Luke Chueh, Aaron “Angry Woebots” Martin, and Jesse “J*RYU” Yu of Army of Snipers
At last year’s Singapore Toy, Game, and Comic Convention, Jedd conducted a great interview with Max Toy Co’s Mark Nagata. This year, he shares with us a great conversation he had with with Angry Woebots, J*RYU, and Luke Chueh from the Army of Snipers. The Army of Snipers is an international collective of artists, with a wide variety of backgrounds including street artists, videographers, photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and graphic designers.
Angry Woebots, aka Aaron, started the group in 2011, and is well known for his designer resin figures and vinyl toys. J*RYU is a west coast-based sculptor and artist well-known for his Forest of Sorrows, the ongoing story of the ghost girl who haunts his works. And Luke Chueh is an award-winning graphic designer and painter active in the artist community in Los Angeles.
Jedd: Aaron, in 2008 you designed the album artwork for Fall Out Boy. If you could choose another musician to work with, who would it be and why?
Aaron: I’m a huge Muse fan, I’d love to work with Muse. I’m a huge Explosions in the Sky fan, and also Mogwai. Even the Killers, I’m a huge Killers fan, or Beck too. I think those are…Cornelius I would love to work with.
Aaron: I think it would all depend on the music. When I work with bands, most of the time I generally like to hear the music and so after listening to it maybe like be able to draw inspiration and a lot of it has to do with…Fall Out Boy, I talked a lot with the band and got their ideas and bounced it off my ideas to come together with the artwork that I did. So it would be great to collaborate as much as I can with the artist.
Is your art a good reflection of who you are as a person? Do you go into a different persona when you make your art, or are you generally that dark or angsty?
Aaron: I’m the total opposite of what I draw. I’m not angry, but I do find myself like…because I paint the same character over and over, I try to make different expressions as much as I can, so I find myself doing it while I’m drawing. It’s a weird thing, people notice it from the side…but I mean, I’m not angry at all.
J*RYU: He’s just “Laidback Woebots” is what he is.
Aaron: I’m very chill.
J*RYU: I feel it’s hard for me to deal with my emotions, I’m pretty laidback and even, it takes a lot for me to get sad or angry or things like that but when I do, I need something to work it off, so it really manifests itself in my work. At this point though I think it’s the type of theme that I can do without having to feel really sad or melancholic and dark. Now it’s more in the style of gothic, baroque architecture…it did emanate from a mode of darkness, but it is more about the style now.
Luke: I think that my work is definitely a reflection of who I am as a person. I think it is not…it’s only obviously only a certain aspect of who I am, but you know, I wouldn’t create what I do if I didn’t feel what I did. I think my artwork definitely walks a very fine line sometimes to being almost trite or, you know, fake, and the only reason why it works is because of the sincerity. If I didn’t feel that way, if I don’t feel the feelings I feel I wouldn’t be able to create the work without it feeling sincere.
Can you share with us what you’re working on now and what projects you have lined up?
Aaron: Now my main focus has been murals, ‘cause I’m in the transition where I want to paint different things. I took this panda and now that I travel a lot, I just want to paint him everywhere. As much as I can, over buildings, any kind of walls, anything, that’s my main thing. But on the side, we have some toy projects that I can’t really say, but people will really be stoked about because it’s with everyone (The Army of Snipers collective).
J*RYU: As a crew, we have a couple of major projects this year that will be revealed later, for myself personally I’m taking it back this year to work on prototype work for other artists, because I’m so ensconced in my own style I find it refreshing to work on something I probably wouldn’t work on…I have some other projects coming up as collaborations with artists this year.
Luke: Personally, I try and focus mostly on my artwork. So I will have a solo show, I have a solo show almost every year. I work directly with Corey Helford gallery in Los Angeles. But I also have plans on doing shows outside of Los Angeles. New York is coming up next year and I’m hoping to hook something else up…my main goal is to try and get into Asia. I believe that being a Chinese-American, I wanna kind of reconnect with my Asian heritage and hopefully I can be able to, with the help of events such as this, develop connections that will be able to get me closer and closer to Asia. I also have a lot of money in toy projects kind of coming up, with Munky King, with KidRobot, with Silent Stage whom these guys (Aaron and J*RYU) are closely associated with.
J*RYU: I think it’s interesting what Luke said…being in Asia is really awesome because we’re obviously Asian-Americans, but we grew up Western, whereas you guys are very ensconced in your Asian heritage and everything. So to be back here and to do what we do, especially because it’s not like what our parents really pushed you to do…like you know our parents want “be a doctor, be a lawyer”…
J*RYU: Being able to represent that you can do art as an Asian-American, a young Asian, and have it be okay to do that will help others find inspiration and we’ve seen artwork come from this region as well. We’re also fans as much as producers, so whenever we see other people do sick work or crazy murals, you guys have RSCLS crew here (Singaporean graffiti artists), those guys are insane. Every single one of them would be able to destroy galleries in the U.S., but how do you get them there? How do you raise the awareness? We’d love to see those guys over there, you know.
If you were not doing your art right now, what would you be doing instead?
Aaron: When I was younger, I would probably have like a silly answer but now that I’m older, I think I would probably settle down, go back to Hawaii, probably be a fisherman. When I was younger, all I wanted to do was hop around and party, blah blah blah, but since I’ve been going back to Hawaii, I’ve done more nature things: hiking, fishing, (going out into) the ocean and stuff…I’ve been doing this for a while and everything that I shot for has surpassed. So if my art career stopped now, I’d probably still be very satisfied. I’d be probably lounging around in Hawaii, getting fat, eating food…something like that.
J*RYU: His food is amazing, it seriously is. I mean we live together, his food is…
Aaron: I call it “common sense cooking”. It’s learning from parents and mashing it up with other stuff that I eat, but everyone in the household can cook, it’s just that they don’t have time to.
J*RYU: Whenever we know he’s cooking, nobody eats the whole day, we’re just waiting for dinner. It’s true, right? We’re like “oh my gosh, Woes is cooking? Okay, I’ll just eat something light at lunch. He’s cooking ginger beef soup?” Everyone just gathers around and…we’re like a big family.
Aaron: People will say like “why don’t you be a cook?” But I’ve worked in the industry before and oh man, I can’t handle the kitchen.
J*RYU: I’d probably go back to school, I think I’m in a mindset right now where I want to learn the things I’m interested in. Whereas like in university or in high school, you have to learn so many things that are not necessarily what you want to do, like organic chemistry or…I was an engineering undergrad, so I think thermodynamics was my focus? Just because I was good at it doesn’t mean that it was loved. So now if I went back, I would want to learn all the things that would pique my interest, whether it be medicine, humanitarian-type things, non-profit organizations.
Luke: When I was a kid, there were three things I imagined myself being. One is a comic book artist, another one is an artist and another one is an architect and I realized back when I was in high school that I didn’t have the discipline to become an architect because of the amount of education that is required to do that, and you know, the…comic book thing, the art thing just seems too crazy for me to ever actually reach for. So what I did instead was I went to school for graphic design, through that I learnt all my design theory and colour theory stuff which I employ regularly in my paintings. And I did think about what I would do if, say, the art thing fell out, which is always a possibility in my world. You’re hot one day, you’re cold the next, so it’s something I’m constantly thinking about and I think the first thing I would probably do is a career in illustration, if illustration doesn’t work I’d probably fall back on my graphic design work, if that doesn’t work out then…hopefully I’ll die before it falls out! Well I don’t have enough money to retire so I’ll have to continue working.
With designer toys, do you feel that toys can be art, and if so can you play with art?
J*RYU: You know, we’ve been having this discussion for a long time; we think that the name “designer toys”…well I personally think it’s such a misnomer, it’s not correct I think. Especially in the U.S., toys as a term is relegated to children’s playthings, whereas over here in Asia you have mascots for really large corporations like Sony or like a beer company. You guys have a culture, you’re used to seeing cute things associated with branding so you understand the culture of character design, whereas in the U.S. they marginalize it. By calling it “designer toys”, I think it’s kind of a disservice if you want to spread the idea of independent collectible creations. What I’ve been calling it lately is an “artist’s collectible”, in that it’s a collectible design in the style of an artist that you appreciate. When you see Luke’s work as so-called toys, you know it’s Luke’s work, Aaron’s work or my work, but back to the question – I think you’ve seen so many things online, pictures of peoples’ collections, they’re on the shelf and you see all the stuff on it…I don’t know one person who “plays” with toys. Like we have crazy toys in our house, well he (Aaron) does. But like ThreeA toys are obviously articulated, so what that says to me is to take the time for articulation, you want to give the person that buys them the opportunity to display it in a way that’s to their liking which I guess…is playing. But most of this stuff? You can’t really play with a Mugs Bunny. I guess you could hop it around on your desk if you want to, but I think it’s more of a commoditized art piece that’s affordable for people, instead of going out to a show and spending $3000 on a one-off, you actually have a representation of their work for $70 or $80 in your house.
Luke: Essentially the reason why I do toys myself is because my paintings have gotten to a point where I can’t’ afford my own paintings if I wanted to, but to be able to create something that my fans can be able to pick up for themselves and know that it’s a representation of my work, it’s more than just a paper print which feels…when you see a paper print, it’s fragile. It creases easily and with time and age it yellows and the inks fade but to have a toy, it’s like having a sculptural…you can interact with it, it’s tactile. It’s a great way of giving people an opportunity to have a piece of my work, at a price range that is infinitely more affordable.
J*RYU: I don’t think we as artists, as creators should punish those who have an interest in art because they are not at a financial position to necessarily purchase the art, meaning like if you have someone out of college or in high school, they might love artwork just as much as those who have a six figure salary. Should we punish them by not having something a piece of work that they can afford, or do we only decide to stratify our work for a specific audience? I think if we’re smart, we create products that spread across a spectrum of enthusiasts out there so that even somebody who wants to spend $50 can afford something. Our friend Chris Ryniak is the best: he didn’t want (to make) the Dunny (dolls), but his son came up to him and said “Dad, my friends want one of your monsters”, and his son is like 12 now. And his dad was like “well, I can’t give you one of these toys buddy, these things sell for $100 -$150 apiece.” So he said yes to the Dunny series because now somebody can buy a piece of his work for $10, and that meant more to him and that way he can say to his son “oh, you can go to Urban Outfitters or you can go online and buy one of the things like that”, and at least they have a representation of his work and it means more than just the perceived equity of an artist’s work.
So it’s like gaining accessibility?
J*RYU: Yeah. He (Aaron) comes from the graffiti world, it’s called “getting up” if you get on a wall, right? Doing a pop culture object is like “getting up” in living rooms, offices, display rooms all over the world, and it’s a representation of being in someone else’s living space. If that’s not one of the most personal things you can do as an artist and for your fan base I don’t know what is, because they took the time to buy it, to search (for) it and then to display it and it’s in their home, they can look at it, it’s part of their life, and I think that’s really important. The money comes and goes, but to have that one relationship doesn’t, it’s there.
Your works are all really dark, so why is this darkness so appealing to people, is it because people can relate to it?
J*RYU: Everyone experiences hardship. And sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your hardship. Seeing it in artwork, seeing it and hearing it in music, it reminds you that you’re not alone, at least that’s how I see it.
Luke: Well you know in Asian culture and society, it’s “go.” They don’t sit and like give you time to cry or be sad, it’s just like “pick yourself up, just do it”. For us it’s like you can’t enjoy the good unless you have the bad. So if you’re in an office setting and you see those inspirational posters with an eagle that says, like, “soar”? “Be motivated!” That’s so empty, I think to be very ballsy and very honest to put your emotions out there, that’s the most honest thing you can do, because you’re not alone out there. Some people are very optimistic, they’re just like “hey, everything’s great! Tomorrow is going to be a great day!” and all that stuff, that’s great. That serves a purpose, but we need the flip side as well. Life isn’t easy. We’re both a little bit older…we’re all three a little bit older, and been through stuff, so it’s going to come out in our work. Also like how my work is a contrast of cute characters and dark situations, you want to see cute characters in cute situations, just turn on the TV and go watch a cartoon. Because there’s plenty out there; they do it a lot better than I would ever do it. For me it’s about that contrast of the cute character and the dark situation…
J*RYU: You’re like the world’s greatest trickster! You know why, you tempt people in with the cute at first, but then when they stare at it closer they’re like “wait a minute…”
There’s something more?
Have you guys ever done something outright “cute”?
J*RYU: Oh yeah, definitely. My Mum has little cute paintings.
Aaron: I’ve had requests for pets, because I always paint this panda and stuff? I’ve had couples who would ask me to paint like their pug or something that looks like my character.
J*RYU: I get cake-toppers. All these goth couples, they send me emails. They’re like “Hey J-Ryu, we’re getting married in New Orleans at midnight on Halloween, could you like make a cake-topper…” I guess it’s cute and dark, you know.
Many thanks to the guys from the Army of Snipers. For more info, check out www.armyofsnipers.com. And hats off to Jedd for another fantastic interview!