ME: My teen son told me about your comics that he admires on Instagram and suggested I contact you. (He brought me luck as you promptly responded to my message. So generous of you!). It must be satisfying to be embraced by Generation Z and beyond. It’s not every artist in her thirties that can reach teenagers. Explain that gift:
ESJ: Haha! That’s probably the nicest compliment I’ve heard since the pandemic! I don’t think about reaching any specific group when I make comics. My comics are personal, raw and vulnerable using hand made props and sets. And I wonder if those aspects of my work may seem like it is approachable!? Maybe we are missing these elements today in real life when we interact with each other, so it feels fresh? Who knows, I’m grateful for all the love I can get!
ME: If stranded on a desert island, what 5 art supplies would you bring?
ESJ: I would bring an anatomy book (you can spend hours and days looking at human body parts), watercolor/gouache set (I usually mix these into into a travel palette), carving knife, plier and wire.
ME: Favorite new craft skill acquired during COVID:
ESJ: Experimenting with resin/ silicone mold making.
ME: Ooh that resin is a tricky business! I once tried mixing resin to make necklace charms with my kids in the basement of my in-laws house. My stinky liquid mixture never solidified. Also no one told me to crack open a window so I almost asphyxiated my entire clan. Nonetheless, carry on!
You sometimes share your journal with your notes and drawings. Do you have a favorite notebook? Favorite pen/pencil?
ESJ: My favorite used to be Moleskine pocket size sketchbooks, but lately I’m just using whatever empty sketchbooks/ notebooks/ journals I find at home. My recent goal is to finish unfinished sketchbooks. I also used to bind my own sketchbook with a bunch of weird maps/ papers I collected (earlier question) but I’m trying to really finish unfinished/ unused journals that I own. I’m very particular about the pencil! I have only been using the Pentel GraphGear 500 Automatic Drafting Pencil (0.5 mechanical pencil).
ME: I could listen to you wax on about sketchbooks and pencils forever (hint, hint-your future podcast about all things stationary).
Are you schooled in the Arts or self taught?
ESJ: My immigration journey began with art. I was very fortunate to have attended School of the Arts in San Francisco (now named Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts), a public, audition-based, alternative high school. I learned traditional art for high school- and went to San Jose State University to major in Animation/ Illustration. All the miniature and Koreangry work is self taught after college!
ME: Tell us more about your immigration story:
ESJ: I came here by myself at age 13, back in 2001. (Technically speaking, I was here as a tourist visa and overstayed my stay and became undocumented after 6 months of being here). How I came about is a bit blurry- my mom and halmoni thought I would have a better chance of living here than in Korea, so they booked me a one way ticket to the United States and enrolled me immediately in local middle school. I stayed with my halmoni (and my mom’s sister’s side were all here at the time) till my mom came after 3 years with my brother to join (but she eventually had to go back). I was very fortunate to receive DACA back in 2012, after living in the US for 11 undocumented years. I’ve adjusted status through my marriage back in 2016. Being undocumented has been a huge identity for myself–and I try to talk about my experience in work because for longest time it brought shame and drama in my life. I visited Korea back in 2017, for the first time in 16 years–and that experience baffled me. (My zine #6 is about homesickness) https://koreangry.gumroad.com/l/Koreangry6
I am currently a permanent resident (green card holder) and haven’t decided to become a US citizen yet, since I have to give up my Korean citizenship to do so.
ME: Where does your rage, so apparent in your art, come from?
ESJ: In the beginning my rage came from blatant racism I’ve experienced from strangers. Whether it was intentional or by mistake, I was tired of those uncomfortable interactions that I felt responsible for. This rage also came from the fact that I was not taught/ didn’t learn how to respond to these experiences growing up, from family to school. I was furious how normalized these experiences have been for myself for so many years. Looking back, I’ve been furious at myself for putting up with these moments and never speaking up about them.
ME: Kudos for channeling your rage in such a unique, productive way! Most of us just succumb to our couches and binge-watch shows—grumbling to ourselves about the idiocy of mankind. (Or maybe that’s just me).
I deeply admire your bravery in combining flagrant Korean pride with a critical eye. What are the top three things you like about being Korean:
ESJ: Fiery energy, compassionate, adaptable
ME: Top three things you dislike about being Korean/Korean culture:
ESJ: Stubborn af, too self-critical, gossipy culture
ME: Your art is unique for not only the words you use but the materials and scenes you create in such smart detail. How did you first come up with your unique artistic vision?
ESJ: I’ve always gravitated toward handmade miniatures, and I felt very true to my materials telling my story in that medium. I feel comfortable because I enjoy what I am making. It’s not clean and perfect; I love using recycled/ old/ found objects for my props and sets. This gives me a feeling of less pressure and helps me to not to be too precious about the things I create.
ME: Who else in your family is funny/creative/artistic or are you a diamond in the rough?
ESJ: I owe a lot of my art career to my public education in San Francisco. It didn’t come to my attention that my family were very creative people until recently. My mom just started learning how to draw and paint after she retired. My halmoni has been obsessed with coloring books for years. Seeing them pursuing creative activities now, I wonder if they weren’t in a position to pursue art in their time… which makes me feel both sad and very grateful. My family also enjoys a good crude joke here and there, and it doesn’t sit well at times, so I think that’s where my twisted sense of humor comes from.
ME: When did you first feel like an artist? Did a certain accolade cement the deal?
ESJ: I remember the very first time I visited an art store with a list of different types of materials I needed to buy for my first art class. I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified by how much each of those materials cost… which is still a very true feeling I have as an artist, being excited about the materials you get to use to create your vision and being terrified of what it might cost ya.
ME: Can art change minds?
ESJ: Art can show you that there’s a whole lot of possibility in an angle, yet it allows you to decide whether you want to change your mind or not. In short, I like to believe that art can change your mind, but it doesn’t demand you to change your mind.
ME: I don’t know if you are like me in this–I try to (in minor ways) defy stereotypes about being an Asian woman, e.g. I like to tell people how much I dislike math and science (which I realize make me sound like a drip). I also tend to over-tip because I’ve heard a stereotype that Asians are bad tippers. Do you consciously do things to defy Asian stereotypes?
ESJ: Hmm that’s really interesting… If I’m hearing stereotypes about Asianness- I either ask why they think that way or I will just SHUT IT DOWN. I Love making art about myself and sharing too much about who I am online, and that itself probably speaks to me existing beyond the stereotypes placed on Asian women.
ME: You’ve written about your feelings/concern that Asians go in and out of vogue and how that impacts us. Myself, I keep thinking I better write a novel before we’re less trendy and we go back to being underrepresented peons! Are there things you want to do before time runs out?
ESJ: I’ve been frustrated by the public attention (even within friend groups) we get when we become trendy, but not during this rise of Asian hate crimes. I question this a lot. I feel as if the attention is intended to only serve the curiosities of the general public. My dreams have been changing here and there, but lately I’ve decided to focus on mental health and resting, so I can continue to do what I’ve been doing into the future.
ME: In one comic strip I admire (see part of it below) , you write that the Hallyu wave has failed us (Kpop, Kdramas, Kfood). Explain:
ESJ: The comic was coming from a place if Hallyu was so successful, yet why do I feel annoyed at our success? When it comes down to it, I feel as if I didn’t see myself in “our success; I didn’t see myself in this global phenomenon, because I didn’t agree with the effect of the Hallyu. Yet when the harmful sides of Hallyu come into question, I still feel responsible for it.
ME: I read about some Koreans being hostile to Korean female celebrities just for having short hair. I imagine your art which has highlighted the importance of Black Lives Matters and fighting for LGBTQ rights is met with some vitriol. How do you deal with the hostility?
ESJ: Absolutely not well. I have my go-to regimen. It was very hard in the beginning, but I learned to accept that in order to do what I do, I need to be off the phone, learn social media tools to protect myself (getting easier with block, delete, auto-delete specific words), and don’t think too hard about hostilities. I KEEP thinking about new ideas, new projects, and new things to work on outside of my comic as well, which helps a lot. I also like to remind myself how good it has been to connect to many other Korean Americans through my comic, so I try to remember that 🙂
ME: What are your self-care musts:
ESJ: An iphone game I call Burger game, dog video watching, lighting incense, and eating good food with my husband.
ME: Pussy Fire Art (PFT)! Elaborate please:
ESJ: This comic came from the self-realization that I’ve been leaning on my fiery anger to create my comics, but often felt burnt out from that. But I’m learning to channel that same fiery anger to use in my favor to keep going with passion, without getting burnt like a toast!
ME: What are the best conditions for your art making? Do you listen to music? If so, who? Do you eat snacks and if so what? Do you wear certain outfits?
ESJ: Love listening to music, used to love drinking wine (currently on hold). Don’t eat any snacks when I work, since I have a lot of stuff so I don’t want to accidentally eat something that I shouldn’t! I love wearing comfortable outfits so I can use the bathroom quickly.
ME: Do you come from a family of revolutionaries or how else do you explain how you emerged as such an iconoclast?
ESJ: I like to believe that my unconventional immigration story of having been undocumented for many years built up who I am. My existence was a questionable hot debate within our family. I’ve been in protests full of anti-immigrant Americans (including Asian Americans) screaming to go back to where I came from- that I need to come to America the “right way”. In a way, I have become an iconoclast since the day I arrived in the US. My arrival disagrees with beliefs about what I should be like as a good immigrant, who also happens to be an Asian woman.
ME: You speak and write Korean fluently, did that take effort on your part or was the Korean language handed to you a tray?
ESJ: I came to the United States when I was 13– and I was a huge reader. It’s really sad to think that I really tried to get rid of my Korean accent to be accepted by Americans. I kept up reading and writing in Korean, however– and I’m very proud of how fluent I am in Korean. But I’m absolutely clueless in “cool” Korean slang, abbreviations, and have to rely on translating dictionaries for complicated words.
ME: Something that is hard for you:
ESJ: Writing! Writing is incredibly hard
ME: Korean drama that makes you proud (I know you have criticisms of them):
ESJ: I don’t know if I can say I’m proud of any Korean drama, but I do enjoy the zombie series “All of us are dead”
Things you splurge on:
ESJ: I definitely splurge on tools. I love investing and upgrading tools that I use.
ME: In one of your comic strips, your character breaks up with a guy and he criticizes you for once spending $200 on clam chowder. I’m a chowder fan so this piques my interest.
ESJ: Hahah! I used to work at a store in San Francisco Pier 39 in high school and it was such a nostalgic time of my life. In the beginning of the pandemic I was craving clam chowder desperately, and the Boudin store sells fresh sourdough bread with clam chowder with an overnight shipping option only. So, naturally—I ordered $200 worth of clam chowder!
ME: I used to think it was kind of charming how Koreans have an intricate set of terms marking relationships by age and gender but now I see its limitations. Tell us your thoughts:
ESJ: It’s very binary and limiting to gender for sure. It’s tricky since Korean language hasn’t kept up with new ideas and (pre-existed) non-binary, trans friendly terminology. When I was trying to translate some of the comics, this was definitely an issue that I’ve faced–it is limiting, hard, and confusing to know. I wonder if there’s any time we can come up with more inclusive terminology in our language.
ME: Favorite Korean dishes:
ESJ: Too many!! Kimchi-Jji-ggae, Cheong-gook-jang, Goat soup, OX bone tail soup
ME: Korean-American artists we should know about:
ESJ: TOO MANY!!! I’ve been part of the Korean American Artist Collective (@kaacollective), I’d absolutely recommend the whole group to see who/ what we do/ where we are!
ME: Top things that non Asian people ask/say that offends you:
ESJ: Any question starts with “I’m not try to offend you, but” and if they only ask 1 thing about Asian book/ movie/ song that just came out
ME: Three adjectives you hope no one uses to describe you:
ESJ: High-maintenance, fragile, pure (ANY type of anime reference)
ME: As someone who has always been too shy to really flirt, I’m strangely fascinated the Korean aegygo concept. In one episode of a Kdrama I like called Yumi’s Cells, a female friend is teaching the main character how to speak cutely and adorably to her new boyfriend–demonstrating an odd sing song-y voice and how to pretend to be too weak to open a water bottle. What’s your reaction
ESJ: I almost cussed! My genuine reaction is…da fuck?
ME: Not sure if you’ve watched the kids movie Turning Red. Though I enjoyed it, I was mildly annoyed by the lingering stereotypes of the mother and grandmother who seemed a bit like tiger/dragon ladies to me. Can you think of movies/shows where Asians are presented truly without bias/stereotypes?
ESJ: I love LOVE Turning Red! (and totally see what you mean!) The most recent example for me is `Everything Everywhere All at Once`, it’s fantastic (though not for kids). It truly defies the traditional role of Asians! Over the moon is also a super cute Netflix kids animation! I honestly hope to see this list grow next year 🙂
ME: Leave us with the top things that anger you now:
ESJ: Haters on social media, “fans” who are secretly demanding my content to be changed for x,y,z reasons…LA Parking tickets
ME: Here’s to your PFA and boundless success and joy to come!
ESJ: Thank you!