How Brick Lane’s graffiti scene became an explosive political battleground

If you’re a street art fan, you’ll be no stranger to Brick Lane. Its walls are an ever-changing gallery of graffiti and murals from artists all over the world, painting everything from giant foxes to sumo wrestlers to Bart Simpson. But the latest addition to this technicolour line-up is more controversial than most. 

Overnight, a wall was painted white and sprayed with red Chinese characters bearing political slogans extolling the socialist values of current leader President Xi Jinping: prosperity, democracy, civilisation, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, friendliness, as Twitter user Yaling Jiang explained. 

It’s the kind of sight that’s familiar to Chinese locals, but its arrival in east London feels a bit more mysterious. Is it a statement in favour of the Chinese government? Or an ironic comment on state propaganda?

Soon after the wall was painted this weekend, people scrawled protests onto it against its political message, with references to the Tiananmen Square massacre, and slogans including ‘fuck communism’, ‘Free Uyghur’ and ‘Free Tibet’. Posters online also complained that it was covering up other, older artworks, including a tribute to the late street artist Marty. 

Its creators seem to be a group of Chinese art students, who are being pretty ambiguous about their intentions in the work. 

In an Instagram post, artist Wang Hanzheng claimed that the graffiti wasn’t political in intent, while also suggesting that it was a critique of the ‘false freedom’ of the West. But many were understandably sceptical of this stance: comments on the post are now turned off, after people pointed out that anyone attempting to graffiti pro-democracy slogans in China would likely quickly be arrested.

Now, the art that attracted so much controversy online has vanished. Tower Hamlets council responded to the controversy by whitewashing the wall. But it feels like an only temporary stalemate in this unexpected political battleground. 

Did you see that apparently, London is the best place in Europe for street art?

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