It’s one of those words that brings mixed emotions to so many people. For me it’s sheer loathing when confronted with the mindless scribbles and daubs of equally mindless numbskulls who think somehow it’s OK to inflict their talentless vandalism on the rest of society. I only have to think of taking a train journey into London or a ride on the New York subway to reinforce my view that these guys (and it is mostly guys) should be hung, drawn and quartered, or de minimus have their right hand chopped off so they can’t inflict any more of their tasteless so-called artwork on the rest of society.
Not that it’s confined to the likes of London and New York. Beijing also has its fair share, though thankfully not as much as what you find in the West.
I’m not actually referring to the revolutionary slogans and paintings of Mao Zedong and his ilk in the 1920s. They used their “art” in public places to galvanise the masses behind the country's communist revolution. And during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party daubed propaganda in large red characters on factory walls, which ironically enough have almost all been painted over in modern times, save for a few specially preserved slogans in places such as 798 Art District.
Graffiti itself has been heavily influenced in Beijing by the urban street art of the West. In fact, at times it is used here purely to highlight a particular business or service, to somehow make it stand out – such as here in the student area around Wudaokou.
I first became aware of graffiti in Beijing when I had to visit a local hospital called the China Japan Friendship Hospital. Half of its rear-facing perimeter has a long nondescript wall which had small but somewhat cute graffiti painted on it. I quite enjoyed this love-tank that faced the rear entrance of the hospital where the international section was located.
There’s even been a documentary film made about Beijing’s “graffers” – by one of the guys who works in my office building. He’s obsessed with the subject – or perhaps more with his portrayal of the subject – but that probably says more about him and his ego, than the actually “art” of graffiti.
According to him, most Chinese graffers draw their inspiration from American hip hop culture, preferring to tag their names in English, and usually come from China’s middle classes.
Within a couple of months of my discovering this Chinese street art, the walls around the hospital were once again painted over with a turgid grey colour; and it was clear to anyone that though some of the previous artwork had been quite grotesque, it surely had to have been better than this all pervasive battleship grey.
And then, slowly but surely, the pictures started to return…
While some could be described as “interesting” or even “nice”, there are plenty of pretty ghastly daubs too. Just like at most of the world’s graffiti sites, I guess…
There again, there are some interesting compositions, not necessarily very nice, but you can tell there is some kind of artistic talent there struggling to break free!
Another centre for graffiti in Beijing is in the parking lot of the 3.3 store in Sanlitun – an area given over to boozing foreigners and a place I try to avoid most of the time.
This is where the commercial side of graffiti rears its ugly head. And I do mean ugly! Some of the small numbers of Beijing graffers are even paid to daub the walls of this underground car park which sprawls on two levels. I can only wonder: Why?
In 2010 there was actually a pop art festival held in the area and someone had the bright wheeze of inviting well-known international graffiti artists to paint graffiti live in the parking garage downstairs from the festival, and the artists were allowed to work while being observed by festival patrons. The themes focused on dangerous radiation and environmental protection and it is said that 35 artists contributed to the creation of the biggest graffiti wall ever in Beijing at the time.
Some are quite clever, I guess, in a funny kind of way – such as this split work which only really works if the camera is held at the right height – dughh!
One or two – out of the 50-plus scrawls – are pretty well done too… such as this motorbike, which reminds me of the one used in Shania Twain’s video of I’m Gonna Getcha Good. (OK, I know she had a blue bike, but let’s not be pedantic!)
This artist from Tianjin also hits the right button for me, it blending in perfectly to a car parking backdrop. But these two apart, I can honestly say there was very little else of interest, or dare I use instead the T-word (shhhh… “talent”!)
Over to the east in the trendy arty-farty 798 district, where once again the lack of artistic talent is very much in evidence, albeit interspersed with a handful of rather nice pieces, they even have a shop devoted to selling cans of spray paint to the kids who obviously have too much money and too little else to occupy their time (I think they are referred to as art students).
Graffiti is everywhere in this “artistic” community. Some appear in the unlikeliest of places such as this wall in a derelict part of the site which hardly anyone goes near…
While others are brash and “in your face” – quite well created, but appear as if they are there simply to shock.
This artist – Seth – appears to like the slicing up of bodily parts, as can also be found with this blue pig (or is it an aardvark, I ask myself?)
University campuses, too, don’t escape their share of the graffiti artists. At Renmin University – one of China’s elite Ivy League, for instance – there appears to be one wall that has been put aside for students to show off their (lack of) talent. Nowhere else on campus could I see any, which makes me think that this is an officially sanctioned wall. (It’s a bit like the special wall that has been erected next to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, to try to reduce as much as possible the idiots who insist on defacing this historical masterpiece.)
It’s very tame here at Renmin … and dare I say verging on the downright boring? OK. I dare…
If it’s real graffiti you want, you probably can’t do better (or maybe that should read “worse”?) than walk along Jingmi Lu, a wall-lined street that runs parallel to the airport express rail line.
Nowadays it is Beijing’s most famous spot for graffiti, there being a long stretch of wall hidden from the main passers-by with trees and shrubs; and also a place where some other socially inept residents go to exercise their ghastly canines, allowing them to poop with impunity. So altogether, then, a place you might well want to avoid!
It is said that film crews regularly use this wall as a backdrop for who-dun-its and trendy social dramas. OK, one might argue (and many do) that the wall itself is pretty awful in its own right and that a few daubs of paint brighten the place up a bit. I think this is where I will sit on the proverbial fence as I guess I can see both arguments – both for and against.
Some of the works are simply words that could be the graffers’ names or something else equally meaningless in the overall scheme of things, though I have to admit to quite liking some of the colour combinations used (but then, my taste in colours has always been verging on the questionable, I guess).
The most striking work, and probably one of the most famous in Beijing, is of a giant pig with a Chinese chopper stuck in its back. Its body is already sliced into pork chops but it is smoking a cigar, its red eyes shining angrily.
According to a BBC report, it was created by a 25-year-old art graduate who calls himself “Scar”. It represents the nearest thing one might get to political comment here in China – a commentary on the fluctuating pork prices in the market.
There’s another pic a bit further along – this time representing what … a lobotomy? Maybe it, too, has deep political significance, but I haven’t found mention of it anywhere – yet.
I guess if you’re a Bugs Bunny fan you might also be interested in this abstract… though I’m not sure he was blue last time I saw him…
But Fred and Wilmer are spot on here, just a few paces further along the wall…
When I paid my visit here, it was just a couple of weeks before the start of some football competition over in Brazil that seemed to be getting some of the locals all uptight. Perhaps that is why someone had taken it upon themselves to scrawl Germany in the black red and yellow of the national flag. And yet don’t you think that maybe ‘Deutschland’ would have been somewhat more appropriate? Perhaps they didn’t have enough spray paint … or maybe they simply couldn’t spell it?
The only outright sexist painting I saw at this wall was of this bikini-clad nymphette tugging at her panties for some inexplicable reason.
Perhaps one reason that, in the main, Beijing’s graffiti is not as obnoxious as that to be found in the West, is that over there most graffiti is done as a spray-and-run job; whereas here in BJ, the graffers don’t seem to be afraid of the long arm of the law – probably because the boys in blue would then have to put down their mugs of tea and get up and do some real work enforcing the law. Heaven forbid!
So when I came across this guy, he had his paints spread out in a nice little row on the ground, and had three female admirers camped out on a large tarpaulin slicing up pieces of water melon for him to sustain his energy. It must be tough being a graffiti artist in China. But I guess someone has to do it? Don’t they?