UVD: Would you mind telling us a little background about yourself (i.e. where you’re from, when you started designing, etc)?
J*RYU: I was born and raised in North Carolina after my parents immigrated here from Taiwan in the late 60’s. Our family lived a fairly typical lower-middle class lifestyle in the suburbs so I spent a lot of time either doing homework, practicing my requisite violin, reading or riding my bike to the local arcade if I had any spare change. With four boy in the house, we were into all sorts of toys from the glorious 80’s era like Transformers, Voltron, GI Joe etc and since my father was a traveling businessman, he often brought home exotic robots from Japan, namely old-school sentai and kaiju as well as a lot of chogokin style robots. Sadly, we lost Dad in 1995 to cancer and so that year after I left college, I reevaluated a lot of things and eventually wound up in the design field. I eventually started my own firm in 1998 and worked on a multitude of projects for some rad clients like Sony, Marvel, Columbia Pictures, Red Storm Entertainment, Wonderbra, Slim Jim, etc. I eventually took on an additional position with a mobile content provider/aggregator at the same time and helped establish some standards within the industry. Crazily enough, in 2008 I took on an additional role in another business and I was juggling 3 positions at once and going crazy with both professional and personal life so I started doing practical art again as a way to relax and indulge in something I really loved. I eventually dropped two of the jobs and now I just split time between my day gig and doing art. Even though I have been creative all of my life, it’s only in the last few years that I have begun to embrace that side full force and I’ve been fortunate thus far that people seem to enjoy what I do.
UVD: I see you traveled to Art Basel this year. This event seems to be gaming a lot of popularity in the past couple of years. What do you think of the event? And do you see it becoming one of the biggest events in the scene?
J*RYU: Art Basel is one of my favorite events during the year as it is the fine art world’s equivalent to San Diego Comic Con. You are immersed for a few days in some of the world’s best art and pretty much anyone that is at all interested or connected in some fashion to the scene is there. It is both a non-stop exhibition all over the city and the parties and events are legendary. It’s also a great excuse for a grip of artists to hang out and just enjoy each other’s company in an environment that is very close to our hearts. I do feel that going to Art Basel has merit if an artist is skewing more towards the fine art side rather than the toy side because the vinyl scene is miniscule at best in the big picture and thus, there isn’t a lot of presence for the genre except for with Art Whino, who has relationships with many of the artists in the scene, myself included. However, if an artist is multidisciplinary, there are other opportunities to showcase your work that doesn’t have anything to do with toys that would be more readily accepted by the crowd that frequents Basel. To me, DCON, SDCC and now NYCC are the premier shows for designer toy enthusiasts and Art Basel is in a different type of category altogether. I wouldn’t say that it’s more elite but when you have the world’s best artists showing there, it would be easy for designer toy related products being easily overlooked or marginalized. I don’t think it will be a key event for the scene until more galleries start showing toys there and validating their place amongst the art world.
Video Found via Tomopop!
UVD: Your customs are very detailed and your sculpting skills really show. Could you tell a little bit about your process?
J*RYU: Thank you. My thought process behind my work when it comes to customs is not terribly complex. If I feel that I can use a platform to explore my own personal style, I will do so but I won’t do it at the expense of forcing it upon something and then diluting the idea of the original toy. When I first started, I did a few pieces where the original form was so obscured that it was difficult to recognize what was below. I’ve gradually learned to retain as much as I can of the piece while still trying to imprint it with some of my personal sensibility. For me, the emotive and narrative elements of a piece are paramount and the way I convey the ideas just happens to place emphasis on detail a lot of the time. I also don’t often leverage pop culture too often because I want my work to not have a point of reference or force the audience to have to be familiar with other source material in order to understand my work. I have done a few pieces here and there like the “Forbidden Love Child” where it paid homage to the Muppets but for the most part, I try to impart a timeless element to the concepts so that it’s still resonant and relatable to any culture, race, age or gender, now or down the road in the future.
From a technical side, I most often use a combination of polymer clay and epoxy, and then finish it out with mixed media elements. As for my tools, I use both bought tools like a pick and dental tools alongside custom tools that I built myself. I paint with acrylics with both airbrush and traditional brushes.
UVD: Besides making custom toys what are some of your other hobbies?
J*RYU: I was a heavy toy collector for most of my life, with the bulk of my collection being vintage japanese robots from the 70’s and a grip of western vinyl. Ever since I started doing more art, the collecting has winnowed down quite a bit but I will pick up an errant toy here and there. One of my favorite toys in the past few years is Greasebat by Monsterworship and Jeff Lamm, sculpted by my little bro Chauskoskis. Amazing piece.
I was an avid snowboarder for many years but I haven’t ridden in a while since I had a pretty bad back injury that laid me up for a few months. I was also a huge video game junkie, mostly fighting games, to the point I bought a few arcade machines but I rarely have time to play anymore. Nowadays I read a lot, mostly graphic novels, before I go to bed to wind down from the day so I visit my library quite often. I also travel quite frequently all over and that provides me with a lot of inspiration. Food is always good too, especially Japanese izakaya with some cold beers and fetching company.
UVD: As a member of The Army of Snipers what is it like to work with with so many talented artists?
J*RYU: It’s both an honor and a motivation. Woes originally started the crew as a collective of like-minded artists, mostly from the graf and street scene. Over the last year or so, he’s really been asking artists from other disciplines to be a part so that as a group, we have the abilities in-house to accomplish just about anything, creatively speaking. With the most recent additions of Sket One, Ritzy Periwinkle, Luke Chueh, Mathew Curran, Shane Jessup and Alisa Ross, we’re coalescing nicely and are setting the foundation for many projects in the near future. To stand alongside these artists as peers is just another reason why I will always try to bring my “A” game to every project I participate in.
Also, after returning from Asia, we made a concerted decision for AOS to take part in more projects that bring awareness to those in need, wherever they may be. It’s our sincere hope as a group that we can truly utilize our creative abilities to enact positive change and bring hope to those truly suffering. If there is an organization out there that could benefit from our involvement, please don’t hesitate to write us at email@example.com so we can evaluate and consider the cause.
UVD: What was it like to be involved with the 2011 Little Lotus project?
J*RYU: It was absolutely one of the best and most profound experiences of my life to be able to work with the Burmese refugee children over in Thailand. It was humbling, uplifting, heart-breaking, visceral, poignant, draining, etc etc all at the same time. To start, for our scene to help us reach the goal to help us make the LLP happen was an absolute blessing and really showed us the caliber of people that we associate with. Second, to see first-hand how art can positively affect young people who have less than nothing or have been victims of human trafficking, was a monumentally life-changing. Lastly, to be there with all of the other artists who also dedicated time and money to helping others, there are really no words. Ritzy Periwinkle, Aaron Woes Martin, Daniel Zana and I basically went through this transformational journey together and upon coming back, have such a broader perspective on how we can all do our little part to help those in need, even all the way around the world. I highly encourage everyone to take an opportunity like this if it ever comes their way, it truly strengthens one’s resolve and helps one to understand a little bit more of what is truly important in life. A documentary of our trip was filmed by Daniel and should be released sometime later this year. I hope it conveys at least a fraction of what we went through there. Also, be on the lookout for a gallery show where we will have artwork by the Burmese children on display sometime later this summer.
UVD: I love your ‘Solace’ custom. What was your inspiration for that piece? And were there any interesting challenges in creating it?
J*RYU: Thank you very much. Solace was created based off an 18” Qee platform for a show at Art Basel 2010. With the large size of the platform, it afforded me more options in terms of concepts than smaller platforms. I like cutting into pieces and detailing the insides so as I was coming up with ideas, the one that stuck with me was of a place that one could be safe, and to take a breather and quietly self-reflect. The idea of a cathedral came to mind and quickly soon thereafter, the idea of a large pipe organ. Everything fell into place after that and it was just a question of execution.
The hardest part for me is when I know I want a certain element in my piece but have never attempted to technically execute it. This was the case when I wanted a stained glass window effect but had no idea how to do it. I tried different transparent mediums and settled on pouring medium tinted with food coloring in order to convey the look I wanted. That took a few days of wait and see because it needed more drying time but eventually it turned out satisfactory. Other than that, the hardest part was carrying it by hand down to Miami and then having security unwrap the whole thing to see what the hell it was. It was hella heavy.
UVD: What was it like to be crowned KidRobot’s ‘King of the Boards’ in January. Also The piece you created was Amazing! Where there any interesting challenges in sculpting the detail or creating a hinged Dunny head?
J*RYU: Thank you, it was definitely an honor and working with KidRobot on the promo was really a fun project. I started off on the KR message boards back in 2006 so to come full circle to this contest and potential other projects in the future is definitely awesome. The Sanctum 8” dunny was actually pretty straightforward for me – I sketched it out and implemented it with very little deviation from the original drawing except for the original had a lock instead of a skull on the front. Cutting the face off cleanly is harder than one might think, especially if you want it to line up correctly for the door feature to work. The hinge wasn’t difficult to implement, I think the harder part was making sure that everything looked seamless. The 3” versions are actually harder because it’s difficult to work on a smaller scale and still have it retain a lot of the detail that makes it what it is. On those, rather than a hinge, I use magnets to hold the face in place. Sculpting and detailing isn’t too terribly difficult, I’ve gotten so adept at my style of wood and tree texture that it’s like second nature to me now. That said, I have to give props to my peers who release series of custom Dunnys on a frequent basis, it is a LOT of work.
UVD: Do you have a personal favorite piece that you have done over the years? Or is this like asking you to pick a favorite child?
J*RYU: I have elements I like in all of my pieces but once it’s out the door, I’m usually onto the next piece and just assume that I’ll never see it again. If I had to choose one piece, I would have to say it would be my Silva Dolorosa custom Ghost Girl that was at SDCC 2010. I was staying at Ritzy’s place the night before we were to head down to con and spent all night trying to finish it up. I barely had finished when we had to catch the train from LA down to SD. Once I got there, it was handed over to Ray Dragatomi to place at the Dragatomi booth while I checked into the hotel. While me, Drilone, Ritzy and King Quan were at the hotel bar, Spanky Stokes called and told me that it had sold the moment the con opened. It was awesome and bittersweet at the same time because I wished I had more time with her. I don’t even have proper pics of the piece in hi-res from all angles. But it was the start of my Forest of Sorrows series and thus, holds a lot of meaning for me because it has been quite the journey ever since.
UVD: What’s the meaning behind the ghosts and trees in your work?
J*RYU: I don’t have a go-to character in my work and instead, I use the ghosts and the trees as elements in an ongoing narrative in my work called the Forest of Sorrows. The ghosts are avatars for emotions and I find the whole notion of a soul that refuses to move on extremely fascinating. These entities have transcended all rules of physics and religion in order to stay here because they just won’t let go of something. The trees represent one’s life journey and all of the infinite paths that one could have taken, the decisions they made or didn’t make. Put it all together and each piece in that series is an effort to convey a simple narrative that the viewer is left to interpret in their own way, often times melancholy and haunting. I just feel that those unsaid things, the chains that keep these spirits here, are things that we can all say or do while we still have the time and not wait until it’s too late. I don’t deal with loss very well but ever since I lost my Dad, various pets and the end of some relationships, I’ve tried to resolve and understand the questions that nag in my head of “what if I did something differently?” or “was there more I could have done”, etc. Many of these internal conflicts manifest themselves in my work. True, it’s what got me my “emo” label but I’m just the type of person that won’t let feelings fester and I think that it takes a lot more balls to be openly emotionally vulnerable than to bottle yourself up inside. Thankfully, there are a lot of emo people out there that feel the same way and when they connect with my work or buy a piece of mine, it makes me feel less like a weirdo.
UVD: Are there any future projects that you wish to discuss for the reader to keep their eyes open for in the future?
J*RYU: 2012 is already almost fully booked for me between shows and commissions. In April I will be participating in the Weapons of Mass Change touring show at G40 in Richmond, Playsam500 show at Super7 in San Francisco and hitting Coachella. I also was asked to do a piece for the My Little Pony show at TAG in early May. I’m tentatively scheduled to go to Japan and Singapore in June with AOS boss Woes where he will be dropping 2 versions of his Gazer Panda bust that I sculpted. I will have a few pieces at SDCC in July though Dragatomi and people will see the Woes X J*RYU collab series of Gazer busts debut, along with another Weapons of Mass change piece with Art Whino. I will spend most of August finalizing the last preparations for my debut solo show at Rotofugi in September, where myself and Luke Chueh will have dual openings with some secret releases. October will see the 3rd stop of the Weapons show at NYCC and then DCON in November. Lastly, I will be at Art Basel in December with Art Whino again with the final leg of the Weapons show. Intermixed between all of that are some one-off projects including a collab with Argonaut Resins and their Tuttz cat figure and some commission work. Last but not least, expect to see more Sanctum Dunnys – when, TBD. In terms of shows, even though it is only April, I am actively booking for next year at the moment so if you have a cool opportunity, I’d love to hear about it.
UVD: What would your encouragements/suggestions be for artists/designers that are either just starting out or who are trying to get themselves noticed?
J*RYU: Remember the motivation for why you do what you do and be honest about it to yourself. I started out using the art as a catharsis to balance out my hectic day gig life. With each subsequent piece I created, people started to take notice and subsequently, the invites to participate in shows and projects started to trickle in. However, to get to a point where I was being invited into a show based on my work and my reputation took some time, especially since I stuck to my guns and produce work that reflects who I am as a person, and not based on pop culture or other people’s IP’s. It is natural to want to finagle your way into a show that you didn’t get invited to cause you’re hungry but if you are consistent, have a unique voice, are easy to work with, reliable and have an inordinately strong work ethic, it will eventually happen organically. I still have all nighters to work on projects and travel all over to see and participate in events because I truly love the scene and the people in it. If a piece sells, great, but I do not take offense when one does not as it’s not always a reflection of one’s bankable viability. The main thing that counts is if you are passionate about your work, it will show. Everything else is bonus.
Also, all of the blogs like UVD, Spankystokes, ToysREvil, Vinyl Pulse, PlasticNPlush, Trampt, Clutter, Vinyl Creep etc are doing all of us a favor by bringing attention to what we do. We do not pay them a cent, yet they tirelessly canvas the scene’s happenings and releases to bring us news every day. Treat them with respect and appreciation. This goes for the stores and galleries as well because they are the critical lynchpins that keep our scene viable and continually help to grow the scene to new audiences. If you buy often, support all of the stores if you can, when you can.
If you have the means, travel and get to know your peers in the scene. It’s only through a communal effort of sharing ideas, tips and advice that we can see even more awesome art being created. Oftentimes it’s through these sharing of like-minded ideas that true friendships form and flourish as well. The people in this scene are known for being approachable and open to sharing. Participate and give back whenever possible.
Be original as much as you can. Self explanatory.
Use social media to your advantage by staying connected to your peers and your collectors. However, don’t bemoan every terrible thing that has happened in your life because it’s not a good look. Publicly trashing a company one moment and then kissing their ass the next because all you want is to be able to say you have a production toy *by that same company* is just stunningly stupid and unprofessional. People read everything you post and while you may be a kick ass artist, if you come across as a dick or miserable all of the time, it does alter the perception of who you are as a person.
In terms of work, my cardinal rule for myself is that I’d rather have a brilliant idea and mediocre execution than a mediocre idea and brilliant execution. It’s a very small percentage that is brilliant in both. Anyone can eventually hone and learn the technical prowess to sculpt or paint just about anything with enough practice. However, if it is just conveying the same tired and boring concept that has been seen a million times, there’s just no point. I completely accept the fact that I am NOT a master of my craft by any means and that I will be always improving my skill set with each piece I do. My go-to sounding boards are friends like Luke Chueh and Lou Pimentel. They are not afraid to hurt my feelings because they honestly want me to do the best I can do and not half ass it. Couple their honesty with the thick skin I developed as a corporate-world designer and I can rest easier knowing that I haven’t been blinded by my own rose colored glasses. As long as I am confident in what I’m am trying to convey conceptually and that it has the ability to resonate with people on a deeper level, I’m good. Plus, my peers in this scene keep me on my toes and I’m constantly awed by elements in everyone’s work. It just motivates me in a positive way.
Don’t be afraid of challenging yourself. I know that I’m known as the emo or the tree/ghost guy but in the last 5 pieces that have been for shows (Forbidden Love Child, Let’s Romp, King Krab-One, Heaven’s Son, This One’s For the Dreamers), I’ve actually not done my gothic style. This wasn’t because I am trying to deviate from what I’m known for, it’s because I am having fun exploring other techniques and subject matters where I am forcing myself out of a comfort zone. I understand that fans expect a certain look or style from their favorite artists but I also think that artists become stagnant if they keep doing the same thing over and over unless they have something new to add to the ongoing dialogue. Try to find a healthy balance and keep growing. Plus it’s fun to try new things!
Lastly, and I have got to say it – having your own production piece should not be your goal if you are not willing to foot out a ton of the responsibilities or money in conjunction with a company in the effort to get it done. The moment you decide that you are going to make a run of multiples of one unique toy for the purpose of selling, you need to start treating it like a business. That said, understand your market, don’t just make anything and everything in an effort to see what sticks and if you can build up your fan base large enough, then a potential production run might be justified. Otherwise, muddying up the communal drinking water with sub par, mediocre product is pointless. If you are not willing to foot your own bill to make & sell your own products , why should a company take that risk on your behalf? Cause you’re talented? Screw that, there are millions of talented broke-ass people out there alongside you. If it means that much to you and you don’t have the money, then you will find the way to get it self-funded if your product is as viable as you think. There are only a handful of people in this scene that can consistently say that a significant part of their income comes from the sale of their toys. Thus, take the conservative approach, question the viability of what you want to bring to the masses, and ask yourself if you are going to be contributing to the fabric of what makes this scene successful. It’s ok if it’s not, you just start at the drawing board again until you come upon a hit.