Ever see something so badass/amazing/beautiful on Instagram you’re just inspired and need to know more? Well that’s exactly what happened with @joeyunlee. I saw his artwork on instagram and just had to meet him.
He graciously agreed to give me some of his time and so we scheduled to meet early morning on a very hot Saturday. He arrived a bit late because he was picking up some supplies beforehand and to my surprise, he brought a print of his work to give to me with his sincerest apologies, which was incredibly sweet and thoughtful of him.
Needless to say, I’m glad I got to pick his brain before he gets too famous. 😉 It was the most fun I’ve had “interviewing” someone.
Read on for the conversation I had with the incredible artist, Joseph Lee. And yes, he’s as handsome, awesome and real as he sounds/looks.
Tell me how this all started. I read somewhere that you’re self taught. You went to Purdue. What did you study? How long ago did it all begin?
I moved to LA 4 years ago. I finished school at Purdue where I was studying political science and theatre. It was pretty much just a piece of paper at that point. I came out here to pursue acting and the art just kind of birthed itself. I wasn’t taking art seriously at all… it was just something I did on the side as a hobby… but when I came out here, I started randomly meeting artists and I was inspired. It wasn’t something that was a passion of mine at the time, but seeing and networking with a bunch of artists… there was a confidence in me saying “I feel like I could do this.” Also, not to get all moody here, but my pops passed away about 3 years ago. I remember getting a stack of his childhood photos by coincidence. They were photos from around the same time I am now age wise. I would flip through these photos constantly looking at them and sketching them. There was that immediate shock of losing a parent but there’s no way to really explain how you’re feeling. The easiest thing for me at the time was just to draw. From there it became this obsession, this addiction and it has grown into what it is today.
How did it become this medium, acrylic?
I grew up just doing sketches and doodling with pencils. It just evolved into painting. I feel the more people you meet and the more places you go, you just naturally pick up on things. Some colors stick out to you… You’re at the supply store and you test it out. I came from a place where I didn’t have formal training, I didn’t have a mentor, so I was just kind of naïve enough to try anything because I hadn’t done it before. I still kind of have that even to this day. I haven’t been professionally doing this for too long so I still feel like I’m absorbing everything like a sponge.
So you’re a full time artist?
I’ve been blessed enough for it to be that way.
Before this, I was doing the whole starving acting thing- waiting tables and getting by. But this has been the greatest blessing for me not only because it came out of nowhere but because I can literally spend everyday doing something I can enjoy.
When did it become something where you were just like “I can do this full time”?
Social media is everything to the point where as an artist we’re so spoiled. I don’t know how artists got their work out there before social meida. Oddly enough, people will just reach out to me. It just kind of snowballed from that. One time, I got an email from this little boy in Malaysia. He sent the cutest email in broken English talking about how my work inspired his family and how it’s been helping them go through a difficult time. It came out of nowhere but just to hear little things like that… I’m not conscious of it at the time I’m painting…I’m not thinking about changing the world or someone’s life it’s just something I’m doing. But to hear a reaction like that, is gratifying.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I like faces. I like people. I have this insatiable curiosity and thirst for people.
What about people? Is it because they look nice?
No…That might encompass it. Maybe it might go back to being an only child. I grew up watching people trying to put myself in their shoes. Even to this day with people at least, it’s the one thing that’s the never-ending source of inspiration especially in a town like LA. There’s so many people coming in and out and it’s a city of endless characters. I can just walk down the street or be in a café, people watching, observing. If you think about it, it’s kind of insane but at least for my paintings it’s this non dialogue conversation I’m having where I’m trying to get to the core of somebody.
What’s your favorite emotion?
I like vulnerability. Not to say that it’s a good feeling, but I think it’s something honest and real. I think we all have a front, an exterior, a societal mask but I’m always in tune to whatever I can get to chip away with that. I follow more photographers than artists. I love portrait artists and people who can shine a lot on things that aren’t as exposed to the mainstream.
Is that the same thing that you find most attractive?
I don’t think it’s the most attractive but it’s the most relatable. With my subjects, whether it’s a person that I meet on the street or a celebrity, I paint them because I want to find the humanity in that person, not because of their position.
Where do you paint?
I have a place in a 1920’s building. No one uses the roof oddly enough and it’s a great view so I paint there.
Do you have any particular habits that you do to stay inspired or creative? Success habits so to speak.
I like documentaries. I like reading. I like meeting people. Recently I like taking portraits. I just bought a camera. Traveling. Meeting people on the street.
How about day to day things?
I have a big dog who for the most part is cooped up in a studio so I try to take her out as much as I can.
Music is also very important…
What kind of music?
Some John Coltrane, some Charlie Parker. I’m a huge hip hop head. It just kind of ranges by mood. When I’m painting though, I need some background music. I’m also a huge fan of Howard Stern. Have you ever heard of Howard Stern?
Yea but it’s not something I’d want to listen to all the time.
He makes interviewing a work of art. He has really broken it down. He’s ballsy and legendary in what he does. He’s so…. Brilliant at trying to break down people’s exteriors. He could have a nun in there and within minutes he could have her talking about sex. The way he’s able to channel through and make cracks… That’s something I really admire.
What is something someone would be surprised to know about you?
I’m full Korean….?
100%? That is surprising.
At least that’s what my mom told me (Joe is really funny if you couldn’t tell).
Whats your fave restaurant in K-town?
Ooh hmm actually…Aca grill. It’s an Argentinean bbq spot, owned by Koreans. It’s the cutest family.
You make it look very easy, but what’s the hardest part of the painting/creating process?
I think it’s doing something you don’t want to do. I’ve kind of found a way to balance it now. But at the beginning, you obviously have to pay your bills so you might find yourself doing certain commercial work like the 20th Biggie or Tupac painting…Those are things that get a little dry at times but I think you need to balance it with your own stuff. There could be worse things.
What’s something that art has taught you about life?
It’s the bible of all hard work- the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours rule. It’s harder to see in other mediums especially acting but with art, I’m at the studio and I’m constantly working on it. It’s something I can progressively see. You know, within the 2.5 years I’ve been doing it, I can barely look at a work from when I first started. I’ve seen my own growth. Even now, I hope that even in a decade I can hate my stuff now. Malcolm Gladwell was onto something.
What’s something that you’re currently inspired by/intrigued by lately?
Hmm…again it’s people watching. Just the little quirks and interactions I have with people… I don’t know…That inspires me. I don’t judge any of my subjects, I just paint what I see. Whoever it may be I don’t want anyone to think I’m devaluing them. That’s not my intention. As artists, we have a job to bring to light what’s around us. I hope to be a time capsule of my time in a way, where my kids can look at my work later on and be able to see what my life was like.
What’s something you wish you knew when you were 24?
Hmm, I moved to LA at 24…. I’d have to say reassurance in yourself. I think I spent all of my early 20’s trying to figure myself out and get over the insecurities that we all carry. My art is a blessing. I’ve found something that I know I’m working hard at and getting better at. It brings confidence and structure to my life.
Every year that I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of shed certain parts of myself. Trimmed the fat on certain insecurities. Somethings you just get tired of. It’s all anxieties and fears. As I’ve gotten older I try to get to the core of myself and meet people in the same vibe not the people who tire me out. That’s something that I wish I had known sooner.
Whats the biggest culture shock you’ve experienced coming to LA?
People, definitely. I hear people talk smack about LA and it obviously comes from a certain place. But I grew up being the token ethnic dude, and now I kind of have a chip on my shoulder. But you come out here and you find pockets of people. That was the biggest thing for me. You can just walk into a bar and meet 5 random people with different stories. Little things like that I find intriguing.
What’s your favorite color?
Red and brown. Brown because it’s mundane. It’s just boring. It just fills the background and red just because it pops. Again I know nothing- no technical, techniques of art… the compositions of color….
Yes you do!
I really don’t. It hasn’t been drilled in me in the last 3 years in an art school. It’s really just been playing and failing and figuring things on my own. Even now I feel like I’m beginning to get some sort of technique. At the end of the day I’m just a child playing around with crayons.
Who’s your dream client?
I’m a huge Kanye West fan. I’d love to do a piece for Kanye.
For him or of him?
Both. But do you think he’d want a portrait of himself in his living room? haha. I’m always honored to do portraits of people though.
So if you think this is just the beginning what are you hoping to do in the next 5 years?
I hope this isn’t a dumb answer but I really don’t have an answer. There isn’t an end goal to this. I’m just painting. I think…to see how it has evolved in this short amount of time, I’m really curious to see where it’s going to be 10, 15 years from now but I would like to get my work out as much as I can, do more solos, more exhibits, get a piece to Kanye. But yea it’s just to paint, just to keep working. I have this really old school Korean mom mentality- where I just keep my head down, get to work and things will happen.
Speaking of which, what does your mom think? Both acting and art?
That’s where I’ve been very lucky. She’s always been my number 1 fan. I think she kind of vicariously lives through me just in the sense that: “wow he’s found something he enjoys and he’s doing it.” For our parents’ generation they didn’t really have that type of freedom. They came here as complete strangers to this country. They had to figure things out day by day. I think she sees that youth in me and thinks “OK just do it.”
Fill in the blanks
In business I am a child. In life *chuckles* I am an adolescent. Hopefully it’ll catch up to the right place.
Best advice you’ve ever received:
“Just listen. Shut up and just listen to what the person in front of you is trying to say.” My old acting instructor used to drill that into me. It really changed my life. I realized that I used to be a terrible listener and was always preoccupied with what I wanted to say as opposed to having a real conversation with someone. He was trying to get me out of my own head and to really take others in.
I’m super proud to have a souvenir from this interview. It’s a print of the below. Lupita Nyongo has good taste doesn’t she?
He doesn’t know, but it’s the first housewarming gift I’ve gotten and it means the world to me. I’ve already named her. 🙂
Thank you so much for everything Joe.
How amazing is his art? Send him some love!
See you on instagram for more of my LA adventures.