Political unrest often inspires street art, but the controversy surrounding whether China should host the Olympics—and whether anyone should attend the games—has started a global graffiti deluge. In Europe, street artists are urging passersby to boycott the Beijing Olympics. Some of the pieces are created using simple stencils—handcuffs assembled in the shape of the Olympic rings (Munich), a man holding an Olympic torch with the word “FREEDOM” in place of a flame(Milan), or a gagged prisoner with a red bleeding torch and dripping red lettering (Prague, above). More complex pieces, like the life-size spray-painted portrait of a Tibetan Buddhist monk being set ablaze with the Olympic torch by a man in riot gear, appeared in Bangkok, where torch relay protests were banned. One piece, done on paper and posted on a London street, shows a Chinese police officer with his hand in front of the Olympic rings and asks “Be(ij)ing there?” Even Banksy has contributed to the conversation: As part of the Cans Festival in May, he painted a neckbrace-wearing Buddha on the walls of the Leake Street Tunnel in London.
But Olympics-themed street art is also popping up in a somewhat unexpected place: China. In keeping with China’s tradition of long, impressive walls, the government sponsored a 200-meter-long mural on an exterior wall of the Beijing Institute of Technology, painted by local students who were monitored throughout the construction process. The mural features portraits of Chinese athletes and the Fuwa, the cuddly Olympic mascots, as well as imaginative representations of the Olympic rings. Panels contain lots of traditional Chinese opera masks, yin yang symbols, “Love China” hearts, and one large panel portraying a line of athletes each painted a different color of the rainbow. The official slogan of the Beijing Olympics, “One World, One Dream,” which appears numerous times on the wall, has also been used in many “Free Tibet” protest campaigns.
Allowing street art may seem like a fairly progressive move for the Communist government, but according to an article in The Guardian, some local residents are still calling the artwork propaganda.
Real graffiti artists aren’t too impressed, either. On a building in Changchun in June, graffiti artists painted a giant mural in the middle of the night, featuring the official Beijing Olympics logo, the Fuwa, and portraits of two iconic Chinese athletes, Yao Ming and Liu Xiang. Even though the mural supports the Olympics, the government and some older community members were not pleased. The piece has not been removed, but the artists may still face penalties. The anti-Olympic graffiti has also been judged harshly by Chinese graffiti artists. Steel Dan, a graffiti artist based in Beijing, said, “Some of the anti-Olympic pieces I have seen are obviously done by amateurs who are more concerned with their agenda than the art form itself.”
In other areas, including the artist-heavy 798 district (also known as the Dashanzi Arts District) in Beijing, graffiti artists have also taken to the streets to do some work before the games begin. “The local government organized mural projects in the city to cheer on the Olympic spirit,” said Soos, another Beijing-based artist. “A few of us true graffiti artists decided to show our talent near our art home base of 798 district.”
Art Min, co-founder and manager of Beijing- and Seattle-based gallery Red Star Press, says that Chinese graffiti artists support the government in part as a survival mechanism. “As you can imagine, there are harsher penalties for vandalism in China,” he says. “So, one perspective is that by putting up graffiti that supports government initiatives or policies, the work won’t be viewed as ‘offensive.’ It gives graffiti artists an opportunity to practice their craft. If they’re caught, they may not receive the full wrath of the law.”