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Street Artist K-Real

I’m K-Real, a street artist, calligrapher, and tattoo artist from Kharkov, Ukraine. I’ve been in Shanghai since 2014, when a revolution started in my country and our president fled. Things were pretty bad for young men in Ukraine; if you looked like you were over 18, you got rounded up from school, work, even from the street corners, and got herded off to the military draft station. So, I decided to get out of there and try to do something with my life, and I happened to have a friend studying in Shanghai. I called him and just said, “Bro, tell me what’s up?” He said there were plenty of jobs in Shanghai for foreigners and told me to pull up. So I bought a plane ticket, threw some clothes in a bag, copped 200 dollars from family, and showed up in Shanghai.

I’m first and foremost a street and graffiti artist, and this type of art comes directly from hip-hop culture. Where I’m from in Kharkov is considered to be the hip-hop capital of Ukraine; we had the first MC’s and the first rap shows. I’m from a true street city, where there’s only lower class and upper class, nothing really in the middle. When you go downtown, you just see graffiti everywhere. But Shanghai isn’t like that. It’s more of a fancy city, super commercialized and there isn’t really a “street culture” here. I still get inspired by things around this city, like that bottle opener building (the Shanghai World Financial Center). I started reimagining it as a lighthouse because it looms right over Pudong river, the same way a lighthouse looms over the sea. One of my first artworks was when I turned it into a lighthouse tattoo.


That’s the type of artwork that pays my bills. I sell my art and meet my clients mostly online, posting my stuff on Instagram and on WeChat (ID: evseysspace) and just wait for the fans to hit me up. My clients are mostly in Shanghai, and a bit in Russia. I also do commercial stuff here, like logo design. I did the logo for the comedy group Mamahuhu, and a personal logo for one of its members. I’ve worked a lot with creative agency The Orangeblowfish. They connected me to UP Shanghai, where I painted a mural for their wall, and also to Lil’ Laundry to design an installation and their outdoor sign.

I’m proud of that because I started out just teaching English to kids here, and doing my art on the side. The job paid my bills even though I hated it, and I was able to spend that money on supplies to do the stuff I really wanted to do. That’s probably the best thing about Shanghai. Everything is so close to you and affordable. Here it’s not a problem for me to get any type of canvases, paints, any type of supplies that I need. It’s not like this in Ukraine. There’s never enough of anything in Ukraine. But I still wish that there was a true street culture in Shanghai. I used to go with other artists to M50 and throw up graffiti because it was legal there, but it’s not legal anymore. It’s quite sad.

Besides the lack of street culture, I find the people here are actually quite open-minded to graffiti, and they’re curious about new stuff. Like my landlord. When I moved into my apartment and I saw this big ugly wall, I immediately wondered if I could paint some of my calligraphy on it, and my landlord surprisingly agreed. In Ukraine the landlords are so uptight, like you cannot even put a nail in the wall. We have a long way to go to catch up with a place like Shanghai, because we still have that post-Soviet Union mindset. Shanghai’s different, because here they chase money. I’m not saying that that’s a good thing, I just believe that’s what makes Shanghai such a strong city. That money-chase mentality pushes Shanghai’ers forward. China has so many opportunities for people, both local and foreign, if you follow the flow that China flows with.


In addition to my street art, my focus is on tattooing. I think it’s cool to put artwork directly on yourself to show off who you are. I remember the exact day that I developed an interest in tattoos. I was five years old and my uncle had just gotten home from prison. I saw that he had this huge tattoo spread across his back, and I just thought “Wow, I want to be like that.” So I got my first tattoo as soon as possible, when I was 13.

I didn’t actually become a tattoo artist until Shanghai. I was at Cry Baby getting inked and they started asking me about my calligraphy, so I gave them some advice on how to do lettering for tattoos. Then I realized that I should be doing this myself. I took tattoo lessons from a friend, and eventually started seeing my own clients. Now I work out of a studio called Gui Gu Ink, owned by a Chinese calligrapher, and I love it there because it’s a smoke-free environment. I mean, they smoke outside instead of inside.


Now I’m opening up my own tattoo studio back in Ukraine. As a foreigner it’s not really possible for me to set up my own shop here, and the tattoo industry in Shanghai these days isn’t doing so well. It’s quite hard to promote yourself; it’s like you have to be on Weibo all the time. Some tattoo artists now are using Tinder to find clients. They post their portfolio instead of pictures of themselves, and when they get a match they try to sell the girl a tattoo. I don’t want to go down that route, so I’m setting up shop in Kiev and will split my time between there and Shanghai.

I can’t leave Shanghai totally, because I’m still excited about this city. I love the quality and the quantity of talent it attracts. Artists come here that don’t even step foot in Ukraine, let alone Kharkov. Musicians, visual artists, they all want to come to Shanghai. I love hitting up Arkham for live shows and acts that I could never see back home. And I can meet international artists face-to-face here that would never exhibit in Kharkov. It’s things like this that make Shanghai the city to be in for young artists like me.



[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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