The accidental artist: meet Hong Kong's Jonathan Jay Lee

Lee is one of the most in-demand illustrators in the city, yet if his parents had had their way he would never have picked up brush or pencil

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2015, 6:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 11:02pm

Jonathan Jay Lee wasn't supposed to be an artist. "My parents are very traditional Chinese and to a certain extent there's still that stigma attached to being an artist," says the 30-year-old Taiwanese-American illustrator, whose instantly recognisable, realistic but somehow hyper-real style is suddenly on everything from comics to gallery walls to car showrooms to trainers. High art rendered in the style of mass culture, it bears the influence of everything from Western comics to manga to fashion illustration.

Born in the midwestern US state of Ohio and raised in Utah and Hong Kong, Lee only started drawing because his older brother did - and because he felt it was the only thing he was better at than his high-achieving sibling, now head of science at an international school in Tokyo. Given the reservations of his academic parents, Lee indulged his love of art privately, and when he decided to apply to art school he did so secretly. Fortunately, he received vindication in the form of a coveted place at New York's Parsons School of Design.

"Secretly, what I always wanted to do was art," he says. "There were a few people who encouraged me: teachers, friends' parents. One friend's dad, who was a big businessman, told me he'd always wanted to be a grand piano player. People like that encouraged me to go all the way. And then, after I was rejected or put on waiting lists by Hong Kong universities, I got into one of the best design schools in the world. I'd been applying in secret. My mom said I had to do it, it's too good  an opportunity not to take up. And because I was so determined, eventually my parents felt: 'He must know what he's doing.'"

While he was still a student, Lee enjoyed perhaps the biggest professional break imaginable for an aspiring illustrator raised on a diet of comics: a commission from the legendary Marvel. "I went to [leading global comics convention] Comic-Con. The big guys, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, hardly see anyone: you have to leave your work and see if your name appears on a list. I managed to get an appointment, then missed it, and finally got to speak to an editor after about two hours of trying.

"I'd given them my thesis, which had a Hong Kong triad theme, and the editor said to me: 'I can tell you right now, Marvel's never going to publish this.' But it turned out his wife was from Shenzhen, and he was really interested in the subject matter, plus he was commissioning a series of independent versions of Marvel characters, so he commissioned me to do a Hong Kong triad version of [classic morally ambivalent Marvel anti-hero] The Punisher."

By way of convincing his parents that he could make a living from art, Lee bought his dad a Dunhill pen with the proceeds.

He stuck around in New York in 2007 for a year after graduating, figuring a creative hub such as that would be a better place for a young illustrator looking to make his way than conservative Hong Kong. But that turned out not to be the case.

"I came back to Hong Kong for a holiday, and I got offered loads of work here. Then the financial crisis hit, plus my family are in Hong Kong, so I came back. Everyone thought I was an idiot. But it turned out my existing clients in New York didn't care where I was - I could have been in Timbuktu."

Since then, his work for clients has included playful ad campaigns for Kronenbourg 1664 and San Miguel Light, which you'll have seen if you spend any time in bars; beautiful gift cards for Harvey Nichols; a showroom installation for car brand Smart; HSBC's splendid Made in Hong Kong box at the recent Sevens; hand-painting 106 pairs of trainers for uber-cool Italian footwear brand Superga; and he has also provided illustrations for the South China Morning Post.

He's also published a story in noted US sci-fi comic magazine Heavy Metal - he says his ultimate aim is to get into comics, and animation - and is a stunning visual chronicler of the city he calls home. Lee's work presents a Hong Kong that is at once familiar and jarring, humdrum and fantastical, a day-glo version of a grey concrete city filled with typical Hong Kong signboards, wet markets and high rises, but also with bold daubs of colour, roads and pavements blue like the sea, dramatic contrasts of light and shade and infusions of old-world glamour.

Lee, unsurprisingly, says he's a romantic where the city is concerned. "When we draw Hong Kong, there are details we forget. If you draw a building from your head, you forget all the pipes that hang off it - the details that make it Hong Kong. And you can cheat digitally, and add details that aren't really there.

"I feel a social responsibility. The presentation of Hong Kong is often horrible. Hong Kong is just used for its aesthetic, but Hong Kong is also beautiful on the inside, and I wanted to get that across. In the past few years there's been an influx of artists coming to Hong Kong. I think people are just drawn to the city because they love the place."

The city's artistic community, however, remains small and tightly knit, as Lee found out when he was asked to act as a judge of live battle-format illustration competition Secret Walls. "I found that it was really hard to judge something like that, when all the competitors were my friends."

Lee has collaborated on group exhibitions with many of those artists, although his next group show, in July, is with two illustrators from New York: James Yang and Aya Kakeda. It came together after the former approached Lee about the possibility of exhibiting in Hong Kong. He's also had five solo exhibitions, the first in 2009 at the Fringe Club, which he put on himself - with a little help from his friends.

"I got them cold-calling people to attend. A lot of people turned up, and I was offered work by a few of them. I couldn't have done it without my friends.

"One thing I've learned is the value of friends and family. Why do this, if not for them?"