Rarely is a mark on a wall seen as more than vandalism – petty hoodlums defacing something that’s not theirs with little concern for the people who own the property or those who walk by it every day. But if you know the person holding the cans of spray paint, you know that graffiti artists see what they do in very different light. Look closely and suddenly walls become canvas, scratches become messages, and graffiti is just another word for art. I spoke with three local graffiti artists to discover where, how, and why street artists like them have been so drawn to paint in recent years.
At the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts walking past bronze sculptures and museums presenting the products of the school’s best and brightest I spoke with Megic, a student who contends that graffiti is a gift to the gallery of the streets. Why did he choose the name Megic?
One of Megic's many magical pieces
“Because I like Harry Potter. I feel what I do is like [what] Harry Potter [does] – magic.”
His works can be found on the rooftops of the school on walls, across doorways, on granite pillars supporting stretches of highway, as well as on the walls of businesses that have hired him for a little piece of Megic of their own.
“This is our basketball game.” He asserted. “You try to get the ball in to feel happy. It’s the same. This is our battle and we can win. I paint the good one and people know me.” He described the feeling of pride he gets from knowing that he is responsible for something beautiful that others can respect and appreciate. This to him is a self-affirmation of who he is and the skill he possesses.
Like all games, this one too has rules as Megic explained.
“The throw up is a simple thing. Pieces with a lot of color and detail can cover the less. Bombing can cover the tag. Pieces can cover the bombing. More detail can cover the less detail.
“Some new guy cannot cover the old man. [We] need to give some respect. Maybe he’s dead and this is all that’s left.”
Survival of the most detailed, "higher level" of street art. Skull by AC.
What happens if someone breaks the rules?
“Someone will punish him.” He responded. Punishing might include being covered yourself or having someone insult your art by altering it. Most likely someone will approach the artist and let him know that he’s made a mistake.
“The street [belongs] to everybody.” He informed me. “I want this [to be] wonderful. [If] a lot of people don’t like [the art], I stop. That’s why this is a free thing.”
Later I spoke with another noted artist self-named “Sar” who views graffiti simply as one aspect of his life like knowledge or music – Absence of any of them would make life dull and without any color. He had more trouble defining where to find his and other good graffiti.
“There isn’t any one set place to do graffiti. If I feel it’s a good wall, then I’ll paint. In Guangzhou graffiti is relatively scattered, unlike in foreign countries where there is often a place where there can be a lot. There’s no place like that here. Perhaps on the rooftops there can be some more pieces, but after a while everyone will stop going there. Graffiti is best on the streets where it started.”
How did you get started?
“When I was little I liked to draw. From the start when I saw some graffiti on the street I thought it was really cool and I thought that if I did some myself I’d be cool too. Then a lot of girls would like me.
“Later I realized it wasn’t like that. As I slowly got introduced to the culture of graffiti, I started to realize that there was a deeper meaning behind it all. There are no words I can use to describe it. Art for me has changed a lot for me and helped me to understand a lot of things.”
What kind of messages does your work generally convey?
“Because everyone sees things in different ways, that’s just how art is. I respect everyone’s individual viewpoints. I don’t want to explain my work as the writer telling exactly what my work means – that would just limit people from interpreting it for themselves. There is no standard. If you see something a certain way, then that’s what it is. I feel happy to let people come to their own conclusions.
What kind of influence do you hope your graffiti can bring?
“In Guangzhou you realize that on the streets the most common things you see are advertisements, especially those depicting ‘Civilized City’ (文明广州) to express moral values for us. Everywhere you look is the same. The face of this city is without personality. There’s no special character to it.
“I want the city I live and grow in to have some color; to have some art. It’s not about promoting any specific ideal. I wish for all kinds of art. I hope that my pieces can add a bit of color and life to the streets. If the people who pass by will think about what they see then I’ve already achieved my aim.
Next I ventured across the city in Gong Yuan Qian to the Guangzhou Youth Palace (广州青宫) where graffiti culture has been endorsed and fostered with teenagers for years. Here at Chee Productions Hip Hop Headquarters anyone who’s interested can learn about sketching, tagging, writing, and painting, as well as music, rapping, and skating in a collaborative and encouraging environment. Dickid, a local graffiti writer himself, has hosted countless sketching competitions with coveted space on the roof wall often awarded as prizes to winning artists. Additionally he’s coordinated with the Guangzhou government for a vast array of local events to use youth culture to promote the city including music video production events at the 5 Rams Statue in Yuexiu Park and other such projects.
As he puts it, “The government gives us a lot of freedom to do what we do.”
The location for Chee Productions itself has been made available to him as a result of his good relationships with members of the government owned building.
“If we had to rent this it would be so expensive. [But] that’s what it should be like – some place for the people for free.
Of course, as Dickid attests, graffiti also exists in and outside of government support.
“Some of the kids get into deep trouble and locked up. It happens all the time.”
He sites a time in Wuhan when a major graffiti art event drew between 300 and 400 artists from around China to the city to showcase their talents. A few took their art to the streets in non-designated locations and as the police knew the hotel where the artists were staying they went there and arrested at least 30 artists – some involved and many uninvolved.
Although graffiti can affect many people directly or indirectly, it generally isn’t treated too harshly by the police. Dickid clarifies, “Even if the cops stop you. At worst they’ll charge you 50 yuan. Maybe [you’ll] go to jail for a month… But in the end you gotta’ give compliments to the city cleaners. Usually [graffiti artists’] work only stays for one or two days. That’s why nobody sees it long enough to cause us trouble.
(Collaborative piece by various artists, photo by EB Words)
With relative freedom to paint, the graffiti scene grew considerably until 2007 when the government tripled its efforts to keep the city looking clean and presentable for the Asian games. “No one wanted to paint anything – legal or illegal,” Dickid explains. It was only in 2009 and 2010 that the Guangzhou scene started to flourish again.
Dickid hopes that one day the scene in China can become something like in Germany were graffiti can be endorsed by the government. With public support graffiti artists then take on the responsibility to make sure the city looks good.
Taken independently of their contexts it’s not hard to appreciate many of the colorful and distinctive pieces created throughout the city. They echo the yearnings we all share to be known and respected in our community for what we bring to it. They express the desire for a more beautiful and colorful home. With humor, attitude, and grace they manifest the psyche of a generation. Regardless of taste, support, or even legal protection they force us to see our home by a slightly broader definition, and see our home itself, as a much more vibrant place.
Art or vandalism? Look around and you’ll undeniably see both. But while you’re looking, consider the more important question – What do you take away from it?