Here in the US, we tend to think of graffiti as an illegal activity carried out by kids at night. But in China, the street art scene is quite different.
Lance Crayon, a Texas native who has been living in China since 2009, made a documentary on graffiti artists in Beijing and found just how different the tagging culture is there.
"It's really a middle class and up endeavor, simply based on the money factor," he says, "For a 19-year-old or even a 25-year-old to have something known as disposable income, that's a pretty new thing in China. And you've got to ask yourself, do I want to spend 500 kuài — which is roughly $82 — on throwing up a piece that could easily be covered in a few days, or at some point."
This leaves Beijing with only a small number of graffiti artists — no more than 25 by Crayon's estimate.
For his film "Spray Paint Beijing: Graffiti in the Capital of China," Crayon interviewed several graffiti artists about their work and lifestlye and even filmed them while they tag. He says taggers in Beijing often work in broad daylight and don't usually run into any trouble with police.
"As long as you stay away from anything political or anything too sensitive, from painting on temples or anything sacred and government buildings, things like that, you're not going to have a problem," Crayon says. "And that's what they do. I mean there is so much concrete in Beijing, that when these guys paint on walls that aren't designated by the government, the citizens think they are making this city look prettier — and indeed they are."
Crayon says he even has footage of a police officer walking up to a tagger and telling him it's okay to keep painting.
In terms of graffiti culture, Beijing is "safe and open, and that was the most surprising thing about this film," Crayon says.
"I couldn’t have made this film in America — where I’m using a tripod and setting up shots and filming graffiti artists — without having to look over my shoulder," Crayon says. "It took about six or seven months to relax while I was filming, because I was always so nervous thinking 'we’re going to get caught and I’ll be deported or they’re going to smash my camera and throw us in jail and that’s it.' None of that happened. Not even close."
Taggers can be punished with fines by authorities in China, but in Crayon's experience they rarely are. Foreign graffiti artists have been flocking to Beijing as word spreads about how lax the city's policy towards tagging is.
Beijing's acceptance of graffiti is in stark contrast to America's negative perception of it, Crayon suggests.
"I'm a middle class kid, I come from the suburbs. I didn't know what graffiti was growing up and when I lived in New York and I lived in Los Angeles, I always liked it," Crayon says. "But I didn't really know anything about it. More importantly I wasn't given a chance to like it. We're — growing up and it's still the same case now — we're bombarded with how it's against the law, it's illegal, it's ugly, it's dirty, it's disgusting, you can go down the list."
"Growing up, also we're told that China is a totalitarian police state, where no one has any freedoms at all, but for graffiti to thrive the way it is — it's unbelievable. I'm still blown away by it."
"Spray Paint Beijing" has been screened in China and the UK, but Crayon is still working on a distribution deal for the film in the US.
He has had some trouble entering the film into festivals. He believes it's because "flim festivals in general want their China stories about one thing and one thing only."
Crayon says he's seen many great documentaries on China, but reports "they are all very gut-wrenching and very serious, sad, and heavy, heavy topics — and very necessary films, don't get me wrong. But there are other things happening in China that do not concern sensitive issues and politics and human rights violations."