Interview on December 20 by LOOK & Hannah Lincoln (interpreter) at Ramo, Fangjia Hutong
KL: How long have you been doing stencil work?
SHUO: Since 2010. I was about 18. I am from Henan and was living in Beijing. I felt like I was more emotionally sensitive than most people and I didn’t really know a good channel to express my sensitivity so I started to get into stencilling around the city because I felt like the city had a lot of problems and that was the best way to express my frustrations. In China, because people don’t pay attention to the shit that’s around them, I know that when I do these things on the walls, of ten people, maybe one will pay attention. Even then, I feel that society is very cold and so there’s really no point but I like doing it so I do.
KL: What was the inspiration? Obviously someone like Banksy shares similar themes so what inspired you to share what you do?
SHUO: I got the inspiration by first walking down the street and seeing the environment and looking at the iPhones and thinking, What’s actually happening here? If there were people around how would they be interacting with it? It looks like they all want to catch one. Everyone wants an iPhone so they are all in a crowd like, Give me! Give me one! So I had my friends line up and I took a picture of them and then I just made it directly from the picture.
KL: How did you create the stencil?
SHUO: I printed out a huge image from A4 sheets of paper and taped them together them stencilled from that.
KL: A4! That’s hard work!
SHUO: That’s only because I didn’t have a big printer. There’s no other reason for that.
KL: Does China have a Kinkos equivalent to help out stencil artists?
SHUO: Yes, but it’s expensive. A4 is much cheaper.
KL: How important is humour? Obviously a lot of your work is very playful, an ice cream cone on a dog poo, is that something that’s really central to your art?
SHUO: I use humour because it makes things more interesting. Irony points things out in society that you might not have realized before. This is a subway ad. I hate subway ads because I really feel that they are pushing us to consume. The person behind it is pushing for profits and I think this is bullshit so I like to make fun of the whole system by drawing on them.
KL: Is this something you’ve always done? I remember my mother used to give us pens when I was a child and encouraged us to deface catalogues and magazines. Did you do that too?
SHUO: When I was a kid, I just thought it was more fun to draw beards on the girls and stuff like that. In my textbooks, that is.
KL: IS there inherent danger in doing graffiti work in China, especially using images of Xi Jinping. If you’re caught for that, it’s not just defacing public property but it could be perceived as a political statement.
SHUO: I’m not really afraid of the police catching me. And in terms of themes, this image is not directly expressing anything. If anyone asked me, I’d just say I’m having a little fun, I’m not criticising. I had the idea for this one because when Xi Jinping became president I never really paid attention to the news but it’s always playing in public areas so I’d see it when I was eating lunch or whatever. I noticed that there was always clips of him shaking hands with foreigners or important looking people from other places and I didn’t really know what else he did other than being super busy meeting people and shaking their hands. I did this line up of random people shaking his hand while he told them how busy he was.
KL: Do you still create many stencils?
SHUO: I do, as an amateur.
KL: What’s your opinion of the graffiti and stencil scene in Beijing?
SHUO: In terms of stencils, I think it’s still pretty immature in China. It’s something that’s so easy to do that anyone can do it so when people do it they just do it for fun and they don’t have very mature concepts about it. At least I haven’t witnessed much maturity. Since I’ve started noticing it over the last few years, I haven’t really noticed a mature scene develop or seen anything really impressive.
HL: Can you give us any examples? What does it mean to you to be mature or immature in this field?
SHUO: When I started out I was really immature. I’d do things like a picture of Osama Bin Laden with “LOVE, PEACE” written next to it. I was just copying Banksy or copying things that I’d seen overseas that I didn’t really get and had nothing to do with my life. Overtime I thought, If I haven’t something to express it’s gonna be in my own words and in my own context. It has to make sense to me as a Chinese person. So then I started to find my own way of expressing the tensions in my life in the context of China. This one is a good example. This is a QQ account where you can talk to the government – the official China account. You can log on and ask a question about taxes or something and they’ll reply and it’s supposed to be like, We’re open to talking to citizens! But I put the red virus alert next to it. It’s subtle rather than simple and foolish like “LOVE, PEACE.” It makes sense to me and it makes sense to Chinese people. This is an example of how my work has matured but I don’t see it much from other people.
KL: How political are you?
SHUO: Very little. The way I see it, it’s not like a political commentary and that’s how my generation sees it. It’s not like he sees the government as bad or doing something wrong it’s more because society is changing in this way therefore we don’t have time to stop and think about the consequences. For instance that website, http:china.com, it’s not China – our government, it’s China – our society. The reason it’s on this wall is because it’s something that’s getting destroyed and being removed. Where I grew up in Henan, I mean it’s happening a lot, it happens all over China, basically what happened was things got destroyed and they said, Oh but we’re gonna give you a nice house outside the city. Then they move you outside the city and it’s kind of a bullshit place to live and then, all of a sudden, there are advertising billboards everywhere that say, You can by housing for a thousand kuai per square metre! And it just leaves me feeling, What has happened to my city?
HL: What exactly is missing that was there before?
SHUO: I don’t feel like we had culture when I was a kid. I don’t know what Chinese culture is but I know it’s not this. And I know that, the more commercial we become, the further we move from what we should be.
KL: Obviously you have a sophisticated worldview and an idea of how to use art as a personal statement. Where does that come from? Is it taught or innate?
SHUO: I dropped out of school in middle school and I was spending a lot of time walking around because I had nothing to do and I noticed that there were cars everywhere and there weren’t when I was a kid. And the cars were always parking in the biking lane and the cyclists were always riding on the sidewalk and I just felt like society was getting so messy. So, it was from those moments when I felt I needed a way to express this and I knew I can start drawing in these public areas where I’m feeling this dissatisfaction, this is natural where I should express this. At the same time I started going to art and design school, a specific training school, so I didn’t take the gaokao [university entrance exam]. I went there for a few years in my home county and then I came to Bejing when I was 19 and did one more year of training here before graduating and doing animation.
KL: So you work as an animator?
KL: I’m really impressed. Seeing the world as you do usually takes some kind of guidance or education but you have come to it very naturally.
SHUO: Because of some things that happened in my childhood with my family were kind of unusual compared with most families so I think I from a young age I was forced to see that things aren’t always conventional. That unexpected things happen so I think from young I was trained to look at all sides of a situation and be more of a critical thinker. There is this phenomenon in China called fenqing 愤青 [angry or cynical youth] which was very popular in the early 2000s and it’s still a label that exists now. I pretty much had a very short stage of that because I couldn’t be just simply angry all the time because I knew that being angry wasn’t… it was too simple just to be an angry youth. Perhaps this is why I use humour so much because I was angry for a short time as a teenager but I very quickly realised that being angry wasn’t enough. To be able to express different emotions and different sides of a situation just showed more sophistication.
HL: Again, can I ask for some examples?
SHUO: This is a love heart I made of pubic hair. It was in Guomao. There was no particular reason, I just thought it would be funny to frame it and put it up and know that everyone is walking by not noticing it at all. And then eventually someone will take it down and notice what it is. I wrote on there what it was in very small letters. After a month, I went by and it was gone and I thought, Haha!
SHUO: Me and my friends were hanging out and we put this extension cord down so we could plug in our mobile phones and play on our phones and we were doing it and I looked up and said, It looks like we are attached to an IV drip and it’s powering us up. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to mix those ideas and paint them. So this is an example of my more mature, or just better, more thoughtful art that is just stuff that I see immediately around me that could be made ironic instead of the earlier cruder stuff.
KL: This [points at collection of drawings] is Fritz the Cat. The guy who made this [Ralph Bakshi] made lots of adult cartoons with socio-political themes. My question is, as an animator, do you aspire to produce something like this?
SHUO: I don’t think it has really influenced me. It’s just something interesting I’ve seen. It’s so foreign to me, it’s the 70s in the US and I recognised that the pigs are the police and the crows are black people but for me it’s just too foreign. I enjoy playing with it but I prefer to do 3D animation and when I do this kind of drawings I like to do everyday life and keep them simplistic.
KL: As far as this series, the paste up sticker art, explain it to me.
SHUO: It’s just for fun. Me and my friends got drunk and I took pictures of them doing strange poses and I just did it for fun. And this one was an idea I had that was a hip hop pose but looking really stupid. I gave him a triple chin and he just looks like a dork.
KL: Is SHUO an artist’s pseudonym and this little creature here your tag? How do you want to be described on Loreli? Do you have a Banksy-esque moniker or is this just your name?
SHUO: My name is Wang Shuo but I do the pinyin rather than a Chinese character to emphasize the other meanings of shuo. You know in Chinese, shuo means to say? It doesn’t directly mean that but I like that it reflects that my work reflects what I have to say. Like logo-ising my name. When I was in middle school I liked to doodle so I’d draw this bandit dog and I think it’s something that represents me. It doesn’t have a deeper meaning, I’m willing to change it but I feel comfortable with it.
KL: How often do you sign your art?
SHUO: I’ve never signed my work before because I didn’t want it to influence what I’d draw. I wanted it to be pure. But when I see things that people have drawn he wants to know who’s done it so I’ll probably start signing things now to leave a bit of a legacy.
KL: So being on Loreli will be the first time you’ve taken ownership of your art?
HL: If you’re premiering yourself on our site, how do you want to be portrayed?
SHUO: I’ve no idea because I’ve never done anything public and I’ve never gotten feedback on anything, I’ve just been doing it so it’s up to you guys.
KL: How important is community as far being an artist? Do you work as part of a community or do you work alone?
SHUO: I don’t really have an art community because I don’t really consider myself an artist. I just do these things when I feel like it. Young Chinese people and Chinese culture in general has a culture of labelling things and, as soon as something’s labelled, you don’t want to be associated with it. Certain labels, as soon as they came out, people said, I’m not that. Like in the West you have hipsters. I’m very hesitant to use this term “artist” to describe myself because one, I’m not a professional and two, why would I give myself a label like that? I’m just me.
KL: I noticed with the photography you quite often like to juxtapose two images to tell a story. By putting two photos together it creates a narrative. What’s the inspiration for that?
SHUO: Look at these. I took these over four days. This is a process I was just photographing a friend, and at first they thought, This is cool, I don’t know what you’re doing. But then they started to get pissed off. And then they were like, What the fuck? And on the last day they just didn’t come. Yeah, it’s just to express a story, I didn’t get the idea from anyone in particular I just realised that I could tell a story with two or more pictures.
KL: It’s very effective. I do have to go back to what we talked about before because, of course, on Loreli we do label people. We have their name and what they do. So we need to decide what to write there.
SHUO: You can call me an artist.
KL: Artist, photographer?
SHUO: Just call me an artist because I’m not a photographer. I just take pictures with my phone so I’d feel weird being called a photographer. I don’t want to be known as a graffiti artist, just an artist because I use a lot of different mediums. In terms of graffiti, it’s great because it’s cheap and I don’t do anything with it after. It’s not like I have to go buy canvasses or craft something. It’s just free canvas so I paint on it and move along. I’m not especially attached to one form of art. I’m just doing what makes sense.
KL: You say you do this unprofessionally and part-time, how often do you do it?
SHUO: Three to five times a year I’ll do a stencil or graffiti.
KL: And the other artwork?
SHUO: Because I use so many mediums, I can’t really count what I do the most. I do the stencilling the least actually because it takes effort but in terms of this kind of stuff, I’ll be drawing all the time in my notebooks and stuff. I was born in 1992 and I just started working recently so there is pressure, I don’t really have a lot of money and free time so I’m kinda hustling at work. I don’t make the time to go out and stencil but I have pages and pages of ideas. It’s like I have an order sheet that I’ve made with all of these ideas and when I’m more stable, money-wise and time-wise I do plan to go out. There’s a tension in my life. A lot of my ideas come from the complicated fast pace of a big city life but at the same time I know that, because of the complicated fast pace of big city life, people won’t notice my artwork. For instance this phone booth, I think that it’s really cute and really appropriate for the big city but, at the same time, no one is going to notice it.
HL: Will that prevent you from doing it?
SHUO: No, that’s just the nature of it.
KL: So many of the artists that I’ve met create art compulsively. Could you ever stop?
SHUO: Yes I have the compulsion. I’ll never stop, it’s part of my life. I have this problem that every time I take a picture of what I’ve done and put it online, everyone that comments just writes: Banksy. Just the word: Banksy. And I’m like, Dude, it took me ages thinking of the idea, I’ve finally had time to go paint it, can you not appreciate it?
HL: I read an article by Ai Wei Wei from a few years ago. He said he sells his artwork but people don’t even know how to appreciate it.
SHUO: This is definitely a big problem in China, they see it and say, Oh Banksy. They don’t even care what it’s about and that he did it. If people paid attention they’d notice that this has nothing to do with Banksy. All this stuff I’m expressing couldn’t possibly be in another country. In the south, closer to Hong Kong, where it’s a little bit more developed in terms of international cultures, people are a little more open-minded about it. They don’t jump to conclusions. But in Beijing people are so unaware.
KL: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
SHUO: I plan to print these ones out really big and paste them up around the city but in China, if they recognise that something has meaning, it will get destroyed so I always take pictures and put them on my portfolio online. [See link below]
Please note: This interview took place in Chinese with answers for SHUO translated and paraphrased by Hannah Lincoln and Kerryn Leitch. For the original Chinese audio please feel free to contact Loreli at: email@example.com