By Cutler Dozier
A skinny 21-year-old Beijinger with shoulder length hair, wearing baggy jeans and a worn t-shirt, stares through his paint-speckled glasses, transfixed by the stack of multicolored graffiti cans arranged in front of him. He goes by the name WEK, and is deciding what colors he will use to paint his name on various walls and shop fronts around the city. He is part of a booming graffiti scene in Beijing and is possibly the most prolific graffiti writer in mainland China today.
Graffiti writing was first introduced in China by Zhang Dali, the so-called “godfather” of Chinese graffiti. In the early ‘90s, he spray painted outlines of giant heads on partially demolished buildings as a way to mark what he felt was a rapidly changing city landscape. Following in his footsteps was Beijing’s infamous graffiti crew BPZ (Beijing Penzi, literally “Beijing Spray Cans”). Members of BPZ began writing their tags (graffiti names) in big, bold, more traditional graffiti styles.
Today, the graffiti scene in Beijing has exploded, and includes both locals and foreigners. Walking or driving around the streets, you can see various tags and throw-ups of different writers strewn across the city. One particularly dense area is on Gulou East street, near the Drum Tower. The colorful names of graffiti artists splashed on shop front doors bear a striking contrast to the traditional hutongs of the old city.
Either spray painted in big multicolored letters on blank walls, or more crudely scrawled on lampposts and garbage cans, WEK’s name decorates (or desecrates, depending on your opinion) large swaths of Beijing’s expanding cityscape. You could get on the subway in Haidian, the university district to the northwest, travel halfway across the city, and within one block be confronted again with those three letters: W-E-K.
I met WEK one hot summer day, having been introduced to him by a mutual friend. Over the next couple of years we formed a friendship that consisted of his coming over to my house every now and then to show me new pictures of his graffiti. If something didn’t have anything to do with graffiti, WEK had no interest in it. Except for when we ate together, he was either sketching his name on paper with markers, looking at pictures of graffiti on the Internet, or writing on walls across Beijing.
When I watched him paint, I would point out different graffiti tags around us and he would give me a rundown of the artist and what he thought of their work, mostly in the form of one or two word pronouncements such as “pretty good,” “okay,” or “real nice.” His mind was too focused on the graffiti writing to be bothered with actual conversation.
WEK is about as far removed from the average Chinese twenty-something as you can get. He dropped out of college, has no girlfriend, and doesn’t even think about marriage, a house, or a stable job. His world simply consists of making sure his tag is on every wall he can get close up to. But as our friendship deepened, I realized he did have reservations about the path he was on.
Although graffiti is not as heavily punished in China as it is in the U.S. and Europe, it still has its risks. Having been chased by the police, fined to the amount of 1,500 RMB (over 250 USD), and interrogated by the Public Security Bureau, WEK is acutely aware of the consequences.
After one outing with another member of his graffiti crew which goes by the name KTS (“Kill The Streets”), WEK turned to me with a half-cracked smile and said, “Actually, sometimes I also think graffiti is fucking stupid.” He paused to laugh to himself. “I mean, you take all this risk and spend all your money on something most people won’t even bother to look at.”
But despite this ambivalence, WEK and others like him continue to paint the streets of Beijing, with no fanfare to speak of. They aren’t driven by fame, money, or success, the three things that motivate most young Chinese. Instead, they paint for the sake of painting, rejecting the societal norms of modern day China.
So next time you are in Beijing and think the only art to be witnessed is in the Capital Museum or 798 art district, take a stroll down Gulou East street and keep your eyes open. You might be surprised at what you see.
Cutler Dozier is a Masters student in Chinese literature and rap musician
For more about graffiti in China, watch Spray Paint Beijing, a new documentary film by Lance Crayon following the Beijing Penzi graffiti crew