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I Paint, Therefore I Am—Graffiti Artist DEBE

Graffiti artist DEBE (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Graffiti artist DEBE (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

DEBE faces a wall on a street in Long Beach, California, pointing a can of spray paint at it. A graffiti artist from Taiwan, he was invited to participate in the annual street art festival POW! WOW! Long Beach, which sees some two dozen walls across the city decorated by artists from around the world.

 

With the sun beating down and the temperature hitting 30°C, DEBE has to use one hand to shade himself with an umbrella as he works. He has been painting this wall for almost a week now, adding layer after layer of geometric forms, even interspersing a few patterns commonly found on early Taiwanese houses to add some Taiwanese flavor.

Once he completes the piece, DEBE takes a cool photo with the end product in his trademark gas mask. He has become accustomed to wearing the mask while painting to protect himself from the chemicals in the spray paint. Meanwhile, old favorite songs blare from his phone. For his work in Long Beach, DEBE has chosen a Mandarin classic, Pauline Lan’s 1985 pop song “Romantic 20.” As a lover of older songs, particularly Japanese ones, putting on such tracks is a must for DEBE whenever he gets to work on a graffiti piece because they give him added inspiration.

Hidden in the corners

DEBE has never revealed his face to the public. Whether on his website, Facebook, or Instagram, he is always either wearing his gas mask or covering his face with a face mask. Tall and thin, DEBE projects an air of melancholy. His paintings are much like the man himself, with a cold but spectacular style marked by abstract geo­metry, mandalas, and crystals.

Throughout our interview, he remains unwilling to share his real name. Explaining the mysteriousness, DEBE says, “Most graffiti artists don’t use their real names.” Every graffiti artist uses a pseudonym, becoming another person like controlling an avatar in a video game, the real person always hidden on the other side of the screen.

In the course of the interview DEBE never hands over a business card, keeping low-key: “Sorry, I don’t have a card.” Most of his communication with others is through the Internet, which is where the big companies he has worked with, like Adidas, Reebok, and Facebook, have seen his work. The powerful style of his paintings serves as his real calling card.

A natural talent

DEBE has always been into graffiti. In senior high, he joined the street dance club, and under the guidance of the older students, ended up getting into hip-hop culture. “Hip-hop culture is built around four elements: breaking, MCing, graffiti, and DJing.” One stimulating night around 2004, DEBE was taken to a secluded underpass by those older students, and together the group of young people set to painting graffiti. His first impression was, “Damn, how is it so hard to spray paint?” DEBE bursts out laughing as he recalls the moment.

Despite the difficulty of spray painting, though, graffiti remains appealing to many young people. “You can feel how fast the paint is spraying, not like watercolor or pens, where you have to slowly work across a surface.” Using spray paint for graffiti means, thanks to the paint being spit across the wall at high pressure, that a whole piece takes shape very quickly. “This painting thing gives me a real sense of accomplish­ment, being able to more or less paint what’s in my imagination.”

In senior high DEBE was in the information processing section, studying accounting and statistics. It didn’t involve the least bit of cre­ativ­ity, so he was bored in class every day, and spent most of his time sleeping. After getting into graffiti, his creative world suddenly opened up, and he started constantly running around town practicing his graffiti writing. “The main thing was trying to find ways to make my own name look cooler when I wrote it.” In graffiti culture, the more a person’s “tag” (name) or graffiti appears around town, the higher their status in the culture in that place. “It’s a bit like a dog peeing to mark its territory—it’s a way of saying ‘I’ve been here.’”

From rebellion to meditation

When he started out in graffiti, DEBE never worked a job for more than two months, getting restless after that amount of time. Once a cynical, angry youth who would take to the streets and buck against the system, he started meditating and learned to collect himself, leading to a change in mindset.

Naturally attuned to art, DEBE became more of a thinker, constantly observing the world and drawing inspiration from it. Since moving to a more artistic approach, he has had many opportunities for commercial collaborations, expanding from graffiti into a broader range of artistic creation.

Who defines the urban aesthetic?

In the past, before there was specific legislation to regulate graffiti, DEBE had a run-in with the law. ­Anxious about an exhibition they needed to prepare for in Xi­men­ding, Taipei, for the Taiwan Alliance for Advancement of Youth Rights and Welfare, and unable to sleep, DEBE and his friends took to the streets to throw up some art. However, their work was un­expectedly interrupted around midnight when a police officer happened upon them. This being before the authorities in Taipei City began levying fines for graffiti under the Waste Disposal Act, the police spent the whole night trying to find out who owned the wall that DEBE and company had been working on.

Graffiti has always been something people have thought of as “defacing the city” and being on the line between legal and illegal, but who is it that decides what the city should look like? Who has the right to decide whether a space is “beautiful” or “ugly”? This is, as DEBE remarks, a major question the graffiti world often puts forward.

To those who subscribe to the “broken windows” ­theory, the more graffiti that appears in a city, the further it means that city has fallen. The stereotype most people have of graffiti is of closed-down stores covered in massive graffiti, an indicator of economic decline or a slide into lawlessness and chaos. But DEBE offers a different perspective: “The way I see it, the more graffiti a city has, the more alive it is.” Look at Long Beach. The city has invited several artists to come and paint the city, creating some 70-plus huge pieces of graffiti that have become public art. Their work has received the support of the city government and local businesses, creating rich, creative spaces that have also become popular spots on social media.

In terms of public art, DEBE believes that the current generation enjoys something much more diverse and engaging than the preceding one. “To the previous generation of Taiwanese, prosperity was money, but to my generation it’s ideas.” He may not be an eloquent speaker, but with his colors and art, DEBE is able to communicate ideas that go beyond language.