Last Updated:Jul 1, 2007

Interview with Jason Teraoka

Hawaiian artist Jason Teraoka’s first solo-exhibition in Japan is currently showing at Hara Museum – a selection of works centering on a series of 88 paintings titled ‘Neighbor’.

Born in 1964 on the small island of Kauai, Teraoka is a 4th generation Japanese-American who paints portraits of troubled characters inspired by media and daily life. I spoke to Teraoka about cars, films, and painting on glue.

Your paintings have a comic book/illustration quality to them. Do you have a history of reading comic books?
Not particularly. I do like drawings, so the solid lines in my paintings probably have that effect. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘comic’ thing though. Maybe more animation and cartoons from television. Warner brothers, that kind of thing. Japanese animation was scarce, but my first introduction to Japanese TV was stuff like Kamen Rider and Kikaida.. Those were huge in Hawaii. They had special edition models of some of the toys in the early 70’s, with special paint on them that were only available in Hawaii. They became big collector items.

Did you collect any?
I didn’t get too many as a kid. I lived on a smaller island so they were even harder to obtain. But I’ve collected a lot more since I got older. I collect a lot of other stuff too. I’m pretty nostalgic-minded.

What else do you collect?
I’m really into old cars. I have a ’51 Chevy right now. They’re a little rustic but fun to drive. I also have an old motorcycle– a ’62 Honda. But I don’t have a huge collection of vehicles; I try to keep one at a time. After a while I sell them off and buy something new. It’s a fun hobby, I like working on machines. The Chevy is the only car I have right now, so I drive it everyday unless it breaks down. The roads in Hawaii are really bad.

I heard that you’re also influenced by films, especially Hitchcock.
I’m a fan of his camera-work. I think his influence shows up in my paintings now and then. He’s really great at creating scenes of tension: there are these really drawn-out scenes of moments when things are about to happen, moments of apprehension. I like how films in the 50s and 60s have different time-frames where things take a while to evolve. TV and movies now are very ‘sudden’.

Are there any specific films that you like?
Not really, but certain scenes stick out in my head. I come across them randomly too. Hitchcock is probably the only director that I’ve actually sought out and watched. My favorite Hitchcock films are Vertigo and Rear Window. Growing up, there were a lot of reruns of 50s movies on TV, and I guess they permeated my subconscious in a way. The Technicolor and the lighting are so different from the starkness of contemporary films.

Do you watch contemporary films, and if so, do they influence your work also?
I love watching films in general. But I’m not one of those crazy fans either. Punch Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson) is a recent film that really stood out. I like that sort of dark humor, and that throwback to film noir. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s stuck in my head ever since. Lately I’ve been too busy to see new films.

The paintings in your ‘Neighbor’ series are similar in tone and colour. Do the characters all exist in the same world?
No, it varies. People who I see on the street can end up in my paintings. I’ll catch a glimpse of somebody while I’m driving, and somehow they’ll stick in my head and show up when I sit down to paint later in the evening. So my paintings refer to all sorts of things. I like looking at old photos too, from the 1930s-60s. Family photos, things you find at swap-meets, stuff like that. I like everything to filter through my mind before I paint them. I don’t really have a clear distinction between realistic and fantasy-based characters, which is probably why you see the Frankenstein and vampires in the 88 series. I used to draw a lot of character and cartoon-based figures, so maybe it’s a throwback to that too.

Do you sketch before you paint?
Not at all. My style is pretty immediate. I paint on wet glue, and that can cure really quickly – the texture keeps changing. So I work really quickly on the basic structure and the figure. As it starts drying, I can work on the details. One painting in the ‘Neighbor’ series can take up to 8 hours to complete sometimes, but the subtle skin tones need to be worked out really quickly before the glue/paint dries. The clothing and the background are solid, so I can do those later.

Painting on glue is an unusual method…
It was something that I discovered by accident. A few years ago, I became really frustrated with this painting I was working on. So I took a bottle of glue, squirted it all over, and applied more paint on top of that. I liked what it was doing, so I kept developing this method. The wet glue absorbs the acrylic paints in a certain way, so I feel like I can get a nice skin quality. I guess it’s a psychological thing too – I can really ‘feel’ the skin texture as I’m painting. As it starts to dry, it repels. That’s how I get the washes in the background: I get this foamy mix, and as I paint it over it separates, creating these interesting effects. I enjoy the way it changes as I’m working – it keeps things lively.

Do the characters in the 88 paintings correspond to one another?
When they’re all up there together, I feel like they create a dialogue. It’s like a storyboard, even though I work on each individual painting separately, and they all exist in independent realms. They all have a timeless quality though. The clothing is from the 50s and 60s, and I never paint cell-phones or contemporary gadgets that reveal a specific time. I also think that the themes are universal. A few of my paintings are based on my anger towards things I see on the news, for example, or just general feelings of frustration towards society that I need to vent about.

Are they political? Critiques on society?
They’re not political, but I try to ‘feel’ for people. I’m very compassionate. I mean, ‘compassionate’ is such a big word, but I try to commiserate with people. People have a misconception of Hawaii being a paradise, but there are many problems under the surface. There’s a huge homeless population, and a serious crystal meth epidemic. It’s out of control. But there’s a humor to my paintings too. My favorite form of humor is those that can make you laugh and cry at the same time. It doesn’t happen very often, but I aim for that.

The paintings look like moments from a narrative. Have you ever actually drawn a comic, with a story?
I don’t think I have the attention span for it! I like the idea though. Actually, I’ve always fantasized about making a film. I’ll see things happen, or I’ll walk by these random situations and I think to myself: ‘Wow, that would be great in a movie’. I mean, I can’t believe some of the people I see when walking down the street. If I wrote those guys into a film, nobody would believe me! Ultimately, I’d love to make a film, but I don’t know if it will ever happen. When I paint my characters, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking that it’s a character for the film that will never be made. Or the movie that is ‘life’ itself.

My image of Hawaii is blue skies, bright sun… It must be nice.
Well, sometimes I feel like I’m constantly fighting that bright sun. It can get a bit much. This must sound ridiculous to you! But seriously, when there’s so little change in season, the blue sky can get a little tedious.

Will you be coming back to Japan?
Yes, hopefully very soon!

Jason Teraoka, thank you for talking to us!

All images from: Jason Teraoka, ‘Neighbor’. Acrylic, ink and archival glue on paper; 20 x 16 cm each (88 pieces), 2005-2006. Courtesy of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.


Lena Oishi

Lena Oishi

Born in Japan in 1982, grew up in England and Australia. With a BA in Media and Communications and MA in Cinema Studies, she now lives in Tokyo as a freelance translator and occasional editor. Works include VICE Magazine, Japanese editorial supervision of "Metronome No. 11 - <i>What Is To Be Done? Tokyo</i> " (Seikosha, 2007), and translation for film and art festival catalogs. She can also interpret simultaneously if you give her enough candy. Lena likes making her eyeballs bleed after watching way too many films while eating ice cream in the dark.