How We Got Here — Jasper Wong

Interview by Charis Poon
Photos by Andrew Tran

Interview by Charis Poon
Photos by Andrew Tran

Everyone’s journey is a unique inscription through time and isn’t a path that can be retraced or duplicated. How We Got Here is a series of concise recollections of personal journeys as told by talented creative individuals with different backgrounds, careers, and interests who share their struggles and motivations to explain how they reached this point in their lives.

In our next story, we leave the continental United States to speak with none other than Jasper Wong. We speak with the Honolulu-based artist and founder of contemporary street art festival POW! WOW! on his early inspirations and the moves he made to build his career as an independent artist.

Jasper Wong

— 37, Honolulu —

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8 a.m. on the dot I was in front of the television set, eyes wide, imagination ready.

Mushroom-like houses in a forest clearing. Mutated-creature infested sewers of New York City. The Stone Age town of Bedrock. Planet Vegeta in Universe 7. Every Saturday morning growing up, I got to escape Hawai’i and explore the worlds of The Smurfs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Flintstones, Dragon Ball, and many more. There were entire fabricated multiverses and timelines where my parents weren’t arguing and my father didn’t abandon us, leaving my mom to raise me and my two younger brothers.

Whenever my family life became tumultuous, I turned to watching cartoons, reading comics, and doing lots of drawing to find stability and to distract myself from anxiety-inducing situations. I found fantasy worlds that were more appealing than the real world and started creating my own made-up worlds as I envisioned them.

As a kid attending a subpar public high school, there wasn’t any guidance for my next steps. I was told that going into graphic design was the way to make a career in art. My high school counsellor gave me a list of schools with supposedly strong graphic design programs and I went to one of them—only to be asked as a freshman to help teach senior design classes. So I put together a portfolio and transferred to the California College of the Arts.

At CCA, I wasn’t allowed to draw in the Graphic Design program, so I switched to Illustration. In the Illustration program, my professors didn’t think I’d ever be a commercial success and told me illustration and design annuals would never publish my work. So I submitted my drawings in pink and pastels of Mr. T and Hulk Hogan as little girls and got published.

Whenever my family life became tumultuous, I turned to watching cartoons, reading comics, and doing lots of drawing to find stability and to distract myself from anxiety-inducing situations. I found fantasy worlds that were more appealing than the real world and started creating my own made-up worlds as I envisioned them.

I was realizing that I didn’t have to confine myself to the parameters I was given. People with “authority” told me I had to be either this thing or the other and that mixing styles, merging disciplines, drawing the way that came to me naturally, didn’t lead to success. Out of curiosity, and some obstinance, I attempted doing all the things I was told wouldn’t work.

While living in Hong Kong, I wasn’t the right type of exhibiting artist. So I started a gallery. There wasn’t space or appetite for public art and murals. So I founded Pow! Wow! Festival. More recently, arts programs at my child’s public school were cut. So I launched my own program. I have never been satisfied taking someone else’s word for how the world operates—I will find out for myself and create the type of world I want to be in.

Initially, every new project I’ve started was for selfish reasons. I was doing it because I just wanted to make it happen, giving a big “fuck you” to the people who told me I couldn’t. But then, when I kept encountering success with my projects, they transformed into not being about me, or even the projects, but the ways the work changed neighborhoods and supported people.

As a young person, dreaming about other worlds and wanting to transform my reality into the life I saw for myself, gatekeepers tried to restrict me. Now, having worked hard enough to possess the keys to a few gates, I always ask myself how I am supporting others in passing through, making their imagined worlds real.

As a young person, dreaming about other worlds and wanting to transform my reality into the life I saw for myself, gatekeepers tried to restrict me. Now, having worked hard enough to possess the keys to a few gates, I always ask myself how I am supporting others in passing through, making their imagined worlds real.
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