A Vision of Self Expression: The Graffiti Art of Shanghai

Story by Nicole Hennessy  |  Photos by Sarah Coulter  |  Photo Gallery


Millions of continuously erected walls comprise Shanghai. Unadorned, they meld together, forming an indistinguishable cityscape ultimately conforming to an audacious, insomniac skyline.

Among the uniformity, there is Moganshan Lu, a road on which a winding wall expresses image.

Shanghai’s graffiti artists have claimed this slowly crumbling wall as one of their few outdoor canvasses. When the wall ends, the murals continue onto the galleries and abandoned buildings along Moganshan.

Located in the M50 neighborhood, this area is Shanghai’s premier arts district. The ever-changing graffiti is respected and photographed. A pregnant Picasso-esque woman reclines, a tiger and a child embrace, and angry pandas gather until something new gets painted over their uprising.

If caught painting in non-designated areas, artists would be fined, arrested, forced to paint over their work, or possibly held in jail for a few days. But the government allows artists to paint on this wall surrounding a vacant lot filled with garbage.

And though graffiti is beginning to gain an underground following, most people in China have no concept of the art form.


In Jin Zhiyun’s Moganshan Lu gallery, Frederick Chopin’s piano scores seep out of unseen speakers into the large, clean space.

Being displayed in Daku Art are “toys for adults” by an artist named Yu Li. His functional art is made from recycled materials. Beautiful objects intended as commentary on environmental consciousness.

Artists travel from the four corners of te world to practice their craft and leave their mark on the ever-changing wall that lines Moganshan road in the M50 district of Shanghai.

A realization of their dream to do so, Jin and her husband opened this gallery after years of saving money.

Daku Art is just one example of the upscale establishments that exist in M50.

The graffiti keeps changing every week, Jin said of the longest graffiti-filled wall in Shanghai slithering just outside of her gallery.

Young people from all over the world come here to paint, but the wall will be torn down as the abandoned grounds beyond it have been sold.

By the end of 2011, there will be more tall buildings with more monotone exteriors advancing toward Daku Art and its neighbors. But with or without the graffiti wall, Jin plans to promote the brand of M50.


In a quiet neighborhood, Alex Chou points to a fresh, flawless tag, translating its letters and characters into recognizable language:

Shanghai Graffiti Park

Reload  Reload.

“Park means open for public,” Alex said of his warehouse-like studio, which will serve as an accepted public space where artists can work once the wall on Moganshan is demolished.

Formed in 2004, and led by Alex, Reload is the largest working crew of graffiti artists in Shanghai.

Traditionally, graffiti is viewed as criminal art or vandalism. And though Reload’s work is far more advanced than the superfluous text that infests city walls, it is not easily accepted by most Chinese people.

In an attempt to reverse the negative connotations of graffiti, Alex refers to himself as an aerosol artist.

At his old studio, Xanadu, the community embraced the artists, inviting them to paint their homes. And when the government threatened to paint over the work, people gathered together to stop them.

“The local citizens like this style, but the government: their thinking is totally different,” Alex said. “They think, maybe, this style is too free.”

Finally, after months of government pressure, the artists were forced to move to what is now Shanghai Graffiti Park.

Levi, one of two female artists who paint for Reload, illustrates hot pink cartoon clouds under her giant tiger.

On its large, white walls, there are finished tags and works in progress. The largest piece — a tiger wearing headphones – belongs to Levi. She and one other artist are the only female members of Reload.

Quiet and modest, she says she needs more practice. But, for her and her teammates, graffiti is just a hobby.

Recognizing the marketability of their work, Reload integrates street art into commercial endeavors such as advertisement and web design.

While most of their clients are western companies such as Converse, Nike and Calvin Klein, they have been commissioned to paint murals locally.

For the development of graffiti in China, Alex believes two things must happen. First, all the materials must become popular and cheap for everyone. With this in mind, he sells imported spray paint — a rare commodity in Shanghai.

Also, at the moment, many local people can only copy the alphabet. “Chinese people must recognize how to write Chinese characters,” Alex said.

Professional and dedicated, he works to legitimize aerosol art, hoping that one day it will be taught in university art courses.

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Category: Arts and Culture