” he says.
Zak, the final member of the posse, agrees. “I think graffiti is something to show respect,” he says in his soft voice. “It’s respecting the environment, not breaking the environment. Graffiti is a way of communicating with other people, of branding your city. So graffiti can gather different people together, and maybe a new product can be created.”
Zak loves graffiti so devoutly that he tattooed the name of his “crew” of artists on his knuckles: BJP2. It’s a complicated abbreviation for “Beijing Shotguns,” the letter “p” standing for “spring.” He explains that he sees his art as “open, springing full of energy. The combination is spontaneous, and the style is so fresh, unexpected. It’s simple, clean.”
The abundance of graffiti is especially surprising in Beijing, China’s capital city. During the 18th Party Congress last year, residents quipped that the city might as well be Sparta, so tight were the controls. Cab drivers were required to lock their windows to prevent passengers from throwing subversive pamphlets out the windows, and stores were forbidden to sell even kitchen knives.
But graffiti has managed to flourish because the authorities don’t quite know what it is or how to respond to it, says Lance Crayon, the director of Spray Paint Beijing, a yet-to-be-released documentary about the city’s graffiti culture. Furthermore, he says, graffiti has a very different significance in China from what it has in the U.S.
While graffiti marks disintegrating American neighborhoods, it’s a yuppie hobby in China. A good tag takes about 15 cans of spray paint, and a good-quality canister costs $7 or more. “It’s about the money,” Crayon says. “Can you afford to spend 300 to 400 kuai [$49 to $65] on a piece that may be covered up immediately?”
Many can, and do. In Beijing’s 798 Art District, one shop, 400ml, caters specifically to graffiti artists, selling all imaginable hues of spray paint. One of the founders, a young guy in trendy clothes who calls himself Noise, tells me business is booming. The shop sells hundreds of cans a month, almost exclusively used for graffiti, and ships orders to cities across China, he says. Noise adds that 400ml is a completely legal business, and that the authorities have never bothered him about selling the tools for graffiti.
Even when the police do catch graffiti artists, the penalty isn’t serious, says Zak. The first time he got caught, “I didn’t know what would happen, so I felt interested and excited and curious — not scared,” he says. He was arrested and held together with some foreigners for just over a week, but it didn’t stop him. The second time he got arrested, “I knew what to expect, so it wasn’t very interesting,” he says with cool disappointment.
Graffiti has become as accurate a reflection of the current Chinese culture as the bland architecture it covers. One of the paradoxes of corrupt authoritarian governments is that minor laws don’t really matter. There’s usually a way around them, especially for those with enough creativity — or adequately deep pockets. Rules abound, and the Chinese have made it almost a sport to figure out which ones are pliant. Graffiti artists know the limits; they lie low during big government events, and they choose their canvases carefully.
“It’s a very grey area, and that gives graffiti artists more freedom,” says Crayon, adding that in the United States, repeat graffiti offenses can add up to a felony, but not in China. “It’s this pocket of freedom that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and it’s mind-blowing.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.