Under the cover of darkness and armed with a can of spray paint, Zhang Dali pedals his bicycle around the quiet Beijing streets with the intention of giving the city a new face — sometimes two or three.

For the last five years, this photographer, performance artist and painter has left his unique mark on the walls around Beijing. It is his mission to highlight the systematic demolition of the capital’s old city and, by default, put to the test the words of China’s most famous cadre.

One of the faces of graffiti artist Zhang Dali adorns as Beijing wall in protest at its pending demolition.

“There is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” according to Chairman Mao Zedong. “Proletarian literature and art are, . . . as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.”

There are a few words on just about everything in Mao’s “Little Red Book.” His pithy but ambiguous prose, melding Marxist dogma and “through the barrel of a gun” Confucianism, captivated a generation.

These days, for about $5 in the Beijing tourist market, you can buy your own copy. It’s a piece of history filled with a medley of contradictions that nevertheless offer insight into the restless giant of China — a giant in the midst of massive renovation.

Part of this nationwide effort is leaving areas of the Chinese capital in pieces as old buildings are scrapped to make way for new. “The general features of Chinese cities are becoming the same,” lamented rebel artist Zhang. His graffiti is the most visible statement against the Ministry of Construction’s wrecking crews and bulldozers.

“It is not simply the act of making land available for construction of a new building. This process is actually destroying the city’s memory and, in a sense, the memory of its people.”

Zhang has made his mark in Beijing by “tagging” buildings, some of which are slated for demolition. His signature is a facial profile with exaggerated lips and chin — appearing in either red or black and usually accompanied by “AK-47,” which Zhang refers to as his pen name.

When he has more time, Zhang actually carves his design into the wall, a method reminiscent of the original graffiti cut into the stone and plaster of buildings in ancient Rome.

“Tuya” is the Chinese equivalent of graffiti, and examples date from prehistory. The term refers to informal writing, and was commonly found on restaurant and wine-house walls during the Tang and Song dynasties.

However, Zhang derives his influence more from Western modes. “I got my inspiration from living in Italy,” he said when asked about the connection between his graffiti and its predecessors.

Black and red chalk were used to make the first scrawlings on the monuments of ancient Egypt, and so Zhang employs those colors as well.

“He is China’s Zorro,” said New York art critic Mathieu Borysevicz. “(Zhang’s) image is found in an environment where conformity rules, once through political ideology, but now in the global forces of market and fashion trends.”

Global economic forces are the prevailing winds in China these days. While the International Monetary Fund predicts that China’s economy will be the world’s largest by 2007, the International Olympic Committee is considering Beijing as host for the 2008 Games and foreign investors are scrambling to get a foot in the door.

The bulk of the money that has been pouring in for the last 20 years ends up as fixed investment in manufacturing equipment and buildings. In Beijing, this has translated into new assembly plants, shopping streets, hotels and office towers sprouting up in old neighborhoods, some of which contained homes and shops dating from the Qing and Ming dynasties.

Change is something to which China is no stranger. In the country’s tumultuous 5,000-year history, it has survived invasion, political upheaval and civil war many times over. The marked transformation of Beijing and the upheaval Zhang has witnessed have been the catalysts for his graffiti broadcasting a plea for the inevitable change to take an alternate direction.

China’s northeast province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia, is where the 38-year-old Zhang began life in 1963, the son of warplane factory workers. In 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, his family was sent to live for seven years in Jianxi Province, 2,000 km to the south.

“When I think of the Cultural Revolution, I associate it with violence, the red color, the monolithic idea of being a collective,” recalled Zhang. “I use AK-47 in my graffiti because it represents violence: in each corner of society, written on the face of the people and controlling their thoughts.”

In 1983, Zhang was accepted at the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing. In a rigorous environment, he studied traditional Chinese art and contemporary design and was also trained in serigraphy for prospective work in a publishing house. “We were forced to follow a precise pattern in lectures and in formal training, with no freedom at all,” he said.

When he graduated in 1987, Zhang set up what he describes as Beijing’s first art collectives with former classmates. But, shocked by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he left China to spend some time in Italy. He was allowed to leave the country only because he was married to an Italian, otherwise he would not have been able to obtain a passport.

Upon returning in 1995, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “For a while, I had this idea in my mind of making graffiti in Beijing, but there was no focus,” he explained. “When I saw the destruction occurring here and the effect it was having on the people, I knew I had to make my idea a reality.”

Zhang’s endeavor is no casual matter, especially in the capital. During the prodemocracy protests in 1989, three people lobbed black ink onto the giant portrait of Mao that looms above the entrance to the Forbidden City, his steely eyes ever surveying Tiananmen Square across the road. As far as officials were concerned, this was vandalism of the highest order. The perpetrators were sentenced to between 16 years and life imprisonment.

While Zhang’s graffiti is not as belligerent a statement against authoritarian rule, he is still putting paint in places where it is unwelcome. “Creating art is not against the law,” insisted Zhang. “I have had some scary experiences with the police, but I have had a lot of support from the artistic community and the community at large.”

And it is the community at large that is most affected. If the Ministry of Construction issues an order to demolish an area, tenants are forced to vacate.

“People can either move to another location arranged by the government,” explained Zhang, “or they can receive financial compensation and find another place to live on their own, which is usually with relatives.”

Like the buildings on which Zhang’s work is adorned, his canvases are being ripped up and lie broken amid the scattered remnants of the deconstructed: history removed.

This situation in Beijing reflects the opposite of the International Union of Architects’ Beijing Charter, presented by professor Wu Liang, at the 20th UIA Congress held in Beijing two years ago.

“On the aspect of urban settlement, factors such as planning, architectural design, historical preservation, adapted reuse of old buildings, urban rehabilitation, city renewal and reconstruction should be integrated into a dynamic circulation system,” states the charter.

When asked to elaborate on this point in regard to the current state of Beijing, neither Wu nor the Faculty of Architecture at Tsinghua University, where he teaches, had any comment.

Quite the contrary of Zhang, who is as critical of the government’s behavior as he is of those under the government’s thumb.

“I think my art shocks and maybe makes some angry, but hopefully it will make people use their brain,” he said. “The general public has been anesthetized by the propaganda machine, and because they have accepted submission for so long, it is difficult for them to think independently and actively fight for their rights.”

Zhang’s graffiti consistent identifiable, and nearly unique. Besides an advertisement for a plumber spray-painted beside one of Zhang’s faces, his work was the only graffiti I saw while visiting Beijing.

It cannot be compared to the elaborate designs, obscene drawings and scribbling that can be found in almost any other city. While Zhang’s work has a certain shock value, that is not its sole function. His graffiti serves as a reminder of the urban landscape’s fate before it disappears. It has a limited life span but, Zhang hopes, a less limited impact.

At a small gallery catering to tourists east of the Forbidden City works a 25-year-old named “Hopkin” because it is easier for foreign customers to pronounce. Dealing in art for art’s sake, he seemed surprised when I mentioned the faces.

“I know Zhang,” he said. “He is what you call a guerrilla artist.”

Whether or not Zhang’s statement is a strong enough cog in his revolutionary machine is anyone’s guess.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.