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The Scene caught up with artist Zhang Dali to talk art, graffiti and Beijing past and present...
The Scene: What was it like for you in Beijing as a young man?
Zhang Dali: I liked Beijing a lot then because it was cultural, but now it's hard to say because Beijing has changed so much. Maybe there are new Beijingers, a new Beijing forming. Twenty years ago people were living a very slow lifestyle; it's very hard for me to tell what's going to happen in 20 years.
TS: What are the people of Beijing like?
ZD: There were real Beijing people 20 years ago, but now there are no real Beijingers because people are coming from all around the world to Beijing.
TS: What inspires you? What makes you want to create graffiti?
ZD: After my graduation it was very difficult for me financially so I couldn't hide in the studio dreaming about things. I wanted to change reality into art, the things near me into art.
TS: How did you first come across graffiti art? How did it affect you?
ZD: It came from Western countries at first. I learned from Paris and from elsewhere; I did graffiti for a few years. As an artist I thought I should create something outside of the studio, and graffiti was fast and powerful. The technical advantage is that it's fast. But I'm not an artist who has a chosen medium because there's other stuff too. I use it because it's fast.
TS: Why AK-47? Why have you chosen that as your tag?
ZD: It comes from a gang's name. I use this to stand for the violence. This sort of violence doesn't just mean one person hits another person.
TS: When you first started making graffiti, it was very new to Beijing. How did people react?
ZD: At first people didn't accept it at all because before me nobody did it specifically, so people were surprised and astonished by it, like maybe it's some kind of destructive thing.
TS: How do people react to it now?
ZD: People are starting to accept it now because there are many reports about an artist doing graffiti on the walls, and the police began to stop looking at me so closely so I find it's not that exciting anymore.
TS: Are there a lot of risks involved? What problems did you have with the authorities when you first started?
ZD: Many years ago the police would try to find me and not allow me to do the graffiti. I painted it for 2 years and nobody knew, but one day the police suddenly came to my house and asked "Is that painted by you?" and I said "no," I denied it. They said, "Who do you think we are? We know everything," and then I said yes. They wanted to know what the graffiti was for, was it anti-government, was it an organization or group that did it. That was in 1997; that was the worst time.
TS: What do you hope people will get out of seeing your graffiti? What do you hope to accomplish?
ZD: People in our country, as a nationality we don't express ourselves a lot. This painting is called "Dialogue." When people look at it I want them to think, "what happened here?" I want them to express themselves more freely.
TS: How do you choose a location, the spot where you'll do all your graffiti art?
ZD: I usually choose the walls of the places that are going to be torn down sooner or later. I just paint and I think of the wall as a screen of Beijing. You can see the change through that.
TS: How is the graffiti artist in China different from graffiti artists elsewhere?
ZD: Graffiti artists who are not painting where there's destruction, in Western countries like Paris, once they paint graffiti, once they finish, it becomes an art piece. As for me I'm just trying to express my thoughts. I use the photograph to record the working process.
TS: Now you've pioneered it, are there any artists who have followed you?
ZD: Actually it's very few people. At first I thought people would follow me but not as many did as I hoped.
TS: Do you consider yourself anti-authoritarian, a rebel?
ZD: I think I belong to the artists who raise questions, but do not solve them.
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