After realizing that my dreams of traveling around mainland China on weekends could not become a reality, I decided to switch gears and start searching for write-home worthy hidden gems in this crazy, massive city I call home.
I live in the outer Longgang District of Shenzhen, and I’ll be honest, there’s not much going on in this neck of the woods. It’s really just a suburb where big city living dreams die quickly: a black hole of high-rise apartments and chain stores. There are some good restaurants and the rent is cheap, but the list of pros ends shortly after that. There is, however, one place that is unlike any other in the city (probably even the province) that Longgangers can claim as their own.
Behold! Dafen Oil Painting Village (the Village). This colorful cluster of streets offers culture vultures and explorers a close-to-home day trip that requires little effort or money. I’ve been to the area a few times now and am always finding something new to love about it. I recently visited with some first time guests and we all agreed: Dafen is a must do for anyone living in or visiting Shenzhen.
The Village is made up of a collection of art-filled alleyways and narrow streets. The best way to tackle it is by zig-zagging through. There are smaller alleyways connecting the streets, which are not to be missed, but try and stick to the zig-zag to ensure you see it all. There are some street names and addresses to help guide you, but it’s more or less a free-for-all, and best suited for those who like to wander.
To my knowledge there is no takeaway map or guide for the Village, but in all honesty, I haven’t looked for one. If you see a painting that you want, or need time to ponder a purchase, take a picture of the shop or drop a location pin on your phone so you can easily get back there later.
According to the Daily Mail, the Village is believed to be the largest mass producer of oil paintings in the world. The artists are known for their ability to re-create some of the world’s most famous pieces.
When it comes to style, the sky’s the limit. From animals to abstract and glam, skylines and vistas to landscapes and portraits, it’s not hard to find a canvas fitting for your wall. If you’re looking for something specific, show a painter what you want. They may have it in the back already or can recommend a different shop.
You can commission portraits from the artists as well. If you don’t have any pictures of yourself with a background worth painting, don’t worry, they’ll create a background in a portrait for you. Just give the artist a copy of the picture you want (digital or print will work), discuss a price and size, and let them take care of the rest.
It’s a simple mission. Hop on the blue line (metro line 3) and get off at Dafen. Head out exit A and take the staircase to the right. Walk straight for 5 minutes, passing shops and vendors, staying parallel to the main road. Veer slightly left after passing Walmart, then take a quick left down a small staircase. The overwhelming sewage smell that welcomes you fades quickly as you enter, so don’t get discouraged.
Tips and Tidbits
- Stop in at KFC on your way to the Village to use the toilet. It’s clean and has tissue AND soap.
- Ask for a discount if you’re buying more than one piece, or go in with an offer significantly lower than asking price as a starting point for the haggle.
- Check out one of the cool cafés scattered around the Village. Coffee, tea and cocktails are reasonably priced, and the décor is divine.
- No doubt, you’ll work up an appetite. Grab a bite at one of the noodle stalls, or try the restaurant near the entrance. It looks a little run down, but it’s safe and delicious. I’ve eaten there four times now and have lived to tell the tale. You can find more places to dine in the shopping area by the metro.
- Save time to check out Dafen Art Museum. It’s located in the Village near the end of the main road.
- There are tons of shops selling supplies like brushes, paint, easels, canvases and more. Tell your artist friends.
- Most shops accept WeChat, but having some cash on hand isn’t a bad idea.
Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” So break from routine and go and explore the Village. Picasso would want you to.