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?