The number one question I get asked about this project is, “HOW did you end up painting a mural on a skate park in China?”
I can see how this seems perplexing on the surface of things, so I will begin by unpacking how this happened. Let’s start with the mural painting.
During our travels from May 2017 - Aug. 2018, I had been taking pictures of blank walls and photo-shopping my artwork onto them for fun as “mural proposals.” I shared them to instagram thinking someone might see them and decide that it would be a good idea to install my mural.
SBSX Skateboard Supercross
For those of you who don’t know skateboarding that well or don’t know me that well there are probably many forms of skateboarding that you have never heard of. There is street, which you have definitely seen (you know “kickflips”). There is vert, which you know because of Tony Hawk’s pipe riding. There is something called tech sliding, which you can just click on that link to see classic footage of Sergio Yuppie doing it justice. There is long distance pushing (LDP), which is a sadistic form of longboarding where you race distances from 1 mile to hundreds of miles under your own leg power. Finally SBSX, which is modeled on other forms of super cross where there is an undulating pump track and you generate speed by working the terrain with your legs. SBSX is a great way for people to learn to ride a skateboard and you may have noticed pump tracks popping up around the US.
Skateboarding in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
You would have to know that street skateboarding is now officially part of the Olympics. There is the potential to have other disciplines added in the future as well, making skateboarding a part of the ever important medal count. China is not waiting for a grass roots effort to grow skateboarders in an organic way by letting them “play” with skateboards. There is a government mandate to produce Olympians by 2020. Programs for instruction need to be put in place and world class training infrastructure must be built to produce Olympic quality skaters. Regardless of how you feel about the approach, if you love skateboarding then you have to respect this push to get milliions of kids involved in skateboarding literally overnight.
Now that you have the background info. I can answer the question of HOW I came to be in China painting a massive skate park. Through my experience with skateboarding I know someone involved with building these pump tracks and skate parks. Due to the interest in China of producing Olympians he was in the process of building a flagship park and holding a big grand opening in Ningbo, China. He had seen my interest in painting murals (on instagram) and asked if I could design something that would make his park look kick ass for the grand opening. I made a couple of proposals until there was something that both the school and SBSX would be happy with. The first proposal was to paint the pump track as a dragon. It was pretty cool, but the idea of skating on a Dragon seemed inauspicious to the owners of the school so we went with something more abstract. You can see how the project actually turned out on our website at this LINK.
The next question I get asked is, “WHY would you take on such a project?”
Never having painted a mural and not speaking any Mandarin were small obstacles compared to my desire to paint on a large scale. It felt like this opportunity was not one that could be passed up. This would be a test of all the skills that I had learned with Ali on our 15 months of world travel. Would I have the patience to endure, the cultural agility to adapt and not get so attached to goal that I would lose my sanity? The short answer is…barely. I lost my cool a few times. When I arrived I was told the plan to paint the skate park was off, when I got the permission to paint again I still did not have the paints I needed. When the paints arrived after 10 days they were the wrong ones…every day was a challenge. To read the tedium of my park painting woes click HERE.
Most days I had anywhere from 2-6 guys working for me. There was Wah, the supervisor, 2 senior guys, 2 mid level guys, and 2 low level guys (one very old and one very young). Working with them could be extremely fun or a completely miserable game of continual miscommunication and not just because we were’nt speaking the same language. Pace of work: Sometimes they would be overly attentive to detail and taking extra time for every step, other times they would just rush through without even cleaning the surface before painting. I learned that they were either concerned about having enough work to last them or about getting done quickly so they could get out of the sun. I had to make sure they understood how much work we had to do so they would not spend hours on prep work and actually get to painting. Conversely everyone wanted to be a painter and no one wanted to do the lowly cleaning work so often I was the one doing all the cleaning and prep work to keep things moving. Keeping them working: They only worked as hard as I did. If I left the job site, it was guaranteed they would take a break. It was not like I was laying it out for them and walking away to check emails. I was on site before they arrived and after they left. Cigarettes: They offer you cigarettes as a sign of respect and you can’t really refuse or its kind of rude, so yes I would have one cigarette a day with the crew. Heat rash: I noticed they would all pull their shirts over their bellies which I thought was funny until I got heat rash all over my stomach from wearing a wet shirt all day.
The Grand Opening
The day before the grand opening we were invited to skate at a sports exposition the mayor of Ningbo. At this point we had quit a crew including the legendary street skater Stefan Janoski who made the whole experience even more surreal. The owners of the school wanted us all to ride in the expo and do tricks on a flat area. I don’t think it mattered that I was not a pro skater and not a street skater (they just wanted people out there skating) but there is pretty much nothing I can do on flat land. That morning Joe Lehm gave me some pointers on how to do handstands on a skateboard. At one point during the expo I busted out my newly learned handstand and actually held it for a good 70ft. All I could think at that moment was…”I’m skating with Stefan Janoski…In China…and I’m upside down…can this get any stranger?” much of my experience on this trip had this surreal quality.
So far I had been looking out and seeing this beautiful skate park with barely anyone on it. It was like the terrain and the artwork on the park were calling out to be enjoyed and just sat their lonely. The day of the grand opening was magic. The park came alive with kids of all backgrounds. There were tiny kids on scooters and bikes, there were really good Chinese street skaters, there were expat familys excited to find a skate park in their backyard and they were all riding together using the entire park. All day the park was swarming with kids with smiles on their faces. There were speeches and certificates handed out, there were tons of news media, reporters and translators. I was able to get the drone in the air to record the energy of the crowd and how every inch of the park was getting love from all types of riders. This was the moment that we had all been working towards. The school was alive with skateboarding fever and in the days to follow the SBSX instructors would begin introducing close to 2000 students to skateboarding. I have been working to promote skateboarding in many forms for a long time and this was the first time since the explosion of participation in the Broadway Bomb that I felt I was seeing the beginning of something important in skateboarding.
Once the park was finished I had one week left before the grand opening. I still had an 85 meter wall I had agreed to paint, but I needed some down time so when it was time to pick up Joe Lehm (of Skate School Santa Fe and Ditch Slap fame) from the airport in Shanghai I hitched a ride. NYC is about 8.5 million people. Ningbo is about 7.6 million people. To put that in perspective Shanghai is almost 25 million people. Being familiar with NYC does not prepare you for a city 3 times the size. Also, Shanghai is beautiful with parks, great architecture and museums that are all kept immaculately clean. Towards the edges there are areas where you can see how the new construction is consuming the old haphazard structures. Similar to Dallas, TX, from my experience in China they seem not to value history in the same way that I am used to. There seems to be less issue with tearing down the old and putting something new in its place.
I stayed in the French Concession as can be typical for foreigners. It has old French Colonial style buildings painted in their signature pale yellow. There are tons of coffee shops. I went to one called “Tea Funny” which was a coffee/tea house. The name described perfectly what I ordered which was called Kungfu Coffee. It took 30 minutes to make. They roasted the beans in front of me and let me smell the results at every step in the process. They described this coffee as a cross between a tea and a coffee, but with no tea in it. Sure enough when it was finished it was a super smooth light coffee that had a distinct melon tea flavor, totally worth the wait.
I went to M50 which is a gallery district. It was underwhelming, but there was one gallery called Island 6 with a cool exhibition by Liu Dao.
On Sunday I did a walking tour to the West Bund where there is an amazing outdoor climbing wall that seemed to baffle the locals. I climbed for a little work out and attracted quite an audience (that’s not me in the photo by the way). Then I went to Longhua Temple to burn some incense in the hopes that my next mural would go smoothly. You can see details on the Zodiac Animal Wall at this LINK
In Ningbo and Shanghai the food was always excellent, whether on the street or in a restaurant. Even the fast food experience was elevated at places like Taco Bell and KFC. Below is a sampler of some of the foods I got to eat.