Graffiti and urban art have always, at their cores, been intimately tied to the human condition. Today, in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, bids of “it’s time to go” are scrawled on buildings near the dictator’s home. In tattered Lebanon, chimera-chasing artists spray images of carefree children flying kites on Beirut’s bombed walls. In Northern Ireland’s blood-bathed tug-of-war, both Republican and Loyalist camps produce iconographic murals to mark their territories. Even in politically stable climates, urban art is telling of present social reality. After all, art pursued purely in aestheticism’s noble name is an indulgence afforded only once certain degrees of social, economic and political comfort have been met.
Graffiti was born as a means of challenging ruling sensibilities. By turning public space into soapboxes for the masses, urban artists rejected corporate and political control of their visual urban spaces while reaffirming their individuality. Here in Shanghai, with a past cloaked in communism and a future that glitters with gold — or at least gold tinted windows — the pursuit of urban art stems from vastly different roots.
Case in point: William Zhou, of Shanghai’s Reload Crew. The local “writer” — he wrinkles his nose at the title (read on for why) — recognizes that graffiti’s underlying motivations in China are very unique vis-à-vis global counterparts. “Usually, a ‘[graffiti] writer’ is one that many [dislike] because they [engage in] selfish behaviour against the public. They only satisfy themselves through illegal tagging, which is full of the spirit of rebellion,” he says disapprovingly. “But what we are doing here and now is adopting the graffiti style, adding our local touch, and creating something new while still being attuned to street style. We are not anyone’s enemy — we love the city and the people around us — we are just trying to do something unique, modern, and cool. We use the graffiti writer’s tools but we are not damaging anything or hurting anybody, we are just creating and establishing something. That is the essence of the local street-style scene.”
If Zhou is representative of local outlook, it appears that buddying up to Big Business, not dabbling in dissent, is more of a priority for Shanghai writers. “With the Chinese market being increasingly open, lots of foreign companies are entering. Their strategies usually focus on the local young generation, and they need new [brand images] to win them over,” he theorizes. “So many come to us to create unique styles for their products. Street-style is becoming more welcome and accepted, and will possibly become mainstream soon as young locals enjoy this new cultural trend.”
While the mainstream forecast seems dated, the rest of Zhou’s insights are telling of Shanghai’s street art scene. Which is why this afternoon should be all the more interesting. Starting at 4pm at Pirates, local artists will get a chance to let loose with their cans and inks, free from any other-imposed direction. Reload Your Style is an event that gathers some creative clans — think graf writers, tattoo artists, DJs and friends — for some agenda-free fun. In attendance: Reload graffiti crew (throwing up pieces on the walls and bombing a van), Shanghai Tattoo, metal monkeys Mishkin, and dancers from the Soul Dancing Studio. On the decks will be Deville, Memoree, Kamikaze, Mr. Tsang and V-Nutz; on the mic, MC Lotz.
“Usually, our works are restricted within some kind of business limits,” says Zhou. “This time, we can re-load our own style, 100 percent freestyle.”
Reload Your Style. Saturday, May 26. Pirates (137 Xingfu Lu, near Fahuazhen Lu). 4pm to midnight. Free entry.