Hawaiian-born Aaron Kai will go anywhere to be a better artist
Playful portraits of society's fringe-dwellers have won him a growing legion of fans, writes Kylie Knott
Aaron Kai's recent "Vices" exhibition is not only a reflection of some of the artist's favourite things, but also a playful homage to Hong Kong, a city that works hard and parties hard in equal measure - and super-scoop measurements at that.
In the show, held recently at Above Second Gallery in Sai Ying Pun, the post-pop artist shows he's not backward in coming forward about his own vices.
His bright and bold works bristle with images of weed, women, booze, pornography, characters from The Simpsons … and Rolexes. In one piece, simply titled Best of Hong Kong, he rolls all these motifs into one, creating a Hallmark-like scene that would make an ideal farewell card for a long-time party animal departing the city.
"I love Hong Kong and how everyone's down for partying," says the Hawaiian-born artist, who turned 26 this month.
"I think a lot of people can relate to the show because it covered temptation and life's vices that so many people have experienced. But, to be honest, the show was really about what interests me - all about vices: women figures, drugs, weed, booze and Rolexes. A bunch of stuff I was into … that's what that show was all about."
This was Kai's second visit to the city. He was here during Art Basel 2015 when he hosted a pop-up exhibition as part of a world tour as well as painting two murals - HK Walls in Stanley and The Vaford Gates in Chai Wan - as part of the Chai Wan Mei art and design festival.
Recycled Ronald is Kai's fun nod to the ambassador of the Golden Arches and a reference to another personal vice: "Oh, yeah, I love junk food," he says. His Instagram posts showing him at work in his studio surrounded by empty pizza boxes bear testimony to that statement.
There is no doubt Kai is living the dream: he loves his job, eats what he wants, smokes what he wants and does what he wants. It's a lifestyle that would turn many a desk-bound city dweller green with envy.
"I used my passion for art to take me around the world. If I can do it, anybody can do it. I literally started with nothing and knew nobody. You can do it too," he says.
"I enjoy what I do, and I hope others enjoy my work and can relate to the subject matter."
Hailing from the small town of Hilo on the so-called Big Island of Hawaii, Kai's bucolic upbringing has had a major impact on his work.
"There was nothing really to do apart from go to the beach and skate, so I kept myself busy by drawing and painting and doing graphic design work," he says.
Since Hawaii has some of the best surf in the world, it's not surprising that Kai's early work was heavily influenced by the sea. His wave-like style is recognised globally. "Kai is Hawaiian for 'ocean' - so I guess I was destined to draw waves. I surfed before and after school. It was my life."
He was also a doodler, spending much of his time at school staring out the window daydreaming about the things that dominate his "Vices" show. "I'd draw whatever popped into my head. The piece Best of Hong Kong has a lot of doodle elements to it," says Kai.
While his work today is more than just waves and bold outlines, the artist still can't resist a reference or two to the ocean. In Wavy Marge and Wavy Krusty, two paintings from his "Vices" show, the hair on the portraits of The Simpsons characters Marge and Krusty the Clown cascade like waves.
And while Hawaii is where his roots are, Kai now calls San Francisco home. (He's been based there for the past eight years.) "There was more to do in San Fran for an 18-year-old. Since I landed, I've not stopped drawing. So it was like, 's***, I should take this seriously and do something with it'."
He took his own advice and now his playful portraits of society's fringe-dwellers have won him a growing legion of fans, including those in the commercial world. His works are a perfect fit for street-wear brands.
So far he's released capsule collections for The Hundreds, the men's clothing company and online magazine inspired by California's sub-cultures of punk, hip hop, skateboarding and surfing. He's also added colourful touches to a headwear collection for Official.
"I'm really excited to be working with these brands; they capture what I believe in creatively."
But while happy to join hands with brands that have found favour with skating and surfing fraternities worldwide, h artistic independence remains his priority.
"Of course, I want to grow and continue making art and collaborating with brands. And to keep on travelling and to do more three-dimensional work - stuff that's off the wall, more experimental," he says.
"But mostly, I just want to maintain independence and to be my own boss. To make money through art and not answer to anyone else. That would be the best thing in the world."