In yesterday’s post, we spoke about Dafen, the town in China where previously up to 60% of the world’s oil painting replicas were produced.

And how copying other people’s work was not creative, even when it is done with real skill.

But Dafen has been evolving, just like the surrounding Shenzhen region.

From an area which previously was used primarily to copy other people’s ideas, to now being an area which innovates and produces original work.

Dafen’s story as a hub of copycats started with humble beginnings. According to a 2017 Artsy insight:

An entrepreneurial trade painter, Huang Jiang, launched Dafen’s remarkable trajectory. Upon moving his business in 1989 from his native and increasingly pricey Hong Kong across the border into mainland China, Huang recruited and trained additional, migrant workers to fulfill a glut of existing orders.

Taking advantage of Hong Kong’s more mature infrastructure for practicalities such as shipping, Huang developed an assembly line process for art reproduction in Dafen.

At its peak, Dafen was jam-packed with sizeable, factory-like studios, all employing Huang’s production line process. Individual workers each focused on a specific compositional element—background details, or eyes, or trees—dutifully painting their part and then passing the canvas along the chain.

However, the town is now shedding its previous reputation as a hub of copycats, to producing original art, with increasing demand from China’s growing middle class.

Interestingly, as Dafen developed, prices for rent began to increase, all the while more and more people making copies of the most famous paintings created an overabundance of high-quality supply (of fakes). This combined with the growth of the internet have meant that in order to compete and make a living, many of the artists in Dafen now have shifted to higher-value yet more challenging original artwork, and has created new growing economies focused on copying in cheaper areas such as Xiamen and Yiwu.

The Artsy piece had a very interesting paragraph showing how this change in mentality is also taking root:

Today, this branching of paths—from copy art, to original art, to shining national example—feels tangled. Case in point: During my stay, I was corrected and chided for referring to copyists as artists, or yì shù jiā in Chinese. They’re huà jiā, painters or art workers, and the difference in social hierarchy is made extremely apparent.

There has also been a clear drive from the Shenzhen government to promote original artwork, and to advertise the region as an area of not only skill but also creativity.

This, combined with the Chinese consumers being more willing than their western counterparts to buy expensive art through online shops, is creating a growing local market for original, creative work.

Even though some original artists in Dafen are then having their artwork copied and sold as replicas by their neighbours.

It just goes to show, creativity is a strong force.

And if you want your business to survive, you might be able to do it by copying others people’s original ideas for a time. Just until someone else is willing to do it cheaper than you are.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.