Graffiti in Beijing might not be as prominent as in New York, or as in parts of Germany, Spain and the UK, but it has been the centre of graffiti in China for some time. Though they may not last long, most of us have seen spray-painted signs here and there around the city.
Let’s clarify some things first: graffiti and street art are not the same thing. Although often spoken of as one, there are a few (admittedly contested) distinctions between the two. For starters, graffiti most often takes the form of one-word 'tags' that identify the artist, whereas street art uses more images. Moreover, graffiti is generally illegal so is considered by some as vandalism, meaning that it’s generally cleaned away pretty swiftly.
Lance Crayon, the director of Spray Paint Beijing, a documentary that traces the origins of graffiti in Beijing, emphasises the same distinction: 'Western media would like for us to think that Zhang Dali [a renowned Chinese artist who Wikipedia cites as "the only graffiti artist in Beijing throughout the early 1990s"] was China’s first graffiti artist, but that’s wrong. He was never a graffiti artist. He was a street artist for a period of time during his career and then he moved on. It’s a label that means nothing to him.' A young Beijing graffiti writer known as Zeit makes a similar point: 'Linguistically speaking, in Chinese the word for graffiti, tuya (涂鸦), refers to both graffiti and street art, so there is often confusion about the differences.'
On the subject of the origins of graffiti in Beijing, Crayon continues, 'I’ve heard that sometime around the late ’90s it started appearing, but with very little frequency. For me, graffiti in Beijing begins with the BJPZ crew. Li Qiu Qiu, known as 0528, is considered by many Chinese graffiti writers to be the one who started it all.'
According to Zeit, there are '70-80 writers here in Beijing, but only about 30 are writing regularly'. And where are they writing? Both Crayon and Zeit extol a wall on Jingmu Lu, a 2km-plus stretch that has been covered in graffiti for the last eight years or so. Although it’s not officially sanctioned, writers come from China and abroad to write here in peace.
An idiosyncratic feature of graffiti in Beijing is the speed of the so-called 'buff', in other words the speed in which graffiti is cleaned from the walls. 'Graffiti is definitely easier in other cities,' Crayon reckons. 'Beijing has become too expensive for Chinese writers and nowadays pieces are buffed too quickly. It’s gotten to the point where the Chinese writers, especially the younger ones, are reluctant to spend 300RMB or more on a paint for a piece that could be covered within a day or two.'
Yet despite this, it’s not uncommon to see smaller tags of some famous names surviving for much longer. The tags Zato, Limp and, of course, the famed 'Beijing Bunny', are prolific all across the city. It’s not surprising that smaller and less noticeable tags have a much longer shelf life than bigger pieces.
Both Zeit and Crayon also emphasise that Beijing’s relatively large foreign influence had a massive effect on the graffiti scene here, and both agree that it was due to this that graffiti began to grow in the first place. More recently however, Beijing graffiti is displaying some more Chinese characteristics, such as the appearance of Chinese characters. The number of strokes and the need for more specific positioning and alignments of these strokes can make it difficult to create a unique style, but a number of writers in Beijing are becoming more skilled in this new element of graffiti writing. Look out for 气 (Gas), 灵丹 (Exas), 杂投 (Zato), 时间 (Zeit), 月下 (Moon) and 陈 十三 (Mora). Zeit believes that a younger generation of developing Chinese writers are sure to be writing in Chinese characters much more in the next few years, evolving the scene even further.
By Tom Mouna