The ‘Dafen Impression’ of Assembly Line Oil Painting Replicas is Outdated – In Search of Original Artists in Dafen Oil Painting Village

In Shenzhen’s bustling landscape lies a small yet renowned urban village known as Dafen Oil Painting Village, located in the Buji Subdistrict of Longgang District. Around 2005, 70% of the oil painting products in the European and American markets originated from China, with 80% of these coming from Dafen. This village has been featured multiple times in global media including The New York Times, BBC, Financial Times, Sky News, and Japan’s NHK.

In 2016, the documentary “China’s Van Gogh” premiered, filmed in Dafen Village. It drew parallels between the village’s humble artists, meticulously replicating Van Gogh’s paintings, and the legendary artist himself. But what changes have occurred over the years? In 2023, on the 170th anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth, journalists visited the village to explore its transformation and meet those who, like Van Gogh, always look up to the stars.

Deng Jiajie, a member of the China Artists Association and the Guangdong Provincial Artists Association, grew up in the countryside, with nature’s vast landscapes shaping his childhood memories and artistic inspiration. Arriving in Dafen in 1995 from his hometown in Yangjiang, Deng initially worked on replication orders before opening his own gallery. He describes his early years in Dafen, filled with business dealings and occasionally modifying others’ paintings, a period that lasted until 2013.

Driven by his passion for painting, Deng severed all business ties related to painting in 2013, returning to his true artistic path. Despite the doubts and loneliness he faced, Deng persevered, often traveling alone for plein air painting. His efforts have led to multiple awards at national and provincial art exhibitions, with many of his works collected by renowned art museums and institutes. He has held individual exhibitions and published his own collection of paintings. Deng, who loves to paint en plein air, finds solace in nature and believes in the philosophy, “External nature nurtures, but the heart is the source of creation.”

Dafen has evolved beyond its initial reputation. Li Zhiming, who manages Yichuang Art Space that combines an original art gallery with a bar, has been in Dafen for over a decade. He shares various artworks displayed at his space, including works by Deng Jiajie and other Dafen artists, as well as collaborations with art school students.

Huang Renjun, a former colleague of Li’s, has found success on platforms like TikTok and YouTube with his clay sculpting videos. Born in 1987, Huang moved to Dafen in 2007 to work in painting. In 2012, he discovered his love for clay sculpting, abandoning painting to pursue this new passion. His clay portraits have garnered millions of followers, both in China and abroad.

Dafen Village has shed its initial labels of “copycat” and “replica” to embrace originality and creativity. The TNT International Artist Residency, founded by Feng Jianmei, invites artists from around the world to create and exhibit works inspired by Dafen. This initiative has hosted artists from 19 countries, showcasing Dafen’s unique charm and artistic diversity.

As the journey through Dafen concludes, every corner and alley brims with canvases and vibrant colors, with artists deeply engrossed in their work. This scene echoes Van Gogh’s words in a letter to his brother Theo in 1882, foretelling the day his works would reveal the treasures within an unknown artist.

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