Taiwan's Graffiti Scene Is Outgrowing Its Foreign Influences
Graffiti in Taipei used to be dominated by expats, but that's changing thanks to a new generation of dedicated and talented writers.
DABS in action. All photos by the author.
Ask pretty much anyone about graffiti in Taiwan and they'll you that DABS YIA is the person to talk to, a founder of the expat graffiti scene who still remains active. DABS, a wiry guy who manages to come across as both laid-back and hyperactive at the same time, originally came to Taipei from Canada to teach English around 2001. At the time, he told me, there were a few artists painting walls in parks and under bridges, but there were "no tags or throw-ups on the streets. I was testing the waters to see how far I could go. I was still doing tracksides and mural spots, low-key abandoned spots. Around 2002, 2003 onwards I was doing a lot of street stuff."
DABS was the tip of the spear when it came to graffiti in Taipei. Starting in 2004, a growing number of writers writers associated with the Bay Area graff scene came to visit or live in Taipei, among them CHEK, UDON, OPTIMIST, and NOE, the latter who was originally from Taiwan, but grew up in California and returned for good in 2008. Their graffiti was rooted in classic Bay Area influences, with solid handstyles, stylish throw-ups, and the occasional giant block letters painted with rollers and house paint.
NOE's throw-up, consisting of a diminutive "O" nestled between a bulging "N" and "O," is built for speed. He claims that he can paint a full throw-up on the street in as little as 90 seconds, allowing him to get highly visible spots in Taipei and on his travels around Asia while reducing the risk of getting caught. "I feel thankful for all the foreigners that stomped the Taiwan ground first," NOE said. "DABS and CHEK brought the right mindset of how to do a throw-up, how to execute the letters."
At the time, it was almost comically easy to be a graffiti writer in the capital city. "Taipei had a golden time when you could just roll up and people would not actually understand what graffiti is," DABS told me. "They think you must be paid to do this, so it's OK. People were coming and giving us tea and cookies and stuff."
Even the cops treated the writers fairly leniently. NOE remembered one writer named BOBO who "always talked to the police" when caught painting. "He'd be like, 'Just go home. Take a shower, come back, and it'll be finished and prettier than it is right now.'" For a while they got away with it, especially when they painted more colorful productions.
"But then in '07," DABS said, "there was a big influx of traveling graffiti writers, so the city started seeing a lot more street [bombing]. It was getting a lot of bad press." Taiwan became part of the international circuit of graffiti destinations, "the graff spraycation tour," as DABS called it. The authorities had to react. Fines were doubled from around $100 to $20. That may not sound like a lot, but the increase was used to finance rewards to vigilant citizens (many of them taxi drivers) who caught graffiti writers in the act.
When I accompanied DABS on a bombing mission one night, we kept an eye out for cabs as well as police. In one spot, DABS started painting a shutter only a few feet away from a security guard seated in a booth, but almost abandoned it when a taxi came to a temporary halt across the street. It turned out to be a false alarm. Taxis also serve as potential getaway vehicles—once, NOE told me, he got snitched out by one taxi driver who called the police only to be whisked away at the last moment by another.
Over the years, more and more native Taiwanese writers have emerged, spurned on by the high standards set not just by Western expats, but Japanese writers. Japan and Taiwan's graffiti scenes are closely related and writers from both countries are working toward a visual identity distinct from their American forbears. Japanese graffiti got a head start by at least a decade, and writers have developed unique painting styles in cities like Osaka and Tokyo. (Osaka throw-ups are so wildly elaborate as to be almost illegible, while Tokyo's are clean and easily readable.)
NOE and SAYM, another Taipei-based writer, started visiting Tokyo early on in their careers and, through diligence and hard work, earned the respect of Tokyo's most notorious vandal, WANTO. "We would finish up a couple hundred stickers, a couple hundred marker tags. We would go and get lost in the city, and, after we finished our homework, we would meet up with people and go play. We did that for several [trips to Tokyo]," says NOE. By the time they introduced themselves to local writers, the Japanese vandals had already seen NOE and SAYM up all over their city. WANTO eventually put them down with the crew he founded, which is named after one of Tokyo's most important traffic arteries: 246.
Tokyo's 246 crew had a profound influence on Taiwanese graffiti, both in terms of style and ambition. In addition to NOE and SAYM, Taiwanese locals YU and HOWA joined 246, and YU especially has been highly active repping the crew in Taipei and across Asia. Meanwhile, newcomers like NEST and CURE closely hew to 246's stylistic playbook, using big, bubbly letters and elements such as faces formed out of spray dots and the Roman numeral "I," which writers the world over like to append to their names. Taiwanese graffiti may still be copying more than innovating, but "you can see [there's] quality control," according to DABS. NOE feels that the Taiwanese scene is ready to make its mark and develop a style and reputation of its own. "We Taiwanese, we have pride," he said. "We want to come and show you guys what we got. To show you guys that this is Taiwan!"
DABS agreed. There's a sense of achievement in the scene—it's no longer, as he explained it, "just a bunch of foreigners coming here and killing it. HOWA, NOE, and SAYM are putting in work and getting props" for it. "Nowadays," DABS said, "the kids out here are more in tune with the old, classic graff ethos. Racking, being out at night, catching spots, climbing, putting more risk into it."
The graff scene in Taiwan, NOE told me, is getting "bigger, better, and worse. Depends on which angle you look at it. But it's definitely going forward.... It's still in the baby stage right now. But it's finally starting to grow."
See more photos from Ray's visit to Taipei below.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.