The reproduction oil painting neighborhood of Dafen, in the boom city of Shenzhen, China (this history is covered in part 1), posed an interesting question: What do you do in a boom city when its artist district, as it has organically formed, produces art that the art world sneers at? Since 1979, Shenzhen has gone from a collection of villages numbering about 50,000 residents to a megalopolis of more than 15 million people. It’s the most prosperous city in China: There are shopping malls where the only thing I could afford was a cup of Starbucks coffee and where everything else was Hermes and Bottega Venetta and $400 pants.
The much more workaday neighborhood of Dafen became the urban village where thousands of oil painters churned out reproductions and made-to-order canvasses—with varying degrees of technical chops, from ham-handed to dazzling. The best at it are downright nasty, and some of them will even set up shop streetside, working simultaneously on three different paintings in three totally different styles, just to show off a bit. Nobody is saying that the art they are pumping out is ready for the Whitney (unless some Western artist is hiring out their services to create cynical work under the Westerner’s name) but many of these same skilled artists are making personal work on the side, and they’re making a living with their skills, and that’s no small victory.
In 2005, the design firm of Urbanus, located in the bougie OCT area of Shenzhen, the local place to go for cappuccino, unaffordable women, and design shops, began work on the Dafen Art Museum in order to bring a measure of possibility and seriousness to the art going on in tight streets of the still very working class neighborhood. A very important piece of the museum was its big public courtyard, preserving some open space that gives neighborhood kids a place to skateboard and run around, and in the evening, for dorky couples to dance to goshawful pop music played at deafening volume.
The three-level museum would have a bottom level geared towards showing the personal work of Dafen’s best artists, and, unusual for a museum, would also function as a place to sell it. The middle level would be a regular white-box gallery for showing whatever. And the top would be a public roof garden with large walls made to be painted with murals by the greatest artists in the entire world ever. (So of course I got an invite.)
There were a bunch of us: Alexandros Vasmoulakis and Woozy, both from Greece; Hitnes and Run from Italy; Faith 47 from South Africa; ECB from Germany; Shok from the UK; Toast from Switzerland; The Bogside Artists from Northern Ireland, and several others from China and beyond. We were all featured in the Kiriakos Iosifides book Mural Art, and that’s how we all came to the attention of the curatorial team, which strangely was Urbanus, the same firm that designed the building. The Dafen Art Museum didn’t appear to have any staff. The middle, white-box gallery, was empty. But everyone got to work on their wall, even though the heat was overpowering—work was nearly impossible from 9:00am to 4:30pm most days.
So as an artist, the whole idea of being flown over to paint a mural at a museum in a neighborhood like this was just too weird to pass up. But while the source that brought us artists together was a book of mural art, most of us all have backgrounds in graffiti. The ones who don’t, like the Bogside Artists of Derry in Northern Ireland, have backgrounds in very politically-rooted art. China isn’t exactly known as a place that’s cool with either graffiti or political art, and meeting Chinese versions of graffiti writers was telling: also on the mural project was a group of (dreadlocked) graffiti writers from neighboring Hong Kong, decked out in matching outfits, with bells jingling as they walked. What graffiti writer wears bells, honestly? In China, such bad boys don’t move in silence.
Still, the aesthetic, if not the spirit, of our work seemed to interest the curatorial team, and for architects, they were reasonably open to improvisation. Strangely enough, what the curators seemed to like best of mine were some of my more elaborate graffiti pieces, based in lettering. Even with the global rush of interest in all things street, museums especially never want name-based pieces—they want what graffiti writers supposedly “evolve” into once they drop their name as a focal point of their images. So I gave ‘em what they wanted, though in the end, changes were made to the work I did, under a very soft threat of the entire thing being removed. While I seemed to be the only artist painting a version of a graffiti piece, many of the other artists had similar experiences with the bizarre unseen hand that seemed to be hovering over the creative process.
So I left feeling conflicted. On one hand, the Museum and its program will do great things for the local neighborhood and help to guide at least part of it into the rest of the creative art world. If nothing else, that plaza gives kids a place to run around like nuts, and it gives the museum a sense of monument and respectability. But on the other hand, the experience didn’t leave me positive that creativity—as the rest of the world knows it—is really what that bizarre unseen hand is really after.