Free Art vs. Public Law | Tattoos on Shared Social Skin: The Art and Laws of Street Murals and Graffiti

A. Chanel Atop Armani
B. Graffitists in Singapore
C. Protection Orders for MDV Graffiti
D. Community Dynamism, Lily Yeh Style
E. Ai Weiwei on the Walls of Lan Kwai Fong
Kao Chien Hui bio

Kao Chien Hui looks at street art in Chinese communities and its uneasy relationship with graffiti laws.


Reviewers are by nature readers of the news, but with a bovine twist. They make a habit of ruminating on certain news stories with their four stomachs before churning out some rather foul-smelling responses. At a time when Taiwanese public figures jump at the opportunity to sue a critic, I assume they would have no trouble doing the same to an ox?

In July 2011, such an ox noticed a news item. It went like this: the "New Taiwan Mural Team," coordinated by different Taiwanese cultural organisations, held their first exhibition at MOCA Taipei. The management of MOCA installed movable poster spaces around the sidewalks of Chang-An West Road, just in front of the MOCA Plaza, where 64 works were exhibited. One piece titled Ta-Wan-Si-Ni Taiwanese (literally, "He Fucks Your Brains Out, Taiwanese") sparked off controversy. In it a red devil forced himself onto the body of a green, female figure with the head of a beast, the latter even sporting an acquiescent thumb.

Audience complaints focused primarily on the political ideology imbued in the red-green presentation, as well as on the rather lewd gestures of the male and female bodies depicted. The wordplay in the sounds Ta-Wan-Si-Ni also defiled the national imagination of the Taiwanese people who variously complained about the fact that the municipal government squandered money on sexually explicit murals like this and bemoaned their potential "bad influence on the little ones." Worse, people complained that the presence of such works in a public space rendered the on-site warning about the content rather pointless. A municipal councillor went to MOCA Taipei to express his concern that the work employed rather indecent wording. He held that the term "Taiwanese" was public property and not to be tarnished by artists, who have hurt the shared sentiments of the Taiwanese people by conveying such a message.

There were voices from the art community as well. The artist himself expressed hopes that people might face Taiwan’s historical destiny introspectively. He said that he respected the Taiwanese and should not face blanket rejection. The red devil was a reference to authoritarianism, and the naked green female figure the Taiwanese cynic. He would not have much to say if somebody decided the colour scheme wasn’t right or found a real-life match. He went on to explain that the red devil in the removable walls in front of the museum also referred to evil forces or tyranny. The green female figure with the beastly head epitomised the silent majority as well as the cynics. The thumb-up from the rape victim referred to the chaos and confusion in contemporary Taiwan. All of this, according to the artist, falls into the category of "popular aesthetics." The series "Republic of the Cynics" has been exhibited not just in Taiwan, but also in Japan and China. A similar painting titled Chuai-Ni-Si, Chinese (literally "Kick the Shit Out of You, Chinese") was shown for less than a day at the 2007 Shanghai International Art Fair before being ordered to be removed from the exhibition. It was beyond the artist’s expectations that in democratic Taiwan his work would elicit exactly the same reaction.

The director of MOCA Taipei expressed his organisation’s support for the creative freedom of the artist, and insisted that nakedness did not necessarily have erotic connotations. Contemporary art is about initiating a dialogue with the public. The staff of MOCA Taipei is always ready to offer guided tours of the museum in order to help ease the public’s sense of alienation. Taipei’s Department of Cultural Affairs, charged with the professional cultural and arts affairs of the city, finally agreed to coordinate with the curator to move the works into the inner ring of MOCA Plaza in order to control the entrance of minors. The curator of the "New Taiwan Mural Team" also spoke publicly about the works, drawing attention to the fact that they were funded by the artist and had no bearing on the public purse. The curator asserted that it was rather unfair to find fault with just one painting. An art critic pointed out that the artist in question was a famous contemporary artist known for political satire. In disputing the images in his work, one had to realise that even more images of this nature appeared on TV and in film, some with far more graphic content. By contrast, such artistic creations in Taiwan were nothing new to the public. The cultural committee finally concluded that a negative example could do some good by exposing youth to the dark sides of reality.

After careful reading, the first compartment of the ox’s stomach digests news stories related to this issue like this: the parallel between "political power" and "sex" is a commonly used direct expression in contemporary political realism. Such works might not attract half as much attention in a museum as when they are displayed on the street, where a realistic rather than artistic reading is more likely. Whether or not such an image can be subsumed under the banner "popular aesthetics," let’s at least pay nominal respect to the definition within the art community itself. The second compartment points out that this painting is a reflection of the reality, with the red devil signifying ideology and the green lassie deliberately posing a challenge to his artistic freedom. The third compartment observes that all curators should come into possession of a kind of provocative "sacrifice piece," which is definitely not poison in the well, but rather a pheromone capable of arousing passion. But the pheromone effect may backfire and the group exhibition reduced to an individual one. Spurred by the issue of understanding "democracy and freedom," the fourth compartment wonders whether the "democracy vs. freedom" and "art vs. law" debate involves only local value or universal values expediency only, or perhaps universal values? For this reason the stomach has to ruminate on other news items.

The "street murals" of the public art domain have evolved into the parading contemporary avant-garde art. This is a very interesting, yet local art activity. Other works by the "New Taiwan Mural Team" have not been covered by the media, yet they fall into the "mural" category characterised by "caricature, slogan, or informal speech," which has formal elements of graffiti. The "New Taiwan Mural Team" puts up outdoor show spaces like Matsu going on to the street, in order to promote public awareness of contemporary Taiwanese art. Little did they expect that the Matsu outfit of one artist failed to meet the demands of the public’s imagination. A freak gust of wind lifted her skirt and rendered her Marilyn Monroe in the eyes of some, who then dialled 110 in case others were tickled by the same fancy.

Contemporary art is also put on a pedestal, like Matsu. With due respect to both Matsu and contemporary art, it is not either’s fault that the sacred has given way to the secular. From the Matsu parade to street art, nobody is to blame under the present day context of democracy and freedom. In a society where nobody bears the blame, there is of course a rich diversity of ways to define "democracy and freedom."

Faulty public murals are often ascribed to public executives. However, faulty graffiti murals are often produced without the prior permission of public executives. Now public murals have increasingly taken on the form of graffiti, which is also an example of high art appropriating sub-cultures.

Contemporary art also appears on the street in the form of mobile murals. In addition to the circuit values, they also find inspiration in local subcultures or mass culture genres such as DIY construction, rough-and-ready walls, murals, and pattern painting. These contemporary art forms will not be eradicated. They will just walk around the T-stage as a makeshift show. The works themselves are properties owned by the artists, so they are not quite the same as authentic graffiti. In China, the term tuya (graffiti, which literally translates as smearing black) comes from a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tong (795-935), in which he describes "a sudden spill of the ink onto the desk has left raven-dark smears on my poetry and writings." The traditional graffitist is not unlike a nightingale or night owl that only comes out for nocturnal swooning or fighting. The Chinese literati used to euphemise graffiti as the "free flow of elegant taste," whereas today it is dubbed a "subcultural revolution." The spirit of the graffitist is "going with the flow," without any interest in the permanent value of the graffiti produced.

Western graffiti art dated back to the Roman times, and the history of its evolution up to the 1960s could be recorded in many volumes. The landscape of graffiti in Western countries was sometimes considered symptomatic of dynamic urban life. Great metropolises such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Copenhagen all come with well-known graffiti walls. Graffiti is produced at dark street corners, which is why it is often associated with sabotage, crime, and poverty. As trains, buses, museums, and heritage sites bore the brunt of the rebellious graffiti of the 1960s, graffiti was classified as a social problem that has been the headache of city managers determined to keep law and order. In the last decade, more and more countries have passed amendments to public safety acts whereby graffiti artists face penalties and fines if caught.

Graffiti has also been quite common in Chinese communities. However, it is often termed a "mural" to the extent of which it brings about a new look to the community that appeals to tourists. The difference of course lies in the distinction between private and public. Different Chinese communities are confronted with different graffiti events. Take the following cities for example.

A.    Chanel atop Armani

In July 2009, the French artist Zevs, who in the previous year held a duo exhibition titled "Post-Capitalist Kidnapping" in Hong Kong, wherein he climbed onto the exterior walls of Chater House on a ladder, wearing the yellow uniform of urban services workers. He sprayed a huge black Chanel logo under that of Giorgio Armani, without permission of any sort. The two intersected C’s in the Chanel logo were reminiscent of melting chocolate, exerting a forceful presence on the Armani store. The entire process was recorded by a cameraman he hired. And he quickly beat his retreat just when a few dumbfounded passers-by started to gather around the scene.

A taxi driver found the trio suspicious and took down their car plate number and called the police, who dutifully arrested the three involved in this incident. Zevs pleaded guilty at the Eastern Magistrates’ Courts, explaining to the judge that it was an action of art rather than premeditated vandalism. However, Armani, the Italian brand which opened its first branch in Hong Kong in 2008, claimed it was unable to remove the paint from the sandstone façade, and the entire wall had to be replaced. The court ordered Zevs to pay the HK$6.7 million (US$870,000) in damages. Some artists have criticised Armani for brewing a storm in a teapot, but if one randomly puts a signature on somebody else’s painting, one would face court cases if the painting in question was a masterpiece already on the market.

B.   Graffitists in Singapore

In Singapore, graffiti and vandalism are punishable by caning in addition to fines and jail sentence. Conviction of vandalism of public property carries with it a fine of up to 2,000 Singapore Dollars or a jail sentence of up to three years plus three to eight strokes of the cane. Trespassers face a jail sentence of up to two years, or a fine of 1,000 Singapore Dollars or both. In 1994, the eighteen-year old American Michael Fay was sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes of the cane for theft and vandalism, which made international headlines.

In May 2010, an eighteen-year old Singaporean student found some graffiti on the SMRT train by accident. He thought it was an advertisement for the art festival and videotaped the graffiti and shared it on YouTube. Later it was revealed on Singaporean media that the SMRT management confirmed it was not advertisement but graffiti. They also found out that the graffitist cut the barbed security fence outside SMRT’s Chang-I train depot in the early hours and sprayed the graffiti paint onto the trains. Even the security guards of the SMRT were completely clueless. Apparently there was a serious security lapse.

It took the police six days to find the culprits. A thirty-three-year-old Swiss national, Oliver Fricker was arrested, and an Interpol arrest warrant was also raised for his accomplice, Dane Alexander Lloyd, a British national. They were charged with two counts of vandalism and trespassing in a protected place⁠—an act of vandalism that involved cutting the fence of the depot belonging to the SMRT and painting graffiti on two SMRT train cars. Apart from a 100,000 Singapore dollar bail, an Interpol arrest warrant was also raised for Dane Alexander Lloyd, who had already left Singapore for Hong Kong. This event was widely covered by Swiss and German media and brought up a lot of local discussions, many of which agreed with the punishment meted out for the acts committed by the accused.

C.    Protection Orders for MDV Graffiti

Graffiti walls can add to the landscape of alleyways and lanes. There are not only graffiti walls in Taiwan, but graffiti villages located in the military dependents’ villages (MDV) in Central and South Taiwan. Some graffiti aficionados even published the Central Taiwan Graffiti Art Atlas with a collection of over two thousand works of graffiti.

Around 2000, many signatures, cartoon images, and American style graffiti started to appear on the streets of Taiwan, where there have always been different views on street graffiti. Government officials have called for bans and severe punishments. Yet civic groups, such as youth groups and university campuses are actively engaged in graffiti and mural painting aimed at redeveloping spatial landscapes. In Taiwan the legitimacy of graffiti and murals lies in the consent of the owner of the space in question.

Juan Cun (military dependents’ village) painting was a new local cultural phenomenon in Taiwan from 2010 to 2011. Due to the promulgation of the Statute Governing the Reconstruction of Old Military Dependents’ Village, the Kaohsiung Tso Ying MDV was faced with the uncertainty of constant evaluation and potential evacuation. Zihjhu Sincun in Tsoying also faced demolition in summer 2011. In 2010, two female university students initiated a project with the NT$70,000 prize money they won from the Great Kaohsiung Dream Fund. They bought graffiti paints and started spraying at the Zihjhu Sincun MDV. Later, they were joined by students and residents, and the MDV was turned into a spontaneous graffiti spot attracting many tourists eager for photo opportunities.

It is supposed to be a great thing to turn an old community into a graffiti attraction, yet in a free and democratic society, everybody has a voice. The influx of tourists has caused local residents a lot of trouble. Those residents yet to move out have complained about tourists making noise in the middle of the night. In addition, the graffiti at Zihjhu was based on the "Recover the Mainland" slogan of the old days. Some readers with an MDV background were unhappy with images of war play, and thought all people with a Mainlander Taiwanese background who have ever lived in an MDV should take offense. Who the hell came up with the idea of MDV graffiti? Were they even granted a license for that?

The original intent of graffiti was destruction. So do graffiti purporting to destroy graffiti also count as graffiti? In the Nantun District of Taichung there is a graffiti MDV called "Rainbow Street." Somebody apparently sprayed graffiti on top of the existing murals, which incurred the wrath of graffitists on the internet. The Department of Cultural Affairs of Taichung City was saddened and angry upon learning the news and started to repair the works instantly. The police also launched an investigation into the suspect of vandalism. The Department of Cultural Affairs of Taichung City believed that the Rainbow Street had become a very important tourist and cultural spot of the city, and should not be vandalised with black spray paint. The city authorities would first eliminate the black graffiti and then invite the original graffitist of the Rainbow Street to repaint the murals in an attempt to restore the original. Taichung police also decided to install patrol booths and security cameras at crossings near the Rainbow Street MDV to step up the protection of the Rainbow graffiti.

D.    Community Dynamism, Lily Yeh Style

With the gradual public acceptance of graffiti art in the Chinese communities across the Taiwan Straits, many old communities, cultural industry hubs and unoccupied spaces have invited graffitists to create works. Those spray paintings executed with public consent are no longer considered vandalism. The contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Dali was made famous by his graffiti works in the Urban Renewal Period of Beijing, yet he gave up graffiti when it became accepted as part of public taste, which for him was synonymous with the loss of the graffiti spirit.

The graffiti spirit was not lost, but found another spiritual outlet other than rebelliousness. Poverty can also be lived out in a colourful way. Lily Yeh, a social activist and artist of Chinese origin, has been deeply involved in impoverished communities and promoted her "Tree of Life" murals up and down the country, with a view to imbuing communities with new dynamics of life. Influenced by international graffiti and mural culture, Taiwan has also started to employ the concept of murals in its public properties and community space-making. Parks and communities of many counties and cities offer free wall space for graffiti artists to work on. But there is a distinction between artistic graffiti and those produced spontaneously by residents themselves.

In March 2011, two Japanese tourists announced that they wanted to help beautify Taipei by spraying graffiti in the early hours from Hsi-men-ting to the Eastern District, and were caught when spraying graffiti onto the rolling shutters of a buffet restaurant on Chunghsiao East Road. The proprietor did not want to prosecute so the police turned Teisuke Kaji over to the Department of Environmental Protection of Taipei, which then fined Kaji NT$6,000 under the Waste Disposal Act. The agency also issued a public notice listing the five areas where graffiti is permitted by law: Ying Feng, Mei Tee, Jing Mei, Fu He, and Bai Ling Right Bank Riverside Parks. In addition there are four graffiti billboards in the city, the skating ring of Daan Forest Park, the flower corridor next to the basketball courts of Nan Gang Park, the kids’ area of Tian Mu Park of Shihlin, and the parapet next to the basketball courts of Chang An Park, Beitou.

E.    Ai Weiwei on the Walls of Lan Kwai Fong

Unpermitted graffiti is the real thing, yet it is considered an inappropriate behaviour. Once the content of the graffiti takes on a political opposition, it becomes "underground communication," which in certain times could be seen as high treason, or at least a public flouting of reigning ideology.

In 2011, Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was taken away by the Chinese authorities at the Beijing Airport. The bearded face of Ai Weiwei was quietly spray-painted onto many walls throughout Hong Kong. Graffiti has been upgraded to a political movement. One of the graffitists was identified as a 22-year-old female nicknamed "the Tangerine." On 4 May, she spray-painted the face of Ai Weiwei under which there was a line that read "Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" Home to the famous graffitist "King of Kowloon," Hong Kong is not quite resistant to the idea of graffiti. Ordinary citizens often view such polemic and provocative graffiti as an outlet of political sentiments. In the case of the Ai Weiwei portraits, the authorities instantly dispatched a cleaning team which managed to eliminate the graffiti at various places or cover them with new paint.

The Graffiti Girl became for once a representative of anti-tradition. The highest penalty for street graffiti in Hong Kong was usually fines together with a jail sentence of three months. The "Armani incident" saw the graffitist handed a hefty US$870,000 as Armani decided to sue him. Regarding the "Ai Weiwei Graffiti" incident involving "Tangerine," there were rumours that she might be charged with serious crimes of vandalism, with a sentence of up to ten years. Some media officials have expressed their anger, but "Tangerine" issued her own response: thanks to the Hong Kong Police, they managed to attract much public attention to this issue.

Another artist and activist called Cpak Ming took up "graffiti projection." With a projector he successfully projected a large picture of Ai Weiwei and the line "Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" onto the façades of well-known buildings in Hong Kong. One of the targets was the wall of the PLA barracks in Hong Kong. The PLA forces in Hong Kong responded that this was a breach of law and reserved the right to take further action. Ai Weiwei was released after 81 days, and the "Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" graffiti spree was also over. We are curious if there is any follow-up.

Contemporary art has taken to the street, when street art marches towards aesthetics. Today’s Asian graffiti has gradually gravitated towards fashion and pattern, which run counter to the rebelliousness of graffiti, yet also make it possible for everyone to realise their dream of becoming an artist. Since everybody has now become an artist, a "Graffiti Regulation" will turn up sooner or later, in order to divert the potential conflict between democracy and freedom.

Such regulations may include the stipulation that the graffitist should not breach public moral standards or inflict harm on others, although anonymous indulgence and diatribes should be allowed. The graffitist should also be careful in choosing the venue of their artistic creation, as no public property or heritage site should be sprayed with paint. If there has to some provocation, then it doesn’t hurt to spell out the venue that fits the purpose, a place that is at once public property, heritage site, recreational space, safe and fit for "camouflage," must be the "bomb shelters."

In Taiwan there is no stipulation against graffiti or any clear definition of what it is. But graffitists had better go in groups rather than going solo or getting too noisy. If the graffitist wants to be polemical about a certain current event and not sure if one is allowed to spray during a period when the city is getting a lot of media attention, he’d better apply for a permit etc. In addition, while one has freedom of expression, the public also has the right of non-exposure. When one makes an expression in the limelight, it is called a loud provocation; when one expresses himself on the interior walls of a toilet, it is called a sneaky provocation. So when one uses spray paint, please avoid using the excuse of "being kidnapped by the time and tide." As regards projecting the word "impotence" onto the Presidential Office Building, I can guarantee different local "freedom and democracy" scenarios would emerge. For example, never do it in a place with a strong anti-terrorism awareness.

Images of street graffiti and disorder are like tattoos inscribed on shared social skin. A "local aesthetic" that belongs to the categories of artistic taste and cultural totem will naturally emerge along with them. If a society indulges itself in tattooing, then tatooing becomes a culture. If tattooing is but a fad, then one must also be alerted to the time and effort it might take to eliminate the tattoos. Rather than going through such kerfuffle, a removable sticker might do the same job better. After churning out all these "graffiti incidents" after ruminating on the "New Taiwan Mural Team incident," this ox is not only developing a stomach-ache, but is also covered in Salonpas patches.


This article was translated from the abridged version of the original text, which was first published in ACT issue 48, October 2011.


Kao Chien Hui was born in Taiwan and now lives in Chicago. A critic and curator of contemporary art and culture, Ms Kao is also a member of AAA’s Academic Advisory Board. She teaches in the Interdisciplinary Institute of National Kaohsiung Normal University.



KAO Chienhui, 高千惠

Thu, 1 Dec 2011

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