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‘It’s my honour to succeed’ - Dybala mask creator Zhijun Wang on designing Premier League Asia Trophy badge

14:00 EAT 26/07/2019
Zhijun Wang
The highly-respected Chinese designer tells Goal about his thought process behind his recent commission

When artist Zhijun Wang was growing up, he says his family couldn’t afford the football shirts players wore on broadcasts from the Premier League, which captivated him from a young age.

“When I was a child I loved football,” he tells Goal. “In the 1990s, I started to watch the Premier League when they started broadcasting in China.

“I was born in Beijing and I lived in Beijing all my life. I think in my city a lot of people loved football but we only had one or two teams at that time.

“All the families, all the children, we gathered to watch the game.

“I could not afford a jersey, I just watched the games and collected some magazines and cards from the markets.”

But last week Zhijun saw some of the league’s best talents – including Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne – wearing shirts with his artwork proudly stitched on. That’s because Zhijun was chosen to design a custom sleeve badge for the Premier League Asia Trophy, which took place in Nanjing and Shanghai.

“I could not imagine I would work on a Premier League project when I grew up,” he says. “That’s a dream to a designer and also to a super football fan.

“As a fan of the Premier League I think the logo is classic, it cannot be changed. But this is also a challenge to a designer.

“Because I got the project, I got the mission, I needed to create something based on the classic logo.

“I knew the Premier League before. I had memories. I needed to break the rules in my mind. It’s a challenge.

“I had to balance the emotion in myself. If I failed to create a logo for the Premier League Asia Trophy, it’s a shame to my childhood memories. It’s my honour to succeed in this project.”

The Premier League Asia Trophy marks another chapter for Zhijun, who is emerging as one of China’s best-renowned artists, whose work has been featured on Hypebeast and who has taken custom commissions from some of the biggest names in sport and entertainment.

But Zhijun’s story began with practical face masks made out of the uppers of trainers. Given Beijing suffers – like other Chinese cities – under chronic air pollution, Zhijun sought a unique solution to the problem of air quality when he was out for his evening jog.

“It’s my reaction to the environment,” Zhijun says of his mask designs. “Because I live in Beijing I know the environment surrounding me. I was running for years, especially at night.

“After I finished running, I walked slowly under the streetlights. I noticed some smog or haze up there. It would be harmful to my lungs.

“I tried to find a solution to protect myself at that time. Maybe I needed a mask for myself. But at that time, because I am a designer, I wanted to make something different to other people.

“I wanted to find a special material. I noticed my sneaker collection. Maybe I could use running shoes.

“I use the upper instead of the normal material for masks, the white masks.”

The question of air quality is a pertinent one in China, with a number of protests recently popping up across the country regarding pollution.

“Different people have different perspectives,” Zhijun says when asked if his masks represent a kind of protest of his own. “For me I just wanted to protect myself. This is the beginning of the idea.

“I didn’t think too much about protest or any other sensitive issues. I just focused on the environment that surrounded my life.

“I just want to warn people to be careful of your behaviour. Every single person, we can change our behaviour.

"Everyone can stop the environment changing. It’s a warning to the young generation who love sneakers as well. It’s an art piece but it can warn the people.”

After designing his first face mask, he came on the radar of celebrities and big brands, who were queuing up for masks of their own. He has also showcased his work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

NBA superstar James Harden wore one warming up for the All-Star game in 2017 while One Direction singer Liam Payne has his very own New Balance - Hypebeast mask collaboration. But it was Paulo Dybala who put Zhijun’s work into the football realm.

“They asked me whether I could create a gladiator mask,” he says. “He wants to be a superhero to Juventus fans, to prove his emotion and his ability.

“We talked about the idea, I showed him the mask and all the processes and he got the idea very quick.”

Zhijun sees his work as a fusion of Chinese and western culture, something which was appealing to the Premier League when new name and number provider Avery Dennison looked to create a custom sleeve badge for the games in China this summer.

Working with iconic American brands and the biggest, most recognisable football league, Zhijun bridges the divide between Chinese and western culture.

“I want to explain our native culture to people all over the world. It’s not easy to explain to people from different countries. Art is the best way. People love art more than text or some boring translations. They will touch the idea by themselves.

“We have some other ways to cross the divide. It’s not a problem to the young generation, we can do some changes ourselves. We don’t make big protests, we just change ourselves.”

Zhijun Wang, the artist behind Avery Dennison’s 2019 Premier League Asia Trophy Badge came to the final day of the tournament in Shanghai. Not only did Zhijun help apply his creation to the shirts being given out, free of charge at Avery Dennison’s mobile lab, Zhijun also brought with him his original sketches, showing the process that went into creating the bespoke badge.

Zhijun talked about how his idea was brought to life by designing a typeface similar to that of the Premier League’s and writing ‘China’ in Chinese, providing a cultural aspect to the badge, as well as including a flag flying in the background, representing the unity in the sport.