&: Chinese walls (first attempt)

I took this picture in 2012 or 2013 in Gongrencun 工人村 in Dalian 大连 (or somewhere else nearby, at least Xianglujiao 香炉礁). I was staying in a cheap hotel in the neighborhood, walking around and getting feel for the place. I don't know what the area looks like now, but back then, it was grey and grim. There was an elevated highway running overhead, with three layers traffic dropping into a massive interchange, then wide roads running out to the airport and the northern suburbs. The uniform red and white or green and yellow signs on restaurants, the blue of the phone shops signs, the patches of brown grass, and whatever other shreds of color in the grey were dimmed by the dust blown in from the Gobi and the quarries north of the city and probably falling from the smokestacks of heating plants.

The city was experiencing a building boom, spreading out into new suburbs, turning portions of the central city into workers' slums. There were alleys of shacks around the laoloufang 老楼房, built from concrete blocks, mostly, and tin and tarps. Rumors had circulated for years of the relocation of residents from the neighborhood and many had already relocated out of more permanent dwellings, heading out to the suburbs. On walls down those side streets, layers of paint, paper and glue had formed over a few short years. You can see them, there: a grey wall, then grey oil paint and white glue and black graffiti and posters, and another layer of grey oil paint, glue, daubs of white, graffiti in black ink, posters, and then another layer and another, strips and shreds peeling away from the concrete or the lower layers, and stuck back down with a fresh layer of graffiti and then a fresh layer of grey paint. The graffiti, the xiaoguanggao 小广告, and the posters and stickers—chengshi niupixuan 城市牛皮癣, urban psoriasis, is the name it's been given—always win out, another layer always builds up.

The walls themselves are beautiful, but the content of the xiaoguanggao is informative, giving a brief look into the anxieties of the people that lived in this particular neighborhood in Dalian in 2012. The main poster is, I think, seeking a missing person, maybe a worker that went north, across the Bohai, from Shandong, lost touch with his family—and who came looking for him? Maybe it was a family friend, a cousin that was working in the city, too, and got word from the family... Who knows! And below that, tagged overtop, someone looking to rent a room with a shared kitchen. It was certainly one of the houses nearby, maybe one of those concrete shacks or maybe a room up in one of the crumbling apartment blocks. And on those walls were always the banzheng 办证 tags, put up by people that could handle the types of documents that a migrant worker in Dalian would need to secure a job or an apartment. The xiaoguanggao go up everywhere, but in a place like this particular neighborhood in Dalian, they covered nearly every surface. The wall itself has surely been knocked down already, along with the rest of the neighborhood.

I took this picture in 2017, somewhere off Hehui Jie 和会街 in Nanjing, a street that runs east to west between Zhongshan Bei Lu 中山北路 and Sanpailou Da Jie 三牌楼大街 in Gulou District 鼓楼区. Right around the corner, there are dozens of similar collections of grey walls, tiled pillars, and other surfaces that have collected years of stickers, tags, and coverups. The banzhengkezhang 办证刻章 ads are there, again, and a poster for a room rental.

I love the way it looks, for some reason. Maybe it's because I am from a place where private property is king and petty vandalism is strictly punished, and I live now in a city without any texture to its walls. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for Chinese cities, sitting here in Tokyo. There's something I love beyond the rough beauty of these fucked up walls, like... maybe what it says about how the country functions? a certain type of community? It's almost like a benign rot visible on the surface, the underground world bubbling up to the surface, an opportunity to see the private impulses and petty scams that underlie the system. And they're the product of dozens, maybe hundreds of people probably unknown to each other, working at cross-purposes: the young men that come through with stickers in the late evening or early morning and other young men with stencils or posters and then whoever is charged with scraping them off and whoever is charged with painting over them.

This was the view out the window of the my apartment in a city in Northern Jiangsu. I think there's probably a Walmart there, now.

I took the picture in 2005 or 2006, maybe to ask what the graffiti meant. I think that probably those characters—办证—were the first two characters I learned to write, since they were among the most common characters to see written in a Chinese city. Whenever I find myself standing at a urinal and have a Sharpie in my pocket, I'll write 办证, along with my first phone number in China, 15951469323.

I like the choice of red, the raking hand on the spraycan that gives each character a slant. I walked recently through several exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy at a museum in Ueno and another in Negishi and none of the work touched me as deeply as that brickwall scrawl.

Everywhere I lived, the walls were tagged, from that shithole in Northern Jiangsu to the pleasant xiaoqu 小区 I called home in Panyu to the filthy apartment block in Datong and every place in between. Always: grey walls with stickers on them, stenciled graffiti advertising the services of plumbers, maybe some more complicated little 4-color posters advertising student prostitutes or dick pills. It's omnipresent. From the hallway when you walk out in the morning, and then on nearly every surface in nearly every xiaoqu, either the xiaoguanggao or the coverups or both, and through every public space in the country.

This is somewhere in Chaoyang in Beijing, probably off Jintai Lu 金台路 or Chaoyang Lu 朝阳路, around that area (beside a shuttered restaurant called Fuji Jiangrou 傅记酱肉, if that helps) where everything still belongs to the People's Daily, I think. The wall is like a Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell painting, and I swear, they could cut that section out before they tear down the building, break it down into a tetraptych and ship it right to the Christie's Hong Kong saleroom.

I stopped beside the wall on a walk from the CBD to Sanlitun to admire the work and also to smoke a cigarette. I was thinking about, like, the elderly caretaker of a People's Daily residential compound coming out sometime in the early-1990s and discovering to his shock and dismay revolutionary graffiti spraypainted across the building—but then he gets up closer and sees it's just an advertisement for fake documents or a shared room. In a decade or two, will people take pictures of the last remaining xiaoguanggao like they do of the faded Cultural Revolution stencils? "The old political graffiti was covered up and replaced with advertising markings that celebrated in their own way the age of Reform and Opening and the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics..." In a thousand years, will people exhibit whatever preserved examples of the form remain, like the rubbings from the Longmen Grottoes that I saw at the Taito City Calligraphy Museum? I guess they do preserve the now relatively ancient graffiti at Longmen, though, right? And they're probably not going to touch the faded Cultural Revolution stencils there, either, right? Maybe a coffee table book of xiaoguanggao for nostalgic urban Chinese, someday.

But, no, probably not.