island6 was born and has always existed as a part of M50; a group of old abandoned textile buildings repurposed as art spaces. Since its humble beginnings some 20 years ago2, M50 has inspired a growing number of the Shanghai creative class to make Moganshan theirs. This winding river road only takes fifteen minutes or so to walk from end-to-end. During that brief walk though, you’ll see more graffiti and street art (in the traditional sense of the those words) than you’d probably come across everywhere else in Shanghai combined. This is simply because A) it’s allowed on Moganshan Lu and B) it’s not allowed on other streets. It’s hard to know exactly why this is, but the best guess is that the graffiti sprung up in the art district so fast that the government let it slide as a “tourist attraction”. Although Graffiti is strictly banned throughout the rest of Shanghai, that doesn’t mean it’s not there- quite the opposite in fact. Shanghai and many other Chinese cities are using their big blank canvases to convey messages about, well… everything. To understand that though, you need to look at how everything got started.
Contemporary street art likely owes its existence to cave paintings and hieroglyphics, but it has come a long way over the years. One of the first notable modern iterations was "Kilroy was here" during World War II3. This was a cartoon of a bald man looking over a wall with a long nose, often accompanied by the written phrase “Kilroy was here”. Although its origins and specific meaning have been debated, it’s widely believed that these were made by hundreds of different GI’s throughout Europe in order to scare and intimidate their enemy. The use of public art as protest and social commentary (arguably) sprouted from this one popular image.
The shift from passionate slogan platform to visual artistry took place sometime over the 1970’s and 80’s in the then unruly urban jungle of New York City. Street art and graffiti made an enormous cultural turn as it suddenly gained appeal among a new crowd looking to do things besides critique governments or wreak havoc for havoc’s sake. Although the high critique of modern society still remains now, it has also firmly perched itself among more traditionally recognized art forms such as oil painting, photography and sculpting. The boom in this medium eventually led to a global popularity swell which has exponentially flooded the scene with new and exciting talents. In many ways we’re now living in a golden era of street art.
Well-respected art form or not, most parents would likely be aghast at the thought of their child becoming a contemporary street artist (much less trying to make a living out of it). While most street artists can only claim to be passionate hobbyists, growing popularity has led to a significantly large group who make a comfortable living doing what they love. Famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat got his start as part of an underground graffiti group in the late 1970’s known as SAMO. His vibrant neo-expressionist works became more recognized in the traditional art world and he would eventually move from the street alley walls to those found inside some of the most recognized international galleries. The name that comes to most peoples minds immediately when discussing street art fame and fortune is Banksy, a modern hero of the underground street art movement who has managed to stay anonymous during his rise to prominence. Known for his sharp, often darkly clever artistic social commentary, an original Banksy piece can fetch anywhere between $250,000 and 1 million USD. Chinese street artists are trying to make money as well. How they go about doing that, however, is quite a bit different.
As it is with many other aspects of modern culture, China has a peculiar past (and present) relationship with street art. The casual western visitor might see a smattering of seemingly imitated western graffiti and not much else going on. Graffiti is literally everywhere you look though if you know what to look for. Messages slashed and burned and etched and painted in Chinese occupy every nook and cranny of the cities. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s familiar with Chinese culture, heavy emphasis and importance have traditionally been placed on writing- beauty, style, presentation, and of course the meaning.
What often appear as barely noticeable Chinese characters sprayed (or often times carved) on a wall have quite a few meanings. Anyone who can read Chinese will inform you (likely in the politest manner possible) that these characters offer love, sex, libido enhancing drugs and herbs, jobs, wealth, and happiness. The purpose of this graffiti is quite clear: a sales pitch.
Graffiti as a sales pitch is nothing new. The sheer scale, scope and inventiveness of it throughout China is something new though. You can’t walk more than ten feet it seems without coming across some message scratched, drawn or etched onto a wall, telephone pole, or sidewalk. There are advertisements for handymen, plumbers and money-lenders. Decrepit buildings awaiting demolition have their own slew of messages and ideas. Examples include messages like “拆迁自有政策法度, 自作聪明要吃亏” (The demolition is supported by the law and rules. Acting smart will end up with the losses) or “响应政府号召, 一定快拆快建” (Following the government’s policy, we should get on the fast track to destruction and reconstruction).
One of most popular purposes that graffiti in Shanghai serves is: love. Finding a soul mate or a one-night stand (or even some medicine to cure the venereal disease given to you by your last one-night stand) has never been easier. They are, ostensibly, just a painted phone number away. Ads range from the practical to the absurd. For example, near People’s Square is etched “82年, 硕士, 复旦毕业, 气质好, 有车房。要求85年以后, 全日制本科, 160左右” (Born in 1982. Received a master’s degree in Fudan University. A communist party member. Good-looking. Have an apartment and a car. Looking for a girl born after 1985 with a height of 160 cm and a bachelor’s degree) Nearby another painted message reads “育龄妇女环检一次补助2元” (The government subsidy pays 2 yuan for your vaginal ring check) Sometimes the message is almost dumbfoundingly specific, like this one: “安琪, 28岁, 身高1.65米, 嫁富商, 夫失生育能力, 为继承庞大家业, 借探亲之机, 寻异地健康男士, 圆我母亲梦, 通话满意, 速汇定金30万, 即赴你处 (本人单独与你秘密约见, 不影响家庭), 事成后重酬100万 (本人亲谈, 非诚勿扰)” (An Qi, a 28-year old girl with a height of 1.65 meters, was married to a rich man who didn’t have the ability to make her pregnant. She is looking for a healthy guy during the trip to hometown in order to fill full her dream of having a child inheriting the legacy. I will transfer 300 thousand to you if satisfied with the communication, then come to your place secretly without bothering your families. You will receive a payment of 1 million after done. It is me that answer the phone calls. Don't disturb if you are not serious.)
Aside from offers of prostitution, marriage, and requests for insemination, China does have a notable “street art” scene. Most westerners are surprised to learn that, although rules are strict in Shanghai, the often more conservative Beijing is quite lax on their graffiti policies. Artists can be issued a small fine and have their piece quickly covered up, but it’s a rather rare occurrence according to many of the city’s artists4. Street art never particularly became intertwined with any other subculture in China as it did with hip-hop in the United States. Because of this the Chinese have been largely open to interpret the medium as they see fit- other than, of course, using it to criticize the government or their leaders. Maybe the small size of the scene in China is one of the reasons it has enjoyed its relative freedom. The real test will come if and when the scene explodes.
It’s hard to measure the impacts that street art has had on its surrounding culture (or vice versa for that matter). It is safe to say though that there are, and have always been, strong ties with youth movements and free expression5. Because of these associations (real or imagined), many governments have not been too keen on allowing the practice to run rampant. These days, however, you’re just as likely to see a big beautiful mural painted for aesthetical purposes, or a painted ad for a toilet repairperson as you are to see any scathing slogan of protest. Whatever the inspiration behind the art, most people would agree that a painted wall is easier on the eyes than a blank one. Whether it’s a staggering work of genius and artistry, or Chinese characters informing you that littering will result in your mother becoming a whore, it’s something to stop and see.