If you haven’t seen the work of San Francisco-based artist Justin Hager you are quite frankly missing the fuck out. His illustrations are an amusing mix of celebrity culture and word play that might appear silly at first but will have you lurking through his website for hours. That's what happened to me.
Lately, Justin’s work has been getting some well-deserved recognition, and since this coming Saturday he will be hosting an exhibition in San Francisco with Andrea Sonnenberg, I thought it'd be a good time to get in touch with Justin for a chat.
VICE: Hi Justin. You’re from Bakersfield, right?
Justin Hager: Yeah, they test out new fast food items there to see if it sinks or floats, so that was pretty cool. Bakersfield is a good place actually. I still have family and loads of good friends back there. There wasn’t too much to do growing up there except for skateboarding. But that kind of atmosphere made me really hungry for more. It made me work really hard so that I could move to a more diverse, fast-paced city where actual stuff is going on.
Is that why you chose to move to San Francisco?
Yeah, I also wanted to stay close to my family, and I’ve always liked Northern California more than Southern California. I love bundling up in jackets too. Plus, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Mission District art scene and the Bay Area music scene so it made sense.
So how did you get into drawing and painting?
I’ve been drawing and painting my whole life. There are old Ninja Turtle drawings in my grandma’s house from when I was four years old, so it’s just something I’ve always done. I’m still learning how to paint though. In each painting, I try to paint something that I’ve never painted before or try out a new technique—but I mix all that up with what I usually do.
How do you come up with concepts or themes? Do you just thing hard and long to come up with a wordplay or do they come naturally?
I’ve been doing the word stuff for so many years that it’s hard to not to think about it. It’s kind of taken over my brain; I can’t really switch it off. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and have to write them down, otherwise they’d be gone forever.
Do you ever get suggestions from fans or other artists?
All the time.
Have you ever followed up on any of those suggestions?
It’s really fun when people start sharing their mash ups. I don’t really use their ideas because I want my ideas to be my own for the most part, but I like that they are thinking the way that my brain works. It makes me feel less crazy! My friends constantly hit me up with ideas and suggestions. We have some crazy text battles. Sometimes I’ll use an idea from them but it’s more like a team effort.
How has your process changed over time?
I used to do Bic pen and printer paper pieces only. I did one drawing a day for years, and I have hundreds of sketches. Now I’m working with all kinds of materials—acrylic and oil, sometimes spray paint, and I’m working on canvas and wood panels too. I only found out what archival meant last year! So I’m still learning, still exploring.
I noticed you were using crayons too. Do you have a preference in material or is it more of a whatever-feels-right-at-the-moment type of thing?
It depends on what I’m working on. Sometimes I just need to get an idea out, so I'll just use whatever I can draw with in front of me. I like painting with oil sticks, acrylic paint and micron pens for the most part.
How long does it take to finish a piece?
It depends on the size and the subject matter. They take a little bit more time now than they used to, because they are more intricate. It ranges from a couple hours to a few days.
I personally love the Nestlé Snipes piece but is there a certain piece that you did that you particularly like?
Buffalo Bill Cosby is the one I get asked about the most, but every new piece is my favourite when I’m working on it. It’s just a lot of fun making all these ideas in my head come to life.
Who are your favourite artists?
I really like self-taught artists like Daniel Johnston, Raymond Pettibon, Basquiat, Chris Johanson,and Mark Gonzales.
Also, weren’t you part of a group show with Daniel Johnston in Denmark? How was the reception for that?
Yeah, it was a group show at Galerie Wolfsen. I just never thought that I would end up in Denmark because of my artwork. It was really cool—that country is really beautiful. And to be on the walls next to Daniel Johnston was something that I never thought would happen. Dream come true.
You seem to be focusing on mainstream celebrities. Are you working on anything based on subcultures?
At this point I haven’t done one single-themed project. I try to mix it up all the time because I like so many different genres of music, movies and TV shows. I like having a range. I guess it depends on what I’m feeling at the time I start something.
I heard something about you designing a bar in New York—is that still going on?
It’s a bar in Bushwick called Left Hand Path. I didn’t design it, I just painted one of the bathrooms in it. It’s an R. Kelly-themed bathroom. There are three different R. Kelly murals in the stall and only R. Kelly’s music plays in there.
Sick. How did the upcoming show with Andrea Sonnenberg come about?
We’ve been friends for a while and we’re both fans of each other’s work. The owners of Pretty Pretty Collective just thought we'd be a good pair to show together, and I completely agree with that. They kind of just approached both of us separately and as soon as we both heard that the other person was gonna be in it we got super excited. Her stuff rules.
What’s next for you after that show?
I’m in a group show at As Issued in LA on September the 13th, then I have a show in NY later this year and in San Francisco early next year. And on top of that I’ll be in a group show at Kinfolk Gallery but I also have a solo-show with them in the works. I’m also working on a bunch of commission stuff like an album cover for a well know hip-hop artist. It’s still in the beginning stages so I can’t really say anything more than that though.
Looking forward to it.
Justin’s exhibition with Andrea Sonnenberg will be held this Saturday, August 23rd at The Pretty Pretty Collective in San Francisco, CA. You can see more of Justin’s work here and buy prints of his work here.
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