- Words and Photos by The Kiddist
In Search of... Kenji Chai in NYC
After a hectic Holiday filled with new gadgets, a bout with pneumonia, ugly Christmas sweaters and socks, part of our family Christmas was going to my favorite place - New York City. At the end of each year, my family and I go on our annual trip to get our foodie on, shop (how else would I be able to convince my mom to go), and most of all street art hunting.
When I was doing research on all the new street art and possible gallery exhibitions in NYC, I saw that one of my favorite artists, Mr. Kenji Chai from Malaysia, was currently there. Most people in the US may not know him, but I have seen his solo work and awesome collaborations all over Asia and they are nothing short of amazing. I quickly sent Mr. Kenji a DM, hoping to catch him at a show or wall. Soon after, he replied that he was in town visiting family and will be staying a few more days before going back to Malaysia! With uncontainable excitement, I had a gut feeling we were on another “In Search of…” trip.
Here we go again….
As we were driving down to NYC, I realized that since our family trip coincides with Mr. Kenji’s stay in NYC, I could not help myself but tapped out the letters spelling words asking for an interview. He quickly replied with a “sure, of course!” YES!! Following multiple exchanges of texts back and forth, I soon found out that this was the FIRST time he has ever been to the US and he did not have a chance to paint a wall.
Instinctively, I typed back, “If you were able to get a wall, would you like to paint?” Which he then responded, “ It would be an honor to paint in such a great city such as NYC!!” At that time, I knew I had to give it a go and see if we can get him a wall. Luckily for me, I am blessed with such a supportive Sold Magazine crew. Without them, the wall would have only been a dream.
I immediately sent a message to Mr. Domine down in El Salvador and Ms. Stella in NYC, hoping that they would be able to help me out, or know of someone that may. They both quickly replied and told me they would try their best since it is still the Holiday. I had my fingers, toes, and whatever I can cross-double-crossed! Those were the longest hours I had to wait and sitting in a confined Honda SUV with my little bro didn’t help. A few hours later, Mr. Domine sent me the best Christmas present, (even beating out on my XBoxOne)! Mr. Alberto from JMZ Walls had a wall for Mr. Kenji to paint in Brooklyn...
We got a wall!! SCORE!
The next day, my ENTIRE family went with me to meet Mr.Kenji, and we drove him to the wall in Brooklyn. Through our messages, I learned that Mr. Kenji is humble and passionate about the art that he creates. In addition, he is a man of strong faith, he asked us to meet him after he attended church service. Not knowing what he really looked like, my mom and I stood there waiting for him. A few minutes later and receiving a text that he was there, I went up to a guy and asked if he was Mr.Kenji. Mr.Kenji for a moment was taken aback when he realized, The Kiddist, was in fact an actual 12 year-old kid.
Once we got to Brooklyn, we met Alberto from JMZ Walls, got all the buffing equipment for Mr. Kenji’s wall, then a quick stop at the local paint shop, and finally we’re ready to start painting. While my little bro enjoyed buffing the wall, Mr. Kenji and I were thinking about what the mural would be.
We decided that he would draw inspiration from a girl character that he has drawn in places like Kazakhstan and Shanghai. He explained to me that he would like to include something of “nature” in this “concrete jungle” with subway tracks running above and buildings all around. He further explained that he was hoping to bring a sense of zen in the hustle and bustle of everyone’s daily lives. Over the next 4 hours, Mr.Kenji painted through the cold New York weather that he was not accustomed to. He also graciously allowed my brother and me to be in on the action too, by allowing us to fill in some of the colors of the mural. This was my first time ever spray painting, and we may have caused him to do extra work because of our mistakes! But Mr.Kenji made it memorable and special by overlooking the fact I was this 12 year old kid that has never held a spray can in his life. He patiently taught my brother and me different techniques and the “Guardian of Brooklyn” came to fruition.
After painting with Mr. Kenji, we sat down over snacks and I got to know him more in depth. I discovered how his experiences in life helped direct his path to being the traveling muralist he is today, and the message he wishes to convey through his art. Mr. Kenji was a graphic artist, but he knew deep down in his heart that something was missing. He felt confined due to schedules, specifics parameters on designs, or from just foreseeing what the future might be like through the path his art director took. There was no freedom for creativity.
In his mid 20’s, his friend taught him how to spray art on walls that reignited the joy and passion for art he once had as a kid. He knew right away that he needed to make a change in his life, so he gave up everything and set out to paint all over the world. Mr. Kenji told me it was a struggle learning to be on one's own. You realize that you can't just spend on things you want or else you end up skinny from lack of eating. Once he sorted that out, he found momentum doing a mural at least once a week and then posting work on social media, which ultimately developed a following. This helped Mr. Kenji become recognizable in the region and soon found himself traveling around Asia to places like China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and even Kazakhstan.
Learning about different cultures and experiencing how the locals live helped him discover more about himself. But the place that gave his art meaning was Mongolia. Standing on a rock and seeing the beauty and serenity of nature cultivated the message he wanted to bestow onto the next generation. His earlier and most common works depicted a stray dog. Mr. Kenji told me that is how he saw himself: going from place to place looking to survive and satisfy its hunger ... in Mr. Kenji's case, the hunger to create. In some of his more recent murals, he paints a portrait of a girl with her eyes closed. This shows a calm and peaceful state, which meditates on peace ... something Mr. Kenji wants people to practice within the confines of an urban jungle. The spouts growing out of the heads represent a youthfulness, which can still be taught, inspired, and educated. A lot of his murals are full of nature which he believes needs to be taken care of and preserved for the future generations. Mr. Kenji wants his art to resonate with the youth and hopefully make an impact that cultivates creativity for positive change.
Listening to Mr. Kenji talk about his life opened my eyes to mine. My goal as The Kiddist is to influence my peers (the youth) in a positive way ...
maybe it's finding ways to make street art charitable, or maybe it's to present a positive message through street art of my own. In any case, the more I meet and learn about these amazing artists, the greater sense of community I feel. I believe this community can make a big positive impact for the next generations.