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Graffiti Art China's urban nomads target graffiti canvas, the Wall
( 2003-12-23 09:49) (cityweekend.com)

A twenty-year old kid stealthily creeps towards the Great Wall - a monument to the country's grandeur, audacious and bold. He's no tourist up from Shanghai for a look at one of the seven wonders of the world. He's approaching the wall with a chattering bag of spray cans, and a slight step. For this young rebel, the Wall is a canvas, mile after mercifully blank mile - a graffiti artist's dream. And his moments alone with the Wall are ticking away like a time bomb.

No prize is more coveted for a graffiti artist in China than that of the Great Wall, but for all those out to be the first to mark the pristine stone, it's too late. Last week the Great Wall got "bombed". "Bombing," or illegal acts of graffiti, are nothing new to China.

Sic is one of these artists. Soft spoken, few would think this nineteen year-old female university art student is capable of the "bombings" of public buses and police paddy wagons. Affectionate and lithe, Guangzhou native Sic fixes you with an even stare and says, "Some people prefer doing the legal stuff. It's more obedient but I like it out on the streets. I guess my heart's not yet at ease."

Flashing a mellow smile, it's hard to imagine her sneaking out late Saturday nights on pre-dawn raids, armed with a digital camera and spray cans. But those are the tools with which she founded Made in Guangzhou (MIG), the Chinese mainland's first graffiti crew, and their online graffiti gallery.

Her introduction came through a middle school classmate who showed her some American and European graffiti sites. "It was crazy! You could do it anywhere. It wasn't necessarily beautiful but it was daring and brave."

She began scribbling "tags" (stylized renderings of an assumed name) in her notebook and working up the courage to try it out on the street. Perhaps it was her father's advice that finally gave her the edge. "At the time, graffiti didn't exist in China. My father had always encouraged me to be the first to do something, to be the best!"

Whereas graffiti began in the West as a reaction to an over-commercialized art world that became detached from the artists' lives and as a movement to bring art to the people who needed it the most, those living in poor conditions with ugly surroundings, China's karma with writing on walls is deep and dated. In the classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh, hero and leader Song Jiang makes his revolutionary declaration against the corrupt state with a poem drunkenly scrawled on a teahouse wall. During the Cultural Revolution, pesky neighbors could be eliminated through accusations posted on a community wall. When Deng Xiaoping made his move for opening and reform, he designated a wall in Beijing where people could freely write their thoughts. He may never have imagined that they thought so many "dangerous" things. Nicknamed the "Democracy Wall," it quickly met its end.

Today's graffiti has entered into advertising, branding, and design. Sprung from urban youth culture and spreading from the population centers to the provinces like an unchecked wave, it is a sign of the next generation.

Although Sic's father might not have had graffiti in mind, it didn't matter. At the dawn of the new millennium, with extra-wide markers in hand, she and classmate Sue started decorating the walls around their middle school.

Eager to learn more, Sic began contacting Hong Kong artists via the Internet. After chatting online for over a year, second-generation Hong Kong crew FDC (a graffiti group) came to Guangzhou in 2001 to give Sic and MIG their first lessons.

Brought to Hong Kong in the mid-80s by foreign students and visiting hipsters, it would take over a decade for local Hong Kong crews like MC Yan's CEA to begin the first generation of Chinese graffiti. As hip-hop and urban street culture grew, so did the crews. Hong Kong hip hop group LMF cut an album and featured graffiti art on the cover. It was more than simply writing your name on the wall. It was a new voice.

They worked on the outlines, fill-ins, and effects that make up "pieces" or large graffiti mural. FDC brought a "piece book," or a photo collection of their work. "By showing us these pieces, they gave us direction but we couldn't copy," remembers Sic. "It was up to us to find our own style."

In a male-dominated field, Sic stands apart from other graffiti artists as a female "bomber". Vibrant and strong, her choice of bright, rich colors, sensual lines and cheerful illustration debunks the myth that graffiti is only for urban malcontents and agro-males.

"I'm a girl and I wanted to do girl things," Sic says. "I started adding flowers. Now when people see the flowers, they know it's my work."

Hungry for recognition, she racked her brain for ways to one-up rival crews. Graffiti is inherently local and difficult to display to a broad audience. It is also a fleeting art form, as walls are constantly painted over or knocked down.

"The Internet seemed the fastest and most direct way to promote our work," explains Sic. "We were the first mainland crew with a website. In that sense, MIG is very advanced."

FBL, another Guangzhou crew, focuses more on the legal aspects of graffiti art. Asked why, member Li Dongyou laughed, "Look at her (Sic's) face. If you were a cop would you arrest her? We're all guys, we have a much harder time pulling off the illegal stuff."

MC Yan, long time graffiti artist, disagrees: "I'm 32 and I tag every day. FBL is more art school oriented. Sic is hardcore, she's on the street."

Danger is integral to graffiti art. It's what gets you shaking before a piece and laughing after. Sic, loosening up, jokes about her favorite spots to hit. "I love the bus depot. Public buses are exciting and the surfaces are perfect. There're guards but there're also blind spots." On average, Sic says that 10-20 minutes at one site is long enough to get the work done although high profile spots are troublesome such at the Guangzhou Hotel on the Pearl River.

In this particular incident, they hadn't been working long when hotel security grabbed them, finding their spray cans and escorting MIG away from the area. "They had no idea what graffiti was though," explains Sic. "We told them we were art students testing out our work on society. They assumed all artists were loons, unfathomable by normal people. They let us go, demanding we return the next day to repaint it."

But as China gains a deeper understanding of the rebel art, will penalties become more severe?

Their reaction to the bombing of the Great Wall could be the litmus test.

Graffiti may still be a little known phenomenon to most Chinese but this is changing. Celebrating their one-year anniversary last week, Urban, China's first free street culture magazine has been working to teach the masses about the new style.

Their focus is street-style and includes hip-hop, punk rock, X-Games, fashion and graffiti. With an estimated readership of 30,000 middle school and college-aged hipsters, the distribution of this Shanghai magazine has already begun reaching out beyond the coastal cities to the in-land provinces.

It's a dynamic new market and big business is following suit. Eager to capture the imaginations, and pocketbooks, of wealthy urban youth, mega-corporations like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas sponsor Urban. Last year, Nike branded several basketball courts around Shanghai with its ubiquitous swoosh, christening them Nike Parks. Graffiti crews were hired to deck the walls.

It seems to be working. A local Shanghai middle school student commenting on the park, gushed, "This is a place to make your dreams come true. Look around, every kid out there wants to be the next Yao Ming."

Amidst the fear that commercialism will diminish the quality of the art is the hope that it will spread graffiti's message far and wide. It may be that the tension between the two that pushes artists to new heights.

Himm Wong, creator and editor of Urban, is taking it in stride. "There is a real need for increased exposure in China. Chinese youth have fewer options for entertainment than their western counterparts," he explains. "They're usually limited to shopping, karaoke, and traditional sports. We want to give young people more choices, more ways to enjoy life."

While the magazine is still 80% advertorial, they feature frame-by-frame break dancing and skate boarding lessons and essays from local hip-hop MCs. Graffiti makes up their showcase of local art.

"We're still far from our goals," concedes Wonn. "Most styles are still copied from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and the West. We want to create an organic Chinese style, our own voice. We want Urban to be the flagship."

Asian street culture guru and mentor MC Yan may be leading the pack. His latest graffiti project, entitled "China Man Tagging," displays a groundbreaking fusion of eastern and western art traditions. Reproductions of traditional Chinese paintings feature eccentric ancients tagging the walls. Looking for intersections between traditional Chinese and modern art, he seized on the concept of incorporating poetry into paintings. Set against bold, in-your-face graffiti backdrops, Yan writes his own hip-hop lyrics like graffiti calligraphy. And, in what is possibly Hong Kong's largest ever graffiti coup, he designed a McDonald's add campaign that will cover ten entire subway trains with graffiti art.

"I do my own work and I do commercial stuff to support myself," says Yan. "I always let the corporations know that it's a package. If they want the image, they have to take the art."

Most artists realize that corporations have little vested interest in graffiti and will abandon it once it ceases to sell. They are eager to seize the opportunities now. However, at the end of the day, it's the work you've done and your crew that matter most. What's more, the numerous smaller tribes from different cities are in close contact and often cooperate to produce larger works.

It's one thing to tag decrepit walls in Guangzhou but whether or not the Great Wall can stand an attack by a new urban nomad, this remains to be seen.

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