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Interview with Graffiti Artist Chen Dongfan

Last Updated on 2021/10/25

Chen Dongfan is an artist born in Zibo, Shandong province, now living in New York.

He obtained his B.F.A. in Experimental Art from the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. He has been actively participated in various public art projects and created large-scale space paintings in New York, Hangzhou (China), Turin (Italy), and Athens (Greece). As well he has exposed his work in art gallery shows and exhibitions. Chen Dongfan won a competition to paint a giant mural ( 4800 square foot) in Chinatown’s Doyers Street: “The Song of Dragon and Flowers” where viewers could interact and be involved with the painting.

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China-Underground: What motivated you to become an artist, how did you start your artistic career?

Dongfan Chen: There’s a Chinese proverb that says “At three seeming grown, at seven seeming old”. For me it really makes sense. If I think back, what made me become an artist probably came from when I was young and my father would hang my pictures on the wall. Those were I guess my first exhibitions. Someone only needed come visit and my father would proudly make his statement. After that, whether it was a holiday or an older relativeʼs birthday, I would always take it upon myself to think of the length of what to paint by way of a present ―- I realized that what I was best at wasnʼt only fun for me; it could also move those around me. This compelled me from an early age to hone my skills and seek a way to create art freely.


What does art represent for you? What is your artistic philosophy? What do you want to tell with your artworks?

Art is my way of being with the world; it represents everything and is my everyday.

I like things that are positive, aspirational, and happy; art that is pragmatic, pure, and vivacious. There isnʼt really anything I want to express through the work. In the making process, I do my utmost to get close to something real and lasting. Although itʼs but an instant in time, still, to be able to bask in that strange and sacred aura makes all the labor worthwhile.


What are your sources of inspiration?

Everything in everyday life can become a source of inspiration for me. Music, movies, reading, travel – all these enrich my life.


Are there any of your works related to a significant moment in your life?

Every stage in life is important. It will also never be repeated. In my 2017 solo exhibition in Hangzhou “Heated Bloom” there was one work, a large painted installation piece showing a reclining figure, a bouquet of flowers at their breast, flowers which from their blooming at the start of the exhibition had withered by its end. The title, “Heated Bloom”, comes from my fatherʼs catch-phrase in Chinese “Duan-lian”(to toughen, temper; work out, hone OR: train ones skills). He died from cancer a year ago and itʼs still hard for me to come to terms with. Before the exhibition, I covered the gallery facade in colored eyes. I hope that in the different stages of our lives, the warmth of gazes gone by never extinguishes and dissipates.


Can you tell us about your massive mural artwork in Chinatown? How does the idea come to life?

Doyers Street is the oldest and most notorious street in Chinatown and is the earliest place to have been referred to as that. More than a century ago, faced with unfair regulations on Chinese immigrants, the Chinese community fragmented and rose into various factions, conflict, and bloodsheds between those whom continued unabated. Although the street itself isnʼt that long, there are numerous twists and turns, corners where the armed factions would lie in wait to ambush their opponents. The street once had the highest murder rate in the whole of the United States and it is said the areaʼs business owners had to wash the streets outside their shopfronts clean of blood each morning. Doyers Street was referred to as the “Bloody Angle” and even today is infamous in its Hollywood portrayals.

Making a painting on Doyers Street was something no one had ever done before. Whether one thinks of the area as a cultural backdrop or the topography of the street itself, for me a dragon seemed the image most apt for the purpose. I wouldnʼt however go and paint a figurative Chinese dragon but rather sought to preserve its “Qi”, the vital rhythms and spirit, combining this with floral emblems, something of love and peace, the abstract and the Pop. It was as if a dragon had ensconced itself, stretching from one end of Doyers street to the other. By realizing this public art project, I hoped to contribute something to my community and get more people to take notice of Chinese immigrant culture and its history, the injustices of the past, and the peaceful shiftings of the present. Art can break the barriers between cultures, whilst at the same time touching the hearts and minds of the people.

This was a project supported by the New York Cityʼs Department of Transport (NYC DOT) in conjunction with the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. My proposal was received by ArtBridge with the support of Fou Gallery to be ultimately passed unanimously by a committee of judges and then realized without hitch in July.

答:Doyers st是纽约中国城最古老的传奇街道,是最早的唐人街。一百多年前,由于针对华人不平等的移民政策,致使华人帮派林立,帮派之间争斗流血事件不断。这条街道虽然不长,但有好几个转角,帮派埋伏在拐角处,手持斧头等候袭击敌手。这条街道曾是全美凶杀案发频率最高的街道,传说商家早上不得不清洗街道地面上的血迹。Doyers st被称为血腥之角(Bloody Angle,至今在好莱坞大片中,Doyers st也是恶名昭著。

要在Doyers St上画画是前无古人的,无论是文化的背景还是街道的形态上,我认为龙是最合适不过的意象。但我不会去描绘具象的中国龙,而是保留中国龙的气韵和精神,再与花的象征相结合,爱与和平,抽象而波谱。从街头到巷尾,宛如一条盘踞的长龙。我希望通过实现这个公共艺术项目,为自己的族群做一点事,让更多的人来关注华人移民文化的历史,过去的不公平待遇和现在的和平变化。艺术可以打破文化的隔阂,并感动人心。

这是纽约市交通局(NYC DOT)联合华埠共同发展机构(Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation)公开征集的公共艺术项目,我在ArtBridge和否画廊的协助下递交了提案,最终评委全票通过,于七月顺利实施。

Graffiti Artist Chen Dongfan
Where is the happiness 幸福在哪⾥里里
©Chen Dongfan 陈栋帆
Hangzhou, China 2011
10000 sq.ft.
With the process of urbanization in China, and the gentrification of communities brought by high end residential, what is the position of the indigenous community culture? To properly renovate the villages at this transitional phase, the government was actively seeking creative solutions and practicing experimental policies. To this respect, the Hangzhou grassroots government invited artist Chen Dongfan to participate in the renovation of the street. His public art project consisted of four murals, each on one building, respectively named after the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, depicting the life of living and working in peace and contentment. They also symbolized the search for “what is a happy life”.

How long did it take to complete the whole project? What are the main difficulties you encountered?

I was painting for a total of eight days. However, each day I had to work eight hours, hunched over in the hot sun, hence exhaustion was a problem. I improvised on-site and there was no draft to speak of, a little like action painting. For this reason, my mental state and responses in situ were both vital, but also open to influence from ambient distractions. There was a lot it was impossible to control in the making process. This made the whole thing an adventure as anxiety-ridden as it was invigorating. There was one-time Iʼd been standing with my paintbrush at a corner when dazzled, I felt time and space somehow slip. From the glinting of blades, shadows, the ground awash with blood, to today and the whole street artwork in multicolored splendor. I suddenly felt very movedthis is New York!


Graffiti Artist Chen Dongfan
Uncertain 忐忑
©Chen Dongfan 陈栋帆
Hangzhou, China 2010
This old block locates in the bustling city center of Hangzhou, and the local government invited artist Chen Dongfan to participate in its street renovation. Chen applied the theme of “love, happiness, and sharing” to paint colorful murals on the two buildings at each end of the street, echoing one another. The murals stood like mirages in the city, illustrated an innocent fairy tale with figurative and abstract forms such as starry sky, mermaid, sleeping cat, fireworks, and playing children. This was the first urban mural in Hangzhou that has been widely discussed and well known through social media, television, newspapers, and radio.

During the creation of your artwork in Chinatown, you were close to the Chinese-American activities. What are the main differences you’ve seen between them and the Chinese in the mainland?

Everyone was so enthusiastic, many brought their kids especially to see my piece. Now Iʼve moved to the LES trayʼve all become my neighbors.

Nothingʼs different, but Chinese abroad have a greater sense of cultural identity; they have a strong appreciation of how their community has progressed and prospered.


Graffiti Artist Chen Dongfan
Fairy Tale 童话
©Chen Dongfan 陈栋帆
Hangzhou, China 2009

Living in America has changed your way of seeing the world and making art?您在美国生活的经验有没有影响到您的世界观以及艺术实践?

Living in New York may have enriched my experience of life but it hasn’t impacted my worldview. My artistic practice will not change because of the city. Life in New York is both heaven and hell and my lifestyle here has been altered dramatically. The biggest thing Iʼve gained is a settled life and inner calm― I know this is unbelievable but thatʼs really the way it is.


Can you share with us any story behind your art project?

Taking the bus with my wife, two elegant blonde ladies said hi to me, a mother and daughter. Theyʼd dressed up specially that day and come from the upper east side by bus to visit Chinatown and see my work. It turned out it was the Motherʼs eightieth birthday. Sheʼd learned about my work from an article in the New York Times. Going specially to see my wok had been her eightieth birthday present to herself.


What is your experience as an artist in the era of social media? Do you think the benefits are more for the artist or for the users?

When it comes to public art projects, social media is a really good reference tool. It’s are a great means of documenting peopleʼs interactions with the work and broadcasting this to the outside.

It was because of the rise of Wei Bo (the Chinese blog site) that my 2010 public art project came to be widely known. It was amusing when a friend told me excitedly that I was once of most searched topics on the site, even though I didnʼt actually own an account. Last yearʼs project was also photographed by many visitors who uploaded the images onto Instagram. Instagram is a social media platform on which users mainly share images. Iʼve seen a great number of very creative things there. I was very excited to see the way these works functioned to instigate public participation in the piece and I plan to make a collection of all the images from social media and produce a small publication about the recreation of my work on social media.



Graffiti Artist Chen Dongfan
©Chen Dongfan 陈栋帆
Chen Dongfan Studio 2018

Can you share with us some information about your upcoming projects?

This year I started making one small artistʼs book a week, each on average around 20 pages. By the end of the year there will be a total of fifty two volumes. Right now Iʼm up to number twenty nine.


Photo courtesy of Chen Dongfan
Special thanks to Fou Gallery

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