Desk, Shark, Fat, and Klute were spraying their nicknames onto a wall in a northern suburb of Zhuzhou city, Hunan province when a police car drove by and flashed its lights. Desk and Shark ran down an alleyway, but Fat stayed to finish his tag.
“Where are they??” Desk asked, in the safety of the alleyway.
When Fat and Klute came nonchalantly walking along, Desk asked if they weren’t worried the police would chase.
“No,” Fat said, “the Chinese police are lazy.”
Indeed, the police didn’t pursue, and the GCK crew continued to make their mark for another hour. According to Desk, an American who has taught English in China for two years, the Goofy Chinese Kids are the only graffiti gang in the city of 1 million. On one wall near a university, there was some graffiti written by others, but Desk dismissed it as the work of “art students trying to be edgy.” All of the graffiti on the road by the train station was marked with the names of GCK members.
Driven by the internet, tattoo culture, expats, and relatively lenient law enforcement, graffiti culture has been making its mark in China since the 1990’s. Zhang Dali, an art student who has exhibited his works alongside Ai Weiwei, is credited with being one of China’s first major graffiti artists starting in 1995. He learned about graffiti while studying abroad in Italy. Now young Chinese can learn about graffiti on the internet.
The two Chinese members of the GCK crew, Shark and Klute, along with Fat, who was traveling from Chengdu, enjoyed looking at photos of graffiti online. Videos like +86 北京/Beijing: Graffiti Bombing spread graffiti to audiences. In April, the Meeting of Styles, an international event that features graffiti, breakdancing, and music was held in Zhuzhou.
All of these cultures find a place together at the tattoo studio of Shark and Klute. “Both graffiti and tattoo are ways of drawing,” Shark said, who studied art and learned graffiti online.
Compared with American graffiti, Shark observed that some Chinese focus more on drawing pictures rather than perfecting their lettering, which is the basic form of graffiti. “Many Chinese graffiti people can do the pieces very well, but they can’t do the traditional graffiti characters,” he said.
At the studio one night in early November they watched films of graffiti and breakdancing while drinking beers and getting ready to hit the street. Desk showed the caps he had to replace the ordinary spray paint caps in order to get a better spray.
The desire to express oneself is universal, Desk said. Since the beginning of time, people have always wanted to say, I was there. Messages, still preserved today, covered the walls of Pompeii when it was buried under 6 meters of ash, Desk noted.
So too have public walls been used to spread messages in Chinese history. The outlaws of the classic Chinese novel the Water Margin wrote their declaration of rebellion on the wall of a tea house. During the Cultural Revolution, accusations were posted on wall posters. Briefly in 1979, Chinese were encouraged to post their thoughts on reform on the Democracy Wall. In 2013, Ding Jinhao became infamous around the world for writing his name on an monument inside an ancient Egyptian temple.
Desk hopes foreign graffiti writers are responsible so that they don’t create a bad name. “I don’t want to see it reported that foreigners are coming to China to destroy everything,” he said. He said he avoids spray painting buses or government property or anything that isn’t already marked. If it’s already covered with phone numbers–a common tactic by Chinese pliers of trades is to post their phone numbers everywhere–its game. (Shark did tag a propaganda sign that proclaimed workers have a good life.)
“Some people are destroyers. Some people are anti-government,” Desk said. “That’s their thing. Not ours.”
We set off from the downtown CBD northeast on the main bus line, T2. Desk had in mind an area down the street with a highway overpass and many beams and walls. The group pulleds out their cans and some shook them. Desk put the first marks on a streetlight at 11 pm. “Catching a tag,” he said, explaining the terminology.
As the group walked together, someone who looked like a police officer walked down the sidewalk in the other direction. He looked at everyone quizzically and kept walking.
“What was that officer doing?” Desk asked.
“He wasn’t an officer,” Fat explained. “Just a security guard.”
Security guards often wear jackets with patches that look like police attire.
In fact Chinese law enforcement is pretty lax on graffiti, especially when compared to the United States. Generally the worst you will get if caught is being made to clean the wall or pay a nominal fine, Shark said. Sometimes the officers will leave you alone even if they catch you in the act if they think what you are painting is beautiful. (A police officer in Nanjing responded that graffiti indeed isn’t a major concern. In fact the chengguan, or urban administrative and law enforcement bureau, a distinct unit from the police, is responsible for graffiti-related matters, at least in Nanjing, he said.)
By contrast, many cities in the U.S. have tough laws against graffiti and put a good deal of resources into investigations. A graffiti database helped the police catch Daniel Montano, aka MFONE, in 2007 and connect over 80 acts of vandalism to him, allegedly totaling over US$500,000 in damage. In 2008, MFONE was sentenced to between 2.5 and 5 years in prison. In July 2016, he was charged with 40 counts of criminal mischief. Desk himself has been fined $7,000 for one incident in the U.S., he said.
If Asian countries can create spaces for graffiti, Desk feels they can develop their arts scenes and attract international talent. Already Thailand is becoming a popular spot. Two Americans on probation, Utah and Ether, ran off to Asia in 2005 and stayed for a decade, painting the trains in many major cities, and published a book and videos titled “Probation Vacation.”
“If you open up a space for it,” as Chongqing has with a 1.25 kilometer (0.8 mi) section of Huangjueping Street where graffiti is allowed, then Desk argued, it will bring artists from all over the world, “since it is frowned upon elsewhere. And they won’t come to destroy.”
Graffiti in Beijing’s 798 Art District
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.