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Graffiti in China, Part Two: The Writing on the Wall

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China Power

Graffiti in China, Part Two: The Writing on the Wall

China strictly controls any graffiti that signals dissent even while promoting innocuous graffiti.

This is part two of a two-part series on graffiti in China. You can view part one here.

Earlier this year South China Morning Post’s Young Post, which we should remember is directed at young readers, reported the arrest of a 14-year-old girl who was sent to a children’s home and ordered to remain there for three weeks while courts decided whether to remove her from her father’s care. The reason? The girl had drawn two flowers in chalk on the “Lennon Wall,” a stairway in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district covered with colorful notes of support for the democracy protests. Patricia Ho, the girl’s lawyer, called it an attempt to “impose a climate of fear.”

Going after little girls who draw flowers certainly is a terrifying tactic. It’s also part of an emerging pattern. Fortunately, Hong Kong’s High Court later overturned the decision to hold her for three weeks, and after being released on bail, the young girl wrote an open letter on her Facebook page thanking the public for their support. She added, “what happened caught my family and me by surprise and is … beyond what we can handle.”

To recap — a child was arrested and almost removed from her father’s care for drawing flowers in chalk. The fact that this punishment caught her and her family “by surprise” indicates that they at least have a sense of proportionate justice. This case reveals that the great license enjoyed by graffiti writers in China is more mirage than freedom. Just as Hongkongers may “freely” choose pre-approved political candidates, writers may “freely” express pre-approved opinions. What’s truly frightening is that this is what it looks like when the government goes easy.

In 2011 authorities arrested Ai Weiwei at Beijing International Airport. Five days later, his accountant, studio partner, and driver disappeared. Ai was held for 81 days without being charged. During that time, 22-year-old Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine, started painting Ai’s likeness all over Hong Kong with the captions “MISSING” and “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” For that, Tang herself wound up facing  charges that carried a maximum of 10 years. One report noted, “such a stiff sentence for graffiti is extremely unusual […] Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad that usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.”

Worse still, in “Graffiti as a Strategic Form of Protest in Contemporary Tibet,” Stjepan Bosnjak describes how seven high school students from Amchok Bora village were arrested in 2007 for tagging “Free Tibet.” According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the boys, aged 14, was “bleeding profusely when last seen.” HRW Asia director Brad Adams commented that “beating up a child for a political crime shows just how far China has to go before it creates the ‘harmonious society’ China’s leaders talk so much about.”

However certain forms of polemical graffiti are tolerated. In Nationalism, Language, and Muslim Exceptionalism, Tristan James Mabry describes the experience of Dolkun Isa, currently secretary of the World Uyghur Congress. In 1988 he organized protests at the University of Xinjiang, where he was a physics major, to express outrage over campus graffiti calling for the enslavement of Uyghur men and the forced prostitution of Uyghur women. The school was outraged too and took immediate action — Isa was expelled.

The government is particularly sensitive to voices of dissent in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and other centers of separatism, which are considered one of the “three evil forces” (along with terrorism and religious extremism). Consequently, these voices are prosecuted or terrorized as they are considered a national security threat, i.e. a threat to Party hegemony.

Meanwhile, apolitical graffiti is promoted in these regions. In August 2014 China Daily reported on an international graffiti contest held in Karamay, Xinjiang and this month Peoples Daily reported on “catchy campus graffiti in Inner Mongolia” that included images of Doraemon and Garfield. Perhaps it’s fitting then that graffiti is known in Chinese as tuya, a term also used to refer to children’s drawings — that is, cute works of no real significance.

Since outlawing graffiti wouldn’t actually end graffiti, the government gets out in front of the movement by selectively supporting it while damming any unwelcome currents of thought. In “Public Surfaces Beyond the Great Wall: Communication and Graffiti Culture in China,” Caitlin Bruce discusses “the way art can be marshaled into the service of affirming […] a particular narrative of nationhood.” China even sponsors graffiti contests, co-opting art to promote its own message.

In one such contest, Bruce writes, the graffiti crew ABS, which covered a wall of the Beijing Institute of Technology in June 2009 with a piece addressing the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which 5,335 students died. Government corruption had led to the construction of “tofu schools,” poorly-built schoolhouses that crumbled during the quake, and mourning parents were “treated like criminals for trying to bring those responsible to book.” ABS’s piece was ironically named Duo Nan Xing Bang, a chengyu that means “Much Difficulty Excites a Nation,” or in Western terms, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But Premier Wen Jiabao praised the work, eliminating any underlying message of dissent.

The government’s approach has been effective. Most graffiti in China is toothless. Chinese writers produce beautiful but nugatory works while the coruscating wit of Basquiat or Banksy — most powerful when it subverts, inverts or empties given truths — remains virtually absent. Spec Su, creative director of the Changsha-based design company Life-Fun Studio, believes China “is not that open to freedom of thought, so we see more graffiti in books and bathrooms and private spaces, than on the streets.” This is especially true of subversive messages, e.g. “Overthrow the Communist Party! […] rise up!

All this raises an important question. Who says graffiti has to be political? In 2003 film critic A.O. Scott described his experience riding the D train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, witnessing a child ask his mother, “what’s graffiti?” The mother, Scott says, gave a sensible reply “emphasizing the dangerous, rule-breaking nature of the act.” The child then innocently remarked, “I think it’s beautiful,” and in so doing “resuscitated an ancient civic and aesthetic controversy […] between the civic impact of graffiti and its artistic status.” To an extent, graffiti’s mere existence is a political act that engages this controversy, and whether it asserts any answers, it raises the question.

For some, that’s enough. “It is […] important to remember that not all graffiti is created as a political action or struggle against officials,” writes Chinese Art History scholar Minna Valjakka in “Graffiti in China — Chinese Graffiti?” It needn’t be political because it isn’t “merely a plagiarized form of its Euro-American predecessors,” which she considers “a very Eurocentric and naive hypothesis.” Rather, it is “highly dependent on its own sociocultural context.”

For others however, the nature of the art is essentially combative. In his classic 2005 essay “Kool Killer,” French sociologist Jean Baudrillard describes graffiti as an “offensive sauvage” (savage offensive) and “une sorte d’émeutes des signes” (a kind of riot of signs). For Baudrillard, graffiti is an anti-capitalist and inherently rebellious art form. Yet as Mindy Tadai points out in “Beautiful Losers: The Clashing of Culture and Capitalism in Graffiti,” Chinese writers are neither losers nor do they clash with capitalism. In fact, graffiti enjoys not only select government sponsorship and commercial endorsements but public affirmation as well. According to one report, “people are even paying to have their walls tagged.”

Although it’s possible that China’s social tensions could stir parlous visual poetry from the current landscape of vapidly pleasant art, so far this hasn’t happened. In a 2010 interview with Adam Schokora, Shanghai writer Popil remarked, “many Chinese artists do not understand why they should do graffiti […] Many are just randomly painting their names on things as if it was a sticker!”

Personally I see the merits of both perspectives, yet while I enjoy the graffiti that merely beautifies urban landscapes, I tend to side with the view that graffiti is, at heart, a “riot of signs.” Regardless of nationality, this riot is particularly important when people are victimized and then silenced. The graffiti documentary Great Walls of China opens with the question “what are the writers trying to tell us?” I hope that for the next generation of Chinese writers, the answer to this question isn’t “nothing.”