Street Art, Street Smarts: having sumthin to say in the PRC and not getting nabbed

Growing up in Melbourne, I got paid shrapnel to paint over it. I used to call this stuff “graffiti”. Spoilt middle-class kids thinking they were rebelling by bombing their tags like “Madc*#t” and “Sickboy” on public property, I thought. As I got older, I began to appreciate some of street art’s political messages, having many well-meaning mates who loved their chance, to say something clever and are great artists in their own right.  
 
Worse yet I thought, is celebrities recently paying insane prices for the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy’s off-the-wall pieces. To the purists, that was just selling out. Let’s face it, despite Brangelina having a family that resembles a Model United Nations Club, what do they know about famine in Africa? But as my mate pointed out to me, what is more unnatural than Banksy, himself a private school-boy, having others believe his messages are any more important than all those who plaster our streets with their messages of rebellion?  That’s street art’s natural order. Earn your peers’ respect or be plastered over. There is honour amongst vandals.
 
But in places were freedom of expression is suppressed, the word “graffiti” takes on a new meaning. How is it “expressed”, in the People’s Republic of China?
 
Chinese characters literally represent their meaning.  The word graffiti, is 涂鸦, tuya, which literally means, “to smear or dub crows” -as in the bird. That is, meant to mean poor handwriting, and comes from a Poem to a Baby Boy Born into the Family by Lu Tong, of the Tang Dynasty: ‘the ink slab on the table suddenly overturned/Its spill staining my poetry book the colour of crow’. Fascinatingly unexpected, but at least the characters themselves don’t imply the negative connotation of vandalism.
 
But then again, Chinese characters themselves, pictorial and plastered on doors with messages of good health, peace around festival times could be seen as the original graffiti. Even when graffitied they are graceful, and can be seen to mimic the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy.  Calligraphy is so well-loved by the Chinese, that even the man who destroyed ancient China, Mao Zedong continued its practice. Objective observers, rejecting that his cult identity played a part, were so impressed by his skills that there is even a style of calligraphy known as Maoti, or Mao style.    
 
So there’s fertile ground, for street art, but what do ya wana say? And how do ya say it here, where there’s not much you can say? In short, how do you fuck the man in the PRC?
 
I head down to Beijing’s famous art district, 798, to meet with “0528” and “More” from the BJPZ crew. The crew’s name comes from the Chinese, Bei-jing Pen-zi, which literally means Beijing Sprayers. They are two of four members, of arguably China’s most prolific crew. We wander around scoping out their work and chatting about the rapid modernisation of China, and what it means for their art. To my mind, 798 is the symbol of China’s communist-capitalism.
 
798, a former rocket factory says everything about modern China. It was built as a military-rocket and munitions factory, and then became an organic artist colony. And then came the rent rises. Now it houses China’s most expensive galleries that carry international exhibits too. Worse yet, Nike built a full size indoor basketball court flaunting this season’s newest and most colourful sneakers. And plasma TV’s are for sale in former warehouses, pretending to be art galleries. “This is the bad side”, says More, “but Nike pays us now to graffiti so at least we get some money”.  But, then the problem is that Nike execs also know how low the asking price can be, and the BJPZ Crew grudgingly accept whatever money they can get, lest others take their place. “But this is the thing about globalisation, it gives the world a chance to understand Chinese youth, and gives us a chance to understand foreign youths. Here, people, Chinese, tourists, see our message”, declares 0528, who has a full sleeve tat and also part-owns a skateboard graphic design business. Later, More tells me that “this is the life we choose to lead, this is our choice, we want to do this, and enjoy each day. We are not worried about ten years down the track, like others, we want to focus on what’s happening in China now, where’s this leading us?”
 
Like so many of Beijing’s large punk generation, they grumble they about the “Two Chinas”, the uneven spread of wealth. “For us, the Olympics made prices go up, but our wages didn’t, even fruit prices are up. After the Olympics this didn’t change.” The Olympics, says More, an “unemployed freelance street artist”, “was good for some. Those who had money made more money”. 0528 illustrates this disparity by regularly stenciling unattractive and clearly overfed Chinese faces, both male and female. Those obsessed by the pursuit of material gains, unlike the loved peasant migrant workers “who built China”. Without them, “this couldn’t have happened”.  
 
“That’s why we do it. My tag is MORE, because I want more…ideas…things, but mostly ideas”. I ask what sort of ideas: “about life, about me, I need to more understand what this is all about”, the hooded and beanied, More muses.
 
We wander around 798, and they show me all their work and that of their friends. The themes of that irk the punk generation are commonly: environmental waste and vandalism, Beijing’s air quality, materialism and consumerism and governmental corruption. “This is our hobby. But we can all choose what kind of life we want. In general Chinese people don’t understand our work, but increasingly they do”. 0528, his tag name, emanating from his birthday, is married with two kids: “my wife doesn’t understand it, but she likes the artistry of the stencils”. The guys tell me street art has only really emerged in Beijing in the past two years. But this year they expect it to “take off”. They see young children taking it up despite the oppressive costs of foreign imported, but superior quality spray cans. “The colours of the foreign cans are just better, it’s an expensive hobby.” But like other street artists around the world, they don’t mind when others paint over their work: “it’s natural, organic”. And they don’t think the celebrity of Banksy makes his work any better than anyone else’s. Worse yet, he has the resources to do, what they can’t.
 
Now we turn to the question you all want answered, what happens in the PRC when you get nabbed by the police? “We actually got arrested and went to prison once, but the police hassle us all the time. We tell them we are students, and this is our first time, we cry a little, plead for forgiveness. We tell them we have no money and show them 15 kuai, (about three dollars Aus) and act up”. So what happens, “no fine, no consequences”, I ask, “no, because the police are gullible and they don’t want us to get in trouble with our parents, and it to affect our “studies”. But they ask a lot of questions. What does this mean? What is this symbol? What does this picture represent? We just say “art”, it has no meaning. We are just na´ve art students”.
 
One stencil of theirs, prompts me to probe further; it is of an iconic old Red Army soldier in the act of spraying a spray can. “What does this mean?” I ask.   “All Chinese people have the power, and they should all do their own form of street art”. How they get away explaining such obviously political street art is almost funny, if only they could actually use unambiguous words to explain their frustrations.
 
It is a well known fact that art on display in the most famous galleries of 798 are censored by the Communist Party regularly, frustrating dealers who have to sometimes remove half an exhibition. Galleries, some of which are foreign-owned, just accept it and commiserate with the artists. Yet their brothers on the streets seem to be getting away with it, which would surprise many in the West. Though the guys note that as 798 becomes more “commercial”, management is increasingly annoying them. And they know what street art is not organic, which irritates them.
 
I ask them, what is their favourite place in Beijing to paint, as they had already told me certain places are off-limits, such as tightly controlled subways. More’s answer: “Beijing.” What? “Everywhere, we don’t have a favourite place, as much of Beijing as we can.”   
 
But what happens when you stencil and spray such overtly political messages, sometimes even attacking China’s lukewarmly loved President, Hu Jintao, and affectionately loved Premier Wen Jiabao? “We spray them fast and run like the wind. When the police ask us what it means, we just say Hu Jintao is niu bi.” The only way to accurately translate niu bi is: “fucking awesome”. It seems the spirit of punk rebellion is alive and well in the PRC. So much so, that even the man is being screwed. Fortunately, I had a chance to go out for my first ever effort with the guys. And I’m not even afraid to tell my mother.

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