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EKSAS: A Struggle Between You And The City

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Originally published on Genjing Records

Roaming around on the streets of Dongcheng District, your eyes glance back and forth between the shops and the flowing crowd. The summer heat in Beijing has almost evaporated your patience and driven you crazy and bored. Suddenly, by chance, you turn your head to the right and notice something on the other side of the street. A bright splash of color on a tightly closed rolling door draws your attention and puts an end to your restless steps. “It looks like an English word”, you murmur to yourself. To get a clearer vision, you cross the non-stopping traffic to the other side and finally recognize the word, “EKSAS”.

Still you don’t give it much thought and just continue on, however, once you’ve seen it a whole new world starts to open up and you begin to notice it everywhere. It’s on the broken walls of a construction site, the high voltage box standing in the middle of the sidewalk, it’s even on the archways of a bridge. “EKSAS” is everywhere! You begin to wonder who is “EKSAS”? Who is this person whose name is written all over the city?

Then you see the cover for the new Deadly Cradle Death / The Telescopes split 7” and learn that that’s EKSAS too! While international conspiracies of noise / art terror bloom in your mind we, the street wondering insomniacs of Genjing Records, are here to provide answers. We rendezvoused with this prolific street-writer to talk about graffiti, writing in both Beijing and New York and his recent foray into cover design. Get the whole scoop and you’re own copy of the 7” after the jump.

EXAS grafitti

You once joked in an interview about how you started to do graffiti at the age of two by doodling in your parent’s address book. When exactly did you get into graffiti and why?

Originally I tried to do some graffiti around my neighborhood, but it was only after I joined KTS, a graffiti crew in Beijing, that graffiti became serious for me. Although KTS isn’t very famous, it provided a great environment for us to encourage and learn from each other. All my teammates helped me out a lot when I was first introduced, which was critical to my development.

At the very beginning of your graffiti career what were your main themes and what did you want to express or pursue through this type of art? Later, how did you decide to keep on doing it?

At the very beginning, I just wanted to do some awesome graffiti, mostly related to hip hop. But now, I focus more on some interesting themes. I’m influenced by many things and the most important reason that I keep on doing graffiti is the pleasure of being acknowledged.

What did you think of people’s attitudes towards graffiti back then?

In my opinion, Beijingers consider graffiti more as art or design. In their minds, graffiti is closely connected with creative businesses, but I don’t appreciate these commercialized graffiti as they are often extremely boring.

EXAS grafitti

I heard that you are now studying art in New York City. Can you talk a little bit about your life there?

New York gave me a hard time, for sure. When I first arrived here, I knew nothing but it’s getting better. Studying in New York actually is not as free as it may seem. The academic style is pretty serious and if you don’t follow the professor you might get into trouble. New York is probably the most stressful city on earth.

Do you think being in an entirely differently culture and society influences your graffiti? Have you made any changes to your content or ideas?

In New York I tend to write my Chinese tag much more often than my English one. Graffiti has a pretty simplistic style here and it gets boring sometimes, so I thought writing my Chinese tag would shed a new light.

EXAS graffiti

Since the 1960s when graffiti was born in New York, it now has a history of nearly half a century. However, it was harshly suppressed by the government during the 80s and 90s. What do you see as the current state of graffiti in New York and where is it going?

There are so many graffiti artists and taggers in New York, but not all of them deserve applauding. I guess most of the writers here are trying to hide their real identity because NYPD has a Vandal Squad, whose job is to study your style, collect photos of your work and eventually arrest you.

Of all the graffiti artists you have met in New York, who do you think are the most important or who do you admire the most?

There are so many graffiti artists I admire, I can’t name them all but here’re a few of my favorites: Jean Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, Stay High 149, Lee Quinones and more. Recently I’m into False, Kuma, Curve, Navy8 and Klops. I met False at a party once and asked him for an autograph. I also made acquaintance with Curve at his own exhibition.

After experiencing these two melting-pots, Beijing and New York, can you talk a little bit about the difference of doing graffiti in each of the two, such as types of locations, main themes and experience with other graffiti artists?

There are only a handful of local Beijing writers. In fact, most of the graffiti in Beijing is done by foreign artists, and there are only a few that I truly admire. However in New York, the birthplace of graffiti from which all the other graffiti styles derived, the graffiti scene is dominated by local New Yorkers. The different consequences of doing graffiti in Beijing and doing it in New York truly depend on how the law enforcement views graffiti. Back in China, police would not arrest you and send you to the court for doing graffiti. However, if you do not behave discreetly here in New York, you are screwed. Lawsuits, penalties, and even deportation are all possible consequences. Therefore my locations in New York are much more limited than in Beijing.

EXAS graffiti

How do people react to your graffiti, both Beijingners and New Yorkers and what do you think are the reasons for that difference? Why do you think graffiti attracts so little attention in Beijing when it can foment large scale social reactions in New York?

There are people who love my work both in Beijing and New York, but generally, graffiti is only something you see while you are on a moving bus, it slips away in less than a second. In New York, my Chinese tag always attracts more attention while “eksas” blends into the background. It is quite interesting, in fact, because most people don’t understand my Chinese tag. Why the different reaction from each city? I think it is because Chinese people value wealth and power and just do not care about sub-culture, however, the hippie movement and modern arts have helped Americans value graffiti more than Chinese, but still only limitedly.

EXAS graffiti

How do you explain the name “EXAS” to your American friends. What is the meaning behind it?

EXAS is the breakdown of my Chinese tag, 灵丹. It’s like a jigsaw. I won’t explain the meaning if I’m not asked directly and I did not intentionally give it so much meaning. Whether your work is interesting or not is the most important. Because if it’s not, no matter how much meaning you give it, it doesn’t mean shit.

You once mentioned you admire those people who put up stickers, because their names are all over the city. You also make use of stickers once in a while when there is limited space on a wall. Are you still doing it in New York or it just doesn’t work there?

In New York, people try to get ahead by any means necessary. You can see tons of stickers, posters, tags, throw-ups and murals. It is always a struggle between you and the city, and you have to really strive for attention. Go big or go home, this is my belief in New York.

You designed a cover for one of Genjing’s 7’’, The Telescopes / Deadly Cradle Death split and have also expressed your love towards Purple Soul. Are you involved in the underground music scene or hip-hop culture? Have you ever cooperated with any musicians in New York?

I rarely have a chance to go to live gigs in New York, but I do spend quite a bit of time in record shops. I’d be very happy to do more designs for Genjing Records, and I’m looking forward to future opportunities.

Do you plan to come back to Beijing or just stay in New York after you graduate? How do you want to combine Chinese and American culture into your own style?

The future is unseen and full of possibilities for me. For now I’m also studying tattoo in New York which allows me to combine Asian and American culture and create something I feel is interesting.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Yeah, I want to recommend a movie to everyone, Big Trouble in Little China. American has not changed in the past a few decades, I mean it.

Grab a copy of the Deadly Cradle Death / The Telescopes split 7” from our shop and take home your own piece of EXAS’ work or check out his art, preferably right around dusk, when all the shop doors start coming down, in the streets of Beijing or New York.

EXAS graffiti