Look around you. Wherever you are, you have a very different view than just about anyone else in the world. Right now, for example, I am looking across the patio of a coffee shop in Shenzhen, China where dozens of empty tables sit helplessly littered with cigarette butts. Ashtrays designated to be evenly dispersed have all gathered atop one unfortunate table where customers have seemingly placed them in an effort to create distance with the less-than-appealing byproduct of their habit. In doing so, the ashtrays now reside too far from convenience and exist without usage or purpose. Responsible disposal isn’t really in in China. Smoking is. The point is that your view is dictated by so many factors that it is probably very different than mine. For your sake, I hope your view has less used cigarettes, too. Even if you find yourself in a similar situation to me — in a café or in Shenzhen — it is still very unlikely that you’re experiencing similar surroundings. From café to café, neighborhood-to-neighborhood, city-to-city, country-to-country, everywhere has a different aesthetic — a different visual feel.
Some things, however, remain largely homogeneous. For example, straying down a dark alley, dwelling beneath a highway underpass, or exploring a canal in an industrial district tends to yield similar results from place-to-place. The materials are probably concrete, maybe steel. You may get mugged, but you probably won’t. Maybe there is street art — graffiti, but it’s probably nothing like the street art down the canal from me at the cigarette-laden café. The street art of Southern China is unlike street art anywhere else.
As with other cultures, art has played a tremendous role in the history of China. Unlike most, China is fortunate enough to have a well-documented and largely continuous history dating back thousands of years. And with that history comes perhaps the world’s oldest continuous artistic tradition: Chinese painting.
Gong-bi is a realist style of painting that can be traced back to the Han dynasty more than 2000 years ago. It is visually encapsulating, colorful method using pinpoint brushes and attempting direct visual representation. In fact, the name gong-bi translates to the word meticulous. To this day, gong-bi painting remains largely unchanged. Artists use similar materials to create similar paintings to convey similar meaning as they did in times before the Common Era. But to be honest, as beautiful and stimulating as gong-bi painting can be, it is difficult to find deeper meaning than what exists on the surface. Realism tends to leave less room for an audience’s interpretation than styles that are more impressionistic and modern.
Let’s jump forward a few hundred years into the Liu-Song dynasty of the 5th century C.E. Enter Chinese ink wash painting. Ink wash is what the general population tends to imagine when they hear the term Chinese painting. Close your eyes and search your mind for any information or memory pertaining to Chinese painting or Chinese art. Even imagining stereotypical Eastern-inspired wall hangings that you have seen in a PF Chang’s in New Jersey will do the trick. Whether or not you’re consciously knowledgeable of Chinese ink wash painting, you have certainly been exposed to it before in one way or another. To provide the mental imagery of the ink wash aesthetic, let’s imagine the following scenario.
You walk into your quirky, wannabe Eastern neighbor’s house. The smells of expensive pot and cheap incense fill the air as your eyes are immediately drawn to an off-white canvas hanging above a pet bonsai tree and a mini Japanese sand garden. You study the canvas further. A beautifully painted, faded black landscape of the Chinese countryside sets the backdrop with tall mountains and a tumbling waterfall. Bamboo chutes frame each side of the landscape while random red calligraphy that you cannot read dots the canvas with color. Immediately, you feel at peace — “like a Buddhist” — you claim. Wanting to replicate this smorgasbord of East Asian culture in your own living room, you ask where your neighbor bought the canvas. “IKEA, bro” he answers.
What you saw on the canvas in your fictitious neighbor’s living room is Chinese ink wash painting — or at least a cheap, mass-produced version of it. Traditionally, it is a style that uses calligraphy ink which is the reason that for the most part, ink wash paintings are colorless except for accents of red stamping. Aside from its differing use of color, ink wash also separates itself from gong-bi through its brushstroke style. It was not created with the intention of exact visual representation, but rather with the intention of visually capturing the subject’s soul. For this reason, artistic meaning in ink wash painting tends to be more open for the audience’s interpretation and beauty tends to be that of a broader scale.
Of course, many other artistic styles have developed and expanded in China since, but the two ancient styles of painting not only remain relevant and popular, but have also been truly influential on each subsequent artistic movement over the past two millennia.
The influence of both gong-bi and ink wash can be seen today in China’s exploding street art movement. Street art by its very nature tends to be quite controversial. Unless commissioned or protected within artistic neighborhoods, spray-painting and stenciling public or private property is an illegal practice almost everywhere in the world. It usually carries strong, confrontational, socioeconomic and political themes. It also has a history and a reputation for being associated with various underground cultural movements from American hip-hop to European raves. Chinese street art expectedly boasts its own unique history. In 1920’s China, revolutionary slogans and paintings were applied to public spaces to further the communist cause, and during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party wrote political messages in red ink on neighborhood walls. The influence of traditional stylings and continuous national instability of the last century in combination with the leaky faucet of Western values and ideas through Hong Kong have turned Southern China in particular into one of the world’s most unique and blossoming street art hotbeds.
Perhaps learning from Western cultures that placing too much emphasis on the eradication of street art only results in more of it, China has jumped on the bandwagon in an attempt to bring street artists out of the dark and provide the opportunity to make a living from their talent. Artists are often commissioned for their work and given space in public places, like parks and city squares, in order to pursue their passion. Against the very nature of what the word commissionedmight convey on public land, much of this art seems to carry strong socioeconomic and political themes. It is undoubtedly surprising to most Westerners that such freedom of expression, even in forms of anti-government opinion, is not only allowed in China, but is actually endorsed and encouraged by the Chinese government.
Today’s China is very different from the way it is often portrayed in Western media. Art, self-expression, and individualism are strongly rooted virtues of Chinese culture. Regardless of possible undertone in the work, the street art not only beautifies public space but also provides an air of individualism and inspiration in cities such as Shenzhen. This is more important to the Chinese than nationalistic tendency.
With all this being said, most street art and graffiti in southern China are undoubtedly still painted illegally. After all, the government does not put in the time and effort to reward every artist that wants to scribble their name underneath a highway in Shenzhen or Guangzhou. But, maybe they should. The practice of calligraphy in Eastern civilization has resulted in a culture stricken with pride for the quality and beauty of handwriting, leaving underpasses and alleyways covered with the beautifully spray-painted Mandarin and Cantonese characters of Chinese artists’ homonyms and monikers. The written language is so beautiful that it is a form of art itself.
A man by the name of Tsang Tsou Choi is partially to thank for the rise of calligraphy as street art. His work, which is focused on the beauty of calligraphy as art itself, litters Hong Kong. His art is a combination of Western graffiti, artistic calligraphy, and the mystery of stream-of-consciousness writing. It is mesmerizing. His work is so influential and important to Hong Kong and to street art’s history that most of his work in Hong Kong remains protected by the government. Today many artists working in Hong Kong and throughout Southern China have pulled inspiration from the movement that he started.
Due to the public’s positive response from the protection of Tsang Tsou Choi’s artwork in Hong Kong, cities throughout China have begun to develop protected street art districts. Differing from commissioned street art, these districts simply allow artists to legally decorate public spaces with their artwork, much of which covers entire city walls sometimes stretching the height of an apartment building. The entire neighborhood turns into a canvas, drawing visitors and tourists, promoting art, creativity, and individualism, and attracting more artists and artistic endeavors to the district. Naturally, these protective laws tend to be placed upon existing art neighborhoods where the protection of street art in turn yields the highest quality results — beautifying the city and pleasing local artists and artistic groups in the process.
One of these districts is the OCT-Loft Neighborhood in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district. An artistic neighborhood of repurposed communist-era factories into lofts, cigarette-laden drip-coffee cafés, and art studios, OCT-Loft is reminiscent of many cultural hotbeds in cities in the Western world. It is impossible not to notice how the laws protecting street art have affected OCT-Loft. Massive murals covering the walls of every warehouse keep watch over those walking below, while smaller works of art cover remaining available any blank space. It has turned the entirety of the neighborhood into one giant work of art itself.
Whether protected pieces in artistic neighborhoods, grand, commissioned works in public spaces, or illegal graffiti underneath a bridge, the street art of Southern China respects the culture’s long artistic history and the difficulties of the nation’s past. It merges these internal, Chinese influences with outside influences from the West through the swinging door of Hong Kong, culminating in a style of street art truly unique and beautiful.