BEIJING (AFP) – Clean-cut 23-year-old design graduate Chen Chuang sprayed a whitewashed wall in central Beijing in broad daylight with big jagged blue letters -- his clan's signature -- before scurrying away.
"It's not really against the law," said his friend Liu Yuchen.
Chen quickly added: "But once you get caught, it can be very serious."
Chen and Liu are members of a small but growing group of graffiti artists in China where the craft, once the preserve of Western countries, has taken off in the last few years.
But unlike their counterparts in the West, who have sometimes used the art form to convey political messages, Chinese artists offer a message that has little to do with revolt or protest.
"Graffiti art in China has got rid of the strong rebelliousness and confrontational attitude in Western graffiti," said Luo Zhongli, head of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.
"It is related to the aesthetics of people's lives, and leans more towards fashion."
Chen and Liu say that most Chinese artists took up graffiti as a trendy fad, having discovered it through the Internet, films, magazines and from friends who had travelled abroad.
Most of the pair's designs revolve around cartoons, abstract images and colourful words such as their graffiti names -- not politics.
"There are very few people doing graffiti in Beijing, and if I sign my name on the street and talk about bad things, the police will find me very quickly," said Chen.
Another graffiti artist from the northern city of Xi'an agreed.
"There can't be political themes, and if there are, they must be beneficial towards the government or the party," said 18-year-old Seker, a recent high school graduate who asked to be identified only by his pseudonym.
Chen said he drew about topics that inspired him, such as the deadly Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, or even the Nanjing massacre in 1937 when Japanese invaders killed hundreds of thousands of people.
There is no specific law relating to graffiti in China, as the phenomenon is relatively new.
But Chen said he knew people who had been detained for several days and others who had been fined for spraying their designs at will.
Chen and Liu said they occasionally left their mark on random walls in the city, but sometimes spray-painted spaces specifically designated for graffiti art. They also work on commercial stunts and advertisements.
And as in the West, where artists like Britain's Banksy have brought graffiti from the streets to high-end galleries and the auction house, the craft is increasingly being seen as an art form here in China.
One Chinese artist, Zhang Dali, rose to local prominence in the 1990s by spray-painting bald heads all over Beijing on walls that were due to be demolished.
"Chinese graffiti in the past few years has been everywhere, and it is more about an experience by young artists in a new type of art," said Luo.
But despite increased media attention to the phenomenon, the wider Chinese population still knows very little about the pastime.
"Very few people do graffiti, and even fewer have come into contact with it or know about it," said Nat, part of the Kwanyin clan -- a group attempting to make a living out of selling their graffiti as art.
"They don't really understand it and they don't pay attention to it, but there is a big potential for development."
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