On tiptoe, Qi Xinghua steps precariously between a towering mountain of discarded paint cans and his latest work, a sprawling 30-by-3-meter scroll that takes up almost all of his basement studio’s floor.
The graffiti artist’s favored canvases are the walls of Beijing’s dilapidated or partially demolished ruins, casualties of the city’s unceasing urban rejuvenation. But this piece, expected to take him a month to complete, is so intricate and massive that the 34-year-old has had to depart from his typical modus operandi, opting instead to paint on a vast stretch of paper lying on the ground.
Qi Xinghua poses for a picture in front of his work. Courtesy of Qi Xinghua
Qi is China’s most famous practitioner of anamorphic graffiti, works of art that, when viewed from the right angle, create the optical illusion of three dimensions. The scale of Qi’s work has won him substantive recognition, including no fewer than four Guinness World Records for the largest and longest such paintings in 2010 and 2011.
In Beijing, where Qi lives and works, graffiti is neither illegal nor particularly tolerated by authorities. In the absence of any specific legislation targeting graffiti, artists and their work are generally swept under other laws regarding private property and “social order,” Beijing criminal lawyer Kang Kai says.
Yet while they can avoid criminal prosecution by choosing to paint on dilapidated, abandoned buildings and ensuring that they do not cause any further physical damage to the structures, graffiti artists like Qi find that the city’s chengguan — municipal management officials — will often demand the artists cover their work in gray paint upon discovery.
Across the world, many graffiti artists dream of environments in which their art is not just tolerated but encouraged by their governments. However, Qi is weary of full-blown official support.
Previous attempts by authorities to harness the art form’s appeal to a young demographic have not gone over well in Beijing’s graffiti community. From his perch on a sofa in his dimly lit studio, Qi rattles off a list of municipal government departments around the country that have approached him to commission work. “These government organizations, they care about all the grand words,” he says. “Wall paintings should reflect things like ‘equality’ and ‘harmony,’” two of the 12 “socialist core values” that have underpinned party rhetoric since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Attempts by Sixth Tone to reach the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture for comment on its stance toward graffiti were unsuccessful, but the department’s official Weibo microblog has a number of posts depicting government-sponsored graffiti events stretching back as far as 2013. In one, “graffiti enthusiasts from all over the country” are shown completing a mural on the themes of “my dream, the Beijing dream, the Chinese dream.”
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Qi was asked by the Chinese Olympic Committee to paint designated walls with murals featuring uplifting slogans, the five Olympic rings, and fuwa, the games’ impish mascots. The prospect did not excite him. “If people saw my work, and it was all fuwa, I would feel awful,” Qi says. “I want my paintings to be about Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics.”
Qi Xinghua’s work of graffiti for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Courtesy of Qi Xinghua
Qi eventually persuaded the Olympic organizing committee to allow him a little more creativity, and instead of painting fuwa, he created a pool of lilies and dragon head water fountains on the grounds of the Olympic park. Dragons, pandas, and other obvious references to Chinese culture and heritage permeate his work to this day.
But Qi’s dream is for his work to last beyond fleeting commissions. Drawing a bold comparison between graffiti and the ancient Buddhist murals of China’s famous Dunhuang grottoes in northwest China’s Gansu province, he asks what people would think 100 years from now if they found that all of the city’s walls had been painted over in gray. “We have to leave behind a little culture,” he says, “the culture of street art.” But for his own work, he scales down his ambition somewhat: “I want there to be a lasting beauty to my work that people can still appreciate in 10 years’ time.”
Politics aside, the transient nature of government-backed projects is not conducive to the development of the art form, asserts ANDC, a founder of Beijing-based graffiti collective ABS. “The government has supported [graffiti], but that isn’t sustainable,” he says. “It’s all just for political gain.”
Alongside inconsistent support from high-level government bodies, ANDC — who declined to be identified by his real name due to a past conviction — says that antipathy among the public and a lack of tolerance from local authorities is stifling growth of the art form, even in situations where artists are painting on abandoned buildings and not causing any physical harm. While the 29-year-old believes that there is more freedom for graffiti artists in China than there is in the U.S., he has still had his fair share of run-ins with Beijing authorities and now sets up perimeter tape around himself when he paints in an attempt to look like a commercial, commissioned artist.
At the heart of hostility toward graffiti, wherever it is painted, is the engrained belief that walls should be clean, says Li Qiuqiu, a founding member of the graffiti group BJPZ — onetime rivals, now friends, of ABS. “People are all about cultural inclusiveness, but still they don’t let us paint,” he says at a cafe in Beijing’s 798 Art District.
At 38 years old, Li is a veteran of the Beijing graffiti community, given that the art form only took hold within China in the mid-1990s. Li began his graffiti career as a 15-year-old, marking his territory around Beijing’s old city with a simple tag: “0528,” his birthday. Numerous times, he was stopped by the city’s chengguan, fined, and ordered to paint over his tags.
One particular confrontation with the authorities in 2001 even attracted the attention of local media. “The attitudes of media reports were negative, and I was asked whether I would paint on my own house,” Li says, pausing to take a drag on his cigarette. “Of course I would.”
The difficult environment in which China’s graffiti artists operate has led Li to embrace the intrinsic transience of the art form. “Graffiti is doomed to disappear, whether it’s covered by other artists’ work or painted over by the chengguan,” he says. “You have to understand that.”
But there are those who bemoan the constant renewal of Beijing’s brick-and-mortar canvases. Liu Yuansheng, a 62-year-old art enthusiast and retired magazine editor, has charged himself with the task of archiving Beijing’s graffiti in photographic form. “Graffiti is the fluid memory of a city,” Liu tells Sixth Tone in an email. “It can appear at any time, just as it can disappear before it has been noticed by anyone.”
Liu says many artists are surprised when they stumble across their own graffiti among his photographs — which he has amassed over 12 years — given that works are often never seen again after completion. But his dream of publishing the photographs in book form in China have so far met with nothing but brick walls. Requests he has made to publishers since 2014 have garnered no interest.
This would come as no surprise to Liu Zheng, a 30-year-old artist who founded graffiti collective KwanYin Clan in 2006. The group’s work may have found a platform of sorts in Liu Yuansheng’s blog, but Liu Zheng is doubtful that exposure will extend beyond that. “Graffiti in China is still underground, still a subculture,” Liu Zheng, who is not related to Liu Yuansheng, tells Sixth Tone. “Our people can’t accept it.”
The KwanYin Clan has attempted to make its work more accessible to Chinese audiences by mixing contemporary spray-paint technique with traditional Chinese landscape painting, an approach echoing that of anamorphic artist Qi. “We want to add elements that Chinese people can understand and enjoy,” KwanYin Clan co-founder Song Tongshu says.
Graffiti by KwanYin Clan, inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting. Courtesy of KwanYin Clan
This unique approach has not borne fruit yet, and the collective, like others in Beijing, continues to operate in niche circles. Liu Zheng, who — along with Song — is a graduate of fine arts, attributes the public’s lack of interest in graffiti to the inadequacy of art education in China’s compulsory education system. “Early years’ art education is so superficial,” he says. “In China, just how many primary and middle school students will get taken to visit art galleries?”
For the KwanYin Clan, dwindling audience engagement is having a negative impact on their roster of recruits. Of the nine people who are still associated with the collective, only a handful consider themselves active graffiti artists and none can rely on the hobby to make a living.
Despite waning interest, there are signs that graffiti is not necessarily fated to exist on the periphery of Chinese culture. In July, the Central Academy of Fine Arts — China’s most prestigious arts university — held an exhibition dedicated to street art. “Admitting that this is a kind of art is at the very least a good start,” Li of BJPZ says tentatively. “Who knows, the Central Academy of Fine Arts might even open a street arts program.”
Li’s optimism is shared by graffiti artist ANDC, who is all too familiar with the heavy-handed ways of Beijing’s chengguan. “Everything can be solved,” he says. “With enough confidence and love for [graffiti] culture, you will be able to touch those who come at you looking for trouble.”
(Header image: A man takes a picture in front of BJPZ’s newly completed graffiti in Xingtai, Hebei province, April 2016. Courtesy of Li Qiuqiu)