Interview on March 26 at Beiluo Bread Bar, Beiluoguxiang
KL: The graffiti scene here is relatively new. Does that mean most of your influence came from overseas?
MASK: Definitely. I remember seeing hints of graffiti in the movies I watched in high school. These weren’t specifically hip-hop or graffiti movies, just some blockbusters. At the time I felt that graffiti suited me very well and started thinking about how it’s made. It started as just a thought, but after seeing graffiti in real life and its process when I was in college allowed me to try my hand at it.
Andy: The root of this culture is overseas, so of course anything we can learn and have learned came from the West. Right now it’s not possible to replant the seed in China to make the culture indigenous here, then disseminate it locally again. This requires a lot of time. Graffiti culture has only been in China for about ten or twenty years. There aren’t a lot of artists around. There are about twenty to thirty people doing graffiti in a big city like Beijing, and everybody knows each other in a circle this small. Most of our influence comes from stuff like film and music, and of course we need to have some understanding of hip-hop culture and its products, such as breakdancing. There’s a connection between all these elements – their vibes are very similar.
Andy: 所有这些文化本身的起源就是在国外嘛，所以我们能学的肯定是国外的东西。现在还没有到达可能把国外的文化移动到国内做成一种本体文化，再扩散出去。这是需要很长的时间的。涂鸦在中国可能有10几年，不到20年的历史吧。做涂鸦的人也没有很多。可能一个大一点的城市也就二三十人。经常做的也就几个人，都挺熟的。所以我们的影响都是来自看这些东西的，本身也得对hip hop 有一定的了解。周边可能有一些街舞啊，一些音乐啊。这几个文化是有一定的联系的。它的感觉都是很像的。
KL：Why is it important to use Roman characters when you have your own written language?
Andy: I think it comes down to personal preference. However, graffiti was evolved from fonts and typography, so writing is a very central part of this culture. Although it’s difficult to craft a persona on the street, it’s even more difficult to give personality to words. Your writing represents your flow, so to make something evocative of your flow is not only difficult but important. People and portraits are figurative and more easily recognizable, but I still think writing is the real difficulty.
MASK: I do writing because it’s the root of graffiti. Some say that if you want to understand a culture, start from its language. Writing in Chinese creates only an intersection between graffiti culture and Chinese culture; I like the most pure, 100% kinda feel.
MASK: 我做字体是因为我觉得字体是涂鸦最根本的东西。人往往说你如果想了解一个地方的文化的话，你得先从它的语言下手。 如果把它写成汉语的话它有可能只是中国文化和涂鸦文化之间的一个交接。但我最喜欢的那个感觉是最纯粹的，100%的那种感觉。
KL：It’s obviously important to get your tag out there for people to see. What’s more important: getting more coverage or doing a really good piece you’re happy with? Do you more often go out and throw up as many as you can, or take the time to work on a piece that’s really representative and good?
Andy: I think tags, throw-ups, and pieces are parallel to each other; they’re just different forms. It still depends on the wall. If a wall is in a pretty safe and comfortable position, I’ll have the readiness and willingness to do something complex. However, if I don’t have a lot of time on the streets, especially when it’s dangerous, I can only do something quick and simple. These varied forms are not mutually exclusive but are in fact connected. My tactic is to decide which form to use according to the location and how you feel at the time.
MASK: I basically agree with what Andy said. There isn’t any contradiction between tagging and doing a big piece because they jointly belong in the system that is graffiti, which is very dynamic in nature. So it all depends on the situation.
KL: 把你的tag放出去让大家看到当然是很重要的。但对你们来说哪个更重要：让你的东西被更多人看到还是做一个让你自己欣慰的作品？你更多时候是去外面tag 或throw-up越多越好，还是用一些时间来做一个很有代表性的作品？
Andy:我觉得tag, throw-up, 和 piece 都是平衡的，只不过方式不一样而已。还是看墙吧。如果这个墙的位置很安全很舒适，我就会有一种做复杂的东西的一种心态。如果在街上没那么长的时间，或者很危险，就只能做快的。他们不冲突，反而是有联系的。我个人感觉是根据你当时的感觉和墙的位置所来决定。
MASK: 我基本同意 Andy 刚才说的。他们之间没有是一就不能是二的关系。它属于一个体系。因为涂鸦是一个非常灵活的东西，所以还得看具体情况。
KL: I know that Andy is in a crew, while MASK works by himself. What is the difference between working by yourself and representing a group of people?
Andy: I was by myself in the beginning, until I met some people whose style and direction were aligned with mine and are now in a crew with me. I don’t necessarily do graffiti with the crew all the time: sometimes I’m alone, sometimes there’re several of us. The crew is just a symbol. We started the crew because we had similar ideas. There’s no collision between the self and the team. There’s a crew of around 100 people from New York called TNB. The name is just there to represent you, to create a sense of belonging until the meaning of being in a crew becomes really blurred. Some of these people might have never even met each other, but will tag the crew name when they go out to do graffiti.
MASK: I don’t belong to a crew... I feel like trying to find a teammate is like finding a girlfriend. If I have to find one, I want someone with a similar style: someone whose attitude toward and understanding of graffiti match mine.
Andy: 我最早的时候也是一个人。后来遇到有几个志同道合的人，觉得大家的风格和未来的方向都一致，就组了这个团队。但是我不一定每次都跟团队一块做涂鸦： 可能一个人，可能我们几个人。团队只是一个你的归属或代号。大家的想法都差不多，所以就会建立这个团队。个人跟团队也不冲突。有一个团队叫TNB ，纽约的，大概有一百多人吧。这个名字只是来代表你，就是一种归属感，到最后变成很模糊的状态。这一百多人里可能有些人都没有见过，但出去做涂鸦的时候都会签上团队的名字。
KL: Obviously graffiti is really tied into hip-hop culture, including music and fashion elements. Is that the same in Beijing? Is there a certain style and cultural background to what you do?
Andy: I personally think people who live in the North, due to personality and weather, are more disposed toward an old school style, including the way they dress, their music, their vibe. Their personalities are more straightforward: simple and violent. The South, perhaps like the American South, is more suitable for a different feel; its development can be more fresh and varied. The North always maintains its traditions, perhaps having to do with the habits of people who live there. I think when it comes down to it hip-hop is an attitude and a spirit to uphold, not what you wear. The things you do gotta be powerful and representative of yourself. You need to understand the relationship between music, graffiti, B-Boy, and DJ culture, at least a little bit. Hip-Hop has a pretty fierce presence in Beijing and has always maintained a special vibe: concrete, traditional, yet very powerful.
MASK：I think the atmosphere exists here for sure, but is comparatively less active than America’s. I know a lot of graffiti guys who didn’t get into hip-hop because of the culture. They saw it, thought it looked cool, and tried to emulate it. They might not even know anything about other aspects of it or have even heard of Biggie and 2Pac. There are people who have deep interests in this, such as MC Nasty Ray and DJ Wesley. I think this is a very pure way of interacting with hip-hop. In plain words, I think hip-hop has a presence here, but very much on the surface level compared to other places.
Andy: I thought of another point: economic basis determines superstructure. In the West the average salary and state of mind is relatively more stable and just better in general. There, hip-hop culture belongs to the poor. Because hip-hop hasn’t been around for that long in China, taking part in this kind of subculture requires money as a support, especially when it comes to tools like spray cans. There’s no way someone can play with this shit without money. The sluggishness of the development of hip-hop has to do with our mentality. We don’t have a lot of money to contribute to this culture, because most of our lives still have to do with the basic necessities. Sometimes we’ll have some cash to spare, but even then there isn’t a lot of time to entertain the thought.
Andy: 我个人感觉其实北方的人，因为天气和性格的原因，比较偏向Old School，更传统一些。包括大家的穿着，感觉，音乐。所有人的性格都比较直接，简单暴力一些。而南方，可能跟美国南部一样，因为气候的原因适合一些更不一样的感觉。南方的发展可能会更新，会出现不同的东西。而北方一直保持着一种传统，跟北方人的生活习惯可能也有关系。Hip Hop 我觉得还是一种态度，一种精神，并不是你穿的怎么样。你做的事儿必须得是代表你自己的。你做的事儿必须得是有能量的。你一定要懂点儿音乐，涂鸦，B-Boy，DJ这几个之间的关系。要稍微懂一些才能更好地理解Hip Hop. Hip Hop在北京还真的挺厉害的，一直保持着一个不一样的感觉：很坚固，很传统，但是又很有力量。
MASK: 北京我觉得氛围为当然有，但是相比美国要弱很多。我认识很多做涂鸦的朋友，他接触hip-hop并不是因为hip hop的氛围，而尽可能是因为看到了这个东西觉得看起来很好看，再去模仿。别的方面有可能他根本就不了解，比如 Notorious B.I.G., 2PAC, 他可能都没听说过，也不感兴趣。当然也有一些人是认识的非常深刻的。像有个MC Nasty Ray，有一个DJ叫DJ Wesley – 这些人都是我觉得对这个东西有非常深的见解的。我觉得这个是特别纯种的hip hop的方式。说白了，我觉得有氛围，但是相比之下这个level要低很多。
Andy: 我又想到了一点：经济水平决定上层建筑。因为在国外相对来讲人均的收入和状态要好一点。可能在国外hip hop是属于比较穷一点，看上去不是那么富裕的。在中国要想玩hip hop首先得能生存，有一定经济基础。中国的Hip hop年代比较短，玩儿这种亚文化需要用到的东西都是需要钱来支撑的，而且是相对来讲很先锋的，比如我们要买喷漆啊等等。没有钱是不可能玩儿这个的。这个文化在中国发展的慢还是跟我们的思想相关的。我们还没有那么多的钱去消费这个文化。更多的还是生存和吃住行这个阶段。有一些条件了会玩儿一点，但是没有那么多的时间去娱乐它。
KL: Fillipo told me a bit about the scene here and how street writing is not really a political act. There haven’t been many strong vandalism laws in Beijing, as there are in other countries that make it dangerous or difficult for street artists. As a small community, do you keep this in mind? If somebody is doing something that could draw attention or lead to problems, do you police them?
Andy: Personally I think we should look at it without judgment, because we can’t manipulate others to do anything and neither can we dictate what people paint or not paint. The nature of graffiti lies in freedom. Also, this stage is inevitable. Sooner or later someone is gonna do some shit like that. It’s a necessary stage of development for the culture here, perhaps because this will lead some people to logically comprehend what graffiti actually is and what makes it valuable. It’s normal for anything to happen, as long as we keep it growing, because we don’t have a lot of time.
MASK: I’d make some effort to let the person know that an act like that is extremely immature and let him know what the right state of mind one’s gotta be in when doing graffiti, not one of a child who does things on a whim.
KL: For anybody looking to get into graffiti - these kids rich enough to buy the spray cans - what advice would you give them?
Andy: My advice is to first get to know the culture, then study it as you go. Frequent communication with people in the circle can save you time. Back then, when we started, there weren’t a lot of people to talk to about graffiti and the Internet wasn’t good enough. We had to rely completely on ourselves. I suddenly realized after a couple of years, “Oh! Graffiti isn’t really like this!” I’d only found what graffiti is after going outside of China. It took a lot of time and knowledge to get to the state I’m in now, so I think starting out fresh right now is a really good idea as long as you’re not rash about things. The truth is, graffiti is not that illegal in China – there’s no need to intentionally seek out danger and gangs when doing this. If you do that kind of stuff, people who don’t know the art will think you’re a little punk. If you don’t, people might get to see a different side of graffiti. What we should do now is to guide the public in the right direction, to let them know that hip-hop culture is not scary or dangerous but good. To be honest, here in China most of the kids we know come from average families, so far removed from the street culture of some countries where some kids are without parents and rely completely on dealing drugs or whatever. I think we need to look at this in a peaceful way while being considerate of China’s situation. History’s important, sure, but there’s no need to bring certain acts to this country. There’ nothing to sell... we need to find our own vibe.
MASK: I wanna tell the kids who are just starting out in graffiti that it’s not a means for anything. In other words, keep it real. It’s very important. I’ve seen some kids with very misguided and strange attitudes toward graffiti on the Internet. Don’t think, “Oh, that dude smokes weed and paints therefore I need to.” Seriously, don’t. Some guys might take some shit pictures of their work just to get chicks, but why should you? These phenomena project a lot of distractive negative energy. Look at some positive stuff, someone with the right attitude. See how someone can paint something really well. Try to find the right state of mind and feel for graffiti.
MASK: 想对一些刚做涂鸦的小朋友来说千万不要拿涂鸦去耍帅。就是说Keep It Real。这个非常重要。我在网上看到很多小孩做涂鸦的那个状态非常奇怪。你不要看别人呼大麻，做涂鸦，那我也就呼。千万不要这样。别人有可能发几个照片儿去骗小姑娘，你就不要去干。因为这其实是一些非常不纯粹和负能量的东西。去看一些正能量的东西，看看别人的态度，别人怎么把一个东西画好，怎么去把握涂鸦的状态和感觉。
Both legends on the Beijing scene, Mask works alone and Andy is part of ABS crew. Wanna see further works? Then keep your eyes open on the streets of China.