Famed Malaysian graffiti artist Kenji Chai lives a life of creative bliss, adding his flavour to the backstreets of Kuala Lumpur and several other cities over recent years. As you may know, BOLDR is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to collaborate with inspiring artists – when we heard about Kenji and his accomplishments, we reached out immediately.
Kenji is a good-natured, passionate individual who enjoys encouraging others to find their life’s calling. We met in early 2020 and proposed the idea of working together to create a line of Venture watches bearing his style and artwork. After months of preparation, the Kenji Chai x BOLDR Venture Chaigo is now available for purchase along with his signature collectible toy.
We delve into Kenji’s background, passions, and the discovery of his trademark & personal logo called Chaigo, a conspicuous neon-blue stray dog that bears part of his surname.
How did you get started as an independent creative artist?
Back in 2007, I was working as a graphic designer and finding it increasingly dull as days went by in the office. I think what bothered me most was the lack of creative freedom. Not having control over my work and ideas was stifling, and I always had a plan to do my own thing someday. I finally decided to risk it, quit my job, and dive headfirst into the world of graffiti art.
Many of my friends had been encouraging me to delve deeper into my art, too. Not having income wasn’t easy, but I felt confident that I was on the right track. At least I knew that I would be much happier being my own boss. A few years passed with many doubtful remarks from naysayers and people who didn’t understand what the end goal was. But I pressed on, knowing that eventually it would pay off. 12 years later, that life-altering decision has driven me to find my true life’s purpose.
I’ve been doing this a while, but I still feel like I’m just getting started. (laughs)
When did the idea of Chaigo first come to you?
I was going through some family issues and was generally not the happiest person at that particular point in time. One day I was driving around and spotted a carcass of a stray dog lying on the highway. It wasn’t the first I’d seen, but somehow that day it affected me more. I felt like a stray dog too, inside. Growing up in a broken family, there was a constant feeling of being estranged, never really having a place I felt at home.
Somehow, relating to the stray dog ignited a sense of identity in me. I, too, had to fend for myself and learn never to rely on others. I knew that anything was possible if you’re willing to work hard enough, and be really true to yourself. But unlike the dog, I had the power to decide from then on to live life on my own terms. That’s when Chaigo was born.
I am born in the year of a dog, and the Mandarin word for dog is ‘Go’. I put that together with my surname and created Chaigo, a resurrected spirit with a new lease on life.
I began spraying the dog on walls around my city of Kuala Lumpur, and pretty soon word caught on that I was behind the art. I was super nervous (laughs) because cops were out to apprehend ‘illegal’ graffiti artists. After a while, I began to relax and took a more professional stance, getting myself proper gear and reaching out to brands for collabs.
When did you decide to make Chaigo an action figure?
As Chaigo began to take on a life of its own, many local artists were able to relate and find inspiration from it. Some people even sent me messages saying that seeing Chaigo on a wall brightened their day while they were stuck in traffic. Building on this effect, I decided to turn the idea into a proper brand with original merchandise.
How do you describe your work ethic?
Work never really stops completely. If I’m doing a job for a client, I dedicate all my time to doing a thorough job, day and night. During my free time, I work on passion projects. I believe in materializing ideas that swim around in my head and putting them out there as an expression of my art. Getting really focused is my favourite part of the creative process – it’s like meditation. Just me and my art.
As I always say, don’t wait for someone to direct you on what to do – show them what you’re capable of! This way, when work opportunities arise, clients look for your unique approach to the work. And that inevitably leads to an authentic & successful collaboration.
How do you deal with times where creative ideas just don’t seem to flow?
For me, it’s all about being aware of the energies that surround me. I dedicate my time towards living in a happy state as much as possible. I actively seek out ways to enjoy life and break out of routine. There is no use in living a stressful life, with the same mundane routine day after day.
If I find my creative juices not flowing, I will shift my attention towards getting inspired by forms of entertainment – my favourite form being movies. While I’m getting immersed in the movie, I’m deconstructing the creative process and analyzing the skills required to make the film unforgettable. I can’t help but be inspired after that.
I also like trying new things, visiting new places and such. Even if I have visited a particular country before, I will find new things to get excited about. The world is humungous and opportunities for discovery are endless. Why shouldn’t we fill our lives with excitement while we can?
For example, my trip to Varanasi, India. It was super interesting to try their food, and ask questions about their culture. There is so much to learn, and life is amazing beyond comprehension. Don’t think too much, just go and experience. You will learn nothing new if you don’t step out of routine.
Living life this way pretty much keeps the creative blocks at bay.
What do you say to creatives out there who seem to be struggling with failure?
The experience is what matters! Failure is a great teacher and absolutely necessary. Putting in the hard work and pushing yourself not to give up already puts you in a winning position. Fail as many times as you need to, keep pushing forward. Don’t pay attention to naysayers as well, they are not worth your time.
I love encouraging artists to take risks and show the world what they have to offer. Many talented artists have been confined to lines drawn by others. Truly great art comes from an individual’s deepest expression of themselves.
What do you say to haters/naysayers?
I’m glad to say that I’ve proven this statement: “I need new haters, because my old haters now love me”. I think this comes around only from perseverance, keeping your ego in check, and staying true to yourself.
Are there any artists out there that are underrated, or any that inspire you?
I was inspired to create designing and toys by Hong Kong-based artist, Michael Lau. He is someone who really brought action figures to the mainstream and has been at it since 1999. As a fellow Asian, he set the stage for many artists to explore this relatively rare art form.
Movies and books that inspire you?
Christopher Nolan is someone I highly admire. His movies are masterpieces; I get completely lost in everything about them – the actors, the way it is filmed, the story, etc. When you are that involved in your art, money is hardly a motivator. It is simply an innate desire to actualize every last drop of creative potential you have inside you.
Even certain actors give off this energy. Heath Ledger’s Joker has gone down in history as one of the best portrayals of a character by any actor. Although I must say, Joaquin Pheonix’s interpretation and performance is worthy of the highest praise. Quite simply, brilliant.
In terms of TV shows, I LOVE (and highly recommend) Black Mirror!
Lastly, what is your ultimate advice to those pursuing their dream?
Dedicate time EVERY DAY towards your dream. It is very easy to have a dream, but not everyone wants to put in the work. As long as it becomes a habit to put in the work, even just for half an hour every day, you will go a long way.
Don’t let anything hold you back, and you can be sure that plenty of things will seem to do that. External elements will try to interfere with your flow. Scrambled emotions or poor health could also cause trouble. These and more reasons to put things off affect every single person on the path of finding their true nature. If you can, do not let it stop you from putting in at least an hour of work every day without fail. Build that momentum and your creativity will reward you.
The best part is, you’ll soon find it no longer feels like work.
All images in this post were supplied by Kenji Chai.