Legalisation of street art in Taiwan may signal a growing public acceptance of graffiti, but will it compromise the renegade spirit of the art practice?
The southern city of Kaohsiung is paving the way for one of the most progressive street art policies in Taiwan. As reported in an article published in the Taipei Times in October 2012, the Kaohsiung City Government has, in response to artists’ requests and positive public feedback, expanded the areas in the city where graffiti artists can paint legally.
Unlike in most cities worldwide, there is no turf war between graffiti artists and civil authorities in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest metropolis. Jiuru Street Art Factory, one of the first government sanctioned graffiti areas in Taiwan, was successfully transformed in February 2012 from an abandoned railway station to a space dedicated to street art.
On 18 February 2012, ten artists gathered at Jiuru Street Art Factory in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to paint the wall. Watch what happened in the video below.
The Factory has its roots in a proposal – drafted by a group of local art professionals and submitted to the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), the owners of the site, in 2011 – that aimed at preserving the history of Kaohsiung City’s railway and beautifying a section of aging trackside wall.
After a year of negotiation, the TRA granted the Jiuru Street area to the group, and, in February 2012, ten artists from different backgrounds, but with a shared enthusiasm for street art, painted 119 metres of the wall. The organisers of the project were not rigid in their selection of the initial participating artists, nor did they impose many restrictions on what they could depict.
The area has since been designated as a legal space for graffiti art practice and a public park, with multiple visual and performing arts events held there. “It wasn’t easy,” said Hsiao-hsiang Lee, spokesperson for the Jiuru Street Art Factory, in a phone interview with Art Radar. “We were the first group to persuade the Kaohsiung government of the idea of legal graffiti.”
Street art beautification?
Following on from the success of Jiuru, more public spaces in Kaohsiung are gradually, and legally, being converted into urban art canvases, including Pier-2 Art Center, which opened a legal graffiti area in July 2012, and Fengshan District, which offered its walls up to artists in November 2012.
In Taiwan in 2013, graffiti is often the art form of choice when public spaces need a spruce up, be they old railway tracks, abandoned buildings or the recently built MRT stations and lines. In fact, the city government in Kaohsiung not only encourages the artform, but even organises local graffiti events, such as a street art workshop series for the public run by the Kaohsiung City Government’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, the slogan of which reads, “To promote public art and to promote art for the public.”
A growing awareness
Graffiti started to show up on the streets of Taiwan in the mid 1990s. In 1999, a group of graffiti artists (Reach, Boss, Foochi/Jerry, Jason, Left Hand, Easy, Dzus, V-Jer, Bobo, 2ice, Fish, Jarvis, Idiot, Mio) known collectively as Soul Skool (靈魂塾) set up in Kaohsiung with the aim of stimulating alternative expression in the local art scene. Soul Skool has attended the Kaohsiung International Container Art Festival since 2003 and is now most active in Kaohsiung and southern Taiwan.
Before 2000, most Taiwanese people did not pay much attention to the seemingly random artwork sprayed, stencilled, stickered and painted on the walls of public and private property in their neighbourhood. In the early 2000s, graffiti by local artists began to make regular appearances on the walls of public and residential buildings around Taiwan. One such artist was Bbrother.
Watch a video introduction to Bbrother’s Rat’s Cave below.
Bbrother starts the debate around street art legality
Since 2005, Bbrother, a politically aware street artist who takes his name from English novelist and journalist George Orwell’s Big Brother character, has been creating large-scale, illegal, anti-authoritarian and anti-globalisation graffiti works, which have roused public debate over whether or not graffiti art should be legalised.
In 2006, Bbrother was sentenced to between three and five years in jail for his unpermitted graffiti at the Huashan Creative Park in Taipei, an alternative art space managed by, at that time, the Taiwan Council of Cultural Affairs (文建會). To support Bbrother and campaign against the sentencing, an online petition was started by students, with people in the local art scene quickly joining. When newspapers and art magazines started reporting on the petition, it garnered significant public attention for the debate about the legality and benefits of urban art. The Taiwan Council of Cultural Affairs eventually decided to withdraw the lawsuit.
Bbrother’s urban street art practice has been well reviewed and he has become a figure that represents “Taiwan’s burgeoning graffiti scene“. In 2006, he was invited to join the biennial exhibition CO6 Taiwan Avant-garde Documenta, which was open to emerging Taiwanese talent. In 2008, Bbrother was one of the four Taiwanese artists (and the first invited graffiti artist) who participated in the Taipei Biennale. For the Biennale, the Taipei Fine Art Museum, the organiser of the art exhibition, asked Bbrother to create a mural on an exterior wall of the museum. The work was titled Beyond the Wall “to show the world’s ‘chaos’ as a result of globalisation“, said the museum director to Reuters.
Speaking to Art Radar in an email interview, Bbrother said that “there was not much difference between graffiti and street art until 2006 to 2007, [when] suddenly graffiti art became a popular topic for discussion in Taiwan. Those of us who were enthusiastic about street art felt like we were living in a new era”. However, Taiwan’s street art scene was still comparatively small, and, after being a part of the Taipei Biennale, Bbrother felt a strong desire to pursue an art education as a means for exploring “a bigger world”. He moved to London and was accepted into Goldsmiths, University of London.
Bbrother’s role in both the graffiti and visual art scenes in Taiwan fuelled a debate about the validity of street culture as mainstream art practice, and even after his move to London he has not given up on the street. “In London, I still work on graffiti art, but in my spare time while I’m studying,” he said in an email interview with Art Radar.
Following Kaohsiung’s example
Taipei-based groups get government funding
The open attitude that the Kaohsiung City Government holds toward graffiti art has started a chain reaction in other cities in Taiwan. In January 2013, Taipei also opened a legal area at the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory for graffiti artists to use, and art groups across the island have noticed both the emergence of street art as a hot issue and the resultant ease with which street art related projects have been able to garner financial support in recent years.
The Taipei Alliance For the Advancement of Multi-Art Culture Youth Center, for example, is a non-profit organisation that was founded in 2009 to promote street art. According to the organisation’s spokesperson, Miss Chou, government support has enabled the group to hold several successful graffiti events, such as Wall Wards in 2009 and Asian Major Graffiti Great Wall for 9 Nations (亞洲最大塗鴉盛世戰牆九國決賽) in Taipei in 2011 and 2012.
Taichung and Virus No. 6 Crew
In July 2012, the local government in Taichung, a major city located in the middle of the west coast of Taiwan, added two more official graffiti areas, on top of a previously designated graffiti space near the Taichung [Train] Station.
Legal graffiti areas in Taichung can be traced back to around 2009, when octogenarian war veteran Huang Yung-fu decorated his neighborhood with bright paintings of animals, plants and famous TV personalities. In September 2009, when the Taichung city government decided to reserve this neighbourhood, naming it “Rainbow Family Village” (彩虹眷村), they also opened up Fuxing and Leye roads to artists.
Other groups continue to work under the radar. Graffiti art in Taichung can be found hidden in the alleyways, under bridges and on abandoned buildings across the city. Many of the works, particularly those that combine Chinese characters and Asian comic art, are created by Virus No.6 Crew.
Virus No.6 Crew was founded in Taichung when two graffiti groups, SADG crew (SEAZK, BLACK, OHJET and JAN) and FREE crew (AMOSONE and DABU) merged. The crew is positive towards the legalisation of their art form. Artist Black says, “As to the government’s fresh ideas to legalise graffiti art, I absolutely support this. After all, legalising graffiti art will open more resources, encourage more artists to try it out and make it easier for the general public to accept street art.” Their optimism is tempered, however, by the “random locations” that the government has chosen as designated graffiti areas. After all, as the crew points out, “for a street artist, it is very important to … find a wall in [a] public space….”
Watch an introduction to Virus No.6 Crew entitled “Back to the Streets” by joy80211 below.
Virus No. 6 Crew’s most recent project was the Megaport Live Painting in Kaohsiung on 6 March 2013, which featured art by three crew members (AMOSONE, BLACK and new member ZEMOK), who worked alongside TWOMUCH/DEBE from Taoyuan and ID Crew/Sinic from Hong Kong. “Taiwan’s graffiti art [lacks a] Taiwanese element. How [can we] fuse local culture with graffiti art? This is the goal of Virus No. 6 Crew,” said AMOSONE in the interview with Art Radar.
Inspired by local graffiti pioneer RYAN, Tainan graffiti art collective IWM was formed in 1999 by three members: Iron, Worm and Mosquito. Speaking to Art Radar, IWM seemed, at least for the moment, to be in support of the legalised areas and commercial prospects of the art form, stating that “No matter what penalty the government charge[s] for illegal graffiti, [it] doesn’t matter, because for now, IWM [will] only practice legal graffiti art.”
In response to Kaohsiung’s attitude to legalised street art, IWM says, “Our view of Kaohsiung, or rather of Taiwan’s legal graffiti art, is positive…. Many [of] Taiwan’s graffiti artists actually want to be legal, however if public space is too limited, some of them will be forced to do illegal graffiti works.” IWM went on to declare hope that authorities in Tainan, the country’s former capital, located in southern Taiwan, will increase the public space made available for graffiti art. “Our concern and suggestion to the government [is that] before raising the fines related to illegal graffiti works, first please examine how many legal graffiti areas you offer to artists to paint on.”
Appearing on the global stage
After years of growth inside the country, many Taiwanese graffiti artists are today becoming active globally. Bounce, who uses elements from Hakka culture in his graffiti art, participated in group exhibitions in Shanghai and the USA in 2007 and held a solo exhibition of his work in 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland and France. Bounce reportedly told the Taipei Times that “considering his growing fame … he felt that he was now somewhat responsible for the development of graffiti art and street culture in Taiwan”.
Since Bbrother moved to London in 2009, he has continued to create not only graffiti, but also site-specific art installations. In an email interview with Art Radar, he stated, “The important issues are how to use public space, how to use different open space in all social aspects, how to be more creative, how to have the influence at different social levels, to find opportunities, resources… these are more important than legal or illegal graffiti.”
Editor’s note: Numerous quotes in this article have been translated into English from the original Chinese by the writer.
This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.
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