By Laura Fitch

Zhang Sihao’s life might have turned out differently if his parents hadn’t taken him to a fortune-teller when he was in his early teens. Adopting the mystic’s advice, they changed his given name from Yi to Sihao, meaning “a love of poetry.”

“Before that I was good at maths and science, says Zhang, 25. “But after I started taking an interest in art.”

He grew up to become the ad hoc leader of Cult Youth, a comic art gropu making its mark in Beijing’s burgeoning underground art and music scene. The informal alliance issued its first compilation of illustrations Cult – We Love ABC in 2007, and all 1,500 copies of the self-published work sold out quickly. Late last year they followed with a double-volume set titled Cult Tape A and B, using a video cassette for the cover graphic in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “lo-fi” production.

<a href=”http://torontoreview.ca/wp-content/uploads/pics-32.jpg”><img title=”Cult Youth” src=”http://torontoreview.ca/wp-content/uploads/pics-32-300×185.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”185″ /></a>

From left to right: Black Lichee, Goodbye CBGB, Chairman Ca, Twoqee, Twoqee77

Distributing it through independent stores in major cities and on internet sites such as Taobao, Cult Youth have sold more than 2,000 copes of the 200 yuan (HK$227) set.

The artists also featured prominently at the Modern Sky Music Festival last October, designing posters, bags and background displays for one of the capital’s largest indie music festivals. More recently they have been collaborating with major Beijing indie bands such as New Pants, B6 and Snapline to produce a collection of illustrated poetry, Cult Rock, due for release in March.

Adopting darker and more diverse styles than seen in mainstream publications, Cult Youth’s comic art is unpredictable and eludes easy definition. Some frames depict noodles as human entrails, others trace the adventures of Super Beast, an evil-looking clown in boxing gloves.

The only standard, says Zhang, is a love of art.

“It can be deeply personal and emotional or shallow like a video game or a story. To us, ‘cult’ means to do something with passion,” says Zhang, now better known as Chairman Ca.

The idea for Cult Youth emerged in 2006 at an informal dinner Zhang had with university friends Qing Guo (pen name Twoqee777) and his twin brother Qing Song (Twoqee). They were soon joined by fellow artists Hei Lizhi, 27, who draws under the name Black Lichee, and Chen Hui, 25, also known as Goodbye CBGB.

Before long, there was a core of 12 artists, with the founding five in Beijing and others, including Zhang Dongxu, aka Pierre Yi Fansing, Zi Jie and Leng Leng, scattered across the mainland.

For Chen, the illustrations are a way to depict the confusion felt by young mainlanders.

“The immense changes in Chinese society over the past 20 years have cast a shadow over young people,” he says. “ I want to express these feelings.”

Qing Guo uses film noir as an inspiration for his darkly humorous comics, while his brother Song adopts a more upbeat style to tell the tale of an ordinary man brainwashed by a barrage of advertisements. Hei says his story of a child searching for his old toys expresses a nostaligia for times when his world was less materialistic.

Cult youth has now expanded to include more than 30 affiliated artists, many of whom found the group through internet sites such as poobbs.com.

As their prescence grows, the Cult Youth artists hope to set up their own publishing house. Drawing a timeline with an arrow pointing towards a large circle marked “future,” Zhang says: “This is how big I want us to be.”

That’s a tall order. But the government’s increasingly relaxed attitude toward independent artists and a growing market with varied tastes is providing a fertile environment for the growth of alternative art on the mainland.

“The government has certainly relaxed. Art is no longer viewed as a threat,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, a 14-year resident of Beijing and editor of Danwei, a website about Chinese media. Cult youth designs already decorate the album covers of Beijing’s best-known bands and their concert fliers are freamed on the walls of D-22, a club in the Wudaokou student district which helped launch an indie music explosion in the capital. The furious rate at which the underground music and art scenes in Beijing ar growing is history in the making, says club owner Michael Pettis, who is also a professor of finance at Peking University.

“There is almost no doubt that in five or 10 years, people are going to marvel at what happened and Cult youth will be part of that story,” he says.

Noting influences that range from old Shanghai advertisements to porn magazines to Dada, Pettis says Cult Youth are mixing the seriousness of the Beat poets with the frivolity of pop art. This way, the group is not only producing quality art, but is laying foundations for what young mainland artists will be doing years into the future, he says.

“Already a few people very aware of the process are trying to collect every poster and artifact they can find,” he says.

Pettis stumbled on the group two years ago when he took a peek at a comic book that a guitarist from Carsick Cars was reading, Animal Cookie, penned by Zhang Dongxu. Impressed, Pettis arranged to meet the 26-year-old artist, who in turn introduced him to Zhang Sihao. Pettis saw Cult Youth as a visual match for the nascent music scene he was nurturing in D22. Soon he was brining in the artists for collaborations on CD cover art and book illustrations.

Qing Guo says Cult Youth’s art is a reaction against what he describes as the superficiality of the mainland comic scene. Production is mostly controlled by big publishing houses in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which hawk superstar artists much in the same way that the Canto-pop music business endlessly recycles top talent. This makes it hard for newcomers to break in, he says.

Although the government sponsors some comic art, Zhang Sihao says it has yet to allocate enough resources to properly develop the genre. Comic artists employed by the Ministry of Culture are paid about 50,000 yuan a year. They are expected to produce 300 to 400 pages of illustrations per year, which works out at about one page a day for just 200 yuan. More money can be made in private ventures: they would get at least 400 yuan for a couple of frames in a magazine.

Hei is the only full-time cartoonist in Cult Youth. Most members have day jobs: Zhang does a wide variety of freelance design work, Qing Guo is a freelance animation teacher, and his twin Song is an ad visualizer. Chen works in advertising and webpage design.

While they have more freedom to create, Pettis regrets that the artists have yet to receive government recognition. Many officials still think art is something found only in museums, or hanging in the homes of middle-aged bankers or college professors, he says.

“The success story of the young Beijing music and art scene that has emerged over the past few years is something China should be proud of, but isn’t,” Pettis says.