Beijing street artist Andy Chen in front of one of his pieces.
Culture

The perils of being a street artist in Beijing

Jan 22, 2019

Despite the Chinese government’s official disapproval of street art, graffiti is blooming in certain pockets of Beijing.

Colorful, funky pieces have adorned the walls along Jingmi Road in the capital’s Chaoyang District for years, and Andy Chen claims to be the first person to have left his mark there in 2010.

A graffitied wall at the ABS collective’s annual street art carnival in Chaoyang District, Beijing.
A graffitied wall at the ABS collective’s annual street art carnival in Chaoyang District, Beijing. / Photo: ABS

Chen and his collective, ABS, are among a handful of graffiti artists active in Beijing. Most of them do commercial work because unsanctioned art is often quickly scrubbed off by street cleaners.

“Before I went out at night, I’d first figure out escape routes,” says Daboo, another Beijing street artist who has since turned to commercial work for a living. “If you were caught by management on private property, they would make you remove your work. Then, depending on your attitude, police would fine you 500 to 2,000 yuan [$77 to $309].”

Daboo, who doesn’t want to reveal his identity, in front of one of his pieces.
Daboo, who doesn’t want to reveal his identity, in front of one of his pieces. / Photo: Daboo

Although the government considers street art as vandalism, graffiti continues to enjoy a following among a certain subset of Chinese. The reason, artists say, is the rising popularity of Western subculture, as well as hip-hop reality shows like Street Dance of China and The Rap of China.

But its tame existence in the commercial realm also speaks to the difficulty of making art in Beijing, where rents have risen so steeply in the city’s 798 Art Zone, a popular hangout for graffiti artists, that many galleries have been pushed out.

The one-time utopia for budding artists now teems with restaurants, cafes, and shops selling exorbitantly priced artwork.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

“To continue doing graffiti, you must be able to make a living,” Chen says.

In 2012, ABS established a company to take on commissioned work and opened a store, 400ml, in the 798 Art Zone to sell aerosol paint. (“400ml is the volume of a can of spray paint,” Chen explains.)

ABS also began an annual street culture carnival showcasing graffiti, hip-hop, and retrofitted cars. The event attracted all sorts of artists, hipsters, and sneakerheads. Soon, sponsorships came pouring in, including from companies like Nike.

“We get plenty of business opportunities from the event,” Chen says. “We’ve never sought out any clients. All of them have approached us for cooperation.”

Artists decorate a wall for the ABS collective’s annual street art carnival in Chaoyang District, Beijing.
Artists decorate a wall for the ABS collective’s annual street art carnival in Chaoyang District, Beijing. / Photo: ABS

Chen says it was tough starting out in business, particularly since the rents at 798 were high, but ABS has eked out collaborations with a large number of major sports brands, helping them design graphics and sneakers and becoming involved in promotional campaigns.

Daboo similarly set up a commercial art company with his crew, DNA, in 2010 and got commissions from gyms, cafes, schools, and restaurants.

A piece by Daboo.
A piece by Daboo. / Photo: Daboo

He’s reluctantly accepted that he has to put customer demands ahead of his own artistic inclinations to make a living, though he still prefers to come up with his own ideas.

Finding their own style

So-called graffiti crews first emerged in Beijing in the early 2000s, starting with Kwanyin in 2006, BJPZ Crew and ABS in 2007, and KDS in 2017.

In 2011, ABS represented China at Wall Lords Asia, the region’s largest graffiti competition, and won.

“I started going to Europe after winning the Wall Lords competition,” Chen says. “In the beginning, we just imitated overseas styles.

“But after taking part in the international exchanges, we started to develop our own styles and incorporate Chinese elements like calligraphy and the national flag into our graffiti.”

Graffiti by the ABS crew on a bus in Beijing.
Graffiti by the ABS crew on a bus in Beijing. / Photo: Simon Song/SCMP

Chen hopes street art can be embraced by the public in China like it has in the West.

But for now, with a stable income, Chen says the ABS crew is happy simply making ends meet while promoting graffiti in Beijing.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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