Artist Interview: RICH TU



Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones

This week’s artist Rich Tu has too many roles to be classified as just one type of creative. He is his own built in design team, which you can see and admire in his smartly art directed, visually bold illustrations and designs. His style often shifts, embracing the true nature of a Scorpio’s mantra of “transformation”. Whether his artwork is hot pink or floating in a pool, it’s distinctly his artistic voice. Read on to see what he had to say to Ray Jones about life and urban pole dancing.

RAY JONES: How many creative roles do you have right now?

RICH TU: I have a few different types of creative roles. I’m working right now as an art director, it’s more of a control role, a quality management role in terms of the work. I’m also an illustrator still, I still get various commissions. Designer, I do a lot of editorial design, separate from any agency stuff. About four or five different roles.

RJ: Do you feel that they require different mindsets? Is there a difference between Rich Tu the Illustrator vs. Designer?

RT: I don’t think so. I think I’m at a place now where I’m better at putting myself in the work, injecting my own point of view. It comes a little more naturally now, where before I used to have to kind of have to fit whatever the role of the job was. Which still has to happen, for sure, but now people expect me to bring myself into the work and make it look like a Rich Tu thing. Or make it feel like ‘this’. Because that’s where our mutual interest lies, it’s not hard to bring myself into it anymore.


Cover/interior of NPR’s 2014 calendar


RJ: When do you feel you fully embraced this sort of varied way of working then?

RT: It was probably a few years ago, or maybe like two or three years ago when I kind of just really hit that stride and felt very natural in that process. In the beginning when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to find your voice, there’s always a little bit of discomfort when you put something out there. You’re so concerned, this has to feel on, this has to feel this, this has to feel that… so you put all these unconscious barriers in front of the execution of the work. But now, it just feels like it flows a little quicker, a little faster. It’s a little more natural now. Sometimes there’s a real specific project, let’s say it’s for Broadway or something. So it has to feel like 18th century Russia or something. Something like that. There’s real specific aesthetics that you have to attach to all that in order to make it feel authentic to that world and I’m very aware of that. Also I get other commissions that are based on my own involvement in them. Like, I’m the missing piece creatively – that just feels like such a free flowing experience. I can kind of just toss it out there.


Artwork for Matilda: The Musical lyric video


RJ: Is there a turning point project? When do you feel like you just said ‘Fuck it! I’m doing everything’. [Laughs]

RT: Probably the “Survivor” series. That was probably a turning point project, that felt real natural and the way that I approached it was, I want to do this work that just feels right. It was just out there, it was different from any of the stuff I’d ever done. It was bigger. Also, people started to see me. They saw that and wanted more of that and then it became okay for me to push that world. Before I wasn’t sure about pushing work like that. Now I feel a lot better about that.

RJ: What can you share about that show? What inspired a lot of that for you?

RT: That show took place in 2012. It was about the mindset I felt of the time, when a lot of people were thinking about all this random apocalypse talk. There’s also what felt like the degradation or the mindset of degradation when it came to the world, if that makes any sense. I just wanted to sort of channel all of that stuff. Creatively I was in a place where I just left a long term agency gig. I was like ‘man, I am beat, I am so beat right now, I just need to do work that is from left field.’ Like a palate cleanser, something that just feels like it’s of the moment. That’s where the series came from. I just holed myself up at the studio, I was there for what must’ve been two months. I’d just sleep there and make the stuff, I just came out of the creative cave with the work. Then getting it framed and doing that whole business, getting people to create an infrastructure to actually have the show displayed. That, I worked with my friend Michelle Caganap, she helped organize all that stuff and get the show really popping. She also got me the Norwood, then after that I was able to sell out the gallery and all that stuff. They got me to Scope, they got me to Basel, it was a big roller coaster ride because I was in a place where I just needed to make work that screamed.

RJ: Nice. I can imagine that felt incredibly cleansing.

RT: Totally! Yeah but then after a while, y’know, you don’t want to be attached to like a specific body of work because you felt like that in the moment. So immediately it’s like ‘pivot. Okay, fall that way, that’s cool, then turn this way, then turn that way.’ Like, when you get a tattoo and it feels like you’re mirrored to it, and you are. Then people regret the tattoos that they’ve given themselves. Man, why? That’s just how you felt in the moment, just be okay with it and move on and pivot. You felt like that, it’s okay, it’s a time capsule, y’know? As much as I like that work, my next series probably won’t look like that.

RJ: Yeah, that’s a good move. Definitely.


Illustration/design for SLAM and KICKS magazines


RJ: Describe your process.

RT: What kind of project are we talking about? Because the process, I guess, changes depending. Something like ‘Survivors…’ the literal process is I just kind of sketch things out, I put the body of imagery together and then I start applying it big, those really big drawings. So I bought 200lb Arches cold press paper and I just put them up on the wall and would just make the drawings. There wasn’t a drawing that went unused, it was a good experience just because it felt very economical, but the pieces felt like they existed, and a lot of that series sold. It made back everything that I put into it, which is nice.

RJ: Excellent.

RT: Yeah. For something that is client based, very specific, I’ll start out with images that are more like a mood boarding experience. I’ll pull images that feel like they relate to the materiel. Like going back to the 18th century Russia thing, if there’s a show about that, I’ll pull up images that relate to that, pull up stories, films, books, any sort of literal interpretation of the time. I’ll also pull out any sort of images that feel like they relate based on whether it’s aesthetics or colors. Or if I want to bring a specific type of emotion into it, I’ll bring that to it and then will just start to make images that feel like they relate to the world. I’ll start building the visual language. It’s a longer process for sure. There’s a lot of hands in that pot specifically because you’ll be dealing with designers, with production people, as well as a client and creative directors and partners. That conversation is much bigger, but still putting down the images and figuring out what the language is and how to have something consistent, as well as bring ideas into the mix.

RJ: Is it fair to say you approach it as an illustrator, or at least utilizing your illustration training? You gather tons and tons of reference, you’ve got to do studies, make sure it’s appropriate and then you pitch it to the art director. Several different concepts, hopefully they go for the better one.

RT: Exactly. The one that you like. I’ve become better at pulling out pieces now. I’m less ashamed of them all. Like when it comes to straight up illustrations and stuff, if I don’t want to show it, I just won’t show it. Even though sometimes I feel like I need the minimum three or the minimum four. Then I’ll punch out one. [Laughs] I’ll just fart it out sometimes.

RJ: [Laughs]

RT: But I think there’s always the understanding that that isn’t the strong one. I’m much more comfortable now with bringing strength visually to something. Even if that’s an idea that I don’t think is the best idea, I can still make it look good. I believe in that, y’know? That is going back to the illustration training. They teach you to pull blood from a rock. Even if you’re not into it, you have to execute it and make something exist. Especially when it comes to clients that are super nit picky and have ideas of their own, they could be great ideas, you have to work with that and just either the aesthetic is great and the concept is on point, that is the best situation. But even if the idea isn’t the best because of either the idea’s already been done, or it’s something that, like, the client loves, or the creative director loves, or that you love, but you know you just have a lot of heart for it so you’re trying to push it out the door, you can always make the aesthetic’s good. I believe. There’s always that…

RJ: …way to make it yours, yeah.

RT: Exactly, whether it’s in the craftsmanship, whether it’s the in the concept.


Blood, Sweat and Tears


RJ: Who are your influences? Or what are your influences rather.

RT: Right now I’m just looking… I don’t know if you feel like this… are you just kind of over looking at other artists now? [Laughs] Right now I’m looking at a lot of fashion. The Sartorialist, I’ll look at that a lot. I’ll do my usual blog roll of seeing what’s hot in music and in fashion and also, TV and film. I watch a lot of movies. I just saw “Nymphomaniac”, Lars Von Trier’s volume 1. I’m actually trying to do a photoshoot right now with Udo Kier, in a couple weeks too. I’m very excited about that, so I’m trying to pull those pieces together. I love that. I’ve been going back into Jodorowsky’s films, I’ve been going through the entire Scorsese film library for awhile and I was really into Fellini for awhile, the usual art school fair. That’s what I’m really into. I love media and I love long form storytelling, the combination of images or what that entails. So when you watch something like “Santa Sangre”, the Jodorowsky film. Even though they’re disparate images, the body of it and the spirit that it creates in that — within its scope, kind of informs a thing. Like, I just saw “Her”. That’s something I just saw. Spike Jonze; great movie. The look of it, the vibe of it, the way the story is crafted, as well as the parallels that it made to real relationships, even though it is a real man and an Artificial Intelligence. The story or the look of it is so crafted, it’ll probably inform something that I do later. Even if it’s not literally, maybe in emotional content or something. And then, the drama of that… is awesome.

RJ: Yeah, turning to things like film and music and just separating yourself from the typical visual content, because it’s so tired sometimes. I guess we’ve just grown up in that generation, hitting space bar and looking at new things constantly. At this point I feel like I’ve seen millions of images.

RT: Yeah! Exactly. I feel like we’ve been so inundated with shit that we’re just… to funnel it out through yourself now, it’s just the natural state. I’m comfortable with that. It’s cool. I just don’t like looking at individual artists now. You see, the new thing now as an artist is the all-over creative. You see how fucking diverse these mother fuckers are now? Like, A, you’ve got to be diverse as that to catch up. To be on point. B, if you specialize, it feels like there’s a weakness there. To do something super specific now, I’m just over it, y’know? That was the thing that always bugged me about illustration in general. I get it that they were trying to teach us narrative and to have vision, but the consistency part in having ‘the look’. I’m like, can’t we just do what we want? I guess I couldn’t articulate it at the time but now I feel much more comfortable just giving that look, making that look. Just to make it effective on its own terms.

RJ: I don’t think we could have appreciated it the same way if we would have been given that control so early. I’ve been teaching and something I’ve noticed in the psychology of the teacher is you don’t always let students get what they want, even if it’s just that you’re withholding that compliment, just to try and see how far they’ll take it. Because once people know that they’ve achieved something, they get lazy and they stop stretching those boundaries. So, it’s probably good that they were like, ‘No no no, you’ve got to specialize, you’ve got to specialize’ so we got good at *something*. [Laughs]

RT: That’s true, that’s totally true.

RJ: Right after school all I did was web design for the most part and worked on Carrier Pigeon. I illustrated maybe a dozen [freelance] things that I’m proud of, but overall most of my effort went into just, like, learning to talk to people, learning to just sell, [Laughs] not even to be an illustrator. It’s just interesting.

RT: Once we graduated it felt like the industry crumbled on itself. We couldn’t do what our teachers were doing, like I couldn’t be that famous illustrator that did that thing because I have massive ADD [Laughs] and I don’t like to focus that long on something as extensive. Just doing the one thing… I don’t know. My look from a year ago isn’t the same as my look now, I just want the freedom to change.


20th anniversary redesign, STOMP brand NYC


RJ: Last question. How do you feel about those subway break dancers?

RT: [Laughs] All of them? You know what, the ‘Showtime’ kids, it depends. Like if they’re good, I’m kind of into it. If they’re shit, I’m just like ‘ugh, this is such a slog…’ to watch this kid do like that ONE spin, that one pole spin move AGAIN. Though it is cool when they do like a backflip or they’re grabbing the upper handrail and then they do the backflip. I kind of want to do that. I’m very jealous. Showtime kids, although they’re real annoying when it’s on a really long train, like the Delancey-Essex stop to like Marcy on the JMZ. I’m like ‘Fuck!’ This is a long time to be here, doing this. The ones that are actually in the subway just b-boying, I’m into that. I like that. What’s more annoying to you? Subway kids or saxophone instrument playing guy on the subway? What would you rather have?

RJ: Ah! That’s like choosing the preferred hell? [Laughs]

RT: [Laughs] Yeah, which preferred hell.

RJ: [Laughs] Is he a bad saxophone player?

RT: Ah… he’s a loud one.

RJ: I would go with the b-boys, they tend to be done in like 30 seconds.

RT: That’s true, they have those routines down pat sometimes. They’ll hit it right when the train is about to get to the next station. I’m like ‘wow your timing is… pretty good.’ Sometimes they’re terrible, which is annoying.