LANCE CRAYON is an American filmmaker, from Texas, that began working in Beijing for China Radio International and Global Times as a story editor.
Since living in Beijing Lance filmed graffiti (tuya) artists at work.
He shows the sub-culture creating art under the cover of darkness. The film shows the enthusiastic graffiti community and the differences in street art between America and China. His documentary highlights China’s nascent culture of graffiti art with a soundtrack of Chinese hip-hop music. Lance has discovered an unusual aspect of graffiti in Beijing. But now, this lifestyle seems no longer exist. In fact, a message appears in a web chat in 2017, about “Beijing official search for the director of Spray Paint Beijing”.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 04 issue
China-underground: How does the idea of “Spray Paint Beijing” come about?
Lance Crayon: So the idea of Spray Paint Beijing came about by accident while I was working as a videographer as English news editor for China Radio International in Beijing. I was sent to cover an art show when the new Sanlitun Soho building, just opened up, in 2010. At the event, the curator of the art show said there were some graffiti artists downstairs. I went downstairs and filmed Aigor, Andc and start a relationship with Aigor immediately, and we exchanged contact information.
I asked him if I could film him paint the next time he went out. Not a month went by, he called me and I met him and Zyko. The location is the opening scene of my film that was the first I got filmed so it was entirely by accident. I wanted to make a documentary that’s why I moved to Beijing for a year. That’s about it: I just got some new equipment. So yeah I was hurried to look to make a project and more or less in the right place the right time.
How would you describe your documentary?
How would I describe my documentary is a really hard question to answer because I started out thinking I was making one thing and I wound up making an entirely different documentary.
It featured graffiti obviously but in my opinion it’s not about graffiti entirely that’s just kind of a surface and but it would it became first and foremost was sort of my way of expressing my frustrations and dissatisfaction with American documentaries in particular and how those documentaries are made, how there’s such an important emphasis on camera and equipment and gear and drone shots and all this other bullshit that really doesn’t have any purpose or function or place in a documentary.
I like raw, I don’t care what things look like, I work everything sound like, you know the many parts of the film that look like shit. Many parts the film’s sound like shit and I like that.
I didn’t start out with that plan but that is once I started editing with my Chinese editors and as it grew through the editing process and we started to shape the film I liked the fact that it looked like it was a shot on an old equipment from the 80s or whatever. People had problems with that and I’m glad because now documentaries in America aren’t documentaries they’re really just promotional films for directors ability on how to use a camera. When you ask these filmmakers about their film, they talk about their equipment or shots or whatever. They really don’t know the subject.
My film is about the last year of Hu Jintao, before the changeover, before Xi Jinping became the president and about what Beijing was like then how chief it was. I was new to Beijing at the time, so still a bit naive, but it just seemed like there was a really cool spirit running through the city that there’s no longer there. It’s all was a lucky on that front as well to be able to experience Beijing. You know, it was cheap they have a lot of foreigners there, and the Chinese graffiti writers could afford to paint more unlike today, where city crew city cleaning efforts are much more swift and faster back in 2010 you could throw a piece up and it would stay for a month or six months, some pieces longer. So those days are gone, for the most part so to be able to kind of capture that was really cool. Again going back to being in the right place at the right time.
What else would be about everything that I thought I knew about China or about Beijing specifically was wrong and that’s because I was influenced by what I was read, what I was taught in America. The Western media, in my opinion, continues to get China wrong. Their coverage and interpretation, there are so many things going on in China and if you make a documentary especially in Beijing there’s a narrative that you have to follow that Western filmmakers follow that people who program film festivals and television or what have you they want you to address a certain narrative regardless of the subject.
So I stayed away from that. I stayed away from anything political or sensitive because it’s about graffiti and it’s just about, having a good time with your friends or a variety of reasons and that doesn’t, that type of graffiti scene even though it was very small at the same time international.
It was just really kind of cool and laid back. So that’s gone now, they’re not as active anymore like I said, they can’t afford it. It was kind of surprised to learn that graffiti really wasn’t illegal and I bet at the time, when people didn’t know what the laws were with it so there were moments where the police please showed up and that’s how you got you guys could go to keep painting that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. This is about freedom in a lot of ways.
How long does it take to make the whole project?
So it took me about 18/20 months. I was just shy, two years, I guess. From the moment I filmed my first tag, so when I was done editing, I thought. Over a year and a half to be exact, filming a lot and then there were periods where I wasn’t able because they weren’t painting or they didn’t want to be filmed or other …
It was me and my Chinese editor so when I hired my editors they were e
diting footage of it obviously that I’d shot six-seven months earlier while I kept feeling me trying to find some sort of indie and some sort of stopping point. I didn’t want to split the others knotted there’s not a beginning middle and end.
What are the main differences between Chinese graffiti and graffiti in the West? What are the main topics in China?
I can’t say Chinese graffiti, I only know Beijing. I can’t answer for the entire country in terms of the styles, but graffiti in Beijing is very interwoven with a lot of great for a graffiti writers over there and I think they’ve had a profound influence certainly in 2011.
I don’t know, there’s not a lot of young graffiti artists coming up because of how hard it’s to paint the city. So I think, if you really wanted to find Chinese graffiti, that’s not influenced by foreigners and had a more of a local identity. I think you would have to go to southern China where the weather is great the laws aren’t as stringent.
Life is cheaper, things are cheaper too, the paints cheaper, and there aren’t any other any foreigners and you’ve got a lot of graffiti writers who do not have access to VPNs, therefore, they don’t have access to social apps and stuff like that to be accused of maybe scrubbing the development process of someone’s identity scrub. So I’ve heard that’s the case in southern China.
So with Beijing and like in 2011 it was still very much kind of finding its way. It wasn’t established and there was some great really talented Chinese graffiti writers who had been influenced by the internet as opposed to being influenced by an older generation of graffiti writers like you have in America. Obviously, American Europe, have this art form for five decades, if not more.
So people who are coming up now have that background of their neighborhood city that they’re familiar with, they grew up watching and admiring, but that was not the case in China and Beijing. The foundation in Beijing is based on what the Chinese graffiti writers learned and saw on the internet. I don’t know or how that will change out, but it’s different. I can’t, I cannot describe it, I guess.
So there’s one of the main differences, I mean obviously, the implementing Chinese character. But in terms of just Beijing, it was really kind of hard to tell because the internet just really was the first exposure to graffiti. What are the main topics in China? There’s one piece on Jingmi Lu, Scar did in response to the rising pork prices back in 2010, so that’s the one small example.
But outside of that topic I mean, I don’t know. The main topics they stay away from politics if they wouldn’t anywhere near that, then the authorities would crack down even more so for obvious reasons they don’t go there. I mean graffiti artists though in the West or Europe go there as well. There aren’t any main topics.
How many graffiti artists are in Beijing? What are their main backgrounds, age, and reasons that have made them along the graffiti art road?
There are 220 graffiti artists in Beijing. There aren’t more than 20 Chinese graffiti artists and those guys aren’t even active hardly. Maybe 5 are active and those in the out of that 20. The five were active made maybe one piece a month it’s so expensive and the cost of living has become so unbearable in Beijing while at the same time salaries have remained the same. So if you’re not rich than living in Beijing is hard.
Life in Beijing is hard for Chinese especially. So they just simply can’t afford it, if you want to throw up a piece in Beijing it’s gonna cost you for anywhere from 500 to 1000 Yuan. For a lot of Chinese, that’s half a month’s salary or at least a third of their monthly wage. So what are gonna do? Then that piece that’s thrown up is covered 24 hours later or sooner than that it just isn’t worth it.
Artists are middle-class kids, they can afford it, they weren’t 11 that was the case in 2011 they had skateboarding backgrounds, some on were some pretty good, I don’t know if how high up in the rankings they were, but they had sponsors and they competed quite a bit in the country. So a lot came from skateboarding backgrounds and they’re really into Chinese rap music.
They studied design and graphic design in college and a lot of people that were in my film where students at the time. Now they have professional jobs as graphic designers, design artists, one is a tattoo artist, a lot of these guys went to study abroad after 2014 or whatever. So they’re up middle-class or upper-class kids and they just like to paint a wall, they enjoy painting with the friends, the rush it’s exciting.
In 2011 there were maybe 20, now a lot of those 20 out of the 21 they were pretty active then you had like another 10 or 15 foreigners, 10 foreigners at the time now the only people are active in Beijing and live in German, a couple guys from some other European cruise. I speak with them often, they basically told me what I told you, that it’s just so expensive Beijing it’s just hard, it’s hard for Chinese to get out. Where are they gonna go? How they’re gonna get a visa to go work another country? So they’re kind of stuck.
There is a difference between a graffiti artist and street artist in China? Do Chinese artists interchange roles or prefer a clear separation?
First of all, they aren’t many street artists in China and in Beijing, although I think it is kind of coming up there’s a really talented guy Ge Yulu. Zhang Dali is obviously a main source of the premiere a graffiti artist and he was big in the late 90s but he’s moved on to different expressions.
He’s not a street artist anymore, but he got a lot of attention and he is a very talented guy. He’s also in my documentary. With the new regime in place and it being Beijing it’s really hard, there’s got to be a little more careful, a lot more careful, it’s not as free as it was like. I said one during through June’s house last year in office, so that’s it’s pretty tight, pretty stringent, and outside of the guy just mentioned I don’t know of any other street artists in Beijing, elsewhere maybe but the appeal of street art is the fact that a lot of people don’t know that they’re looking at street art.
So it has the potential to stay up much longer than a graffiti piece so that’s the draw it’s also cheaper and I know a guy who’s a graffiti writer but he’s kind of moved to street art. He felt like he was confined by graffiti and it was because of the foreign influence and the internet influence. It wasn’t natural it hadn’t grown or developed organically. It was all a digital influence on the Chinese graffiti writers that you see that have been around for you coming up on 10 years if not longer.
So I thought that was an interesting point to the street art is not influenced and all by foreign element or the internet or social media and unlike some of the graffiti you see in Beijing. I’d say that’s a pretty big difference. Do they interchange roles? I know the one guy that I just told you, he does on occasion but there’s definitely a clear separation, but nobody has a problem. One side doesn’t have a problem on the other side. I’ve heard in Taiwan that’s not the case, I don’t know.
Can you share with us any story behind your documentary project?
Yes, I have a story that I’ll share with you. I’ve kept the story down so it’s time to share it. So in the middle of filming, I’d said nine or ten months and my Chinese editors, they had edited the film ten years ago for Ai Weiwei. He is America’s favorite Chinese artist. Western media loves him, he loves Western media.
Ai Weiwei fits in with the Western narrative, European narrative that people want out of China that’s why you will ever hear too much from Zhang Dali or other artists and Ai Weiwei plays that up very well. Ai Weiwei used to live in New York in the 80s and was just an incredible decade for graffiti. I thought I’d be cool. I didn’t know much about Ai Weiwei at the time. I knew who he was, but I was like: “Hey maybe he’d like to be on this project. I just asked him a couple questions about his exposure to graffiti. It was probably, without a doubt, his first exposure to that art form.”
So I wanted to see if I could get him to talk about his impression. So my editor let him know and she was like “Yeah just go by his studio and he’ll probably talk to you.” So I went with my translator. He speaks great English, I didn’t need a translator. I went to his art studio, it was Saturday and he let us in. We talked for a little bit and he told me that he couldn’t be in because the project it’s not political. He told me that he didn’t see graffiti art anywhere in Beijing. Then he said that he thought graffiti artists are cowards because they didn’t sign the real name to their work. He said that in perfect English, I have a witness, and he repeats it. Ai Weiwei told me point-blank.
That’s exactly what he said I’ll never forget it. I wish I could have captured that and put it in my film, but obviously, I wasn’t able to do that. So it was kind of surprised to hear that, coming from someone like him .The way he’s been built up for so many years as the rebel. I’ve told that story to a few people this is the first time I’ve ever told on the record about it. It’s funny when I moved back to America every once: Oh do you know Ai Wei Wei? Whatever he’s the only artist Americans know, and that’s too bad but just goes to show you how what an influence media has on our society you’ve got to really know break through that, or just tune it out.
How much has the graffiti scene changed since you made “Spray Paint Beijing”?
Like I said earlier it’s changed a lot because it’s so expensive in Beijing to paint, live there, that in some ways the cost of living itself has probably been the only anti-graffiti initiative to ever work in any city it’s just demoralizing and depleted resources and funds to paint.
So that’s how the scene has changed, more than anything and now well not that’s one of the reasons authorities now will arrest you and the problem with that is the graffiti laws are so transparent like a lot of things in China a lot of suffering from a lack of transparency.
But now what happens is the police will arrest you or detain you and then for a certain amount of money they’ll let you go home instead of processing you the following day that’s usually one option. Another option, unfortunately, is the police, because the laws have not been defined because the penalties have not been defined, the police are free to do with you whatever they want.
Is there any legislation in China about graffiti nowadays?
Now I haven’t heard any stories, I’m not saying that exists but you definitely get caught. Train riding is never going to happen in China it is so dangerous and the trains are controlled by the government and therefore guarded by the government, so they’ve got cameras and security guys all over the place. It’s happened a few foreigners have gotten in there.
They got in the train yards and have painted there are some videos on YouTube. But the Chinese are so afraid and the penalties would be so hard for them. Nobody wants to find out, nobody wants to go first and I understand that. People are not gonna start riding on subways and then getting and get away with it, no way. There isn’t, exists a gray area like I said there is a lack of transparency and even with publishing.
There’s a very well-known photographer in Beijing that has been documenting graffiti since it’s early beginning 2003 or 2004 maybe earlier. He couldn’t get his book published. Chinese publishers would not take his book because they weren’t sure if they would get in trouble if they published the book because the laws are not well defined in terms of publishing books in China about Chinese graffiti. Meanwhile, these same companies have published books about graffiti in foreign countries and there’s not a problem, but they wouldn’t go near his book so he had to publish himself. His name is Liu Yuansheng (aka Liu Laoshi).
So I thought that was interesting in terms of legislation. To my knowledge, there have many instances of someone serving lengthy jail sentences or being killed by the police which has happened in American and Europe. But legislation in China, they just know it’s illegal they just don’t know how illegal is penalties have not been defined that’s how it’s gonna that’s how it’s going to stay.
Some European cities have integrated graffiti into school or as decorations in decaying neighborhoods. Is there a similar idea in China? Do Chinese artists think to use graffiti for this purpose?
There was a plan on the table with Tsinghua University to offer a graffiti art program. You could actually get your degree in graffiti art specializing in graffiti art. That didn’t go through but there was a formal plan on the table. They were talking with school officials administrators.
There are smaller schools in Shanghai and Guangzhou, it’s not studied at the college level I don’t think. Although probably because graffiti in Beijing is actually, it may be a career path for Chinese writers. The top Chinese crews are routinely invited to corporate events, brand launches, things like that. So they get paid and they have competitions in Hong Kong and in the mainland to see who’s the top crews.
These guys are talented artists. No doubt about it! Only the top crews, like I said, are invited whenever there’s a product launch, car launch, opening of a mall. They make money doing that, so yeah, it can be a career path and I know that a lot of purists elsewhere outside of China certainly don’t like that, but given the circumstances that Beijing, if you were in Beijing what would you do?
So I don’t really hate on crews who engage in commercial painting. I’m not a graffiti writer, I’m not a graffiti artist, so who am I to judge? And it’s like I said as hard as it is to live in Beijing then you know do whatever it takes to survive and if you get paid for your skills as a graffiti writer then more power to you. In Beijing, there are already initiatives where it’s like “Hey let’s make this neighborhood look better!” I mean I’ve seen that actually a few times in southern China on dilapidated houses neighborhood have been painted there was one video.
I saw a few years ago but I wouldn’t say that’s really active do Chinese artist thing to use graffiti for this. It’s like I said more in southern China. I wish I had more information about that but, I didn’t explore too much down there. Shanghai’s is kind of saving Beijing as shrinking it’s expensive so a lot of places to paint.
What do you think will be the evolution of graffiti culture in China? Could graffiti artists bind to brands becoming commercial?
They’re artists who are routinely get invited to Europe to paint, in terms of brands sure. They’ll work in advertising, they’ll do brand launches like I said. That’s where it is in Beijing with Chinese artists, it’s like you’re either making a living at it or you’re throwing up a piece maybe once a month and it’s covered quickly.
So that’s where it is now Beijing. In southern China, I think is the real source and the pulse of Chinese graffiti, it doesn’t get the coverage that it deserves which is good and bad. I think it’s probably good because Beijing is the center of China for media, so media outlets are there and covering a day by day. Then if they’re looking for anything to cover it certainly the case before they in the run-up to the Olympics in 2008.
If you go YouTube you look at some of the videos that were made by the BBC and few other outlets they were kind of amazed that graffiti was allowed to flourish and thrive and it wasn’t heavily penalized the way it wasn’t or it is in their country. So you can see those videos which are kind of interesting snapshots, but it’s commercial that is the path in Beijing but in the South, there aren’t many foreigners living there, aren’t any Western news agencies down, there’s nobody’s covering what’s happening down there.
So I think that is the where the real Chinese evolution is occurring, is happening, it’s beautiful. So I would love to go there to film some action. My document is on Amazon Prime now hopefully on Netflix.
I want to say something else too. I think documentary filmmaking in China is amazing and American expectations are pathetic. I think a lot of American filled with documentary filmmakers are bullshit. I think they make commercials. I hate Vice. I found graffiti before Vice did and because of that they didn’t want anywhere near it, and they weren’t interested in anything that I was doing. Film today in America documentaries it’s all about marketing no one gives a shit about your film. So it’s warped American filmmakers and what their purpose is we’re supposed to be. It’s not sympathetic, obviously and there’s these that go to China to make films on issues that they don’t go anywhere near in the city they come from.
They victimize the subjects of their film. When they do that, they address issues that can get them to say all kinds of sensitive shit, that can get them in trouble meanwhile they go back home and they’re some kind of hero because they care about China and they’re trying to save China. They just serve their ego really. So there’s a lot of crap in China not just with documentary filmmakers for journalists and writers. Try to save China yeah! I think those people are pathetic.
My film didn’t do that, so a lot of people have problems with that. I’m supposed to make a graffiti documentary and I’m supposed to address what happened in 1989 or the one-child policy or a Cultural Revolution or the Great Famine. It’s not my responsibility. If I don’t do that, then it’s just not a proper documentary about Beijing.
It’s a joke expectation and this marketing shit. Kickstarter is bullshit. I want nothing to do with that. It’s like internet panhandling, you’re generally just like cyberbegging. It’s a pathetic joke in this country expectations and Vice it has played a huge influence in that. Those guys I met in China they don’t give a shit about anything they cover. Just care about how does the video look, how does it sound. People use drone shots on documentaries.
What purpose does a drone shot have in a documentary unless you’re making a documentary about birds, nature? Why do you need a drone shot? Some drone to fly in all in the action wherever your subject is. So if you don’t have that and it’s not in beautiful pristine, 4k technology, whatever it then you don’t have a film. It’s a joke man. Film festivals will play that game. I got to shut down because I don’t have a marketing. I didn’t have a marketing campaign. I’d have a website that looked great. I don’t have a million followers, I didn’t reach my goal on Kickstarter but my project was so finest. I paid for it myself. I own my equipment and every month I got paid from work, I gave that money to my editors and translator and I paid for the music everything. I paid for it. They didn’t want to hear that back in 2012. They wanted to hear how if it wasn’t for Kickstarter your film would have gotten made. So I didn’t do that either. I don’t regret that at all man.
Photo courtesy of Lance Crayon