Ai Weiwei as a Struggling Young New York Artist

Back in the '80s, Ai was a New York sketch artist trying to make ends meet

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Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has been missing for some 40 days now. On April 3, Ai was detained by Chinese authorities at Beijing Airport. As of today, it's still not clear where he is or what, exactly, he's being charged with. But thanks to a new post at The New York Times' City Room blog, we do know one thing: Ai used to be a sketch artist in New York City, and it sucked.

The Times post, by Corey Kilgannon, is well worth a read. We learn about Ai's life as a struggling bohemian in New York, where he spent about a dozen years in the '80s and early '90s, selling art, snapping photos, and doing charcoal sketches on the sidewalk to make ends meet. He'd go to Atlantic City sometimes to clean up at the blackjack tables, and then he'd head back to midtown Manhattan and try to knock out a few caricatures before the cops chased him off.

Kilgannon notes that "back in the early 1980s," Ai "was younger and leaner"; the photo above was taken in Williamsburg in 1983 was part of a 2008 exhibition in Beijing at the Three Shadows gallery. It sounds romantic, but it's also not hard to understand why Ai returned to China in 1993. In New York, he was eking out studio space in stores around town--"including a locksmith and a frame shop"--where he was friends with the owners. As a fellow sidewalk-caricaturist points out, it's hard to evolve much as an artist when you're just grinding out sketches for tourists day after day. And the sidewalk-artist life wasn't exactly free of danger: Kilgannon links to a 1991 Times article about another sketch artist, Lin Lin, who was shot and killed after getting in a disagreement with a customer.

"After 10 years living here, I don't think there's so much opportunity," said a sketch artist quoted in the story. "But people come here because they are always hoping to improve things for themselves even if they have to live in terrible circumstances. For example, Lin Lin's living conditions were worse than just about anything you would find in China."

The speaker of that quote? A younger Ai Weiwei.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.