ABS Crew: Climbing the graffiti wall in China

ABS Crew members: (clockwise) ANDC, Noise, Seven and Scar Photos: Courtesy of ABS Crew

Graffiti sounds offbeat and underground to average Chinese. It is by no means associated with the term “art”, but often with ghetto and violence. However in China, the tolerant and liberal attitude allows the nascent art to thrive.

In the US, graffiti vandalism is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. The New York Police Department has created a centralized intelligence graffiti database to identify known graffiti vandals with their tags. But Beijing is emerging as an inviting place for foreigners to materialize their dream. On the sidelines of a parkour stage at 798, China’s leading graffiti group ABS Crew told their rags-to-riches story where crew member ANDC or Chen Chuang revealed that:

A growing number of foreign graffitists are coming to China for unrestrained development opportunities.
ABS Crew has built partnerships with Beijing’s sub-district level authorities to carry out graffiti-themed community events annually.
Chinese graffitists have overtaken Japan and South Korea in techniques but lag behind in vision and style.
They are lucky enough to find a sustainable way to pursue their dream.

A regular can of graffiti spray paint is 400ml. To set “400ml” apart, it stands for “4” Chinese young men, who prefer to be called “Mr. Letter”, dedicating “100” percent of their attitude and capacity to graffiti art, Chen told the  sino-us.com.

Tired of a routine sedentary job as a web designer, Chen resigned and decided to start a new life. The four hip-hop crazy young men -- ANDC, Noise, Scar and Seven – flocked together and founded ABS Crew in 2007. The group was not named after Anti-skid Brake System but cities around the Bohai Sea, indicating the places of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and Dalian where they come from.

“If we want to become professional, we have to find a self-sufficient way and assure our parents of a financially independent life, a stable life,” Chen recalled the early bitter days. He said they were once inadvertently detained for over a week when local villagers in suburban Shunyi caught them tagging on an abandoned building wall. “We were detained because we ran away. There would have been nothing wrong if we stayed there and explained to the police what we did. But fleeing bodes ill with police,” said the 28-year-old in a black hoody and dark-rimmed glasses.

Undeterred in their quest to live as professional “writers”, they started with holding graffiti exhibitions. To their surprise, one of the shows in Sanlitun drew hundreds of people, which was a timely morale booster for them to move on.

Many people fall by the wayside with no way to feed themselves. Now there are about 500 professional “writers” in China, clustering at major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Chen said.

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