Interview via email
KL: You are one of the most prolific street writers in BJ (and the rest of China, and also where many people may find themselves on visa runs) what drives you to throw up your name everywhere? If it’s a contest for coverage you seem to be winning. What does that mean for a street writer?
ZATO: You'd have to ask a psychiatrist. I just have to do it. Obviously the most important thing for me is coverage. I don't know what it means for most writers. For me coverage is the number one thing. I don't think there's enough writers in China who really bomb.
KL: Lately a lot of your graffiti art (as opposed to just tags) have been popping up around Gulou. What prompted the move into more art than writing?
ZATO: I've done it for a while actually. I like letters. I also like painting characters. If I just did one I'd get bored. I don't make art though. It's all just vandalism to me.
KL: What got you into graffiti in the first place?
ZATO: I had the name appear to me like an ecstatic vision. After that I wanted to put it everywhere. I still don't really understand what happened or why.
KL: How do you think the Beijing scene compares to others?
ZATO: It's a lot smaller compared to other countries. There's not many people doing graffiti here at all. Especially real graffiti and not just legal walls and commercial murals. Still I think it's better here than in most other Chinese cities. Some other cities I've been too have okay scenes but they're also small. I think Beijing might have more graffiti than most Chinese cities because it's got a lot of art and culture. Like Shanghai is really big but has almost nothing. Everyone there just wants money. Even though Beijing is the capital they actually clean up stuff less here than some other cities.
KL: I did a bit of research and this appeared:
What’s your response to this level of vitriol? Does this happen all over or is it exacerbated by how small the Beijing scene is?
ZATO: I think it's funny. If he's going out with a marker to go over me then it's like I inspired him to start vandalising too. I think that's cool in a way. I think this is because of how small Beijing is. One person doing graffiti sticks out. I saw a couple other things like this around the area. Someone's tried covering my stuff before and writing about how I had no respect. There's been fake zatos too. I don't really mind. I think a big part of it is because my stuff is really easy to read. Normal people notice it more. People only notice me and the guy who does the bunny. Those are the two things they can recognize. Other writers get up a lot but people decide they can't decipher it and don't pay attention to it.
KL: Have you ever tagged over someone else for revenge or other reasons? Is the transient nature something that you accept and enjoy or is it sometimes frustrating/heartbreaking to find one of your larger pieces destroyed?
ZATO: Of course I have. It's one thing to get buffed by the city or a business owner or even some random person with a pen. Another graffiti writer isn't ok though. If another graffiti writer goes over me just once I'll go over everything of theirs I can find. At least if they go over me in a way that's not fair or disrespectful. Otherwise the transience is just how it is. Obviously I try to find spots that will run a long time but you learn never to get too attached to one piece because eventually it will always be gone.
KL: You recently did a gallery show at 20% Picture House, how do you think street art translates into a more formal art setting?
ZATO: It usually doesn't. A lot of stuff that works on the street sucks in a gallery. Most graffiti writers can't really translate. Part of what I did for the show was just a series of 拆 pieces on demolished buildings because most people on the street wouldn't see it but it's still an act of vandalism. Otherwise I just did what wouldn't work on the street but I thought might be good in a gallery. I don't know if it worked. All I know how to do is write my name on things. I didn't just want to do graffiti on canvas, that's boring.
KL: Are you making a larger political or personal statement or is this something you do purely for yourself and the graffiti community?
ZATO: Mainly for myself. But graffiti can be inherently political in terms of taking space and property. It's not just for the graffiti community. I want to make sure anyone can notice my graffiti. Sometimes I write messages that can seem like personal or even political messages. I want that to be open to the viewer.
KL: How tight is the graffiti community here in Beijing? Does everyone know everyone or do you keep to your mysterious selves?
ZATO: Because it's really small most writers have met each other. I usually paint alone though.
KL: Do you have a favourite area to work in or do you always try to cover the whole city?
ZATO: Inside 2nd ring road is nice because it's dense and good for walking. Overall I try to get up anywhere I can. Random places far outside downtown can be good spots to paint.
KL: I’ve heard Beijing legislation hasn’t caught up yet and most artists work with relative impunity. How long do you think that will last? Is every writer here waiting on the apocalypse? As a community do people shy away from content that will attract the attention of the authorities?
ZATO: I think most writers can't conceive of the apocalypse. They're very open about what they do. I think eventually it will change but I don't know how bad it will get. They already clean up more but graffiti still isn't considered a big deal. I don't think it will be considered as much of a threat as in Europe or some places where it's crazy. That said there are spots everyone knows to avoid. Government buildings, historical sites, that kind of thing. I'm sure if you started writing very political messages instead of just a name the police would find you. Straight political messages are not my thing but maybe it's ultimately a form of self-censorship.
KL: Is there anything you want to add?
Interview April 8 via email
Tell us a little about yourself - your history, upbringing etc anything you thing will help enlighten us.
I was born in Irkutsk City. Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in Siberia and despite what everyone thinks, people do live there. It’s not all taiga, bears and ice and we do have summer. It can get as hot as 30°C. I’m an only child and I’ve always loved it. Looking at my cousins I saw they had to share their toys with siblings. I really pitied them. I studied Chinese language and International Trade at university, which is a far cry from any kind of art.
You are self-taught? Was it a process of training or compulsion with improving results?
I was always very crafty from when I was young and spent numerous hours drawing, but like all parents make you believe, I was told that it would be impossible to make it as an artist, so I never pursued it. When choosing a university, I was considering to attend a college where you can major in costume design. But eventually I chose another university that has an exchange program with China, 3 degrees upon graduating and a promising future in International Trade. I guess the choice was easy, but wrong. After I graduated, I felt like something was missing from my life. I started to draw a bit every now and then and was getting more interested in arts, read more about artists and the business of illustration. I love Instagram and am grateful that it gives me an opportunity to see how other artists and illustrators work. I started to put more thought and labor in my artworks and I was posting them online not hoping for anything, just to keep true to myself and motivated. Surprisingly I started getting really good feedback and a lot of support, so it kept me going.
I strongly believe that drawing is a skill that everyone can learn. It just depends on how much you want it and how much you are willing to work for it. I also am a strong believer in the rule of 10,000 hours. I draw 4-9 hours every day.
I look a lot at how other artists work and constantly read about illustration, new trends and techniques. I’m a big fan of trying new things. Maybe a new technique could become my favorite. I can’t be sure before I try. I also watch a lot of interviews with other illustrators and tutorials on different topics on sources like skillshare.com for example.
Your work has a distinctive look and is quintessentially Beijing? What was the process of developing your style?
I think my artistic style is something that I didn’t consciously choose and develop. This is just the most natural, comfortable and most attractive way for me to draw. It just comes down to drawing, trying and seeing what works best for you and for the purposes of what you are drawing.
Did you always know you would work commercially or do you have a gallery exhibition of works hidden away in your studio?
This is one of the questions I ask myself a lot. Where am I going and what do I want to become? I wish I had enough time to do both, but right now I don’t. I do enjoy working for other people. The process of creating works with ideas from somebody else broadens the mind. But I can also draw something just for myself on topics that are interesting for me and that could be exhibited in a gallery. I love to produce things that everyone can use, like my mugs, the calendar, greeting cards and more that’s still to come.
What was the first piece you ever sold?
If I remember it right, the first commission was for an American friend back in Irkutsk. She asked me to draw a sweet painting with an owl for a nursery. I was so inexperienced and we didn’t discuss money at all. I guess I was too shy and insecure to talk about it and decided to offer it as a present. I gave the couple the painting for their newborn and they gave me a nice gift in return. It was actually more of a trade than being piece that got sold.
You’re a commercial success story. What was the process from realizing you wanted to sell your art and getting to the stage you’re at now? Did it take long to start getting corporate contracts?
When you are in the middle of it, it never looks like success. The process is hard and I don’t sleep a lot, because I’d rather be creating than sleeping. I’m that hooked on creating art. Unless you rent a studio shared with other artists, it’s a very lonely business. I just sit at my desk with my cat Totoro and draw. When I don’t draw I feel very guilty, when I watch movies, when I stroll in the hutongs, when I read books, every minute I think: I really should be drawing right now.
I like creating art for other people. I think all artists thrive on their ego and when people pick you out of so many artists, it’s very flattering, but at the same time it’s terrifying because people expect great things from you. Even now every time when I turn in my assignment to the clients, I feel like a nervous wreck. I can love it, but it all depends on whether or not the clients like it.
Another important aspect of being an illustrator is networking. I consider myself a socially well-adjusted introvert, so it’s always really hard for me to go up to people and start the conversation about myself and how awesome I am. I’m not the best sales person, but I do try to be one as good as I can.
I like working with local businesses when I can, becoming friends with the owner and talking directly to them. Actually, my first business client was Jing A and it’s funny how we started working together. I was just sitting outside the Tavalin Bagels shop in Sanlitun sketching the shop front, because I knew they were closing and I loved their bagels. This way I wanted to at least save some part of it for myself. While sketching, Richard (Media Manager of Jing A) pulled up in the Jing A Keg Egg. I loved it and thought it was a cool thing to sketch. Alex (one of founders of Jing A) came by and complimented me on my work and asked if they could use it in their social media posts. We exchanged contacts and after a while they contacted me to create a poster for an event. Since then we work together regularly. They literally found me out on the street.
You take personal commissions, is it important for you to keep the nature of your work personal? Do you have a particular commission that meant a lot to you?
I really love doing personal commissions. They restore my love for humanity. Most of us are sweet and caring and all of us have great stories to tell. Most personal commissions are gifts to make somebody happy and I love helping people with doing just that. I always try to ask the clients about all the little details, what they would like me to include, some inside jokes, things they dream about, stories, things they enjoy,…. I think this is what makes it such a great present.
One of my favorite commissions was a Beijing Hutong Map. It was a gift for a boyfriend with all the couple’s favorite places and things they love about Beijing. I think it will always be great to look at, even if they move away from Beijing or when those places no longer exist. It will always bring back nice memories.
Your work is very sweet and sometimes romantic, is there a darker side to Liuba?
I have some artworks that are much darker than the usual stuff I create, but they are all personal works. I don’t see anything bad in dark and twisted, but it’s not very commercial. I wish I had more time to create some darker works.
What is your dream future for your art? If you could go anywhere/do anything, what would it be?
I recently visited Australia and was amazed by the beauty of the country, the ocean, the atmosphere, it was right up my alley. I’m really looking forward to visiting the United States, but I’m not really sure where I would want to end up living. I would want to have a beautiful studio in my house with a store in the front, so I can have my cat there chilling right beside me when I draw. That would be ideal! I want to continue doing commissions, creating small-scale things, creating personal art, but also art suitable for a gallery show. In the future I also hope to be able to illustrate children’s books.
What do you have in store for us in the future? Any plans?
I will have more new products for the upcoming Beijing Flea Market on the 14th of May at the Bookworm. I hate cheap ugly mass produced magnets and hope that I can create some nice magnets for Beijing. I always try to bring some illustrated, handmade, cool magnets from places I visit. I will also have more greeting cards, prints, new phone case designs and maybe more. My boyfriend and I are working on a children’s book, which is terrifying to share, but I hope that we will see this project through. It will probably be a self-published Beijing based story and I will distribute it at the Christmas markets. I’m working on my Taobao shop right now and I might establish an Etsy store this year, once I figure out how to deal with international shipping. I have a thousand of other projects that I want to work on, but I don’t like to talk too much about it unless it’s 100% certain.
Liuba is a self-taught freelance illustrator, gallery artist and maker of little things. During her free time she goes out to explore her city with a sketchbook and markers in hand. She is still very curious about different ways to express herself, from painting on unusual materials, designing menus and wedding decorations to teaching art to kids.
She has done commissions for such Beijing institutions as Jing A, Kenny's Burgers and The Hatchery. Find more of her work at www.liubadraws.com
Interview on March 29 at Great Leap Brewing, Sanyuanli
KL: I’m familiar with the music photography that you do, is that just one aspect of your photography?
AF: Yes, it’s one of the things that I like to do because I love music and I can’t play any instrument so that’s a way of connecting things I like… And it’s something I try to do well. But music photography really doesn’t pay much at all so I need to do other things too and anyway, I really like to diversify. But generally, I think my work comes mostly from a documentary perspective, I like to document what I see. I also shoot portraits, private boudoir sessions, events, editorial… All kinds of things, really.
KL: Are you other works more commercial or, with your documentary style, more photojournalism?
AF: I’m only 100% freelance since last summer so now I actually have to do a lot of commercial stuff that isn’t the most exciting, but I’ve got to do it. It’s good anyway, because it takes you out of your comfort zone: you have to go and learn the ropes and do a lot of different things and that is positive. The problem is then you start focussing on making a living and you have less time to do your own things. Everyone had warned me about it beforehand, I knew what was coming and I still went for it. I’m in this transitional phase trying to find time for my own things while doing “pay-the-rent” work.
KL: Before going freelance how much energy did you have to put into just going out and shooting and shooting and shooting just to build up the portfolio that you needed?
AF: That was pretty insane actually because I had a fulltime job and I have a family so I’d work all week and in the evening, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or the three of them; go out, shoot and then I’d have to edit the pictures - to put them out there as soon possible. Then I had to work on promoting my work to try and get it to be seen. So yeah, lots of energy I’d say.
KL: You’re obviously passionate about the band stuff. How essential is that to getting a great photo? Do you need to some sort of relationship with the band, love their music or even know the band members or can you walk in off the street and get a good shot?
AF: Well it’s a lot of practise, first. It’s not that easy because things move fast.
KL: Bad lighting usually as well.
AF: Yeah, the lighting is often terrible especially in smaller venues.
But sure, the feeling has a lot to do with the quality of the photos and maybe also the number of beers you’ve had before the show. I am more motivated if I like the band, but what really matters is mostly the energy and the passion the bands bring to the stage. Many bands I shoot, I wouldn’t listen to them at home, but if their energy and attitude is great, that makes it a pleasure to shoot. Feeling welcome in the venue and at the show is also a big part of it, that helps set the mood right.
KL: Is part of the appeal the collaborative nature of band photography? You said you love music but you can’t play so is it about feeling part of a collective artistic process?
AF: Maybe in a way… But actually, it’s rather a solitary job. I feel more like an outsider than a member of a group. At my computer editing these pictures or behind my camera taking them, it’s a one-man thing.
KL: When photographing someone with a public image how much pressure do you feel to represent them how they see themselves?
AF: Well, I wouldn’t call it pressure, but I do feel music photographers have a responsibility. They are often getting a privileged access and it shouldn’t be used at the detriment of the artist’s image. We have to be strict with what we show and don’t show. It’s a matter of personal ethics. For the small shows, musicians are usually happy to have decent pictures anyway, as the only competition you have are smart phone pictures, which are always shit. Smartphones take great pictures now but you never see great concert pictures taken on them, especially not in places like Temple where the light is so hard.
KL: How compromised do you feel by the commercial work you’ve done? How much creative control do you have?
AF: It really depends. It differs from gig to gig. The thing I cherish more than anything is my freedom. For example when I shoot an event, I like to roam free and capture the mood of it. Most clients trust me and let me do my thing.
But sometimes, a client will be following me around and tap on my shoulder every minute to give me directions…and that’s the kind of thing I don’t deal so well with. But I am working on that because it’s completely normal that clients tell you what they want since your job is to make them happy. But there is still a rebel teenager in me, singing that Rage Against The Machine song about not doing what people tell you to. A key factor when someone hires me is that they see my work first. I want them to know what I do and what they are going to get. It may be different from what they have in mind, so it’s better to talk about it.
KL: It’s a really tough choice to go freelance in photography at the moment. How much do you think living in Beijing influenced your decision to do it?
AF: I think it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t come here. I’ve been doing photography for years but I’ve only started doing it professionally since I moved here. It’s hard to say if it’s Beijing specifically or if it’s because it’s a capital city because I’ve never lived in a capital city before. Maybe if I’d grown up in Paris I would also feel that there were similar opportunities. You know you talk with a guy in a bar and he ends up being the editor of a magazine. In a smaller city these things never happen, or it’s only a small local paper. In Beijing, I feel people are willing to give you a chance and it’s up to you to make the best of it. If you’re good enough they’re going to hire you again. If you’re not they won’t but at least you get the chance. It’s also, because people here are pretty accessible, it’s not too difficult to chat with them, at least in the music and the media scene. That’s something cool and I haven’t really experienced that elsewhere.
KL: Give me a bit of a timeline. How did that work for you from starting off going in taking shots and gradually getting to a position where people were offering you money?
AF: What helped a lot at the time was Weibo but now it seems a bit dead. That was a huge push because you’d go to a show and tag the band and put it on Weibo and the band would like them and repost them and then the fans of the band would see them and suddenly you’d get a lot of followers. Once I got on Weibo and started using it, I really felt a big difference. People didn’t know my name but they knew my pseudonym, Foukographer, and they started saying, “Oh you’re that guy, I like your pictures.” Then some Chinese magazines would need a picture of that show and someone would recommend me, it was all by word of mouth. I’ve done some interesting work for some French magazines and newspapers and it all originated from one lucky encounter, a French journalist I’d met at Yugong Yishan. Months later he needed a photographer for a gig on the Beijing scene and he remembered me. This is the absolute truth about this kind of work, you don’t get to a place because you’re the best- you get there because you’ve created the opportunity. Some people say it’s only luck but it’s not, you’ve got to be out there to get these opportunities - If you’re depressed at home staying in front of your computer you’re not going to get it – even though of course, luck is part of the equation.
KL: As far as your artistic temperament and the art you do what is the pure art photography of Aurelien Foucault? If you had complete freedom to create something what would it be?
AF: I like mixed media, using collage, photography and paint. Things that feel more physical than photography. It’s so good to get your hands dirty, so much more cathartic than photography. In terms of art photography, I like to shoot nudes and portraits. There’s a project that’s a bit on standby now but that I still want to complete, an interactive-exhibition dealing with the female body and memory. But for that, I need to find more volunteers models, which is not easy to find here.
KL: Do you think Beijing giving you opportunities for your work has also had an aesthetic impact on the art photography you do?
AF: Well, I guess it’s more the spirit of Beijing that’s had an impact on me, not so much aesthetically. So far I haven’t dedicated much time to my artistic work, most of my exhibitions were documentary photography, except for a fun collective exhibition organised by Dann Gaymer of Aweh TV/Gui Gui Sui Sui.
But recently, I had the honour of working with Parkview Green, the big mall in Fangcaodi. The owner of the place is a patron of the arts, he has one of the largest collections of Dali sculptures in the world. They had a book project and they contacted me to create some artworks. The material had to be based on their shopping mall but I had absolute freedom. This really was fantastic, that gave me a motivation to reconnect with my creativity. The book just came out and I hope to have more opportunities to create artworks rather than just taking pictures.
KL: Are there any bands you have a relationship with or who you’d like to work with?
AF: In the four years I’ve been doing this there are a few bands I’ve built a big archive of like Nova Heart, Residence A, Djang San, so these people are friends and people I’ve been taking pictures of for a long time so it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed from having long hair to short hair and things like this. I would love to collaborate with a band on a whole album, from documenting their time in the practice room and the recording studio, to shooting some of the shows and also creating the artwork for the album and promo material. That would be really cool.
KL: Do you have an archive that the world needs to see? How long have you been here?
AF: I haven’t been here long -only came here in the end of 2011-but your question brings me to the one project I’m working on now! With Dino Zarafonitis, a fellow photographer based in Hong Kong, we are building a website called Music Photography Archives. We are going to use that as an outlet to publish all these archives that we have. So basically we are both shooting the local scene and we are now uploading some content before going public so we can have a place to share all these pictures with the world. That’s going to take a long time because there is a lot to upload but it finally gives a certain purpose to the whole thing. We are aiming at MAY 1st for the launch!
Aurélien was born in 1979 in France and has lived in Sweden, Italy, Scotland, Hellas and Russia before settling down in Beijing. His photography work has been published internationally and his short-documentary film “Of shadows and men” was selected in film festivals around the world. His body of work is varied and ranges from documentary style to fine art and commercial photography.
Find more at www.foukography.com
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.