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.