10 Minutes With… Kenji Chai

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It’s easy to mistake Kenji Chai for a motivational poster because of the number of life lessons he churns out in a single conversation, but it doesn’t hurt anyone (except the utterly pessimistic) to feel inspired every now and then, right? Aloft KL approached the established graffiti artist to showcase his comic-like artwork in its bar, W XYZ, in hopes of it bringing a different feel to the area and as the bar’s first initiative to play as a platform for local artists to showcase and sell their work. We caught up with the Sabahan native to discuss his art, how he overcame his obstacles, and what makes him swipe right on Tinder.

We see a lot of pop culture icons in this series like Michael Jackson, Elvis, and KISS to name a few, how does that relate to Aloft?
There was no brief for this project but when I think of Aloft, I think of it as an urban space, somewhere for people to chill out, and it has bright colours which reminded me of colours that pop. My art has that element, so I thought it gelled together.

Why these pop culture icons specifically?
I was born in the ’80s and during this era, they were the people’s favourite and each gave off an inexplainable kind of energy that we can still feel today whenever we see their work or them themselves. I also add a comedic element to my work, so besides hoping for people to feel these icons’ energy, I also hope it makes them laugh.

Ah, an emotional artist.
Of course! But I need to be rational first in terms of how I can finance my work, how to complete it, and only then the emotional aspect comes in. I’ve a friend who goes to art galleries whenever he’s stressed out because he says the pieces [there] make him feel calm. So artists don’t sell products, they’re selling feelings, which means people are paying for feelings! “What does this painting mean?” “I don’t know, but I want it because it makes me feel peaceful.” “But it’s 20k…” “It’s okay, it’s peace!”

Okay, that’s hilarious and very accurate. Is there one icon in this series that you relate to the most?
Bruce Lee is someone I really admire. He said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” So if we know five things but none are ones we have 100% expertise in, it won’t be sustainable.

So how would you describe your art?
Vibrant and positive. I always want to create work that will give the viewer a good feeling. My main job is to paint on the streets or for restaurants, and with graffiti there’s always a hint of negativity in the art. And more often than not, there’s always a political theme behind it and it can be a lot at times, so the way I see it is that I can create art that gives off the opposite feeling, which is why people who look at my work say it’s “cute” and that it makes them happy.

Why didn’t you take a stroll down negative lane?
There’s always two sides to anything. Take trying to deal with a problem for example, there’s a good and bad side to it but to know which one we emphasise on boils down to how we solve it. When I was younger, I’d blame my family for not giving me what I thought I deserved but as I grew older, I learnt that I can get whatever I needed by myself; if they can’t give me something, I’ll get it on my own.  

Do you remember when you had this turning point?
Not really… but I know that I had bad luck for the longest time. When I moved to KL, I had my wallet, phone, and motorbike stolen on separate occasions. Can you imagine having to take the bus everyday so you can save enough money to get a motorbike and then it gets stolen and you’ve to go back to taking buses.

The struggle…
Was so real! But there’s a funny bit to it… when I went to make the police report, I pleaded with the officer to help me find my bike and the police said his motorbike was also stolen. (Laughs) Even the police can get robbed. Funny shit. At the end of it all, I learnt that I need to be more conscious which in return teaches me to be better… but it was a pricey lesson.

Why do you say “the world is your wall” as opposed to the overused “the world is your oyster”?
(Laughs) ‘Cos I can’t connect with the pearl! The saying was created by my friend and my dream is to travel and paint. When we’re children, we’ve energy and time but we don’t have money; when we’re adults, we’ve money and energy but we don’t have time; when we’re old, we’ve time and money but no energy so in order to get inspired, it should be now. And because people keep repeating their life routine, they become accustomed and forget that they’ve a choice.

You really are a walking Hallmark card.
(Laughs) I know, so much feeling! But I really do find joy in graffiti. I thought that my life had to be determined by the system, a system determined by the people and if I wanted to do art as a successful full-time job, my only option was to be a graphic designer but everyone can do more than that. I felt that the point of my life is to paint — to get my hands dirty and feel nearer to my work.

How’s it worked out for you?
It’s been good so far. I try to push myself and my work harder, I want to be able to price my work at a particular rate to a point where I don’t have to worry about finances, but it’s harder now because of our currency. Everyone is affected by it of course, but thankfully it’s done nothing to damage my passion because I believe in it.

Do you use these quotes to get girls’ attention? Does it work?
(Laughs) No! I start the conversation by asking them if they’re taller than a hobbit, and when they ask me how tall I am, I say almost as tall as Gandalf. It’s a different sense of humour…

We’ll bet..
But it gets their attention!

Sure. We know from an anonymous source that you’re on Tinder, so what makes you swipe right?
The girl has to be energetic but Tinder is not easy. Go inside and read the information — from the picture, girls that wear all black but I feel they’re cool, and when they unmask, they’re normal people. But I would suggest using the app in other countries because the person you meet over there can educate you on their culture. I met someone in Jakarta, and I assumed that because it is a Muslim country there would be a lot of prohibited subjects but the girl I met told me she was at a naked pool party that served space cookies the week before I went over. I thought she was really cool.

Kenji Chai’s art is displayed and available for purchase at Aloft KL’s W XYZ bar from now until December ’15. Check them out below;

Aloft KL will continue to work and serve as a platform for other emerging local artists in 2016. For more information, click here