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August 2, 2011

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Graffiti artists ponder fall of the wall

A city wall where graffiti art is tolerated will soon be demolished. Yao Minji and Laura Imkamp ask some of the Chinese and foreign artists who paint there what the consequences will be for Shanghai's graffiti scene.

Tin.G, 25, first sprayed her name on a construction site near her home in western Shanghai's Minhang District about six years ago.

Now, the graffiti artist and freelance illustrator paints about once a month for fun, mostly on a spot along the 600-meter legal graffiti wall on Moganshan Road, near the M50 creative hub. She also occasionally paints commissioned pieces for clients including clubs, cafés, street brands and events.

"The M50 graffiti wall plays a very significant part in the local graffiti scene because it is the 100-percent safe spot, a place where you don't worry about getting disturbed, caught or kicked out," says Tin.G, one of very few female graffiti writers in China.

It's almost like the epicenter of Shanghai graffiti. But by the end of the year, this stretch of street art will be gone as the wall is due to be demolished to make way for property development, taking with it one of the staples of the city's graffiti scene.

"When I first came to paint on Moganshan Road (about 4 years ago), there was nothing, it was almost bare," says Dezio, a French native and one of Shanghai's most prolific painters. "There were just a couple scribbles."

But in the last year or two, he says, the scene has exploded - thanks in large part to prominent out-of-town "writers" (the preferred term for a graffiti artist) visiting the wall.

"They really brought interest in their graffiti because for once the Chinese people were actually seeing what really good graffiti actually looks like in real life and not just on the Internet," Dezio says. "That kind of changed their perspective on what graffiti was."

According to local freelance designer and graffiti writer Hurri, that's also part of the reason the wall has become a social and artistic exchange hub for graffiti artists in the city, both local and foreign.

Hurri, like many Shanghai writers, has not only formed friendships via the spot, but has used the open space to display his work and learn from fellow graffitists.

"The wall has recorded, in large part, the short but evolving history of graffiti in Shanghai, for the last five to six years, from zero to one of the most vivid in China," he says. "The greatest pity about losing the M50 wall is losing such a platform. I don't think there will ever be another wall like this one."

Even graffiti heavyweight Dezio says that's one aspect he'll miss when the wall comes down.

"Moganshan Road was nice because it has a very long wall. You meet people that you'd never meet otherwise and you get an interaction," he says. "That's going to be missed once they take it down. It's going to be a real shame."

But Shanghai's writers are determined not to let that mean the end of Shanghai graffiti. Instead, the wall's destruction could bring a much-needed push in a new direction.

"We are not really worried," Hurri says about the consequences of losing the wall. "There are quite many in the city, and we have written on walls all over the city.

"M50 was never the only spot. It is just the safe spot, but graffiti naturally involves elements of danger and adventure, so it is not such a big deal," he adds.

Which is the same sentiment echoed by Storm, a French native who has been living and painting in Shanghai for almost five years. In fact, he considers the bulldozing a good riddance for Shanghai's graffiti scene; in his opinion, it perpetuated laziness among local artists.

"When graffiti was born, it was not legal," Storm says. And now he hopes the demise of the Moganshan Road wall will motivate more writers to get back to graffiti's roots and take to the streets. Specifically, he says, local Chinese artists.

"That's how graffiti should be done. Not only to get a contract and money." Or to paint a pretty picture, which both Dezio and fellow foreign writer Yemen say is characteristic of Shanghai graffiti.

Yemen, Dezio and Storm all say they were first exposed to graffiti - which originated in New York in the 1960s and began to spread around the world in the early 1980s - when they were kids. As teens they were drawn into the scene by other artists.

But here, this form of graffiti is still so young that local artists have had an entirely different introduction to the subculture.

Like many local graffiti writers, Tin.G says she was first drawn in by hip-hop music and the underground culture surrounding it. For her, that included dance, fashion, extreme sports and, eventually, the types of graffiti that show up in music videos.

Even Hurri says his first introduction was through media and a Chinese Internet forum, which is typical for young local writers. Many of them just grabbed cans of spraypaint and painted on nearby walls for the first time, before getting increasingly more attracted by "this very sizeable and free form of expression."

"You couldn't really learn it in any way except to find pictures, information and videos online," he says.

Before the scene started catching on around the country, the Internet played host to the main network of Chinese graffiti artists.

Now, Shanghai has one of the most active graffiti scenes on the Chinese mainland.

"But it's still only six to seven years old, a child compared with many other countries," says Tin.G. "But we have been learning quickly, developing our own styles. And we don't necessarily have to copy-and-paste everything that foreign graffiti artists do or follow."

This is what Canadian graffiti writer Nine has noticed, too.

"Styles take a long time to grow, so it's going to take a little bit of time for these people here to develop their own," he says. In the seven years he's been here, Nine says he's seen huge changes in Shanghai's graffiti artists.

"There are a lot of local kids that are close (to developing a style of their own). That's another reason why that whole legal wall coming down is going to be a big thing ... Every time I walk down that wall I'm like 'Woah! He or she's really improved in these areas and these areas'."

The foreign artists also love to see more Chinese writers painting Chinese characters, as Tin.G and her friends have been trying.

"But it is a lot more difficult than just spraying English letters, because the shape of Chinese characters are not made for easy reshaping, and it is hard to get the same tension when you spray in Chinese," says Tin.G.

Even away from Moganshan Road, the city itself is more tolerant of graffiti than most would expect. None of the artists Shanghai Daily interviewed have found themselves in serious trouble here, which may have to do with the fact that there are no actual laws or regulations against graffiti in Shanghai. The only applicable ruling refers to destruction of public belongings.

"The urban management officers, rather than the cops, are the most troublesome for us," says another local writer, Shier.

He and the foreign writers all say they've never had any serious repercussions from painting in the streets. "Usually we are just asked to wash off the paint or to pay a fine. The most I've gotten fined was 500 yuan (US$77.68)."

Storm and Nine both say they've noticed far more acceptance of graffiti here than in the West.

"People here are more interested in it than they are against it, which is cool," Nine says. "It's an art form, it's one of the fastest-growing art forms in the world."

Shier admits he once sprayed on a cargo train in Hangzhou, capital city of neighboring Zhejiang Province, soon after he started graffiti, an act trying to get closer to the origin of the subculture.

When it first started, graffiti writers in New York considered it the ultimate accomplishment to see subway trains carrying their names (painted while stationary in depots at night) around the city.

Many local graffitists admit that they have thought about painting trains, but most are deterred by the high levels of security on the railways here.

"It is just not possible," says Hurri. "The situation here is different from other countries."

And its history of illegal street painting is one that the non-Chinese painters here are trying to share with the locals.

By "hitting" - or "bombing" - the streets with graffiti, though, these graffiti writers don't mean vandalism or "gangster things." And they don't mean painting over cars and apartment buildings.

Storm stresses that for most writers it doesn't mean criminal activity at all. As he puts it, graffiti is a way of life, a form of expression and definitely more than a hobby. It's a standpoint that fellow artist Nine backs up.

"You find your spots and if people get upset about it then you stop. I'm not here to upset anybody and I don't want to overstep my boundaries in any way," he says. "I just want to be settled in, have my areas to paint, not harm anybody and have a good time."

He adds, "The whole thing about graffiti is getting up, getting your stuff out and getting noticed. And if you can find a way to do that without upsetting the city, then go do it."

Which is part of the reason all of these writers - whether they like Moganshan Road or not - are rallying to try and find a new, accepted spot to replace the wall.

For some young start-ups in Shanghai and across the Chinese mainland, the line between legal and illegal, or more specifically, what is accepted versus what is not, is often learned from practice and mistakes.

In June, China had its biggest graffiti artist gathering in the city of Changsha in Hunan Province, at a long wall next to the Xiang River.

More than 100 graffiti writers brought their spraypaint and creativity. However, things went a little out of control when some writers went off to paint on residential building walls and private vehicles.

"You learn unwritten rules like these from more experienced graffitists, from the Internet and from quarrels," says Tin.G.

The wall on Moganshan Road is going down. Both Chinese and non-Chinese graffitists in the city agree that there won't be a spot like it anymore.

But something else will pop up, according to Yemen and the others. And when it does, the wall's destruction could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Shanghai's most passionate painters; they're hoping it'll not only give the scene a much-needed pick-me-up, but that it'll also be a unifying factor for both the local and foreign writers.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes that we've made is that we separate the Chinese writers from the foreign writers. I want to kill that," Nine says. "We've all got the same interests, we've got to work together. The scene's new here and if we don't work together then it's not going to happen."

But Storm is convinced that something will happen, and it'll happen soon.

"The scene in Shanghai is going to evolve," he says. "I don't know how, but it's going to change ... it has to change. There is no other possibility. You see it in a lot of other countries, so why not in China?"

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