Creative Spotlight Episode #16 sheds the light on L.A. poster artist Kevin Tong, who is one of the most interesting illustrators working in silkscreens today. He has quite the big following releasing limited edition posters and clothing. He has released prints for Chuck Palahniuk’s novels (Fight Club), world famous bands (Circa Survive, Beck, The Black Keys), TV shows such as ABC’s LOST, and world renowned films such as Star Wars. He writes an excellent blog called Tragic Sunshine, on which he gets very detailed about how he works. This interview not only captures his works, but his work ethic as well as I have enclosed several of his videos depicting his creative process. We also chop it up about the industry, films, and more! Read below for the full interview.
How did you get started? Was art something you always enjoyed?
Kevin: If you mean how did I get started professionally, then I would say it started in college (California State University Long Beach). Before that, drawing was really a hobby for me and I was oblivious that people actually did it for a living. My parents say that I was drawing actively from the earliest years of my life.
Describe Your Creative Process a bit?
Kevin: I proceed to get creative and sometimes, stuff happens.
How was it working with Mondo Tees to create a poster for such an iconic film (Star Wars)? Did you feel a lot of pressure not letting down fans?
Kevin: Mondo is a great team to work with. They are totally legit and they make sure the art is approved and licensed. It’s a good feeling knowing that you’re on the same team as what you’re drawing. That being said, it does add pressure because “the man” will see it. As for fans, you can’t care too much. No matter what you do, someone will hate it and someone will love it. If you let the mixed reactions get to you, you’ll never get anything done. All you can do is just your best and I think that’s what fans in general can appreciate.
I love that we both have illustrated and published children’s books. That is very inspiring for me. Tell us a bit about ‘The Earth Machine’ and how that came about?
Kevin: “The Earth Machine” is a children’s book that I both wrote and illustrated. It was pretty much the first thing I did professionally. I started it when I was still a student and finished it shortly after I graduated in 2005. The publisher, Red Cygnet Press Inc, was offering a nationwide open submission contest to students to get a children’s book published. I submitted a manuscript, story board, and a finished illustration and I put the competition in its place. It was pretty cool.
I actually sat down with Esao Andrews a few weeks back who worked on a Circa Survive poster as well. I asked him if he only made posters for bands that he was fans of himself. I was curious as to what your take on this was as well.
Kevin: I prefer to do posters and work for bands I like because there’s some level of familiarity. I mean, if you had to fight someone, wouldn’t you fight your friend? Sometimes I do work for bands I don’t really listen to because I have a good idea for them or they present a unique challenge. Or it pays well.
On the other side of the coin, have there been images or perhaps musical artists that have been problematic to create or work with?
Kevin: There are a few bands that are just so bad. As in their untethered sense of entitlement is their real talent. Over art directing or making ridiculous demands when they are pretty much getting custom art for free. Most bands are pretty cool when they too are lowly guys trying to make it in this uphill world and they appreciate what you do for them. Occasionally, some of them are just little bitches.
‘My Tetris Heart’ is a fantastic print! Are you a gamer at all?
Kevin: Nope. I have never owned a game console. Tetris is the only video game I like.
How about films or anime? Got any favorites?
Kevin: I love movies. I can watch movies and work at the same time, so some days I watch five movies or a whole series on my computer. It’s tough to say what my favorite movies of all time are, but I will say that right now, Christopher Nolan is giving all directors a lesson in reverse Michael Baying it. Pixar is doing an amazing job too, letting people know a kids movie doesn’t have to lower everyone’s IQ.
You recently created your own sketchbook. They seem to have been created uniquely and used with a specific demographic in mind. Tell us a bit about that project.
Kevin: The demographic is illustrators in their late twenties with misprint and damaged prints and a strong need to recycle them, namely, me. As far as buyers go, people in general seem to like them. I made them with gridded pages too, so they can just be used as a normal notebook in addition to a sketchbook.
What can we expect in 2011? Have any projects or live events?
Kevin: 2011? My usual goal of NOT being reduced to working for the mob is still in full effect.
Projects? Well, when you do the kind of work I do, the clients think their project is ultra classified and sharing any details of it will jeopardize American lives. I guess it’s safe to say I plan to keep doing what I have been doing, but I want to start making my own products again. The sketchbooks were just the start. I have a new website I plan to launch if I can get it done soon.
As for events, I always do my usual Flatstock and Renegade Craft Fair events. This year, I am also doing Wonder Con in San Francisco. I am in the next two Gallery 1988 shows. I also have a good amount of client work lined up, so it looks like 2011 won’t be the year of sleeping like I had hoped. I’ll have my coma year sometime.
Thank you very much for the interview. As a final word, do you have any tips for upcoming artists and designers?
Kevin: I often wonder what singular piece of advice I could give someone. I always get asked and I can’t always give a full on lecture. What could I say, in a few sentences, that would be the best advice for an aspiring freelance illustrator?
After some thought, here it is:
It may seem intimidating, but you are the boss of the client. The are coming to you because they need your abilities. Don’t allow a jerk off client to call the shots or to define your worth, otherwise you’ve defeated the whole purpose of being a freelancer.
Want to keep tabs on Mr. Tong’s whereabouts and projects? Check his cookie crumb trail below: