Graffiti Art in China: interview with Alex Chou

Graffiti walls, M50 Art district, 50 Moganshan Rd, Shanghai, China

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SHÀNGHǍI Graffiti art is now in vogue even here in China. Many crews around the whole Asian continent are trying to make themselves known through graffiti pieces, art installations and any kind of tag. CCT has met Alex Chou, leader of Reload Crew, a well-established team for years here in Shanghai.

Graffiti walls, M50 Art district, 50 Moganshan Rd, Shanghai, China

How did you become interested in graffiti? What inspired you to start writing graffiti? I had so many opportunities to travel overseas. I spent long time in Germany (Stuttgart) and there I was fascinated by the graffiti art. Later I came back to Shanghai, I immediately quit my job and I started to do something similar of what I’ve seen in Europe here around China.

You can’t go to school to learn graffiti, how did you learn how to paint? Ten years ago Internet connection was extremely slow. At that time we could just learn how to draw a piece by ourselves, watching some Western movies or documentary, taking a photo and then copy it. My first graffiti was in English, not in “Hanzi”. Chinese characters are much harder to modify.

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It seems that street art is becoming more accepted and legal in many countries. What’s the situation like in China? Chinese graffiti situation today is different. It’s better but still today’s society doesn’t give us adequate space to express ourselves. People can easily find a place to dance or drink… But what’s wrong with graffiti? My crew was the first one to paint on Moganshan Lu wall and last year the government decided to demolish it. Along with those bricks collapsed many of our works and dreams. We don’t give up until someone will give us a free legal graffiti place.

How do you feel when you are painting graffiti? Every time I’m drawing a new piece I’m thinking about how lucky I am. Ten years ago graffiti artists couldn’t survive just painting. Today I’m living the life I dreamt when I was young. I have a studio, all my crew is painting here, we are taking lessons around China about graffiti and we have the honor to work with other great graffiti artists from all over the world.

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What’s the riskiest thing you’ve done as a graffiti artist? Here in China there is no one law that prohibits graffiti or otherwise against street-art. The risks involved here are lower than in other countries. Just be aware of certain rules: it’s absolutely forbidden to touch railway stations, buses or subways and, more importantly, “NO political slogan”.

How has your work evolved through the years? My team is growing a lot. We have just now finished a project that concerns the biggest cities here in China. It’s called “Nippon Subway Gallery”, a really ambitious project that involved us for two whole months. It’s like a free art gallery within a few subway stations; here in SH you can find these graffiti at East Nanjing Road subway station. We are trying to make ordinary people appreciate our work on their daily subway chaotic trip. Reload Crew always tries to create something that anyone has never seen before.

Do you have any favourite places to paint here in SH? Until a few years ago we had to do our “pieces” exclusively outside in hidden places. Now we have this wonderful place here and anyone who has the passion for graffiti can come to visit us, sit with us, have a beer and start to paint, start making art. We are like a kind of social platform for people here in Shanghai that really wants to do graffiti. We give them all the necessary information.

What do you think about Banksy? He’s undoubtedly the most famous and controversial street artist to emerge on the global stage. I love Banksy works. That man has an extraordinary talent!! He’s able to create out of nothing. With few elements at its disposal he can invent real piece of art that anyone would want to see. The mystery surrounding his character is then a story that really fascinates everyone. His style is unique.

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The main goal of some crews here in China is to include Chinese elements or styles into graffiti. Is that true for your crew? Not always. Graffiti culture has Western roots. Here in China not everyone has the opportunity to receive a good art education. There are still too many limitations for students. Artists, once they reached the coveted degree, still think that “red is the good color”. I take responsibility for what I’m saying but sometimes education system is totally wrong. It’s impossible that today some students, still in their twenties, aren’t able to speak English, may not be able to relate to the world outside their own Chinese borders. Life, human relationships, job’s career… Everything is based on culture. Our work is also trying to open minds of the new generations, who are looking out for the first time in the world of graffiti art.

Many people believe that graffiti artists “always stain the city”. What would you say to someone who is against graffiti art? Everyone has his opinion. Obviously I don’t share their mentality, but I think is fundamental respecting others. I often wonder: what can I really do to show them that there are different ways of doing graffiti? I want to give them several choices, different options that can allow them to realize that maybe their idea was limited. A city with more graffiti I’m sure could be extremely useful for all the people who despise and criticize us. We are looking for a productive dialogue. Our messages are enclosed within our graffiti. We are not just vandals that stain the walls of Shanghai, New York, Berlin, Milan… We are artists in all respects.

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Andrea Nardini