At the mere age of twenty-one, tattooist, illustrator, painter and all around visual alchemist, Jun Cha, has established a veritable name for himself. He has worked alongside Los Angeles tattoo legends, Mister Cartoon and Jose Lopez, collaborated with The Hundreds on a capsule collection and recently, was commissioned by footwear and apparel company, C1RCA. The limited sneakers entitled “The Black Tear Project” carry Cha’s signature look- stark, black and gray imageries that channel a reoccurring theme of spirituality and growth.
Cha is a unique character- not your average ‘ink practioner.’ He was raised in Los Angeles County, where Hollywood’s feigned glitz and glamour served as a backdrop to the city streets that catapulted Cha into a talented artist. Critics are often quick to discount or illogically dismiss that an artist’s style and vision is largely attributed to their surroundings. For Cha, his way of thinking, as well as the way he relates to life in general, was fostered by his experiences as a youth living in Los Angeles. Cha cultivates an acute response to nature, cultures, and people, including the transition in which these elements are processed. And in this interview, Cha reflects upon his craft, while articulating ideas of human existence, the challenges of self discipline and the art of survival.
EM: Other than the fact that you were born in ’89, can you share something about yourself that our readers might not be aware of?
My family background is probably vague to most people. I’m a first generation Korean, parents came to Los Angeles in the early 80′s, alot of my inspiration come from them.
EM: Where were you raised? And if you could share one adolscent memory, what would it be?
Santa Monica was home, and the general Westside area of Los Angeles like Venice, Culver City, West LA, were the corners that surrounded me most of the time. When I was younger things didn’t feel as serious until I made some serious mistakes-then when I started tattooing, everything changed, in my later teens I made a decision to start living and stop surviving.
EM: What was your first introduction to art and how did it develop into a career?
I’ve been drawing since what my mother says around 2 years old. I never really remember a time where art wasn’t my life. Over the years it’s developed into a point where I cannot-not- do this. Creating is embedded into the way I think, live, see and do everything,unconditionally. Nothing in this world can define whether I choose to draw , paint, tattoo etc.-I feel I was born to do it. What helped shape a career is the amazing men and women who’ve helped train me and expose the art world in it’s depths, where I can think critically about it and live through it instead of practicing a passive hobby.
EM: How did you cross-over from producing fine art onto canvas, to doing tattoo work?
I never saw them as divisions- true art for me exists in everything, and when it comes to trades the only difference is the tools and process that are used to define what you want to create. So when I was 16/17 tattooing, I was then, as I am now, painting, drafting, designing, and thinking throughout the work. For me, the creative process is a cohesive one.
EM: How did you hook up with Jose Lopez, Mister Cartoon and like-minded folks in the industry?
Baby Ray is the first mentor who I see as a father in my tattoo work, without him, the discipline, drive, mentality, and commitment I have for tattoos would not exist. Him, Mister Cartoon, and many friends in their generation grew up and knew the same kind of Westside I functioned in, so naturally all my older friends helped expose and circulate who I needed to see and learn from if I was serious about tattooing.
I met Cartoon through the big homey Lucky. Cartoon guided me to the biggest and most valuable thing I can hold weight for today–my education. Years ago, I was fresh out of Eastlake Juvenile Hall. Cartoon suggested to stop bullshitting and go to school-invest and take time to focus on building my mind, and use the opportunities that didn’t exist for his generation. Since then, learning at Art Center Pasadena has transformed everything I do.
Then there is Jose Lopez. Jose has been the overall factor in the growth of my tattooing, my experiences with the industry, my perception for people, and my life in general has gone beyond what I believed was capable four years ago. He helped influence and shape the drive I cultivate day in and out to always try and go past the obvious. Above all, he really has shown the value of balancing the career and work with life and being grateful for every day we have.
EM: What was your first tattoo job?
First tattoo…………Marijuana leaf on a buddies upper neck. The machine actually literally exploded toward the end of the attempt because I had no idea what I was doing. 16 years old and lost! But I guess the same time the machine exploded, so did my journey in tattooing.
EM: Have you tatted any celebrities? If so, which one- as far the actual project itself- has been the most enjoyable?
I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with Joey Castillo-Queens of Stone Age, Tiny Tameka Cottle, Drama-Fantasy Factory, and Jermaine Dupri-SoSo Def. I honestly enjoyed all of them, because they are all great people. But JD’s piece was definitely the most unique, piece- I tattooed a depiction of Janet Jackson as the Virgin Mary figure on his ribcage. Seeing a satisfied Jermaine Dupri, and Janet Jackson’s positive reaction to her portrait was fulfilling.
EM: In your tattoo work, including design illustrations, there seems to be an overlaying theme of religious figures and iconic heroines/leaders. Is this something you are interested in yourself?
I relate a lot of the content of my work to spiritual themes. With tattoos, I’m always open to everything, but I specifically like to emphasize the old master renaissance pieces. Especially now more then ever, where the larger consumer perception of tattooing has become so saturated it hurts…. I like to tie back to art history and the roots of art and how the value of each piece came to be. As for the works on paper, I focus a lot of those same spiritual elements to make connections to our contemporary society. In the illustrations, also in painting I like to focus on the tension between how us people today relate ideas like faith or certain belief systems to basic human relationships and how that all is defined in an environment like a neighborhood, or city like Los Angeles.
EM: Your artistic interests are diverse- from documenting “low-rider culture” to ancient artifacts- which in my opinion portrays a very humanistic quality; we are not so linear. But in your own words, how would you describe your artistic interests and where they derive from?
I ‘m easily inspired by sometimes the smallest things. I think any body who chooses to live in that creative space, after a while starts to see things differently. I always tend to gravitate more towards the psychology or underlying meaning behind what I see, so the source becomes basic, simple, and unchanging in every scenario. The source lies in human behavior-the basics like the psychology of people, relationship of families, individuals, social groups that get renewed and cultivated to create all these “cultures” and what dictates everything that gets produced within it. This and many other patterns that are repeated throughout history always interests me when you see it reflected in today’s world but only on the surface. Where there’s a never ending changing cycle of people, lifestyles, and products that reflect those beliefs, the foundation for what brings all those things together I think hasn’t changed.
EM: When it comes to your work, do you use photographs or live models? Does it differ in the outcome of a portrait?
When I paint, I work from both live in studio models, and photos. For me, there’s always a difference when you have the real person with you because the dynamic is real, and what I see and put down on the canvas is more direct and fluid. Versus the photos where you can still achieve that effect, but on a more indirect level because your not in the same space as the person your observing. Working from life, the energy is always real.
EM: Can you describe the types of projects you do when it comes to design work? Further, what processes do you go through when you are producing these specific pieces?
I like to keep things simple with design. Especially with my background in tattooing, a lot of what has been related to the public perceptions of tattooing has resulted in classic imagery being exhausted and exploited to a point where it gets out of control. I want to counter that to say a lot, with as little as possible. With the process I like to work in a production timeline, where every element from drafting, printing, sampling, and having every resource from art directors and vendors in sync with the initial process helps the end result come together with the original plan of what I intended. No matter what stage I’m in, I focus on working and thinking about the whole while every detail of what is in front of me is still being payed attention to–and at the same time the work and energy with the people that work on the other aspects of production, is just as important as the purpose of the piece I focus on-so the process becomes a real collaborative, and that’s a great thing to see happen.
EM: After working with street wear companies like The Hundreds, do you think you will continue to work in apparel? If so, are there any lines you would like to collaborate with in the future?
The Hundreds is the perfect example of a true collaboration. I never really expanded on a single idea as heavily as I did with TH, and seeing all mediums of what I do become a reality through a team of good people was real rewarding. I honestly didn’t pay attention to the “street wear” industry before that project, and as more work progressed, people like Bobby Hundreds allowed me to see and experience the same parallels in the t-shirt business that exists in the tattooing business and caused me to see things differently. After seeing the potential of what’s possible with both worlds, I will continue to work with apparel. As for the future, we’ll have to wait and see.
EM: You have a keen eye for photography. Is this an art you would like to advance?
I’ve always loved photography as a tool to integrate with my main work. And I plan to to direct it in a more focused direction for what and how I really use it within the context of painting, tattooing, and illustrating. In the end for me, the camera is secondary, the way I look at things in general comes first so my perception is what I”m going to push and advance.
EM: After reading your blog, you are quite philosophical. Are there any philosophers or even, writers who you gain inspiration from?
I read everything, and so there’s not one single individual that inspires me, but really a whole generation of people and minds or eras that I like. I tend to lean more to traditional thinkers and history, but try not get too biased with one way of thinking. So when one day I’m studying western European old masters, the next day I study Samurai Japanese art culture, then switch to youth culture in the 60′s and something completely different the next day. I guess the overall ideas I search for is how some of the weakest or the most underestimated people take the path in impacting the surrounding world through self discipline and some kind of spiritual commitment to what they do. Seeing revolutionary processes like that unfold inspires me to practice it religiously in my work.
EM: Are you working on any current projects outside of tattooing and painting?
At this moment my goal is to make tattooing, painting, illustrating and designing a real holistic process that not only works with my dialogue, but helps to communicate to a larger audience. As much as any artist cares about their individual career, I’m also committed to contribute in bridging the gaps within the larger community of each of those different genres of art so that more doors can be open, if not for my generation, then the ones to come years down the line.
Aside from that…….my priority project is my family.
EM: Additionally, are there any expectations/goals you have set for yourself for the near future?
Mainly I’m working on a series and expanding out my body of painting so you can expect a gallery presence. Overall, there’s a list of goals that will unfold in the future, but to sum up the main thing they all focus on is growth. Growth within work, growth within my mind and growth in making a very clear and connected dialogue between the work, me and most importantly you.