Jacky Tsai talks skulls and fashion

Contemporary artist Jacky Tsai tells Tessa Chan how he uses fashion as an affordable medium for his work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:59am

JACKY TSAI IS STANDING next to his giant skull sculpture, chatting in Putonghua to one of the Lane Crawford staff when we meet at the store in the IFC Mall. After nearly eight years in Britain, the young Shanghai-born artist still speaks in hesitant English, albeit with a faint cockney accent.

"Art is always a voice in me, which is pretty cool as I don't have any language talent," he says.

Tsai is in Hong Kong for the department store's "Fashion Meets Art" event this month that he will feature in with four other contemporary artists. "It's the first time I've done an installation or exhibition in Asia. I think it's a nice introduction for the Asian people."

It turns out that the sculpture was a last minute addition - he had planned to bring a giant leather skull, but had problems with the travel insurance.

"We decided to do a new one. When I arrived in Hong Kong I just felt something was missing. So I stayed up until 1am doing all these splashes - Jackson Pollock style."

He pulls out his mobile to show me a video of himself flicking paint all over the place while the Lane Crawford staff look on nervously.

"Actually, it was quite weird for a print artist like me; I've never done live work like this before. And I was dressed like a banker because we had just been out for dinner. I ruined all my clothes."

Floral skulls have been a Tsai trademark since he created one for the late Alexander McQueen in 2008.

"A few years ago probably very few people knew that skull came from a young Chinese artist called Jacky Tsai, but now I've been doing it in different 3-D versions, and more people are noticing me, which is cool," he says. "For me the flower skull represents life and death. The beauty in decay, rebirth."

The theme recurs in the five limited edition posters he's brought to Hong Kong this month, on the rainbow-splashed murals spread across the department store and in his new eponymous fashion line. And while some fashion designers consider making clothes an art in itself, Tsai simply sees clothes as a different canvas on which to lay his prints.

"I treat fashion as a really good medium to spread my art to a wider audience. It's more affordable compared to art, so you can spread out your spirit and culture everywhere."

Despite his stint working for McQueen, Tsai says he's found the industry hard to break into. "It's always been pretty tough for me to do fashion because I'm not from a fashion background. That's why it's hard to get into the shops now. People will recognise my T-shirts first, so when they're selling, then hopefully more stores will like the dresses, coats and suits."

Classic Chinese motifs also appear everywhere in both his digital collages and his fashion, a nostalgic nod to his background. There are leaping acrobats and lion dancers, kitsch stockinged legs and lotus flowers.

Tsai admits that living abroad can make you romanticise about your own culture. "It gives you a different angle to look at where you're originally from. Especially in a Western country; every day you receive a new message, a new culture. I like the contrast. But sometimes I look for the common part, with all the elements in harmony."

He was 22 when he moved to London to start his master's in illustration at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design after graduating from the China Academy of Art. His solo show at Salon Contemporary in Notting Hill marked his debut into the London art scene, but not before a few setbacks.

"I was a pretty average student in China, but when I came to London people treated me differently," he says. "It's a different system. The Chinese system didn't fit me well, but in London they thought I was really talented. An international office director at Central Saint Martins brought me from Shanghai to London. That was a turning point in my university life."

He had planned to go to France, but was told his work wasn't good enough for the university there. "I met a French professor in Shanghai and he said my work was rubbish. So after two years studying the language I had to quit. Seven days later I met the director from Central Saint Martins. It was like destiny. I think I went to the right place."


His parents remain in Shanghai. "They don't realise what I'm doing to be honest, because they're pretty traditional Chinese people. They think my artwork is scary. Now it's selling well they at least start to realise that maybe there's some kind of value behind it, but three years ago they said: 'You have no future on that path'. They just hoped I could be a good designer, or a banker, and have a secure life. But I think now it's a pretty good life I have. I can do whatever I want, and in my own way."

Tsai defines his style as fusion.

"Computers are my pen. I can do nice hand drawings, but so can many Chinese guys. I want to do more of a mixture - hand drawing with a digital style," he says.

"The technique is quite easy, so it's got to be the idea behind your art which defines you. It's never going to be what you are doing, it's what you are thinking. It's not about the medium. Even if it can be copied a thousand times it will still have value if your concept is good."

Tsai has just turned 29, which according to him is a significant year. And it looks like it'll be a busy one, too, as there's plenty he wants to do before he hits 30.

"I want to do everything while I'm young. I want to challenge myself to do different work. A few years ago I was only a 2-D print artist, now I'm doing sculpture and last year I began doing fashion as well. I'm just checking off my challenge list," he says.

"By next year I want to complete 20 or 30 original artworks in a mixture of mediums, and have a big solo show in London.

"But my next move will be to take all the traditional Chinese mediums - like Chinese embroidery and ceramics - and do something Western with them, something pop. I'm just telling you this secret now."

Also on his bucket list is to get beyond being known as "that guy who did the Alexander McQueen skull".

Surely it's time he moved on from using skulls everywhere in his works then?

"Yeah, you're right. I need a different symbol," he says, laughing. "Maybe a Buddha next year."

Jacky Tsai's posters are available at Lane Crawford stores in Hong Kong and Beijing and at lanecrawford.com His clothes will be available at jackytsai.com later this month