Mava Moayyed meets T-Wei, the shy guy behind the bold art.
Clearly, T-Wei has a lot of fans. The comments on his latest Instagram post read:
It's enough to make anyone’s head swell, but this 26-year-old is as humble as they come. He declined an interview at first (until we lured him in with the promise of coffee), he refused to have his photo taken, and he couldn’t answer the question, “What pieces of work are you really proud of?”
T-Wei, born Tein Hee, is freelance illustrator who “dabbles in everything else”. He’s often found toiling away in his Wellington studio with a quiet determination. Despite his lack of propensity for self-promotion, Tien has already forged an impressive path with his craft: he’s exhibited work in Berlin and Mexico, had illustrations published in Rolling Stone Magazine, and amassed a dedicated online following.
Born and raised in Wellington to Malaysian Chinese parents, Tein has always considered himself a bit of a “cultural misfit”, a theme that sometimes crops up in his work. The rest of the time, his drawing are surreal and whimsical with well-rounded dimensionality. He draws on his dual love of bootleg toys and comics to invent complex characters who carry hints of nostalgia.
Commencing with the opening of NZ ComicCon, T-Wei has, somehow, been convinced to give a talk at the Art and Industry of Imagination conference this weekend. He'll also be exhibiting his work in an exhibition opening tomorrow in Wellington. I sat down with him to discover more about the shy artist behind the confident drawings.
It’s brilliant that you’ve been able to survive as a freelance illustrator. What have you been working on?
Yeah, generally I survive. Umm... I did a chocolate label a little while ago.
It’s a banana one, a collaboration between All Good Bananas and Wellington Chocolate Factory. But it’s not out yet. Hmm, what else... oh, Garage Project [brewery]. I do some stuff for them. They’re always pretty cool guys to work with. They always allow a lot of creative freedom, which I think is super important.
Do you complement that freelance work with selling your prints?
Not so much prints these days. I can never be bothered going to the post office. I don’t know, it’s a stupid thing – built up anxieties about going to the post office. It’s the worst place to be.
I feel like there are a lot of people who would love to do illustration fulltime but just can’t make it happen. Why do you think you’ve been successful?
I guess I’ve been around for a while. Everybody does it differently, like some people get agents or somebody to rep them and bring in the work. A lot of mine is just random one-off jobs. It’s really helpful to be well-known on the internet, I guess, because then you get stuff from all over the place.
Yeah, you do have quite a healthy following online – what’s your Instagram following at?
That’s really impressive.
It’s OK. Compared to other people, it’s quite average.
Well, I have like 100 followers so you’re doing better than me.
What do you post?
Oh, that’s nice.
Is there a conflict for you, in terms of not wanting to self-promote but also needing to put out your work?
Not so much with putting out work – I don’t mind that – but putting out selfies of myself to promote my work, I’m not a fan of. I’m quite a private guy, I guess. I think the work should speak for itself. Also, because I’m young, I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t know what I’m talking about or whatever. Or because I’m Chinese, they might think my work is coming from a specific angle.
So your Chinese heritage doesn't influence your work? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Nah, not really. I really like bootleg toys. Mass production things, like factories.
That could be considered Chinese influence? No, I’m joking...
That’s true! Maybe that’s my heritage coming through – a love of cheap plastic.
Do you think being an artist at a time where the internet exists has been an advantage?
Definitely an advantage. A lot of it's got to do with what you’re exposed to, as well. I just remember back in the 90s, the only thing you’d be exposed to is like pamphlets, magazines and library books. But now we get to see anything at the click of a button, anything from any region and it’s a lot more of a global thing.
That’s true. Any artists you look to regularly online?
I try not to because then you just end up aping what they’re doing, but I definitely have my inspirations. There are a lot of artists that I look up to, like ZEBU, Mcfetridge, Barry Mcgee and Grim Natwick. You can pull inspiration from anything. I think the strongest inspiration comes from everyday life because you’re in it, rather than looking at photos on the internet. Yeah, I don’t know. Cubes are cool.
Cubes are cool. You’ve got the Art and Industry of Imagination event coming up. How did you get involved with that?
It’s mainly the artists from White Cloud Worlds, which is a series of art books curated by Paul Tobin. He's a concept artist at Weta. Kate Jorgensen and Tanya Marriott are running it, too. Tanya was my old tutor at Massey. She’s a pretty cool chick. I’m going to be giving a small talk at the conference; not necessarily about my work but definitely related. Hopefully it goes pretty quick.
You’re not much of a public speaker.
No, I’m the complete opposite of a public speaker. It was something that I dreaded as soon as it was brought up, but I figure if it’s something I’m scared of, it’s probably worth doing.
In terms of being a freelance artist, do you find you ever have to do work you really hate or do you just turn it down?
Yeah, there have definitely been times. It’s always a trade off between your values and how much they’re paying. I recently turned down some comic work because the pay was not there. Comics are a weird one because it's supply and demand; if they can’t make money off it, why would they pay you a shit-ton, you know? Even if it’s a big comic, the illustrators don’t earn a lot. When I was 15, I really wanted to be a comic book artist and then I met one who worked for Marvel and found out he got paid like nothing.
That's quite sad. How many hours a day do you spend drawing?
It depends. Because I work freelance, it’s on and off. On a long day, around 14 hours, or some days I'll bum around and work five hours. Generally I’m working though. I don’t really take time off because when I’m not doing client stuff, I’m doing personal work. I think [that's] really important because you don’t want to stagnate.
What medium do you work in?
I work kind of like a comic book artist, so I stretch and then I ink traditionally and scan it onto the computer. Then I use Photoshop to colour and render it.
Tell me a bit about your work. What’s this one about?
This one is recent. It’s up to the viewers' interpretation but, for me, it was [about] being in primary school in New Zealand. Back then there weren’t very many other ethnicities, I guess. I think most Chinese when they’re young feel it, because of the different home life, even if they’re born and brought up here, like me.
What about this one?
This is just a tin toy. There’s no meaning behind it. I guess it’s kind of, almost, a bootleg Batman.
This one moves! What’s happening here?
It’s two guys, having coffee on their break. With dogs. Some pugs. A lot of these were done a while ago – maybe one or two years ago? It was a bit of a phase.
Oh woah, this one!
Yeah, it’s karma sutra themed.
Inspiration drawn from personal experience?
No comment? *giggles*
You can check out T-Wei plus a selection of other great artists' work this Friday at Academy Galleries on Queen’s Wharf, Wellington. Check out the website for more details.
Also, the Art and Industry of Imagination Conference is on Saturday June 4 . Speakers include legandary artists Iain McCaig, Nathan Jurevicius and, of course, T-Wei. Tickets are on sale now.