At its peak, Dafen was jam-packed with sizeable, factory-like studios, all employing Huang’s production line process. Individual workers each focused on a specific compositional element—background details, or eyes, or trees—dutifully painting their part and then passing the canvas along the chain.
In the mid-2000s, Dafen’s copy industry was booming. It was at this point that auxiliary commercial avenues began to take root in the village. Quaint cafes, as well as more accessible “gallery shops” (predominantly fronts for anonymous art workers and addresses from which to tout for business both wholesale and retail) lent the village lucrative tourist appeal.
By the decade’s end, Dafen was well and truly on Shenzhen’s map, its success story absorbed into the city’s broader narrative. To that end, at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, Shenzhen’s Urban Best Practice pavilion featured a mosaic of 999 panels painted by more than 500 art workers to recreate what was dubbed the Dafen Lisa.
Around the same time, Dafen began to see a dip in international demand, which—combined with rising property costs, plus China’s broader aspirations with regard to soft power—has resulted in complex, and sometimes conflicted, development. Throw into the mix the spending power and growing taste for art of China’s expanding middle class, and several distinct drivers soon emerge.
By far the loftiest ambition of the various players currently invested in Dafen is for the village to become an authentic creative hub, and above all a place for original art and culture.
Today, this branching of paths—from copy art, to original art, to shining national example—feels tangled. Case in point: During my stay, I was corrected and chided for referring to copyists as artists, or yì shù jiā in Chinese. They’re huà jiā, painters or art workers, and the difference in social hierarchy is made extremely apparent.