Written by Celina Rodriguez
Rooted in the Bay and raised in LA, Tommii Lim is an artist residing in Downtown Los Angeles. Working and living as a photographer, creative director, designer, and painter, we spoke with Tommii to find out more about his upbringing, what it was like growing up as an Asian-American artist, and how he feels about being an artist with today’s technological advances and shift of culture.
What is your name and where did you come from?
My name is Tommii Lim and I was born in Seoul, Korea. My family moved to the Bay when I was young but I was later raised in LA.
How did growing up in a strong Korean household affect your art? How did your parents feel about this?
My parents are very supportive. My parents always knew, from my childhood, that I would do something with art and they’re very proud of me. When I first started doing fine art painting I kinda started off from the Asian-American perspective because naturally I always felt like I didn’t belong. I was Korean but Korean-American, and to the Koreans here I was the weird artist dude, but being an artist I could float around to different types of groups. Korean culture definitely affects my art now, Korean language, the shapes of our letters-sticks and circles. I’m proud of the fact that I’m a Korean in this country and I’m trying to break the mold of how Asians are viewed in America. My dad is in his 80’s, he’s old school, came here when he was 18, but he reminds me of Han Solo. My parents just wanted me to live a good life and be happy, so they’ve always been supportive of everything I do.
Being a seasoned artist and working through several different types of mediums, how did you come to the conclusion of only painting in black and white and why did you choose your style?
I used to paint in really hyphy fluorescent colors, progressively getting more minimal. My strong design and art history knowledge stems from my experience in design and art. I’ve always been a fan of minimalism. Suffering from an eye injury really altered the way I started creating and limited my way of applying detail, which led to my black and white aesthetic. A lot of my style is derived from old Asian comic books and the simplicity of the Korean Language.
How do you like the new generation of artists and how do you relate with the new art culture?
I don’t know, I don’t follow current artists. I don’t want to be influenced by any other artists and I don’t buy into trends, I aspire to set them with my work. I studied so much art history and culture that I’d rather stay in my own vacuum.
Who are some artists and creatives that you admire?
Marcel Duchamp, El Lissitzky, Kandinsky, Stanley Kubrick, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, A Tribe Called Quest, Chopin, and Helmut Newton.
Have you had any mentors throughout your career?
Karl Bornstein, he’s a founding member of MOCA. He taught me the business side of art and he found an element in my old paintings that he thought I could expand upon which was the design aspects of my old paintings, and then I focused in on that, and that’s my work now. He was a huge mentor in my life.
My father is also a big mentor in my life. When I was a little kid, these older high school kids would chase me down in their pick-up trucks. One day my father saw that and he chased them down and beat them up. That taught me bravery and to always stand up for myself and what was right. That taught me to be me and never be scared.
You have murals all over the West Coast. What was it like painting your first wall?
My first wall was a collaborative wall for a human trafficking charity. I was very young, around 21, and when you’re young, you’re not afraid of anything. I had a hip-hop mentality so I always felt fearless. It was in front of 3,000 people, and Speech from Arrested Development was performing while we were painting. I was a little nervous but it was fun. Getting a taste of being around people and creating on a larger level lead to my love of doing murals. I got addicted from the first bite.
You overcame a major obstacle in your life and especially in your profession. Can you tell us about the bike accident that almost ruined your art career?
I got into an accident and lost consciousness and when I awoke there was a cut on my eyeball and it was green, red, purple, and spewing out white mucus. I went to the emergency room and they said I might lose my eyeball so they told me I’d have to wait for it to heal. The first month I had to put an eye drop in my eye every hour of the day for one month, so I couldn’t get a full nights sleep. I was going crazy. I couldn’t focus on my art. I had to go to the hospital every day. Finally, after a year, it healed and then I got the cornea transplant. It’s a cadaver cornea that gets sewn onto your eyeball. Two years after the accident I was asked to be in a bicycle film festival art show here in downtown LA. Spike Jones and other artists were in it and I knew I couldn’t let this go, it was a sign. People still remembered me and I was in this awesome show. It was like I awoke from a nightmare. After that show I ran with it, I was back.
What has been one of your biggest accomplishments thus far?
Overcoming my eye accident, and two years later being asked to paint a basketball for Kobe Bryant. There was a chance of me losing my actual eyeball so I had to get a cornea eye transplant surgery. I almost went crazy for a moment. So my biggest accomplishment was pausing my art career for two years and being where I am now. I’ve developed my own style, it’s undeniably me, and in terms of art, I’m most proud of that. I might not be the most famous artist out there but you’ll definitely recognize my style.
How do you think art and artists contribute to society?
They are the trendsetters; we are the trendsetters. To give you an example, a shitty neighborhood; The artists will move in and start painting, which leads to the hipster appeal and eventually to gentrification. One of the few occupations that are pure; just created from being us.
The art world can be very cliquey, how do you like working with other artists and what are your thoughts on that?
I love working with other artists that are not in that world. I’m not about the politics or any of the drama. I just work with artists that have the same vibe as me and that are open to really collaborate. That’s how you learn and you grow. I’m blessed to be surrounded by artists that are not trying to compete with me, we’re just each other cheerleaders and trying to help each other.
Do you have any advice to young artists or creatives that are hoping to do this full time?
GET OFF THE INTERNET AND MAKE SHIT. XEROX ART, A COPY OF A COPY, OF A COPY.
PUT YOUR PHONES DOWN AND BRUSHES UP.
You’ve been in the art world for years. What are some outstanding changes you’ve seen over the last 10 years?
The death of print media. We used to look at magazines for inspiration and we’d actually go to galleries and art shows. But now you just see it on Instagram and you feel like you were there. As the internet got bigger, so did the unoriginality and the copying of art. Same thing with music. The growth of the internet has expanded, a lot of people are more open minded, but now there’s so much content out there that it’s all meshed together.
Where do you pull inspiration from? What/who inspires you?
I get inspired by people and things that I see and conversations that I have. My paintings have turned into more of a diary than anything, and though it’s mostly abstract stuff, it’s how I feel and interpret that. I’m just trying to simplify my life and that’s my way of doing it. The things I appreciate the most in life now are the little things, my photography, my paintings, the way I enjoy my friends. There’s a dreaminess to my artwork, a sleekness to it, and I’d like to think that comes from a projection of myself.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a bunch of murals, one taking place in downtown Los Angeles on 8th and Santee this summer 2017. This is my first big mural in my own neighborhood so there will be a block party to celebrate it and have a proper unveiling. The proceeds will go to charities around Los Angeles. I’m focusing on a solo show this year. Dabbling in photography and creative direction so heavy last year, my main focus this year is back on my art. I’ll also be making my debut as a director dropping a few music videos this year.