through thick and thin with marvel comic artist jonathan jay lee
An illustrator who does not only draw, but also creates life in each of his illustrations, Hong Kong-based Jonathan Jay Lee shares about his first drawing and his favorite spot in the city in an exclusive chat with Globetrotter
Growing up with traditional Chinese parents who define success by straight As, advanced degree and a profession as a doctor must be tough when you have an artistic calling in life. But the dream came true for America-born illustrator, Hong Kong-based Jonathan Jay Lee, although not before applying to Parsons School of Design in secret.
Jonathan had no regrets along the way, except maybe for the torn Magneto drawing from his childhood that his grandmother liked." I ripped the drawing up because I felt that my ability was inadequate, I wanted to be better and then [I felt] an immense sense of guilt because I had destroyed a drawing my grandma liked."
Jonathan got his breakthrough when he sent his Hong Kong triad-themed thesis to an editor. Next thing he knew, he began working on the Hong Kong triad version of Marvel Comics' The Punisher. His signature vibrantly-colored illustrations, with their neon light effect, are always fun to gaze upon. At the same time, their undeniably realistic details make us want to jump into this world he's built with his own two hands.
Since then, Marvel has become one of his biggest clients; others include San Miguel, Lamborghini, Urban Decay, HSBC and many more. Even between top-notch clients, exhibitions and media attention, Jonathan still finds the time to teach at SCAD Hong Kong as Professor of Illustration and Sequential Art.
Here's an interview with the man himself, where he describes about his day-to-day life, his current project with one of Hong Kong's finest restaurants and more.
Globetrotter Magazine: With clients as big as Marvel, Lamborghini, and Philip Morris, what's your day-to-day life like?
Jonathan Jay Lee: Day to day I try to be in the studio getting to work. It depends on whether I have projects or deadlines, but I do prefer working late into the night when there’s less noise to deal with, emails, etc. When I teach classes, I’ll spend two half-days a week on campus. I’ll usually head out a few nights a week, there’s always interesting things happening in HK and I have a pretty good case of FOMO. The only thing that really keeps me sitting still is drawing. And Netflix.
Globetrotter Magazine: Do you need to feel a certain mood to create your drawings?
Jonathan Jay Lee: I often put on music while I’m working, I stick to certain playlists. They act as ‘reminders’ that it’s crunch time, even if it's on a subconscious level. It also lets your mind wander in moments, which is important to keep things interesting in the work and allow for moments of randomness. I’m currently into the Jazz Hop Cafe channel on YouTube, but occasionally I’ll put on a piano OST if I’m feeling emo.
Globetrotter Magazine: Since my favorite illustration of yours is the city of Hong Kong, where's your personal favorite spot in the city?
Jonathan Jay Lee: Ooh, good question. Lots of favorite spots. I personally prefer the Kowloon Side than the island side, Sham Shui Po, Jordan, TST (Tsim Sha Tsui - ed.), and parts of Sheung Wan. My go-to hangout spot is probably Yardbird because my friends work there, good people and good vibes. I also do like trying all the Black Sheep Restaurants, they always have interesting concepts with great teams behind it. Though my work is based around the city, it's the people that make it what it is. I like being around like-minded people who want to implement change for the better, and these spots are where you find them.
Globetrotter Magazine: You are also experienced in teaching, what's one thing that you remember your students always complained about and what's your greatest advice to them?
Jonathan Jay Lee: I’m still quite new to teaching on an academic level, it’s only my third year in. My students don’t really complain, they know what the hard hustle is, but one thing that’s common is the fear of failure; meeting deadlines, creating exceptional work, and probably the biggest one is making money/surviving. My best piece of advice was one given to me when I was in school: If you take care of the work, the work will take care of you.
Globetrotter Magazine: What is your opinion on today's youth art scene? Do you think it has improved for the better as now there are more recognized Asian artists?
Jonathan Jay Lee: I may not be the best person to answer this question as there are more experienced personalities who have seen the scene evolve longer than I have. One thing I’ll say is even if things are getting better, we still have a long way to go in terms of embracing new voices and having clients take risks on more interesting things rather than playing it safe. Nothing cutting-edge created wasn’t ever a risk taken by a creative during its implementation, and it usually takes a smarter client to enable these creatives to do that. It’s happening a little bit here and there, but the more it happens, the better it will be for the youth art scene. In the meantime, I’ll say that I teach my own students to educate their clientele (respectfully, of course). They have the training and understanding, so why settle for a mediocre product even if that’s what the client wants. Give them the best for their own sake. The best clients will bring the best out of you as well, I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have worked with amazing people.
Globetrotter Magazine: And last question, could you tell us about your current project? Or maybe some collaboration that maybe our readers would be excited about?
Jonathan Jay Lee: Yes! I am currently working on a new series for Ho Lee Fook restaurant [a member of the Black Sheep Restaurants group] in Soho with master chef Jowett Yu. The original series was created to pay homage to Graham Street market that was going to be shut down, but since then, it seems like the market is here to stay, so I guess in a way the work has fulfilled itself. The new series is paying tribute to the black society, HK movies, fishball girls, and growing up in Hong Kong. Every piece is interlinked with each other in some form of narrative. We’ll be doing an opening for the new work soon, so follow Black Sheep Restaurants to get the invite.