Rifle-wielding rabbits hang with human skeletons. Pint-sized power lines sit atop the back of bunnies. Deep and darkly whimsical, Tai Taeoalii’s intricately detailed drawings envision an alternate universe in its post-apocalyptic throes. His world is inhabited by a menagerie of black-and-white beasts: warthogs, giraffes, crocodiles, bats, monkeys, mammoths and aliens.
Taeoalii’s animalistic art is avant-garde yet accessible and delightfully disturbing. Skulls, guns and gas masks on rabbits reflect the angst-ridden ethos of the modern era. Anarchy looms. Images comment on war, industry and environmental degradation through the peaceful strokes of an artist. Military themes prevail; however, Taeoalii’s weapon of choice is a ballpoint pen. He draws with black ink on Mylar film, sometimes adding color with charcoal, pencils, pastels, or watercolors. These crude tools give his work a fresh sense of immediacy that balances with the shimmering surrealism of its subject matter.
And people love it. Taeoalii has won dozens of awards at art fairs across the country, including the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival. He will return for this year’s festival to showcase new works, including more pop-surrealism pieces that incorporate watercolor drizzles.
“It was not surprising to us that he was named the 2017 People’s Choice Award winner,” shares Claire Bloxom Armstrong, public relations director of the MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival. “I think his work is attractive to so many people because it is almost like street art. It’s not conservative and buttoned-up, like some of the art you see at MAIN ST. It’s raw, it’s dark and it’s powerful. And the fact that most of it is created with a ballpoint pen is unbelievable.”
Taeoalii is a self-taught artist from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah. Growing up as a bi-racial child in a mostly white neighborhood, he “fabricated a self-perception of pariahdom” that bred confusion and a deep sense of dread. Difficult teenage years ensued — but Taeoalii found an outlet for his frustrations through art. He explored almost every medium of creative expression but was ultimately captivated by the direct simplicity of the ballpoint pen.
Today, Taeoalii has transformed the malaise of his youth into a successful career as an artist. He has been touring the nation for eight years with his wife and two children, selling thousands of original drawings to art fairs, galleries, and museums. Before his return to Texas for this year’s MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival, we talked to Taeoalii about the evolution of his artwork, Salvador Dali, and his future gallery in Hannibal, Missouri.
Hero of the Forest by Tai Taeoalii
What kind of ballpoint pens do you use?
I use just plain ol’ hotel or bank pens. Not as a gimmick or anything, but just because it’s what I’ve used most of my life and what I’m most comfortable with. I like the permanence and spontaneity of it. Not being able to erase and being forced to just push through is the thrill for me.
How did you feel when you found out that you won the People’s Choice Award at Fort Worth’s MAIN ST. Arts Festival last year?
I was extremely honored to win a Juror Award and the People’s Choice Award. Both were a huge surprise for me. The Fort Worth show is full of artists that I look up to and whose work I genuinely admire, so just being among them was a treat. Receiving the awards was the cherry on top. Even more important than that, award winners are automatically invited back, so this year I didn’t have to deal with the anxiety of knowing whether I was accepted or not.
What do you think makes the festival so special?
For many traveling artists, it’s considered THE show to get into. Huge, art-savvy crowds with intent to buy and the capital to do so. That’s a recipe that most artists would love to have an opportunity at. I had applied to the Fort Worth show eight years in a row without getting accepted, so imagine my excitement when I finally did last year. I was ecstatic. All my artist friends who had done it in the past really hyped it up, and for me, it lived up to all the hype. Financially, it was my most successful show ever.
Salvador Dali was your earliest artistic influence. Why did his work speak to you so profoundly?
I had the same kind of raw style and outrageous imagery as a kid that I do now. Adults freak out when they see kids draw stuff like that. Drawings like mine cause parental alarm and usually earn you visits from “concerned” counselors who debate your “mental health” and open up discussions about whether you need medication. I remember a real palpable sense of teachers and kids thinking I was nuts. I never thought I was crazy, but I couldn’t really understand why I was drawing what I was drawing. When I was around 13 or 14 years old, I first saw some of Dali’s work and remember having a real sense of relief. Like I said, I never thought I was crazy, but Dali’s artwork and even his existence itself just reassured me that I wasn’t. It was extremely comforting knowing someone made a living and was even celebrated for his creations of similar content. Discovering him at that point in my life really had a huge, positive impact, and I credit Dali as the catalyst to my artistic ambitions.
Inception by Tai Taeoalii
You’ve described your teenage years as “turbulent.” How have your feelings toward your experiences as an adolescent changed as you have grown older?
Growing up bi-racial in a predominantly white suburb of Salt Lake City was interesting. Whether I was treated like one or not, I had an overwhelming sense of being an outcast. Teenage angst was my fuel, and my tank was always full. I wasn’t getting a sufficient enough amount of creative outlet during my teens, which left me acting out in ways that I’m not particularly proud of. Many of my friends are dead, locked-up or in a continuous battle with addiction. I’m lucky that I cared enough about my art and that I made a conscious decision to never push too far ... it probably saved my life. As I got older, my understanding of the important impact those years had on my work became clearer.
How has your work evolved in the past decade?
Over 10 years ago, my career started as a pop artist, using stencils and spray paint to create colorful and soulless artwork for the masses. I always doodled with a pen, but back then I wasn’t confident or knowledgeable enough to do anything with my pen work. I’m in a very good spot right now with my work, and I think it shows. My work has evolved in a lot of different ways over the years, but the one thing that has remained true and what I’m most proud of is its authenticity. I make it a point of emphasis to create freely, not for anyone, just freely, from my heart.
When will you be opening your new art gallery in Hannibal, Missouri?
I hope to open the gallery by summer 2019. I am building the gallery out of a pre-Civil War home that was built in 1851, so it’s in pretty rough shape. I’m doing most of the work myself. I’ve had to tear out a lot of the interior, rebuild the foundation and floors, and still have many hours of hard labor to put into it before it will be ready.
Look to Our Heroes by Tai Taeoalii. The original mixed-media painting was created in 2015 with ballpoint pen, color pencil, pastel, charcoal and watercolor on Mylar.
Being from Salt Lake City and mostly selling my art in the Midwest and the South, travel time was a total nightmare. We were constantly driving, and it was taking its toll. About six years ago, we were casually invited to go see this really cool town that had a bunch of other traveling artists living there: Hannibal, Missouri. We were invited by Michael Paul Cole, an artist whose work I really admired, although I didn’t know him personally. I was honored that he thought my family was worth telling about this little treasure-town.
One weekend after a show in Chicago (about a 4 1/2-hour drive from Hannibal), we decided to drive down and see the town. It was rumored to have historic homes with price tags equal to or even less than a new car. When we got there, we came across this amazing Italianate home built in 1882 that charmed the socks off myself and my wife. Even more charming was the price. The artist who owned it at the time was moving up to Pittsburgh and was thrilled to sell it to a fellow artist, so we agreed on a stellar price. It was something that I would never have been able to forgive myself about if I passed it up, so we bought the home and now call it Ol’ Blue. A couple years later, the house next door became available for an even more amazing price, so we bought that too. It’s the 1851 home that we are turning into my gallery.
I’ve always been infatuated with small town living, so it’s been perfect. I still have my home and life in Salt Lake City, so we go back and forth throughout the year. Hannibal is Mark Twain’s boyhood town and has a decent flow of tourism, so it just makes sense for me to have a brick-and-mortar gallery for collectors to be able to visit on their road trips. So as I say, we didn’t really choose Hannibal; it chose us.
Do your children like to create art?
Are they old enough for you to see their distinct styles developing? My children are constantly creating, and it makes me so proud. My daughter’s drawings are happy and colorful, and my son’s drawings are whimsical and sometimes frightening, very similar to my work. She also loves crafting, and he loves creating stop-motion videos. They both have so much talent and their own distinct styles, which just puts a genuine smile on my face. I’m excited to see what, if anything, they’ll be creating in the future.