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DALeast: The street artist breaking out of China

The graffiti artist on his concern for the next generation of Chinese artists, and why he is quietly confident about China's future

Chinese graffiti artist DALeast, 29, is fast becoming one of the biggest names on the international street art scene.

In the past two years he has graffitied around the world, spraying huge animals onto buildings in London, New York, Cape Town and Melbourne.

Click here or on 'view gallery' to see more images of DALeast's street art

He works at lightning speed, painting giant animals onto the sides of buildings with swift strokes of black spray paint, which he builds up with grey and white to create a 3D effect.

His animals are typically depicted in two disconnected parts, often disintegrating at the centre or falling away at the sides. His use of animals, he says, reflects the human condition.

“In my opinion, animals are like humans. We all live in the same environment; we have the same pressures, emotions and a feeling of insecurity in society. Animals are like society, but are kind of attached to humans,” he says.

Born in Wuhan, central China's most populated city, DALeast has always preferred to provoke personal introspection over making grand political statements in his art, although he says he enjoys the political act of marking public buildings.

“Some people in China are doing street art against the government, especially the beginners. I don’t have political information in my art, because I think the political in art is just art.”

He says he is concerned by the number of beginners in China who are doing graffiti to copy Western trends.

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DALeast's graffitied lion in Pedley Street, Shoreditch, London

“In Brooklyn, people did graffiti in the 1970s because they were suffering in society, they felt like they were on the bottom. In China, street art is more like a fashion, like a culture. I feel sad because I see the fashion overseas come to China, but the way people experience it is not the original way- something’s changed.”

DALeast first began doing graffiti with a crew of street artists in Beijing in 2004 after dropping out of an undergraduate degree in sculpture. The crew worked together for four years but were arrested by the police for their activities in 2008.

“It was a big joke actually,” he says. “The police thought that we were more than artists- they thought we were terrorists that wanted to bomb the city. They spent three days searching us and we spent one day in custody. In the end, the mayor of the city decided to release us.”

He now lives in South Africa with his wife, street artist Faith47, but says the arrest did not shape his decision to leave the country.

“I loved the experience. I saw things, I experienced things and I know more about how the system in China works. The government has done too much, it will die by its own doing. It’s going down, you can feel it. The more control it has, the more insecurity it feels.”

He says he has huge respect for Ai Weiwei, who he credits with helping to “change China from the inside”, but is quietly confident the government is doing enough to bring about its own end.

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DALeast spray painting at Nuart festival (Ian Cox)

His bigger concern is the future of creative thinking in China. He decided to leave his degree course in sculpture because he was taught to make everything in the same way as his teacher, and worries for the next generation of artists.

“I left university because it just kills your creativity. Some artists are really great, like Ai Weiwei, and the old generation still keep the mind set, but I really hope there are more artists from the younger generation coming through. I hardly find anyone young doing anything interesting.”

He is also concerned that the art syllabus in China is stunting students' creativity. “At university we weren’t taught art after Van Gogh. They won’t teach contemporary art because it is against the system. They teach you what is really old so they can use you as a tool.”

He is aware that the majority of Chinese students take art at university to get a degree, not for a love of art.

“In China, if you have a degree you have a job, if you have a job you have a good life. People want to go to art school because they want to go through university to get a degree. The quality is going down because so many people want to go.”

But he sees great potential in China’s future, if it can focus as much of its energies on design as it does on manufacturing. “China is more like a factory, but now it has a chance to change the situation so it can design things too.”

“I am quite positive about China’s future. People and awakening and people want change.”

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DALeast's horse painted onto the side of a bank in Norway(Ian Cox)