Junichi Tsuneoka was born and raised in Japan and upon graduating Waseda University in Tokyo, he has arrived in US at the end of 20th century. He founded STUDIO STUBBORN SIDEBURN to broaden his visual communication and to employ his visual language in art, illustration, and design. Junichi’s pieces are very unique, with highly communicative, assertive graphics, and contain clear signs pointing back to his strong design background. I had the unique opportunity to pick his brain, and discuss a variety of topics from cultural differences, design, work ethic, and more. Read below for the full interview…
Your work has been stolen and used for profit without your permission in the past. Do you agree with the statement that Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”? Is it a form of flattery or is it hard to overlook the initial crime?
I think a lot of people misunderstood the concept of “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal.” Especially students or younger artists are trying to achieve a style overnight. Style is something that develop by years or entire life of the artist. It’s a good learning experience to try somebody else’s style but that’ just for learning purposes. You never should use it for your work. Some people try to mix styles to claim that they made a new style but that to me is just editing and not something creative. So if somebody uses my art without even changing it, to me it’s like stealing my identity, time and effort of several years of my time. I work so hard and spend years and still struggle to search for the ideal visual form. Stealing somebody’s work to me is much worse than stealing money. The more I think about it, I guess I understand the flattery part but I don’t feel it.
So how exactly do you achieve the effect of blending Japanese pop culture and American urban culture?
It actually happened naturally. I grew up in Japan so I spent a lot of time reading Mangas. All the candy or sweet packagings and soda can designs in Japan are really pop too and I was inspired by it. Then when I was art student in US, I was exposed to things like graffiti and I was practicing those styles for fun. Interestingly, even though I thought I was trying hip American culture influenced work, people could see a great amount of Japanese feel in my work.
Sometimes when I show my work to my friends in Japan, they think it’s “American.” I thought it was really interesting that what I did was already a fusion because of my background, experience and interest. I then started researching what makes the “Japanese pop culture” look and what makes the “American urban culture” look and really pushed the border of the two.
Your apparel is all hand crafted and you stated that you only produces T-shirt if he you want to wear it yourself. Do you feel a lot of fashin designers design clothes in todays industry go for profit, and not for the general aesthetics of what they want their brand to represent?
I am not really trying to make a statement towards the fashion industry. Making profit is also important if it’s done right. To me personally as a designer, I have a lot of ideas in my head and my goal is to make them happen as much as possible. I actually fear that no matter how long I live, that might not be enough time for me to produce what I have in my mind. So I would rather make 2 designs than making only 1 design and double the profit. Then I feel like I am moving forward. I think I am doing the apparel project as a graphic designer’s creative output project, it will be a lot different aesthetics from any fashion industry. There are also many brands that only produce quality designs and go for profit and I think that’s great. For me, since I am doing everything by myself, I would rather focus on designing part.
T-Shirts, Sketchbooks, Concert Posters, iPhone cases, etc. You do it all! How do you find the skill, time, and preparation to juggle so many mediums?
I think I am fortunate that I have had a lot of great clients. Ever since I started the business, they gave me opportunities to challenge different outputs. They are the reason why I am still active. Some of the products are self initiated project but usually those were inspired by client work as well. I am looking forward to the next challenge and output that a client might give me.
What initially brought you to the states? Was the design industry in Seattle more appealing then Japan?
I graduated from a university in Japan with English Literature degree but I didn’t know what to do with it as far as finding a job. I always wanted to be some sort of artist but I was never confident enough to pursue that goal.
When I stuck with not finding a right job for me, I realized I really need to pursue that goal. I thought it probably doesn’t matter if I have confident or not otherwise I knew I would end up doing a job that I am not happy with.
I never had any art education so I wanted to sort of start over my education. Since I wanted to do something creative, I thought I should study abroad to put me in the totally different environment to get more creative stimulation. I chose Seattle because I thought it’s a good starting point for me since it’s closer to Japan than in the East coast. Fortunately, Seattle has an internationally recognized famous design firm, Modern Dog which allow me to work there for five years. I had many great experiences there and choosing Seattle turned out to be my ideal choice.
Many of your designs are character based, could you walk us through the creative process of coming up with one of these concepts?
It seems that a lot of candies, sodas and everything else that comes with a character in Japan. Even headquarter police department in Tokyo has a mascot character. I was heavily influenced by that culture. Creating a character really makes me feel that I am actually creating something. So I often use character based design for my main communication tool. So the character is my passion. My sketch book is filled with characters. Most of the potentially usable characters are drawn onto sticky notes. Most of the time I even start sketching on sticky notes. Because I have so many characters, I needed a way to organize them therefore the sticky notes. Most of my design are character based that means even my sketch doesn’t need a lot of space. It usually fits nicely in 3 x 3 inch area. I now have a huge collection of sticky notes books. I can pick the one I can use or mix and match them, then based on that, I will make bigger sketch when I need a little more detail design. When finished, the sticky notes will go back to the library. Everyday the character stickies are expanding and organized. It is becoming my most reliable source of reference. After that, I use a computer just to clean up the sketch for better presentation and for the final art. Most of my concepts are based on the stock of ideas that I kept over the years.
Do you enjoy any Asian films or anime?
I do like Asian films. I especially like comedies. In general I am no longer a big fan of anime as when I was a kid. Anime is usually a reproduction of a comic. I just like the original 2D quality better. Sometimes I do see a really good translation from the original to the animation which I do enjoy.
What plans do you have for Stubborn Sideburn in 2012? What kind of new products can we hope to see?
I am hoping to expand my apparel line even more. I am also interested in expanding my work to art prints. I am planning to do some really high quality print in low quantity. Something like wood block prints but I want to come up with my own method maybe combining some of the printing methods. I am hoping to achieve my own modern ukiyo-e type of thing.
Being an expert in California Roll Style, I was curious to know what is the biggest cultural difference OUTSIDE of art do you find the most challenging to adjust too, hailing from Japan but living in Seattle.
I don’t find it always challenging but language is still interesting to me and sometimes challenging since most of my basic knowledge was from books. Somehow it’s very inspirational visually too. For the first time I hear “monkey business,” I didn’t get it so it’s challenging for me to understand the context but I really liked the sound of it. It sounds really funny and I couldn’t help picturing a monkey in a suit. So it’s interesting just because it’s challenging for me.
Another example, “when shit hits the fan” now that’s very graphic! I have never been exposed to anything like that coming from an academic English environment. A lot of these English slangs still confuse me but at the same time I can enjoy the mystery.
Lastly, can you provide any advice for any creative out there?
I do what I love to do and I think it’s a very fortunate thing. When I struggle, I always try to think that and that keeps me motivated. Do you love what you do? If yes, you will be fine.
Want to keep tabs on Junichi and his studio? Follow his cookie crumb trail below: