In the late 1980s, New York-style graffiti started appearing in Taiwan, spread through works of popular culture such as the hip-hop documentary “Style Wars” (1983) and the movie “Wild Style” (1983) — but the graffiti that began appearing in Taiwan grew out of a very different social context to that of New York.

Taiwanese graffiti isn’t about resistance

According to the 2008 academic article “Street Graffiti Culture in Taiwan,” most graffiti writers “come from middle class families, have received formal arts training and a university education. For them, graffiti is an extracurricular activity they're engaged in; it’s absolutely not a means for them to resolve class or racial issues.”

The article continues, “They’re simply naughty youth who get carried away, like showing off their abilities, enjoy making adults angry, and who don’t want to behave in accordance with adult standards.”

If there is any shared ground between the cultures in the U.S. and Taiwan, it stems from a dissatisfaction with the urban environment and the roles artists who are obliged to play within it, particularly the implicit understanding that citizens should abide by rules and uphold social order.

My experience speaking to graffiti writers in Taiwan was that most were indeed middle-class university graduates who had existing interests in art. So, is that the end of it? Are Taiwanese graffiti writers just delinquent middle-class artists who have simply found a different means of expressing themselves?

Well, yes and no.


Creepy Mouse

Maybe it is about resistance

The thing that really fascinated me about that article was idea of not wanting to conform to adult standards, dissatisfaction with middle class values and a desire to disrupt social order.

In the seven years that I’ve been in Taiwan and the 11 years I’ve lived in Asia, I’ve often noticed the tension that exists between traditional society and the dynamic urban youth cultures that have evolved alongside them.

The social revolutions that happened so dramatically in the West during the 1960s are being played out in Asia but in a less confrontational manner. From this point of view, Taiwanese graffiti culture does reflect a resistance to cultural norms when we consider the society in which it has sprung up.



Disrupting the social order

Like much of East Asia, Taiwanese society has been strongly shaped by its Confucian heritage. This was especially the case in Taiwan — after the Kuomintang retreated to the island in 1949, they emphasized Confucian values in an effort to re-Sinicize and control the population after the Japanese colonial period.

One of the most enduring ways they did this was through education. Even now, the current debate about how much classical Chinese should be taught in schools is a reflection of this past. The classics that are being referred to are the works of moral thinkers like Confucius and Mencius (among others). These moral philosophers have shaped Taiwanese society in much the same way that Christian morality underpins European, North and South American societies.

Confucian society is defined by a number of relationships between individuals who occupy fixed social roles: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend. It can be represented as a hierarchal social structure in which individuals know their place and how to behave. In a traditional Confucian society, one occupies an accepted social role and conducts themselves in accordance to the social expectations of that role.

Under these conditions, the traditional social roles for young people in Taiwan have been “offspring” and “student.” As such, the social expectations were to be respectful, obedient children, to focus on one’s studies, and follow a conventional path into adulthood.

Even today, studying hard is the central preoccupation of youth in Taiwan — students here spend some of the longest hours in school in the developed world. For young men in particular, academic achievement has been even more important since the best students get into the best universities and the most promising careers with which to support their own families and parents.

In this context, graffiti writers disrupt the social order in two specific ways:

By focusing on artistic production – and unconventional artistic production at that – they refuse to follow the conventional path to success, and by extension the social expectations that society places on them.

By doing so in opposition to their parents wishes, they reject their roles in the father-son dichotomy; one of the central relationships in Confucian society.



The conventional path to success

As DEBE, a prominent artist and graffiti writer explains, “The education system force feeds you from primary school to middle school. There’s very little time for students to think. Time for music class or art class is usually taken away for Chinese, math and English classes with the aim of preparing to enter into the next grade in school.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by ITA, another artist and co-owner of the graffiti art studio Back Street Art (後街藝術), “You can only say that Taiwan’s educational environment is like that. It never gives you time to think about what you want to do. During that educational period, you’re just made to study and not be corrupted by bad examples.”

Even though Taiwan has an incredibly rich artistic tradition, it tends to emphasize certain traditional practices.

As ITA explains, “We should say that art in Taiwan is done according to certain standards — painting watercolors and such. They say you must paint one way, but don’t tell you what ideas to use. They just tell you when you’ve made a mistake. In the past, people could only accept that you paint landscapes, but people are slowly starting to accept newer things.”

Even the traditional arts were not considered ideal career paths because of their inherent financial instability.

The government department responsible for supporting and stimulating Taiwan’s arts (the Ministry of Culture) only became a ministerial-level entity in 2012 as a direct response to cultural competition from other Asian nations.

As ITA says, “Achievement in Taiwan is usually measured by looking at your income, whether or not you make money. Nobody cares about what you like. Dreams are something you can only chase while you’re a student because once you enter society, you’ll be obligated to take responsibility for supporting your family.”



It’s a view also emphasized by DEBE, who recognizes his parents’ support of his unconventional path:

“Actually, my family was different from ordinary people with regard to my upbringing. In this respect I was very fortunate. When I first started, my parents didn't support my work, but they also didn't oppose it. Even though they still worry about my financial situation once in a while, I try to make them understand what I'm doing.

"If people don't understand one another, they can't consider things from the other person's position. It will inevitably give birth to opposition, so I'm very thankful that my parents are willing to respect my choices and desires. Even though my family's financial situation isn't great, they don't force me to bring money home every month.”

By choosing art, and in particular the unconventional arts practices like graffiti, these young men reject the mainstream path to success and push against the expectations society has for young people.

Graffiti writers also disrupt the social order and parental expectations at a micro level. By choosing graffiti against the wishes of their families, they disrupt the core social relationship implicit in the father-son dichotomy.

This might seem like stating the obvious since graffiti is typically illegal and hardly a parentally-approved social activity or career path.

Unsurprisingly, all of the graffiti writers I spoke with began their careers in secret. Some of the more established artists I spoke to gained the support of their families after proving their artistic talents and commitment by turning professional. DEBE regularly travels around Taiwan and abroad to paint; he exhibits his work while also being paid to paint for businesses and brands.

The talented Tainan graffiti artist Creepy Mouse is a perfect example of this process. “Actually, when I first started, I didn’t want to let [my parents] know, but once, when I was going out at midnight, I got caught.

"I just had to tell them the truth. Actually, at first, they didn’t really approve because it was illegal. Then I started getting recognized and I started taking care of myself, they slowly started to acknowledge it, and finally gave me their support.”

Like DEBE, Creepy Mouse now makes his living as a graphic designer, artist and sign writer.


Creepy Mouse

Others, like Jimmy Cheng from the Citimarx crew, still participate in the graffiti world without their parents’ approval, despite the role he occupies in the promotion of legal graffiti art.

Jimmy, now in his 40s, occupies a godfather role in the Taipei graffiti scene where he’s been active since moving here at age 19. The Citymarx crew, which he runs, operates the legal graffiti zone in Ximending with the consent of the Taipei City Government and regularly holds legal graffiti, street dance and DJ competitions to promote urban youth culture. Moreover, Jimmy often operates as a mediator between authorities and younger illegal writers whose activities attract official attention. Despite all of this, Jimmy still walks this path without the support of his parents.

Then there are the younger graffiti writers. Less established and often still in school, they often conduct their business without their parents’ consent — sometimes in active opposition to their wishes.

Roach, a young writer I met in Tainan, said, “My mom fully supports me, but my dad doesn’t like me going bombing. He often says that I’m getting my pleasure from the suffering of others, but I still go out and do it. I think graffiti is something influential, so I go and do it.”

I was told something similar by Taipei graffiti artist named Chaff, “My dad, at first he was like, ‘That’s good.’ But after the first few months he became really against it. He’ll just come home all fuming, and he’ll be like, “I saw another one of your horrible [things] you call art again today.”

Chaff comes from a good home with highly educated parents who are “pretty cool people,” in his own words. He also says that, aside from the graffiti, his relationship with his parents is pretty good.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t shy away from confrontation with them when asked not to do it.

“I like doing it. [My father] can’t stop me from doing it, and I make a big show of giving him all my empty cans.”

By choosing an unconventional career path and doing so against parents’ wishes, graffiti writers resist the traditional roles and social expectations for young people in Taiwan.

Why would they do this?

As Nancy McDonald wrote in the book “The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York,” one of the central attractions of the graffiti world was the potential for masculine identity construction as young boys transformed themselves into young men. In her view, the graffiti world provides an alternative social structure in which skill, talent, daring and cunning are the measures that allow young men to climb the social hierarchy and define themselves as men in the eyes of their peers.

Taiwanese writers, like those elsewhere, achieved success by having their skills recognized by others in the scene, and in turn dominate certain higher profile locations in which to paint.

But there’s more to it than that

Another aspect related to identity that I want to consider, however, also describes the way graffiti writers resist the social order and refuse to conform to adults' expectations. As all the graffiti writers I spoke to expressed in one way or another, “What I think graffiti is? Self-expression. Definitely self-expression.”

As such, they generally claimed self-expression in one of two related ways. First, many graffiti writers spoke about their activity in contrast to the constraints they felt in the educational environment. Second, many graffiti writers also claim self-expression as a means of confirming their identities as individuals.

Graffiti writers often talk about the freedom they feel both in absolute terms, and in opposition to conventional arts education and careers.

Reflecting on his experiences of high school, Roach said, “When I was in high school and middle school I really hated studying. At that time, I just wanted to paint. When I chose my high school subjects, I chose art. Before I started, I thought I’d be able to paint every day, but only later did I find out that I’d still have to do lots of studying.”

Adding to what he said above, DEBE explained that, “It's very easy for students’ sense of value to lean towards utilitarianism. Students must also compete with one another, so from a young age musical accomplishment or a sense of aesthetics aren’t cultivated, and our emotional expression is repressed.”

By contrast, in his words, graffiti, “requires no regulations. If you want to paint, you just go and do it.”



ITA also felt that graffiti represented an unrestrained means of self-expression, “There are no graffiti teachers in Taiwan. You just paint whatever you want to paint. Nobody knows whether [what you paint] is correct or not, so you can be completely free and unrestrained. Nothing else is like this, so graffiti seems particularly rebellious by comparison.”

Creepy Mouse compared his life with graffiti to the life he might have had without it:

“I’d probably just be doing design work in a design company. Or be a designer like that. My life wouldn’t be this interesting. Like now painting graffiti, you can probably ask your friend, ‘Hey! Do you want to go bombing tonight?’ But if I were an ordinary designer, I’d just work over time, go home, start work, and then [wait for] the weekend. Perhaps I’d also have to do overtime on the weekend or be so tired that I didn’t want to do anything.”

Beyond the liberating potential for self-expression that graffiti writers claim there is also the potential for self-expression as a means of confirming their identities as unique individuals. For many, in fact, it was this potential that attracted them to the activity in the first place.

As such, some young men often become interested in graffiti as a means of standing out from the crowd. However, as they continue to progress in graffiti, their attitudes evolve as they start to discover even more creative potential in the activity.

An artist named Mack explained it simply, “When you start doing it, you’ll think it’s cool and invigorating, but in the end, you’ll start to be more concerned with what you’re trying to express ... In these kinds of times, you can let lots of people know [what’s] no good with graffiti. Possibly it’s a little related to politics and expressing your own views. Or you can also use it to do something funny and have others see it.”

Central to this evolution is the recognition graffiti writers gain from people knowing that they exist as individuals — even if only as an anonymous name on a wall.

According to Chaff, “Mostly it’s about self-expression. I like going past a place and seeing my stuff and saying, “Hey, I did that. I was here.” So other than self-expression, it would be a way of proving that I exist. I tag, therefore I am.”

Disrupting the social order

For some young Taiwanese, the creative possibilities are so attractive that they bring them into conflict with the existing social order and societal expectations. But at a more fundamental level, graffiti may even reflect the changing psychological orientation of the current generation of young people in Taiwan.

In psychology, self-expression is understood as a means of confirming one's identity. However, it is understood to operate slightly differently in collectivist and individualist societies.

In the former, of which Taiwan is considered to be archetypical, self-expression serves the purpose of confirming one's identity as a member of a social group. As such, young people in Taiwan would be expected to express themselves in ways consistent with being a good student and a good offspring. In this sense, if these young men are expressing themselves through graffiti in order to confirm their identities as members of a particular social group, they are clearly choosing groups outside the traditionally acceptable ones.



However, for many of them, self-expression is a means of claiming an individualist self-identity. For people in individualist societies, self-expression serves the purpose of establishing one's identity as a unique and idiosyncratic individual, distinct from others. In this sense, by claiming their involvement with graffiti as a means of standing out, graffiti writers in collectivist Taiwan fundamentally challenge the expectation to put the needs of the family ahead of their own desires.

As another graffiti writer, PW, explains, “The essence [of graffiti] is basically to prove one’s self. Expressing the different aspects of my character through graffiti. For example, I’m a designer, and a fireman, but I’m not always the same person. I want to write or paint different feelings.”

In modern Taiwan, some young people want to step beyond the social roles and expectations society has traditionally reserved for them. In many ways, Taiwan’s graffiti writers are at the vanguard of this movement.

Read next: The Spirit of Taking: Chinese Tomb Raiders Learn from Online Archaeologists

Editor: Morley J Weston