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Capital Graffiti

A talk with the director of documentary Spray Paint Beijing ahead of some screenings this weekend at Basement6, The Apartment and Dada.
By Jul 16, 2014 Arts


This weekend, Shanghai gets a rare screening of Spray Paint Beijing, a feature-length documentary by American filmmaker Lance Crayon. You can catch that on Saturday at The Apartment and Basement6 and Sunday at Dada.

Lance slogged in the LA film industry coal mines for the better part of a decade before moving to Asia, at first teaching English in Korea before setting sail for the promised land of Beijing and quickly settling into the media scene here. He first encountered the graffiti set while filming a short piece for China Radio International, eventually getting the bug and turning it into a full-time personal passion project. Spray Paint Beijing officially wrapped in 2012, but since it's been an entirely self-financed affair, Lance has taken his time to let it percolate at the underground level, building buzz from the ground up.

We talked to Lance about his media gigs, the process of making Spray Paint Beijing, the benefits of self-financing, international film festival chicanery, and more. Read on for that, but first check out the trailer and be sure to pop in to see the film:


SmSh: Where are you from? How did you get to Beijing? What were you doing when you first got here?

Lance Crayon: I'm from Forth Worth, Texas. I came to Beijing four years ago. When I first got here I had an education job. It was very lame and silly, but I knew I'd find something better after I arrived.

SmSh: Pretty early on you got connected with a media company, CRI. How did that come about?

LC: I sent CRI my resume and then I followed up with them about six weeks later and they called me in for an interview. I was hired the next day as an English editor for the website and radio. About four months after I started there they moved me to the video department where I worked for one year.

SmSh: Where did you go from there? Your main job is at China Daily now, right?

LC: From CRI I went to Global Times, where I worked for about 14 months, and then I went to China Daily.

SmSh: Has this all been video or documentary work? Can you talk about some of the more interesting projects you've been involved with, between CRI / Global Times / China Daily?

LC: It was all mainly video, and it was supposed to be at Global Times, but a few months after I started there they told me their website wasn't ready to stream videos, so I worked as an English editor and the last few months I wrote for their Beijing Metro section. It worked out well because my schedule at Global Times allowed me to finish my documentary and work with my editor throughout the whole process. The best thing about working in video is the travel. When I was at CRI I took some interesting trips to places I would have never gone on my own, such as the yaodongs in Shaanxi Province, where Edgar Snow met Mao Zedong and then wrote Red Star Over China. I also got to interview Sidney Rittenberg, which I enjoyed. With China Daily, I make videos for their Life and Culture department. That has been interesting. I went on a 16-day trip last summer, and again went to some places I never would have gone, such as Minqin in Gansu Province and a handful of small, ancient villages throughout Zhejiang Province.

SmSh: When did you start working on Spray Paint Beijing? How did you get the initial idea?

LC: I officially started work on it right after I finished filming my first tag, January 5, 2011. I stumbled upon the idea by accident when CRI sent me to cover an urban art show at the new Sanlitun Soho buildings. At the event, downstairs there were several Chinese and foreign graffiti artists painting the parking garage walls. I met some of them and made a short video about the event, which featured a few of the graffiti writers. Once I was done filming that, I gave one guy my contact info and asked if I could film a tag, and about a month later he called me and off we went.

SmSh: Who was that first contact? How did you begin to meet other artists from that initial encounter?

LC: Aigor, he's from Europe and no longer lives in Beijing. A friend of his also came with him. His name is Zyko, and he still lives here.

SmSh: I assume these guys were already working with local crews or artists? Was it difficult in the early stages to build up trust to film what is essentially an illegal activity?

LC: Yeah, Aigor and Zyko were already in with the local crews and everybody liked both of them because they were more or less teaching some of the Chinese graffiti writers. When I say teaching them, I mean they were showing them the mental or internal side of graffiti. They had a really good influence on all of them. The Chinese graffiti artists already knew how to paint and had their own styles. In 2011, Aigor and Zyko were the only ones actively tagging the CBD. The two of them threw up some rather brave pieces in unique locations. In the early stages, all I filmed were Aigor and Zyko, but after about four months word spread and the Chinese writers eventually opened up once I met with them and explained what I wanted to do.

SmSh: It seems to me that in terms of local crews, ABS is pretty much the oldest or most established. How did you initially link up with them? How have they pioneered graffiti in Beijing, mediating as you've mentioned between local styles and foreigners coming in with more experience or at least more of a pre-exiting context for graffiti culture?

LC: BJPZ is the oldest crew in Beijing. ABS is right behind them. They formed about six years ago. I met ANDC from ABS when I did the CRI story, but I didn't film him until about four months later, when he was painting one time during the day. As for BJPZ (Beijing Penzi), they're considered the pioneers, and ABS is kind of the second generation. The members of BJPZ run their own design business in Caochangdi. They design skateboard decks and other stuff. They have a studio they work out of.

SmSh: There are younger crews coming after ABS as well, right? Is there a big age gap between different artists active today? What are the differences between, say, BJPZ, and ABS, and people like EXAS, or Moses / Taps / Shat, who are seemingly more recent?

LC: There are a few crews under ABS like TMM (The ManageMent), they're still in college. There was another crew called KTS (Kill the Streets), but each of them left Beijing to go do their own thing. Exas is KTS and he paints with Wreck and Zato a lot. Wreck is also KTS. The other guys just fly solo but sometimes they paint with other crews. Everyone here pretty much gets along and there's a lot of intermingling that goes on that doesn't exist with crews in the US or Europe. Moses / Taps / Shat are so recent I don't even know who they are. They weren't painting in Beijing when I was filming my doc.

SmSh: i first met you through the music scene in Beijing. You've used mostly local music for SPB, right? Who's in the film? Do you think the graffiti scene has any crossover with underground music here?

LC: For the film I used DJ Wordy and MC Webber, and they're also in the film. The graffiti artists know those guys and listen to their music, and they're all friends. Webber actually tried his hand at graffiti about ten years ago. You can see some of his work in the parking garage at the Sanlitun 3.3 building. But none of the Chinese artists are into the underground scene like with what's going on at the live music venues. I've never seen them out and about at any of the shows I go to, but some of them do go to the Section 6 parties.

SmSh: What was the process of putting Spray Paint Beijing together? My impression is that it was an entirely DIY thing, all out of your own pocket...

LC: It's completely DIY and self-financed from top to bottom. I had zero outside help. Even with filming, all the shots are mine. I made the whole thing with one camera. I borrowed a couple of clips from some of the graffiti writers, but nothing major.

SmSh: What has been your process for releasing it? Can you do so officially within china?

LC: I can't officially release it in China on DVD because I did not get government approval beforehand. If and when I put it on iTunes it will obviously be available to everyone living in China.

SmSh: You're starting to put it into festivals, right? Where is it getting shown around the world? What difficulties have you had as an independent filmmaker, based in China, cracking into the festival circuit?

LC: I gave up on submitting to film festivals because I kept getting rejected, so I said fuck it and sat on the film all last year. I didn't have any money to hire a film festival consultant or a publicist connected with film festivals. In today's so-called "indie film" environment you need that, especially if you're a no-name. Making a good film isn't good enough. Once I finished the film, I was broke and hardly had enough cash to submit to festivals on my own, but I did anyway and now I realize I was just burning money away and wasting my time by getting my hopes up. I was confident that I'd get into a few festivals, especially [Austin, Texas film festival] SXSW, but nothing happened. As for public screenings, I've had five in Beijing and one recently in the UK, and that's it.

SmSh: We've talked a bit about this "festival consultant" thing… How does that work? I guess there's a whole standalone industry between filmmakers and festival committees?

LC: I spoke with one film festival consultant and for six months of service it would have cost 7,500 US dollars. And basically what that person is doing, they use their film festival contacts to get your film in. But I didn't have that kind of money when my film was done, so I just tried to wing it on my own. If you don't have a team or at least someone pushing your film, then forget it. Don't even try because the festival will take your cash and give your DVD to some volunteer screener who may or may not watch it.

SmSh: How have the artists featured in the film reacted after seeing it? I imagine you had some anxiety, as an American filmmaker documenting the work of young Chinese guys just beginning to create this culture that is regarded as clandestine and underground by necessity…

LC: I think I got really lucky in that area because the artists all liked the film. I told them beforehand if there was anything in the film they didn't like, I would take it out. Most of them came to the first screening and they were all cool with it. There's no way I could have made a documentary like this anywhere else, because graffiti cultures in the US and Europe and quite different and nowhere near as open to being filmed or even written about. So the Chinese artists were excited that a foreigner was so enthusiastic about filming them.

SmSh: So what are your plans with Spray Paint Beijing moving forward? Online distribution? Will you print physical copies?

LC: You can buy the DVD online through two small websites, one in the UK and the other in Germany. It's one of those films that if you really want it, you can find it pretty easily. It's just not everywhere and in your face. I will make some physical copies in China and sell them at some point, but I'm not sure exactly how. I'm working that out now. As for online distribution, I may put it on iTunes but I'm in no hurry. I like how the film is growing underground and I think I want to keep it there. The film didn't cost much to make and I never expected to get rich off of it, so I'm fine with how interest and enthusiasm have been increasing incrementally over the months. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Australian television (ABC), and I keep getting interview requests from different places, so I'm happy.

SmSh: I know you're trying to keep this under your hat for the moment, but what will your next project be? Can you give a preview of what you're working on now?

LC: I can't say. I'm really excited about it and it has nothing to do with graffiti. Although the project after my new one will be about graffiti, and with that I'll go to China's smaller cities and explore. There's another crew from Fujian who are really cool, and there's some guys in Chongqing tearing it up. But I need time off to do that. I can't balance a day job in Beijing and expect to cover ground elsewhere. It's frustrating.

SmSh: Well I think that'll do it.. is there anything else you want to add?

LC: Yeah, one more thing, FUCK SXSW! I'm from Texas, I made a good film, and they couldn't have been bothered with it. Submitting my film to them was a waste of money and I'm embarrassed that I did. In my opinion SXSW is the biggest starfucker event in North America. It has nothing to do with spirit and discovering new talent, certainly with its film programming. It's obvious to me that the folks who program their films love hanging with celebrities more than film itself, and it certainly shows in the films they play.


You can check out Spray Paint Beijing this Saturday at The Apartment and Basement6 and Sunday at Dada. Lance will be on hand to answer questions, give out posters, drink beers, and hopefully send a few more choice words to SXSW...


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