The Writing on the Walls

Shenzhen’s Dafen village, once the world’s painting factory, faces redevelopment as an “art park.” But what will happen to its artists?

From a distance, one could take Yang Ming for a teenager. About five-foot two, his skinny arms and legs in a white T-shirt and jeans, Yang’s left shoulder is permanently hunched because of a childhood injury, making it hard to distinguish his head from behind.

With his right hand, Yang raises a paintbrush, glancing from time to time at a picture on his phone, before resuming his reproduction of a Van Gogh masterpiece, “The Harvest.” The process is sometimes interrupted by tourists who wander into the alleyway to appraise his work. At his feet lies his border collie, Didu, while above them both hangs a portrait of the dog—lying on a grassy hill, rather than a ramshackle alley. It’s one of several original works he’s trying to sell nowadays.

Yang is a “wall painter” at Shenzhen’s Dafen village, one of around 500 in an area best known for making imitation oil paintings. According to official figures, about 8,000 people in total, including artists, frame-makers, agents, and apprentices, organized in a network of 1,200 galleries and 60 painting businesses, form a 20-year-old industry in Dafen worth an estimated 4.5 billion RMB. Painters like Yang are so called because most display their wares on the walls of the area’s alleyways, many of which have erected plastic awnings in case of rain. Sometimes five or six painters can be jammed into one alley, and pedestrians need to turn sideways to inch past.

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The Writing on the Walls is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


Phoebe Zhang is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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