Illustrator Ted Kim’s early life revolved around only skateboarding. But after being sidelined with a knee injury, Ted needed another creative outlet as he recovered. So he picked up a pen and began drawing at a feverish pace, soon becoming recognized across the globe for his intricate and imaginative way of storytelling.
Ted now sells his art all over the world, recently had a pop-up studio featuring live skateboarding inside the Anchorage Museum and knows more than a thing two about running successful art shows.
In our conversation, Ted shares:
- Why sharing a “good vibe” through his art is more important than making money
- How he can quickly generate funds when needed through Instagram
- Why artists should follow their hearts and never force anything
Can you give us some information about your background?
Everything creative spawned from skateboarding. I think I was nine when I first started.
The drawing came because I got hurt skateboarding and it was just a way to stay sane and pass the time, get better. It turns out that drawing’s something I’ve held on to and it’s taken its own path way beyond what I ever thought it would.
I went through most of my life having a hard time when people were like, Oh, you’re an artist, doing art shows — artist, artist, artist. At first I was young and rebellious and I was thinking in my head, No, I’m not an artist.
I get it now. It’s a way to identify what I do. But really I’ve always felt like a skateboarder. Drawing, yeah, I do a lot of that. It’s really expressive and I found something I love. But I love it just as much as playing music. Music is something I’m not good at but I have the best times of my life playing music with my friends. It’s just not as marketable or shared as much as my drawings.
I think to me, skateboarding has always been an art form. I’m just expressing myself. I spent all my life filming skateboarding and making videos but those were just to share with my friends. It wasn’t like I was gonna distribute them worldwide or get into the skate shops or anything. It was done for the love, something we put together and could all sit back and enjoy together. That’s what the drive was.
When I was younger I didn’t want to incorporate my job with skateboarding because skateboarding was the sacred outlet from my life of working. So it’s always been an art to me.
How have you gotten your name out there for your art?
I would always have these art shows and hope my art would sell because I didn’t want to go home with 40 framed drawings that I wouldn’t even know what to do with. And my shows would sell out opening night because I would price the art dirt cheap, like 150 bucks. That was also before I had kids so a lot of things were different.
And then there’s social media. I’m always a latecomer to everything, like technology, the internet. I remember using Facebook five or six years ago and started to get turned off by it. Facebook was just this rant and who wants to follow a bunch of shit you don’t really care about.
Then Instagram happened and it was just pictures and no one was talking shit. I thought it was way more peaceful. As soon as I got Instagram I posted drawings and thought it was really just going to be shared locally because my followers are my friends here in town. But then 100 followers turned into 700 and then I’m in the thousands and it just keeps branching out with the sharing and the attention and people are hitting me up all the time.
At one point I was thinking of getting off social media because it was bugging me but I immediately shut that down in my head. Because I was like, Man, I can’t do that because it’s this wonderful thing that gives me the power to share what I’m doing worldwide, why would I just shut that door?
I’m comfortable with the amount of people who are following. It’s nice. It’s not too hectic. It’s nice to know that I get this feedback that my art is doing this and that for someone or that they’re feeling good things from it.
I’m just trying to put out a good vibe. That’s most important to me with sharing my art. Then comes the business side and that’s great too.
I don’t need money or fame, I’m really just stoked to be sharing my art and maybe be pushing the world in a way that I believe in. I don’t need much to live. I just want to take care of my family and that’s about all I need.
Artie. —Ted Kim
I think way back when I watched a few environmental documentaries and they weren’t ever reassuring. It was always this theme of doom around the corner. They made me think more about how humans behave. It’s like you put earth under the microscope and clearly humans are a cancer. Don’t get me wrong, I love humans more than anything. I even support countless corporations. I guess my drawings just tell it like I see it? —Ted Kim
I read somewhere that you’ve sold to customers on six out of the seven continents, is that right?
Yeah, I’ve never sent anything to Antarctica.
Okay, so the great thing is, before having Instagram and it blowing up on its own, I was at work and I wanted to do a time lapse of a drawing from start to finish. I posted it to YouTube and then it got shared on Reddit. And overnight the YouTube video got shared everywhere and even showed up on the morning commute newspaper in New York — my friend sent me a copy and it was on the front page, Check out this video. It was also shared in Denmark in a newspaper that everyone reads online and there was so much attention coming from there too which was crazy.
It was everywhere. Japan — I’ve been heavily influenced by Japanese pop culture. I think they have the most aesthetic characters so I’m always putting Japanese stuff in my drawings. And so in Japan there’s this huge following. A lot of people think I’m Japanese. Vice did this article and it was about this “mysterious Japanese Instagram artist” — they said I was Japanese, it was pretty funny. I’m not Japanese, I’m Korean.
So on YouTube the video blew up — it went up to a quarter million views or whatever. It was pretty exciting. I’ve never had a quarter million people see anything on Instagram. That’s a lot of people.
That is a lot of people. It’s a huge reach.
Yeah, but there were a lot of weird things happening too. A guy hit me up from YouTube and was like, Hey, we’ll take care of all the commercial side, all the ads and stuff. I was naïve and I was like, Okay. And I electronically signed over the rights to my video to him. It’s weird, when I log into my own YouTube account I feel like it’s not mine. Because if I do post something and it goes viral, it goes straight to that guy. So I don’t even mess with YouTube much at all.
With Instagram I’ll post something and someone in Africa will hit me up for a commission. It’s so random.
So you get commissions and print sales through Instagram?
Oh yeah, for sure. Honestly, print sales only happen when I post something and say, Hey, I’ve got some prints for sale.
Other than that it’s always commissions. There are so many reasons to ask me for my art — album covers or t-shirts, everything.
So what do you say yes to?
That’s a good question. I’m more inclined to do the commission where it’s like, Hey, this is a present for so-and-so, or, I want to give this to my husband for our anniversary. Those commissions are fun and feel better than, Hey, will you draw this for my logo? Because it’s kind of scary when someone takes your art and is like, This now reps my company.
I kind of feel it out and say, Yeah, I’m down, or No, I’m not. It just feels better when I get commissions where I’m like, You want [a drawing of] your kids riding a motorcycle? I’m down.
Untitled. —Ted Kim
How do you handle pricing for all of the different things you create?
I have to feel that out too. A lot of times I know if I say a price the person is more inclined to be like, No, I can’t afford it. Or, I’m not going to pay that much. So you’ve kind of got to feel out the price.
Working with Duke [Russell] taught me a lot about pricing and he goes hardcore because he’s been making a living off his art for 40 years or something. And it is important to him to get what it’s worth or price his work at a legitimate level for the work he put in. And I get it but man, just like with skating or anything else, it’s such a joy to draw a commission so I’ll almost work for nothing.
I guess I don’t really know how to price my art. There are so many different factors. And like I said, when I was first doing those art shows everything was $150. It was priced to sell and to me that was fine. I felt great.
What sizes were you making back then?
That was also when I was drawing the biggest. My whole art show was done on 18×24” pieces of paper. They were all big pieces and they all took so long. I now do little drawings, 8×10”, and sell them for three times the amount.
It’s changed because I have a family now. That has a lot to do with the price I put down. It also depends on where I’m showing it. The galleries all take a different cut. The International Gallery here took 50% and Middle Way Café is taking 20%. That’s a huge difference.
I can’t say it ever feels right to throw $800 on a drawing but I’m starting to understand it’s my own choice — am I working for $5 an hour or $20?
In addition to your art you’ve also had your day job at Hope [Community Resources] for 14 years. Do you like having that too?
Well with art, man, it’s not something you can count on. You can’t be like, I foresee next month being really good with art sales. Or, A lot of people are going to hit me up. So it’s something I don’t ever count on. Everything that comes my way is just a bonus that I don’t really shoot for.
With Instagram it’s nice because it does give me the capability to just say, Hey, stickers for sale. And all of a sudden I’m making a couple hundred dollars to help me out. It’s nice to have that power to generate funds that I can almost count on with social media. I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything for sale and no one went for it. I never had that moment where I was just like, Well fuck, I might as well not have even posted it.
There’s always somebody paying attention.
Yeah. My fan base is continuing to buy the art, they’re collecting it. I have a few people where they have everything I put out. So I can count on that, I guess.
It’s social media — I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way. I understand I can have a website but I’ve never even gone that far.
How do you take payments?
And what sells best for you?
I don’t know. Everything I’m creating really. But I’ve only really done originals, prints and stickers.
I do want to start doing my own skateboards just to try it out. I just want to print a limited run of skateboards just to have that experience.
I’ve seen you use paper and pencil and ink, are those your main tools of choice?
Yeah, pen — pen is where it’s at, that’s my number one weapon.
I want to be painting soon too, so I imagine I’ll paint like crazy. Who knows where it’ll go. I have so much fun with it, I like how it feels.
I don’t know why [I chose] pen. I think what I was drawing just happened to work well with black and white and maybe that was the reason pens were such a stoke. I like to also get it clean and get it right. I used to have this technique where I’d screw up drawing with a pen and I’d have to scratch away the lines I didn’t like. It ends up looking kind of shitty but it works. [Laughs]
If you look closely at all my art shows they’re all kind of scratched up Bristol [paper] because man, you spend 16 hours drawing a piece and then one line— a girl’s eyeball looks off — you can’t not fight to get it back. Can’t leave it like that, it bugs.
What does your process look like?
I’m drawing a lot of patterns like the sunrise and the night skies. Even these rocks [points to a skateboard with his art on it] are a pattern. I’m always looking for a pattern to join the rest of the family. Some patterns have been kicked out.
I’m putting together this story in my head. All the subjects in the patterns kind of follow the same story — I don’t know what the story is, really, but it’s coming out.
When I start I kind of go with this feeling like, What kind of patterns am I really into doing right now? Drawing sunrises are way funner than drawing rocks. It’s almost like the more repetitive it is the easier and faster it goes, or more flowingly.
It’s pretty much just a blank piece of paper and I go straight to pen with it unless there’s a subject that I’m drawing like a person, then I’ll use a pencil. I don’t go straight to ink with that because I want to get that right.
But everything else it’s just straight to ink, especially leaves and stuff. That would be crazy to draw leaves in pencil and then go over them again in ink.
Do you work on more than one piece at a time or just finish one at a time?
I usually just go one piece straight through. But there have been times where I jumped around. I don’t think I like doing that, I don’t like something sitting around. I like to get at it until it’s done.
In an article I read about you you talked about drawing for 8 hours straight. Is that a normal amount of time for you?
Yeah, I’ve gone so long. Eight hours is a good sesh, but I’ve drawn 24 hours straight for sure.
Since I work night shifts I’ve had really broken sleep and for the past ten years it’s been common for me to draw for 16 hours and not rest. And I don’t do drugs, I don’t even drink coffee. There’s nothing that’s keeping me awake, it’s really just drawing. It wires me. Sometimes if I draw for eight hours and try to go to sleep I can’t because my brain is so wide awake.
You do a fair amount of collaborations. You’ve worked with Snack Skateboards on a graphic for Adrian Williams, Iris Skateboards on a board graphic, artwork with Duke Russell and clothing with your friend Travis Milan—
Yeah with Travis, that was me and a buddy doing shirts just to do something creative.
Are some of these collaborations just because they’re fun and you can do them with friends?
They’re all just because it’s fun, yeah.
The latest art collaboration I think I did, other than these skateboards, was with Isaac Nichols, this local tattoo artist, he draws in a really cool old-school Japanese folklore kind of style, we just got together and did pieces.
It came from him just coming over and us coming up with this idea of, Hey, it would be fun if we passed the drawing back and forth. Then it just so happened at that time Snow City Café was like, Hey, do you want an art show? And I was like, Yes, perfect. I pitched it to Isaac and he was more than down and a couple of months later we had our collaborative show there. It was rad.
So that’s how everything is for sure. I’m not aiming for much else other than the process of creating. I’m not after the money.
You mentioned you were selling all your work at your early shows since you were pricing your work so low, but what about now — how much do you typically sell?
I haven’t had a sellout night in a while but it will usually be at least half the pieces or sometimes down to just a few pieces left. I can’t say I’ve had an art show that didn’t do well.
And the pieces that you have left, do those go on Instagram after?
I’ve only had maybe eight pieces come back at the most. Usually they’re given away as gifts or I have a space in Dos Manos Art Gallery so a lot of times pieces will go there and I’ll see if they sell.
The weird thing is a lot of my favorite ones that I’ve ever drawn in the past 10 years don’t sell. I’ve put some of them in art shows a couple of times and they still come back to me. It’s so weird but rad because then I have my own favorite pieces.
That’s more common than you think. We hear that a lot.
Really? Another weird thing is I’ll have an art show and there will be a piece where I don’t like it so much that it almost doesn’t make it to the wall and get hung. But I hang it and opening night people are coming up to me left and right talking about it. And I’m like, Wow, that’s the one I didn’t like the most. It’s so weird. What does that mean? [Laughter]
That also happens a lot, you’d be surprised!
Where do you do most of your work?
I work a night shift for Hope, it’s a place for people with disabilities. And on my shift they’re sleeping so I just stay awake and draw. So there’s that eight hours and then sometimes I’m so wired I’ll just keep going at home. But it can be tricky at home now because there’s the family dynamic. And so a lot of times I don’t want to draw when I’m at home because I want to spend time with my family. When I draw, I really just gotta draw.
Untitled. —Ted Kim
It sounds like you’re pretty intrinsically motivated. What drives you to do what you do?
Put simply, I think I need to. It’s just like skateboarding. I have a need to create just as much as I want to ride a skateboard. Those are the things that make me happy.
I’m starting to understand with art you can share that good vibe and that’s really all I’m after. I want someone to feel good things if they come across my stuff. You can get money but it comes and goes and it has nothing to do with why you did it.
What are your plans for the future?
Oh geez, I don’t know. I don’t think I ever look too far. I’ve got a lot of things I’m excited about but it has to do with things like skateboarding and family. That’s all I really concentrate on.
It might sound boring but all the stuff fell in my lap, I’m not consciously doing anything. I have no strategy, I’m just focusing on what I feel like I need to do and good things have come from it. These skateboards [points to skateboards on table] are a perfect example of that. Going back to when I was a kid, just thinking about getting graphics on a skateboard was the raddest thing I could hope for for myself. And for it to happen twice in the same year blows my mind. I’m so stoked.
Art on Skateboards. —Ted Kim
Can you share the story about how you got your work on the boards?
So this is where social media is a positive thing. It was the middle of the night and I was putting together a skate edit that I posted at 6 AM. My friend in San Francisco saw it at 6:20 AM and hit me up because he had this idea and then a few months later I’m in San Francisco with the skateboards that we collaborated on and having an art show. It just came out of nowhere through social media.
And then I think this other board was the same story, but it was already an idea from way before social media. My friend Adrian Williams had always wanted me to do his graphics and the timing was just right. I think social media was reminding him and showing him that, Hey, we should do this.
That’s awesome. And you said this Adrian Williams board sold really well, right?
Yeah. And I think before it was even available in the US it was in Japan. And it was social media again — it was all unfolding on Instagram. There were all these skate shops in Japan that had it and pictures were being shared. It was around two weeks later that I finally got to get my hands on one.
It was also in Jamaica — I imagine it was distributed pretty much anywhere there’s a skateboard scene.
Who handled the distribution?
I’m pretty sure it was all done through Snack Skateboards, all I did was provide the graphics. I have no idea how they were produced or how they got distributed.
Online they sold out really quickly and it was something a lot of my friends wanted but couldn’t get anymore.
Are they going to do multiple runs?
No, they feature a lot of other artists and just keep moving on and nothing gets reprinted.
And do you get paid a flat rate for the piece or do you get paid by the board?
He paid me for the graphics and I did it for dirt cheap because, really, I would have done it for free. It was my pleasure. And he sent me 12 boards in a box so I was super stoked. That was payment enough. I sold some of them and I gave away a bunch of other ones.
Any final thoughts or advice?
I think it’s so important to know why you do something and to follow your heart. It can really pay off in the long run if you do what you feel you need to or what you feel like doing no matter what you get out of it. It feels better to do what you know you want to and not jump through all the hoops or join the rat race toward fame and money. Because those things have nothing to do with why you create anything.
Money comes and goes. I think a lot of people want money, but it can really destroy them. It’s a very dangerous thing. It’s almost an illusion, you know? And that’s where social media doesn’t help because it’s almost brainwashing people to want something they may not really want.
And I think a lot of people want fame but I don’t think they’d want it once they got it. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
One of the biggest takeaways I have from all that you’ve shared with us today is to not force things.
Yeah, thank you, those are exactly the words I’m trying to say. I think if you just do what you love, it’s really the only way. The unforced way is a good way. It’s free of all the bullshit.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.