5 Things You Didn’t Know About Ai Weiwei’s Time in New York in the 1980s

The artist was a blackjack guru who would be chauffeured to casinos.

Ai Weiwei with Allen Ginsberg. Lower East Side 1988 (2011).
Photo: via artnet.

Ai Weiwei.
Photo: Courtesy of the Asia Society.

Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei, who has been unable to leave China since his passport was confiscated by officials in 2011, spent his mid 20s and early 30s finding his way around gritty New York. During his time there (1981–1993), he took thousands of photographs that captured the city’s energy, its discontents, and, of course, himself.

Here are some facts about the dissident artist you may not have known:

Ai Weiwei, Williamsburg

Ai Weiwei, Williamsburg.
Photo: via artnet.

1. Ai Weiwei was a blackjack guru.
During the 1980s, Ai, who lived in an unfurnished apartment on the Lower East Side, would get chauffeured to casinos in a stretch limo because of his status as a “rated” player. He and his blackjack-playing friend, ‘Snake Eyes,’ would drive 80 miles to Atlantic City multiple times each week. Snake Eyes has said of Ai, “I was playing and losing bad, and then this Asian guy with a beard right out of the Kung Fu movies, playing next to me, starts telling me when to hit, split, or stay…He is the best.”

Ai Weiwei, Portrait with profile 1989, (2011). Photo: via artnet.

Ai Weiwei, Portrait with profile 1989 (2011).
Photo: via artnet.

2. Ai was bored living in New York.
In an interview with Blouin Artinfo, Ai said about his time in the Big Apple, “I was a bit bored, very bored.” Perhaps that’s why he gambled so much.

Ai Weiwei, Mirror 1987 (2011). Photo: via artnet.

Ai Weiwei, Mirror 1987 (2011).
Photo: via artnet.

3. Ai had a string of odd jobs.
During his time in the city, the artist dabbled in renovation, construction, cutting grass, cleaning houses, and even babysitting. To make ends meet, he also painted portraits for tourists in Times Square.

Ai Weiwei with Allen Ginsberg. Lower East Side 1988 (2011). Photo: via artnet.

Ai Weiwei with Allen Ginsberg. Lower East Side 1988 (2011).
Photo: via artnet.

4. He hung out with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, but never read his poems.
Ai took to his neighbor Allen Ginsberg, reveling in the Beat poet’s anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian stance (see Famous Dissidents Ai Weiwei and Jacob Applebaum Stuff Panda Bears With N.S.A. Documents.) The two grew close during his time there, but Ai confessed in a 2007 interview that he never read one of Ginsberg’s poems.

Ai Weiwei, In front of Duchamp's Work at Museum of Modern Art 1987, (2011). Photo: via artnet.

Ai Weiwei, In front of Duchamp’s Work at Museum of Modern Art 1987 (2011).
Photo: via artnet.

5. He hosted a number of famous Chinese artists in his Lower East Side pad.
Many of his fellow Chinese artists used his apartment in the 80s as a stop to experience New York. Notable visitors include performance artist Tehching Hsieh, who Marina Abramovic once praised as her “personal hero.” Tehching’s most famous performances involved doing one activity for the duration of a full year.

A special edition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs during his time in New York is for sale on artnet Auctions.

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