At an age when some people would be suffering from a quarter-life crisis, Hawaiian native Aaron Kai has bypassed that existential fluke at an earlier age with his bold post-pop art. But it is not to say that he didn’t floundered beforehand, the young artist and clothing designer had a brief interlude of personal and professional dry spell and it was with a rediscovery of his childhood love of surfing and drawing did he reap the benefits of his hard work and determination. Though he’s more known for his waves paintings and murals, upon viewing his portfolio, his art ventures into the bawdy and even the raunchy. JUICE spoke to Aaron while he stopped by for his world tour in support of his collection with Official Crown of Laurel for the launch of his capsule line.
Even though surfing inspired your art today, since you moved to San Fran when you were 18, did the culture there help cultivate or even improve your art further?
Basically, I moved there for school. When I was in school, I really wasn’t [doing much art]… I was drawing here and there. I went to film school, I wanted to make music videos and stuff and then I did that a little. It did eventually [cultivate my art] – I was mainly focused on going through school and doing my thing, and I got a job and everything was kinda like whatever. Eventually I got really free, I quit one job and moved apartments, me and my girlfriend at the time broke up so I was just single and free so I was just like, fuck it, I’m just gonna start drawing and painting a lot and focusing on doing my work and from there, I revisited the waves; this is something that I used to draw in high school, so I went back to that and really focused on drawing every day and producing something every day. And so in a sense, moving within the city kinda inspired me again like, “Okay, I can get myself together and figure something out.” I was living there for a while but it wasn’t until four, five years later till I was like, okay, I’ve got to create something creative and I’m good at drawing so…
When was your big break as an artist?
I painted a wall for The Hundreds. I think it was when I painted their warehouse, because that wall was like 55 ft x 16.5 ft, so it was huge and I think a lot of people thought I couldn’t do it. So, I was like, “Yeah! I can do this.” I painted that and it got a lot of blog love, a lot of posts online and then from there I travelled a lot and painted a lot more and did more walls for other people. I went to Paris to go paint a wall and then came out on this tour and painted a bunch of walls, painted more walls in Hawaii and everything, yeah. I got a lot of magazine interviews after that and stuff. But with Official, we’ve been working on our project right before we even painted that wall [at The Hundreds] – months before. We were already working together on the collection last year.
Would you say that your professional career as an artist started last year?
It probably started two years ago. But I was working, I was making money and paying my bills but I wasn’t known as well. I was known – but not as well – on a smaller level. ‘Cos The Hundreds noticed me (they knew who I was), they actually called me to ask me to come and paint it, so like, they knew who I was, Official knew who I was, but I wasn’t known in the mainstream.
Because your art is mainly primary colours, why did you decide to incorporate black into the Aaron Kai x Official collection?
When I wear clothes, I don’t like it all to be so colourful like my art, so I do have colourful pieces. But like for this one in particular, I was thinking what hat I can wear every day, without feeling like “Oh, this is too bright or too much.” So, that’s kinda why there’s black and white pieces and some stuff that’s easier to wear every day.
Is this the same with your own clothing line Lemon?
Yeah, same thing. It’s just kind of like what I like to wear versus my artwork. I try to incorporate both of them together but it just kind of depends… because at the end of the day I dress a certain way and so when I’m designing clothes or hats, it’s kinda like I’m doing it, like, “How am I going to wear ’em?”
You’re primarily known for waves in your art, but you also incorporate parts of the female body – boobs and butts – into your work…
Um, I also do that, I did that from the beginning but the waves were more universal and it’s easier for people to wear, so…
… but the kids and younger people like more of the ratchet stuff.
(Laughs) Yeah, a little bit, kids like that but unfortunately kids don’t have the money to buy paintings. There’s no real point in painting like some graphic stuff like that, but I have a show in Hong Kong in May. For that one, you’ll see more playful paintings, kind of veer away from waves and more into cool stuff that kids are into.
Do you think that your art is encapsulating our culture today?
I think the youth culture in a sense, especially getting away from the waves and more into like, you know, drawing beers, girls, and smoking – that kind of stuff. It translates better to kids these days than a lot of the older artworks just because it’s a different generation and we’re into different things and different things make us laugh maybe – or maybe you’re not necessarily not into those things but it makes you laugh nevertheless. That’s what art’s supposed to do.
Free Bread seems to be popping up a lot on your social media, are you part of the collective? Could you tell us more about it?
Aaron Kai (Calls his manager Aaron Lau over) They wanna know about Free Bread. Free Bread, I actually did one of the designs and I’m part of the original people…
Aaron Lau He’s one of the founding fathers.
AK But he is the guy who runs the whole thing. Well, it’s kinda like a satire of what streetwear, music, or fashion is. ‘Cos in San Francisco, there’s a group of likeminded people that do things to the best of their abilities, but basically we make clothes but we’re not designers; we throw the best parties but we’re not promoters. But we’re also trying to build a platform, like a culture-stimulating site. Kids don’t read anymore, so might as well give them like an experience through events, through exclusive clothing.
AL So ultimately, Free Bread [means] free knowledge from anybody that surrounds you and you are willing to stand there to receive it. There are a lot of kids who are down with that, they wanna know, they want knowledge, they want to read interviews or watch interviews, they wanna know what goes on but then you’d be surprised by kids who are stubborn, who don’t want to take in any knowledge. We can’t help those people.
Sometimes when you do murals, because it’s so big, you have some help. Does it then become a collaborative process or do they just help fill in the blank space with colours?
No (laughs). I delegate tasks (laughs). They are usually my friends but I sketch the initial painting out and then they are mainly there to help me fill in. ‘Cos otherwise I’m just painting a wall, you know, painting this area yellow, it’s kind of a waste of my time. If I can get somebody to help me so [they] can paint it, I can move on and they can follow me and fill, so it just makes the process quicker. So, um, no collabs (laughs).
So you’ve never done collaborations with other artists before?
I have before. Yeah, I’ve done some watercolour paintings with my friends. I’ve done some actual paintings with my friends. But I rarely do it because a lot of us don’t have the time to sit down in a spot to even do work. Especially the people I want to collab with, they don’t really have extra time so… gotta catch ‘em at the right time to work on something.
We saw a photo you took with Tommy Hilfiger and then he showed you a photo of him with Warhol. Was it surreal for you because your work draws from pop art?
(Laughs) Yeah! It was crazy. I was doing an interview with Hypebeast and they were filming it, so I was paying attention to the video and saw my manager Aaron who’s hanging out with some older gentleman off to the side. I wasn’t paying attention ‘cos I was trying to focus [on the video interview]. He was just talking to him and then he cut me off [mid-]interview, “You know, I wanna introduce to you to my friend, Tommy Hilfiger.” As I turned around, “Holy shit, it’s Tommy Hilfiger!” And then you know, I just, wow. The first thing he did was like, “I wanna show you guys something I think you guys will like…” And it was him and Warhol from 1985, and we were just like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” He’s a big fan of like Keith Haring, Warhol, and Basquiat, so for him just to stop by and check it out on his own was like…
Did you guys talk about a collaboration?
No (laughs), I wish. I think he’s amazing. He’s like one of the first people to build a brand, a lot of the younger people really bought into and believed in it. And it was under his own name, so it was pretty tight too. Being an older guy, he sold himself to a younger crowd.
You also said that stealing your art is like stealing money out of your pocket, but have you considered the bright side, like in a ‘you’ve made it’ way?
Yeah, in a sense. But me and my manager, we try to take care of those situations when we can. ‘Cos we can get their phone numbers and text them and let them know it’s not cool. We basically get through this problem; it’s not okay to steal somebody’s ideas, there are laws against that.
The Aaron Kai x Official limited edition capsule collection is only available at VENUE.
More of Aaron Kai’s artwork can be found at www.aaronkai.com.