Taiwan graffiti artist colors in legal gray area

TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Graffiti artist “B-brother” Chang’s signature work at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum covers a thin wall over a small door that leads straight outside.

The museum planned it that way as a metaphor for what Chang does around town -- take advantage of spotty law enforcement to tread a thin line between spray-painting public art and brazenly vandalizing walls, sometimes outraging owners or neighbors.

“Taiwan’s laws are not absolute,” said Chang, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate with an advertising degree and a business card identifying him only by his moniker B-brother. “If the police want something to be legal, then it’s legal.”

Like graffiti artists anywhere, Chang slaps his black chalk and spray-paint on walls to make points about war, crime and other social issues. He even scrawled a piece of traditional Chinese art, onto which a passer-by scribbled in a bird.

But Chang, one of just a handful of Taiwan graffiti artists inspired by Hollywood, paints in public to see how far he can go within a legal gray area acknowledged by the authorities.

“Unless someone complains about vandalism, we won’t get involved,” a veteran police officer said anonymously. “We don’t go after it proactively.”

According to traditional Chinese law enforcement theory, police balance the letter of any law with a broader sense of what’s good for society, said Jeffrey Martin, assistant professor of Taiwan studies at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan, meaning police don’t mind graffiti if they see no victim.

“They’d wait for neighbors to complain,” Martin said. “But they’re moving toward the rule of law. Every year the law becomes more consequential.”

Chang, who has done graffiti for two years and plans to keep it up, said he had been caught once but got away after he told the officer he was spray-painting for a college project.

“My main point is to be unrestricted,” Chang said.

But other graffiti, usually the size of a small poster on the side of a parking lot or an abandoned house, gets wiped out following complaints, even in the generally graffiti-friendly university quarter of south Taipei that Chang haunts.

One of his more aggressive projects is a metal box on a crowded university-district sidewalk. Open the box, and it reads “LSD.” On the outside is Chang’s moniker but with an expletive replacing “brother.”

The art museum asked Chang to do the mural, titled Beyond the Wall, for display from September to January, as part of an exhibit to show the world’s “chaos” as a result of globalization, said museum director Hsieh Hsiao-yun.

Chang was invited to do the mural because he has supported popular social causes around Taipei, Hsieh said.

“He’s got legal permission to paint here,” she added.

Editing by Miral Fahmy