‘Graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

RUAN CHIAO, Taiwan (AFP) – Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of colour.

Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production – a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.

Behind him an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colourful paintings.

“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old lamented, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters – including his own children – have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.

But paintings have started to bring young visitors – always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location – back.

“These drawings attracted many tourists to come visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beamed.

Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.

There are now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of its young.

Hakka graffiti artist Wu Tsun-hsien paints a wall in the village of Ruan Chiao. – AFP

Like many industrialised places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.

“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explained Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.

“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she told AFP, as an example.

Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.

“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger added.

Taiwan’s 23 million population is also rapidly ageing.

The birth rate has plummeted – only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.

The Wu family has experienced this flight first hand.

The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables.

But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.

Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explained their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.

“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan said.

But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.

“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalled, adding, “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”

Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.

It is the family home where he really gets to express himself – and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.

Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images.

He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.

Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.

The 25-year-old enthuses, “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”

She hopes other young people will explore the rural villages more often.