Temple House, located within the upscale shopping district of Taikoo Li in Chengdu, is not a venue you’d necessarily associate with street art. Tucked within a grey, Qing dynasty-era courtyard, the boutique hotel has the kind of hushed ambience one associates with understated affluence. And yet, clad in his distinctive uniform of all black and heavy-frame cat-eye glasses, noted street artist Pang Fan stalks the softly lit hotel lobby, casually sipping a coffee. He has come here to visit his art.
Thirty-year-old Pang, who goes by the moniker Fansack, has been making graffiti art – or “contemporary urban art” as it’s described at Temple House – for more than a dozen years. Inspired by the 2004 French documentary film Writers: 20 Years of Graffiti in Paris, Fansack and his friends started spraying their tags over Chengdu’s empty walls and dilapidated buildings as teenagers. In 2008, Fansack found his way to France, where he studied with street art aficionados and honed his craft, eventually earning a Masters’ degree from the Sorbonne. Today, he’s a leading name in the world of street art, hired for commissions by the 13th arrondissement in Paris and featured in exhibitions all over Europe.
Over the last couple of years, however, the Paris-based Fansack has found himself returning to his hometown of Chengdu more regularly. The reason is simple. Thanks to a high-level government push to make the city a world-class tech and creative hub, the capital of China’s Sichuan province is becoming a major player in the Chinese culture industry. Admittedly, Chengdu has always been a hotbed of creativity – the city’s homegrown hip-hop scene has produced international sensations like the Higher Brothers – but now there’s money behind this creative energy. Businesses, too, want to tap into Chengdu’s cool.
That’s how Fansack landed a commission from the most high-end hotel in the city. The large mural, Astromantic, which depicts an astronaut floating horizontally and beatifically in pink-purple space, is a fairly representative Fansack creation. Aside from exuberant use of colour, his murals, such as the iconic Sakyape – a visual amalgam of the Sakymuni Buddha and a large primate, located in Jiuyanqiao – are characterised by a playful treatment of existential themes across science, art and religion.
From Temple House, Fansack takes a 10-minute cab ride to his studio to get back to work; he has a commission for Reebok to finish. The studio is located in the warren of music venues and clubs housed underneath Chengdu 339, a popular retail complex along the Fu river. Among hip-hop fans, this subterranean spot is known for Nox, a 600-capacity venue that regularly hosts shows by some of the city’s biggest rappers. A dim corridor around the corner from Nox leads to the Jamroom, where artists and producers show up at all times of the day to lay down tracks in a suite of free-to-use recording studios. It’s here that Luo Jiaqi (better known in the scene as Simon), the local entrepreneur behind Nox and Jamroom, has granted Fansack a generous plot of studio space.
“Originally, there weren’t so many of us interested in street culture. So, we all know each other,” Fansack says. The intimate relationship between the city’s hip-hop and street art scenes is evidenced by Higher, one of Fansack’s murals located in front of Nox, a vivid and slightly psychedelic painting of four alien-like figures who, on closer inspection, resemble Chengdu’s famous trap quartet, the Higher Brothers.
Indeed, most of Fansack’s murals in Chengdu are located adjacent to music venues. Aside from Nox’s Higher and Sukhavati (a collaboration with Absolut Vodka), Fansack has murals in Jiuyanqiao – known for its many live music venues – and Chengdu’s newest walking street, Kuixinglou. Favoured among young trendy types for its raucous hotpot restaurants and music venue-café Nu Space, Kuixinglou also brings in crowds thanks to the density of photogenic street art. Passersby often stop to pose in front of Fansack’s mural Red Buddha No 2, a bold, crimson creation depicting a reclining Buddha sporting VR glasses.
Down the street from Fansack’s mural, another wall is covered entirely in shades of blue and orange – the signature colours of Chengdu’s legendary How Chill crew. How Chill is the creation of best friends and business partners He Li (artist name SEVE) and Chen Zhipeng (GAS), both 29. He and Chen met in 2009, back when street art in China was still in its nascent stages. The two started up How Chill, which quickly became one of the most recognisable names in town.
Chen, an old friend of Fansack’s, started graffiti writing as a teenager and brings a graphic, geometric sensibility to How Chill’s work while He, an art school graduate, contributes more representational elements. For the duo’s mural in Kuixinglou, He sprayed an amazingly accurate likeness of his favourite rapper, Snoop Dogg, a picture of which the American star himself eventually encountered through the magic of the internet and subsequently shared on his Instagram.
As established artists, Chen and He see themselves as the caretakers of the Chengdu graffiti tradition. These days, they say – far from their days of spraying murals under the cover of night – How Chill is “100% commercial”. But this is strategic. Between commissions for brands like the NFL and Nike, as well as high-end restaurants and gyms, How Chill makes enough money to invest in younger, underground graffiti artists. The main channel through which Chen and He accomplish this is by bankrolling Still Writing, a spray paint store tucked inside central Chengdu’s Red Star 35 Cultural Creative Industrial Park. The store runs at a chronic loss, Chen admits, but they are happy to take the hit – he points out that it’s more important for young street artists to have a place to gather and purchase materials.
It’s unclear, though, how much longer Chengdu’s underground street art tradition will continue in this vein. Paradoxically, as the Chengdu government has become more supportive of arts and culture, it has also become stricter about what kind of art is allowed on its walls. Local graffiti artists report of work that hasn’t been pre-approved being whitewashed over within a day. For areas not already established as art-friendly zones, the key word is “beautification” and the desired themes centre around positive messages and traditional Chinese values. For this kind of art, the Chengdu authorities look to its number one government-approved street artist: Ban Lu.
The gregarious 29-year-old Ban dreamed of becoming an artist since his childhood in rural Shandong province. After graduating from art school in Xi’an, he and a friend cycled south across the mountains to Chengdu, a city they’d always planned to visit. Ban was instantly smitten. In 2009, when Ban arrived, the government was less mindful of what was appearing on the walls and he used the city as his canvas. One of his first murals, near Chengdu’s central Chunxi Road, declares his love for the city through the depiction of recognisable Chengdu landmarks.
“I didn’t make a cent off this one,” says Ban, eyeing his nearly-decade-old creation, now peeling a little. “I didn’t care though. Back then, I was just happy to be able to paint.”
For several years, Ban lived the life of a starving artist, making a meagre living by giving art lessons to children. Then, in 2013, his luck changed: Ban entered a government-held street art competition and unexpectedly won. The prize was a modest studio in the creative district of Lijiao as well as a series of commissions from the Chengdu government. Since then, Ban has enjoyed a steady stream of work beautifying walls around the city. Ban estimates he has more than 150 murals scattered across the city, from the trendy central Yulin district to peripheral working-class neighbourhoods like Huayang, where he is finishing up his latest series. For this project, Ban has playfully inserted pandas and other Chengdu elements into paintings from the art canon.
As he puts the finishing touches on a panda-populated riff on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a group of local shu shu and ah yi (uncles and aunties) stop to watch him at work.
“Chengdu is pretty unique,” says Ban, as he dabs paint on the mural. “There aren’t many places where street art is supported like this. I am excited to see what the next wave of talent will bring to the scene.”
Chengdu street culture
It’s impossible to discuss street art in Chengdu without also touching on some of the city’s adjacent industries – namely, hip-hop and dance. Chengdu’s hip-hop scene, characterised by the early adoption of trap music, is one of China’s most vibrant – a fact evidenced by the overwhelming success of artists like the Higher Brothers, Ty and Boss Shady. Aside from Nox and Nu Space, one of the most famous venues for up and coming artists in the city is Little Bar, an old stalwart of the scene with 20 years of history that has gone on to open two more branches. The original location, in Chengdu’s historic Yulin neighbourhood, is most famous today as the launching pad for neofolk singer-songwriter Zhao Lei, whose ballad “Chengdu” became a number one hit in 2016 and remains ubiquitous across the country.
The wider art scene
It’s not just street art that Chengdu excels at. Check out Centre Pompidou collaboration “Cosmopolis #1.5” through 9 Jan, as well as these cutting-edge venues.
Luxelakes A4 Art Museum – The museum’s new location has allowed it to expand to include a children’s art centre, arts library and artist residency studios. The geometrically cubed-shaped building features local, domestic and international artists of note, and features regular screenings and workshops.
A Thousand Plateaus Art Space – This art gallery has regular representation at art fairs in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Opened in 2007, it features China’s most established contemporary artists, including Zuo Jing and Chen Guodong’s Mao Gong Project, previously shown at the 15th Venice Biennale Chinese Pavilion.
Mintown Studio Community & NU Space Art Lab – This collective has been helping to drive Chengdu’s creative sector since it opened in 2013, renting out studio spaces to designers, artists and other creative businesses. Nu Space, its second location just down the street, features almost nightly shows of various audio-visual, electronic and rock performances.
55 Kuixinglou St, Qingyang District
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine.