In our first article Tuttomondo / Street Art Series: Italy, Elisa de Cagna wrote about street art within the Italian society. According to de Cagna, street art in Italy is a representation of peace and harmony in a culture that considers it acceptable by the people. China’s street art, on the other hand, does not always convey a peaceful image or receive an open-arms reception by their government.
China's street art has always been considered a novelty and a “middle class and up endeavor” among the people because supplies have always been expensive to purchase. There are no specifically strict laws banning the creation of street art; however, if the art produced contains any perceived bias or imagery against the Chinese government, the artwork is/ will be taken down.
Regardless of this leniency of the Chinese government in allowing street artists to express their work, there has been artwork that has been either painted over, placed in unknown environments, or not been fully shown due to the laws against bias. Ma Yongfeng is an artist undeterred that his work is considered to display this bias representation.
Ma Yongfeng was first known for his video “The Swirl” in 2002 where six Koi fish were swirling in a washing machine for fifteen minutes then drained with the water, creating what may have been perceived as a strong statement about the country. This is Yongfeng’s representation of China’s rapid transition from authoritarian communism to unstamped capitalism. The difficulty of the independence and gap from the system is displayed by the extensive movement of the fish.
Yongfeng’s admiration comes from China’s most prominent protest artist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained for three months in 2011 for creating the “Name List of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen Investigation” in 2008. This project consisted of the names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake which Weiwei publicized.
Yongfeng’s video was a boom. Years later he developed an exhibition called “Bernard Controls Project” (2012) with the words “SENSIBILITY IS UNDER CONTROL” stenciled on recycled cardboard started by Beijing-based Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi. This piece demonstrated the working class and the strict laws they were forced to abide by. It is said that these similarly related stenciled messages were another form of debunking Mao’s timeline, from the industrial to the revolutionary era, which was accessible for the workers to see. In Caochangdi, Yongfeng’s “Sensibility is Under Control”, “Action is Thinking” and “No Compromise” signs have all been painted over.
ROBBBB, another Chinese street artist, portrays similar discord throughout China with his artwork as well. ROBBBB’s acronym stands for the representation of an artist that took a common English name and created meaning to each B. The second B signifies Beijing, his home town and main inspiration. The third B gives honor to one of his favorite street artist Blek le Rat, and the final B stands for motivating himself to become the best.
He has created over 200 street art pieces targeted in abandoned city ruins because it depicts the urban growth of Beijing. His reflection upon the society he lives in and creating an image of Beijing’s future development of their generation mirrors his street art where he finds his inspiration through making photographers of the local residents.
However there can be controversy within the society when viewed by an outsider.
Lance Crayon’s film “Spray Paint Beijing: Graffiti in the Capital of China” is a collection of graffiti artists discussing their artwork and lifestyle. “As long as you stay away from anything political or anything too sensitive, from painting on temples or anything sacred and government buildings, things like that, you’re not going to have a problem,” states Crayon. “And that’s what they do. I mean there is so much concrete in Beijing, that when these guys paint on walls that aren’t designated by the government, the citizens think they are making this city look prettier – and indeed they are.” He describes his experience while filming this documentary as “safe and open, and that was the most surprising thing about [his] film”.
His interview with The Beijinger has reflected his positive views of graffiti art in China. One question he was asked was based on any surprises he came across while creating the film. He said that “while filming [he] was surprised how the artists could paint during the day or early in the morning and no one would bother them, beat them up, or even call the cops”. If he was to document in any other country, such as in the United State or in Europe, it would have been impossible. Another question that can be controversial to how the street artists feel about graffiti in China is Crayon’s proclamation that “he [thought] graffiti in China will dominate the international graffiti scene in years to come”. He explained furthermore, that due to the safety and openness of street art, graffiti can become a source of “freedom to engage in [and] is far greater than any other country [he] know[s] of”. Unfortunately, Lance Crayon may not have been searching too deep into the situation.
When China originated their graffiti art in the 1920s revolutionary slogans and paintings were publicly placed to promote the communist cause. As a direct result, the history of street art can be seen as an awful part of China. Scar, a Fine Arts graduate student, displayed his disdain of China’s method of law by creating a mural of a giant pig with a kitchen knife stuck in its back.
Scar explained this art piece spoke about pork prices being raised “higher and higher”. He said, “We can’t stand it. Pork is the most expensive thing in China and the government does nothing about it. We can’t do anything so we thought why not paint graffiti?” Scar’s representation of his anger towards China’s rapid unfair growth in pork prices paid a price when he and six other artists were arrested. Contrary to Crayon who proclaimed China has artistic freedoms when compared to other countries, many artists are not permitted to tag anywhere near Tiananmen Square or government buildings, which Scar and six other street artists were taken into custody for.
Obviously, there is a huge distinction between the artistic voice behind street art in Italy versus China. The Great Wall of China allows the freedom of exploration. It remains to be seen if Crayon's prediction of a future of freedom of (artistic) engagement will fortify their communities' great walls.
BY FLORENCE SEA HEE KIM
Contributing from New York
*Thumbnail credit: Street Artist/ Global Painter Julien Seth Malland - Fengjing town, Jinshan district, Shanghai, China