Zhao Wei painted his first wall of graffiti at the age of four. When other kids were saying they wanted to be scientists, he was well on his way to the world of art.
A bout of childhood bullying inspired Zhao to develop his first original comic. Within its panels, Zhao cast himself as the leader of an adventure team that always won. The experience made him believe in the magic of art.
Fighting females and popular characters appear in most of Zhao’s works. In his latest Meow! Dog My Cats!, his model is imagined as Catwoman, the popular burglar from the Batman franchise, standing before a full moon with a whip in her hands.
Zhao said he loves putting teen girls into such unusual roles.
“Teen girls are mysterious to me, and that makes them inspiring. I let ‘the cat’ take her whip as a mockery of the adult world. Her rebellious smile shows she is also a sweet girl,” Zhao said.
Zhao ponders how childhood innocence will survive in a fast-developing world dominated by adults. He fears children will be forced to embrace materialism, triggering negative emotions like anxiety, sorrow and loss.
His collected works are an attempt at erecting a personal Neverland that’s safe from adult values.
In We Don’t Have Vegetables for a Midnight Snack, a burning elephant appears at the center of campfire circle surrounded by dancing children. The scene implies the contradiction between childhood and cruelty.
“Growth and disillusion are my main topics,” Zhao said.
In Zhao’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, he salutes the French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. Instead of natural scenery, Zhao delineates a world trapped in a glut of consumerism. Gauguin’s statue of god is replaced with Ronald McDonald and snakes hide in the shrubs.
Aside from his childhood themes, Zhao also paints works that reflect on his own growth.
A Lonely Pool for Tired Ones was inspired by Bathers at Asnières, a painting by French artist Georges Seurat. The work depicts a young man looking at his reflection in a pool. Zhao made several adaptions to the original, changing it from day to night and casting a beam of light on the boy’s back.
“The light is hope. The darkness is the struggle of life. The hope drives the boy to think deeper and further explore the future,” Zhao said. “The boy is an embodiment of the cold feeling you are left with when you are lost from the mainstream.”
Asked about the message he hopes to convey to viewers, Zhao said he sees art as a question mark, not a period. Individual experience and taste shape each viewer’s understanding.
“In my next series, I will look for ideas in my hometown Daqing, a city dependent on petroleum exploitation,” Zhao said. “But my creative theme will still be focused on growth.”