Although some people still vehemently insist that street art is a form of vandalism, it has become a widely accepted means of expression in urban environments since the US graffiti explosion of the early 1980s. Indeed, the manner in which street art swiftly became popularized and legitimized through gallery exhibition, festivals, and urban planning initiatives has made the movement complicit in the process of gentrification with edgy murals enabling the rougher parts of major cities to maintain a sense of authenticity even as they were repurposed as bourgeois hubs.
The commercial integration of street art in most parts of the world makes it all the more interesting to see how it is evolving in territories that are relative latecomers to this transitory phenomenon. This is one of the aims of Lance Crayon’s documentary Spray Paint Beijing, which hits the abundant public spaces of China’s sprawling capital where such free-spirited artworks have become a feature of its post-socialist landscape but were not recorded until the mid-1990s. Given the seismic shifts of the People’s Republic and the restrictive conditions placed on artists who operate with official consent, one might expect Beijing’s graffiti culture to have a fiercely political dimension, not only with regards to the intent of the murals themselves but the manner in which the state reacts to their sudden appearance. What we find in Crayon’s film, however, is graffiti with Chinese characteristics, an adoption of a Western mode of expression for which local definition and response are still being negotiated.
Spray Paint Beijing identifies the 1995 activities of Zhang Dali as the start of Beijing’s graffiti revolution. Operating under the pseudonym AK47, Zhang was a disillusioned graduate of the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts and Design who, having asked the eternal question of whether an artist should work only in his studio, utilized condemned walls as his canvas. Seen in grim footage from Wu Wenguang’s landmark documentary Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990), the dead-eyed Zhang’s mood is despondent as the then-struggling artist expresses the wish to have a nice place to live that will afford him a measure of stability. Bypassing the random defacement stage of graffiti, Zhang instead immediately cultivated a persona by painting a head to represent himself, the tag AK47 to signify violence, or 18K to symbolize wealth. Now celebrated on the world stage, Zhang tells Crayon that graffiti was a “phase of expression”, but to current crop of graffiti writers, it’s more of a lifestyle.
Crayon finds a mixture of those who have followed Zhang’s lead by using street art as a stepping stone to legitimacy, such as the Beijing Penzi (“Beijing Spray Cans”) crew who have their own design business based in the Caochangdi art district. Although the documentary is far from cynical about Beijing’s graffiti sub-culture, creative limitations and economic privileges are emphasized with MES of the KTS (“Kill The Streets”) crew pointing out that some taggers (someone who writes graffiti using their nickname or identifying mark) are just “playing around” by following a trend that they have become aware of through the Internet, as evidenced by their imitations of Western artists. The cost of buying spray cans makes street art a largely middle-class pursuit in the PRC where the next generation of taggers, painfully aware that their parents will ‘lose face’ if they are accused of encouraging dissent, keep political urges in check. This ideologically careful approach enables street art to flourish in plain sight – artists will often attract a curious crowd when painting in board daylight, while police officers respond with indifference – but also constitutes the roots of self-censorship.
Self-financed by Crayon and shot in one-man-band fashion from 2011-2012, Spray Paint Beijing has a rough, unfussy feel which works for its subject matter. What it lacks in national context (China has a rich history of outdoor inscription) is made up for with access to graffiti writers who are uninhibited in front of the camera, whether painting or discussing their passion. Footage of taggers at work includes a dispute between artists and students on the campus of Renmin University of China where spatial negotiations result in a harmonious arrangement, while STU explains how he adds Chinese elements into a circle design at Jing Mi Road. As one might expect from a sub-culture documentary, Spray Paint Beijing gets a boost from its kinetic soundtrack, which showcases the beats of such underground artists as DJ Wordy and MC Webber, but even here Crayon casually overturns assumptions. Music is usually a vital component of graffiti culture, as seen in such portraits of the US community as Style Wars (1983) and Graffiti Verité (1995), or the propulsive global sweep of Bomb It (2007), but the taggers in Spray Pain Beijing state that they have not been influenced by hip-hop. Instead, skateboarding (which predates graffiti as youth phenomenon in China by more than a decade) is positioned as a kindred scene.
A welcome addition to the steady run of street art documentaries that have been released since the movement’s 1980s commercial crossover, Spray Paint Beijing also exudes a vibrancy that is rarely found in records of China’s rapidly changing urban environment.
Spray Paint Beijing is available from Vimeo On Demand.