The walls are alive – Macao’s walls have taken on a new lease of life with the growth of graffiti

24 March 2016

When walking through the streets of Macao, don’t be surprised to find yourself asking what all these splashes of colour and designs drawn on walls represent. You may also find yourself smiling at the provocation.

That is the intention behind the graffiti signed by the group GANTZ 5 – to provoke joy throughout the city.

If the tips of Thomas Lo, Pat Lam and Kelvin Mac’s fingers – the three founding members of GANTZ 5 – accumulated all the spray paint used in their creations, they would today be like a rainbow with over 10 years of stories to tell.

These three young graffiti artists have lost count of the number of times they have heard that their creations are not art – but that matters little to them.

“I feel many perceive graffiti as something negative, but I feel otherwise. I want to pass on a happy message,” explained Thomas.

For Pat who signs his work PIBZ: “the pic-tures I leave on walls are a present I’m giving to the city.”

Despite the rising number of graffiti artists and international exposure that such wall paintings have earned, there is no consensus on whether graffiti is an art form.

In the case of Macao, Thomas believes that the situation is changing and it is just a generational issue.

“I think the cultural standard of Macao’s population is still rather limited due to its aging population. The older generation finds it hard to understand the younger culture,” he said.

Nonetheless, in a place as small as Macao, elderly people often find themselves in neighbourhoods with walls painted in colourful and untraditional colours.

The park in the old Chinese Bazaar, reached through Rua dos Mercadores, is one example. Some of the city’s older citizens keep an eye on grandchildren playing in the park; at the same time, their other eye examines the images that appear from time to time on the walls of the very same space they have been visiting for years.

Some like it, others look with disdain at the figures that, close up, are barely discernable; from afar, they illustrate animals, fictitious characters or portray some detail of the city.

Disgruntled boys or artists?

What new lives are being given to the walls of Macao? And what value can this form of design bring, when many still see it as a form of vandalism?

For the president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Macao, Ung Vai Meng: “Graffiti is a way for people to express their emotions” and, like other art forms, this can “make Macao famous internationally.”

According to Ung, the Cultural Affairs Bureau has introduced graffiti as an art form in “Lectures on Cultural Topics” taught in about 40 primary and secondary schools, to allow the younger generations a greater openness to the paintings that appear in the city.

Macao is following an international trend of giving the younger generation a critical awareness of art. “The Macao government has held many activities and exhibitions related to graffiti, allowing people to unleash their infinite imagination as well as strengthening their sense of belonging to Macao,” he explained.

And it was at school that Thomas fell in love with this way of drawing. He was tired of wearing a uniform and always writing in the same way; his interest was sparked when he saw a colleague draw letters in a different way, inspired by graffiti that had appeared on many walls around the world.

“I had to wear a tidy uniform everyday all through high school, I felt really restrained, as if I was in prison. When I saw the font style, I thought it was so different from what I’d learned, yet I could understand what he was writing,” he recalled.

From there, Thomas began to learn, leaving behind the good boy in a uniform to become a “bad boy”; today many of his works can be found around the city.

Pat said that he had created enough works to become a professional graffiti artist today and not just a creator of doodles.

In the first phase, each graffiti artist “candidate” should put his or her signature all over the city. The more “bombers” – fast graffiti, usually painted in two colours – are painted in different locations in the city, the more points the artist wins.

In the second phase, spray cans are used to make graffiti, whether small illustrations or phrases written with illustrated letters. But reaching the top “career” involves becoming a “street artist” with more complex pieces.

Given this dynamic, Pat believes: “Graffiti is like a game.”

Does that mean this is an art made by angry bad boys or by people endowed with artistic ability?

Ung explained: “Some people may have a stereotype that those who draw graffiti are bad guys. In fact, it is not like that. Local graffiti artists cherish and protect the local cultural heritage. This is very important.”

Thomas agrees with Ung Vai Meng. “I feel there aren’t a lot of non-approved outdoor locations for graffiti in Macao. But we’ve all received education after all and we know that there are plenty of cultural heritage sites and we respect those intellectual properties. That’s why we do our best to avoid these sites. We pick locations that are deserted, but interesting.”

Macao law does not specifically ban graffiti, but says that any action that could damage heritage buildings or public areas will face penalties. So where should these artists paint?

A new dimension

To promote this activity, the Macao Government has, in partnership with private entities, made several spaces available for graffiti artists where they can freely unleash their cans of fluorescent paint.

The Rua dos Mercadores park of 1,200 square meters is the main stage for graffiti in the city; on the interior walls of some buildings, commissioned works also appear.

In 2014, the Macao Christian New Life Fellowship Smart Youth Association commissio-ned GANTZ 5 to paint the wall of the main entrance of the newest community youth centre in Ilha Verde.

In addition to the image representing Jesus, which took two days to complete, the group was invited to give a few painting classes to children at the centre.

Thomas, Pat and Kelvin also had the opportunity to see some of their works exhibited at Macau art museums during the Animamix Bienalle 2013-2014.

All this has enabled graffiti and its artists to gain a new dimension.

Now graffiti is no longer only made of stro-kes and scribbles on a wall to decorate a space. It is used in restaurants and cafes, as a backdrop to brand campaigns like Nike and IBM and as a setting for music videos for international bands such as U2.

Some graffiti artists such as the UK’s Banksy and Portugal’s Vhils have even managed to gain entry to lists such as the “100 Most Influential People” in Time and Forbes magazines respectively, thanks to the quality of their work.

For GANTZ 5, graffiti has taken on a more commercial dimension with the group opening shops selling spray cans and brand accessories and earning commissions for their graffiti in the city.

“We have customers such as the Macao Government, the Suncity Group and other foundations,” said Pat.

City of graffiti, city of tourists

If a city wall can fall prey to a graffiti artist, it may also run the risk of becoming a tourist attraction.

In recent years, graffiti has become a reason to visit a city.

Lisbon is one of many examples of a city that has become a “friend of graffiti.” Between 2011 and 2014, the Portuguese city recorded a signifi-cant increase in the number of tourists visiting painted walls, elevating it to Europe’s capital of graffiti.

Asia has many such examples. In Kaohsiung, Taiwan, the government has greatly expanded areas of the city where graffiti artists can paint legally; this supports local artists and brings more international artists and curious eyes to Taiwan.

Colasa, a Taiwanese artist whose graffiti is mostly in black and white, is one of the names behind this increased interest.

Today, graffiti is moving out of suburban neighbourhoods – where it was initially born – into the heart of global cities such as Tokyo, into the middle of Shibuya, or Soho, Hong Kong. Many have the signature of famous names in the world of graffiti, such as Space Invader, Titi Freak and Graphic Airlines.

But Macao still has a long way to go to become a graffiti tourist destination. For the director of the Macao Government Tourist Office, Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, this type of painting can “bring benefits to all” but only “if properly applied.”

She proposes the setting up of spaces where graffiti artists work and create integrated works, to avoid their “emergence without context.”

GANTZ 5 from Macao invites residents and tourists to look beyond what normally appears in front of their eyes and questions their surroundings more; only then can there be a greater acceptance of these creations that have become their way of life.

“Graffiti is my life and I’ll continue to be a pirate looking for a treasure. The wall is my treasure,” said Pat in conclusion. (Macao Magazine, text by Catarina Mesquita, photos by António Sanmarful, Cheong Kam Ka, GCS and courtesy of GANTZ 5)