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    Meet the ‘Morticians’ Giving Obsolete Gadgets New Life in China

    With millions of tons of electronic products discarded annually, China grapples with mountains of e-waste each year. Now, young entrepreneurs are looking to turn the tide by repurposing the waste into handcrafted pieces of art.
    Apr 05, 2024#technology

    In a studio in eastern China’s Shandong province, the centerpiece of Lin Xi’s new project is a watch frozen forever at 11:45. She carefully disassembles the timepiece, and lays each part — hands, gear trains, and jewels — around a central diamond wedding ring to evoke a tree of life.

    Commissioned by a grieving husband to mourn his wife who died unexpectedly, the work of art is set to the exact minute of her passing. It also bears a motto: “Every tick on an inaccurate watch is wrong. But if it stops, it’s correct at least twice a day. Sometimes, being still is better than blindly moving forward.”

    For Lin, the watch is just one of the many discarded gadgets that have found new life in her studio, where she transforms them from waste to works of art. “Objects in the past are not just a tool, but a possession of happiness,” 28-year-old Lin tells Sixth Tone.

    In recent years, China has been forced to confront a growing mountain of electronic waste. Across the country each year, over 400 million smartphones alone become obsolete, with an average product lifespan of about 26 months. More than half of these discarded phones end up stored away, unused in homes, according to the China Association of Circular Economy.

    In 2020, state Xinhua News Agency reported that China annually generates around 2 million tonnes of electronic waste, citing official data. By 2030, the amount of waste generated is projected to reach 27 million tons across the country, it added, citing an industrial report.

    Lin is among a new wave of entrepreneurs finding profit in what was once discarded. For a price, they dismantle obsolete or broken devices — phones, video game consoles, cameras — piece by piece to craft handmade collections that hold both aesthetic and sentimental value for their clients.

    In 2021, Taobao, the country’s top e-commerce platform, recognized such services as one of China’s unique professions. On social media, Lin and her peers have been dubbed “mobile phone morticians” — a label she finds somewhat unsettling.

    “We focus more on artistic and spiritual pursuits, but this term implies that we host funerals for unused gadgets,” says Lin, who has more than 600,000 followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. “I’m just grateful to have been born in an era where I found a path that combines helping others with my personal interests.”

    According to Li Yishen, a Guangzhou-based art designer in southern China, the demand to repurpose such gadgets has risen. Speaking with Sixth Tone, Li says there's a seemingly "eternal" demand for individuals wanting to pay tribute to their love and memories. In his experience, a significant portion of the smartphones disassembled and framed were older-generation models, mainly for their unique designs over their less advanced functionalities.

    Li and his wife ventured into deconstructed art with an iPhone 4 in 2018, at a time when few were engaged in the business. "It holds a special meaning among many people in China as it was the first iPhone model introduced here," Li recalls, particularly since many had to save money and line up outside shops for hours to purchase it.

    Lin’s journey into deconstructed art began during her time studying abroad in the U.K. An art enthusiast, she visited numerous museums, but one particular exhibition struck a chord: An artist had displayed a lamp, disassembled and framed, revealing what she called “harmonious beauty” within the parts.

    Back home in China, and confronted with discarded handheld game consoles, Lin began transforming these electronic cast-offs into wall art. Since launching her studio in 2020, her venture, named Seeou Design, has grown: She hires around a dozen employees and fulfills around 30 to 50 custom orders a month.

    The clientele is diverse, ranging from individuals looking to immortalize personal memories with gadgets to those wishing to celebrate moments shared with loved ones. The scope of Lin’s work extends beyond phones to include other electronic items like cameras, drones, and even crypto mining machines.

    “Many share stories of how these gadgets once made them the envy of their peers,” Lin says. Old gaming consoles, for instance, are not just devices but tokens of a bygone era — gifts of coming of age or hard-earned rewards from part-time jobs during vacations.

    The cost of her studio’s creations varies from 700 yuan for simple tasks to 20,000 yuan ($100 to $2,800) for more intricate projects. While a common smartphone may take three days to dismantle and reframe, a more complex or unfamiliar device could take a month to design properly, she says. She also offers a DIY framing kit for popular smartphone models, allowing customers to try the art for themselves.

    Each new artwork begins with disassembling and cleaning the digital components, then carefully overlaying the elements to craft the final design. Yet, Lin emphasizes the importance of understanding the individual story and significance of each piece: “More communication means more satisfaction,” she says.

    For every device immortalized, her studio dives into its history, learning about the components, such as the type of chip and the product’s research and development journey, to enrich the artwork with context and meaning. When she first started, Lin recalls referring to dozens of online tutorials or even visiting local repair shops to learn the craft.

    While the business has gained traction in recent years, Lin admits that turning e-waste into art is still a niche service.

    According to Li, while the business boomed when such e-waste art collections debuted in 2019, the initial enthusiasm gradually waned. "An ensuing price war in the competitive market, along with the development of standardized products, rapidly eroded profit margins for many designers," explains Li. At the time, many hobbyists who had started this work part-time, driven by personal interest, exited the business as they struggled to continually innovate and attract customers.

    Moreover, Lin underscores that talent in the business is as rare as it is prized. “A skilled artist must have a passion for digital products, expertise in design, and deep empathy for the client’s story,” Lin asserts.

    Yet, the true worth of Lin’s work lies beyond the material. “When more people recognize the emotional value, wealth will be redefined by the richness of time,” she says.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Lin Xi at her studio. Courtesy of Lin)