Artist Spotlight: Rich Tu [Part 1]
It is a hot summer day in late July, and he was in a sweater. "I was coming from a meeting," Rich said. "I had another interview earlier today." We were at the Standard, chatting over drinks and paella. Life is good, especially when you get to hang out with one of the more creative people in town. New York City is the global center for innovation, visualization and aesthetics, and we were able to speak with one of the blossoming talents the city had to offer. He is also a friend of the program, and we were all too happy to see him. An alum of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and later with the School of Visual Arts, Rich Tu has quickly built a reputation for himself as one of New York's more credible graphic designers. With an already impressive résumé that includes awards such as the ADC's Young Guns 8, Rich's portfolio includes working with notable names such as The New York TimesThe New YorkerSLAM MagazineBusinessWeek, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,  Alfa Romero, Bombay Sapphire Gin, Staple Design, and North Face Purple Label to name a few. And so in this two-part interview, we get to pick his brain about life in New Jersey, how he gains notoriety, and the dark humor of his art. --- WikaMag: So give us a background about yourself. RT: "I was raised in New Jersey. Filipino, of course," Rich relays. "I'm pretty conservative, pretty basic... middle class, you know, suburban upbringing. And pretty Catholic too - I was in Catholic school for 12 years." Did you go to private school? "Yeah, went to private school, was the only Filipino kid, the funny Asian kid in a (predominantly) Black school. I (also) went to grammar school at St. Joseph's in East Orange. It was like a Naughty by Nature song sometimes - you'd randomly see Treach or, like, Uncle Vinny (Brown) on the street, literally... I remember one time I was in the mall, and I saw Vinnie walking out of Foot Locker, with boxes of sneakers! I was like 13, and I remember thinking 'that's Vinnie, and he has mad sneakers right now.' "That was a big part of my childhood, and it was one of those things where  I was immediately different.  I mean, there weren't even any white kids in that school." I'm guessing it's a safe assumption that there was some sort of difficulty in growing up in that environment? Did being Filipino have anything to do with it? "I don't think being Filipino had anything to do with it. I think the difficulty was just in being different. You become hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive to your surroundings because you realize how you're not like the people around you. And that's no one's fault - it just is what it is. "And then, in terms of just creativity, a lot of times I just really wanted to make things in order to have some sort of expression. Pretty much because I wasn't good at sports... also, my dad is an architect, so he would draw all the time. His idea of bonding when I was a kid would be to show me some new drawings." There was a sense of fondness in Rich's voice. "I would see him at the drawing table while I was watching the Simpsons in my underwear, and he would be smoking a cigarette. That was just super bad-ass to me. So that put the idea in my head that you can make a living off being creative."
"...My dad is an architect, so he would draw all the time. His idea of bonding when I was a kid would be to show me some new drawings."
What were your early inspirations? "I was always into comic books. I was also really into pop-culture in general. I've (always) loved movies, and I remember I used to go to Blockbuster Video when I was old enough to leave the house by myself... I'd spend hours there.  I would just walk around - this weird 12 year old kid, and I would just literally walk the isles, looking at VHS box art. To me, that was cool.
"...I remember renting 'Clerks' one time - I rented it just because I saw it had an R rating and thought it would have breasts in it."
"And then I would just rent a couple of movies and I'd stay up all night just watching random movies that I rent. I remember renting 'Clerks' one time - I rented it just because I saw it had an R rating and thought it would have breasts in it. Even now, it's still a lot of the same stuff, I just evolved now with magazines and fashion (as sources of inspiration)." Rich went to Rutgers majoring in Communications, as well as doing a minor in Psychology. "When I graduated, I had nothing to do with (them)," he explained. "(Communications) is such a broad major, that could do a lot of things, or you could do nothing. I know the feeling. "Exactly! ...So I was just wandering around for a little bit." How does a Communications Major land in your line of work? "Well, when I graduated, I knew I wanted to go to SVA. So by the time I was a second, third year at Rutgers, I was like 'Man, I should have done that earlier.' But in retrospect, I think I needed the time to mature, and you get there when you get there. "...And then I worked at the mall, I was (also) a substitute teacher, and I was a personal trainer for a little bit, too." What kind of work were you doing at the mall? "I sold XM Satellite Radio," he recalled, grinning. "I was that dude that stopped you in the hallway to sell you shit. (Laughs) And then I'd go to class at night, work in the day, and tried to build my portfolio in order to get some type of meeting with somebody. "So after a couple of years of doing that, my teacher said that I should talk to Steven Heller. He was the most senior art director at the New York Times, and a huge figure there. I heard that he would see new talent, regardless of who you were, so I got his number, called him, and he met with me... He was really nice, but he rips me to shreds! And I needed to hear it, too." How did you take the criticism? "I just stood there. I didn't really know how to process it. "Imagine someone suddenly putting you in a 'snaps' contest without you knowing, like someone just randomly insulting your mom - I was like, 'I need a minute to process.' But I was receptive - I wanted a professional's advice, and he was THE professional." (Rich goes on to say Heller liked two or three things, most of the time it was 'ehh.') "And then, he says, 'This is pretty good,' and he was talking about a piece I had done on 'The Wild Bunch,' a film by Sam Peckinpah. And in my head I'm thinking, 'a preference is happening.' He actually liked something.
[caption id="attachment_929" align="alignnone" width="259"] Rich's work on 'The Wild Bunch'[/caption]
"So after he goes through the portfolio, he gets my contact info, and says 'If something comes down the pike that you're good for, I'll let you know.' The very next day, he emails me with two pieces for me for the New York Times. And I'm freaked out, like, 'Holy Shit, bucket list, boom, one check! "...I'd never done anything professional like that before, I didn't even know what my process was like yet. I didn't know how to sort shit out in my head... And, that was the week my sister was getting married - and I'm in the wedding! So the day that the finals were due, it was the day of the wedding. So all this shit was going on, and I'm in a tuxedo freaking out. I pull an all-nighter, send him the files that morning, pray there aren't any changes. "He says OK," Rich recalls, with a nostalgic sigh of relief. "...I was like, 'whew, in the clear!' So I go to church, watch my sister get married, and I just fall asleep in the limo. It was a huge relief, and one of the biggest names in the industry just approved of my work. It was also the first time I get paid for it." Rich doesn't quit his day job though. Not yet anyway. "I stayed a substitute-teacher for a while, for every grade. I was a babysitter," he smiles. "I did that for a year and a half, built up my portfolio and then apply to SVA, where I got my Masters Degree in Illustration in 2009." After SVA, Rich explains how he 'hit the ground running,' working with the Times, BusinessWeek, The New Yorker, and Extreme Makeover. He also built up his network, adding the credit of Art Director to his resume.
[caption id="attachment_937" align="alignnone" width="300"] Rich's piece for Alfa Romeo[/caption]
How would you classify your art? "It's definitely 'illustrative...' They're not illustrations, though, because there's no real purpose to it. I think illustration is based on the idea that it has to be placed in a context... It's like a conversation - you can either start it or join in later. In terms of my art, I think it starts the conversation. And it doesn't have a defined purpose, so I leave free room to dance around a little bit. "It's a little cheeky. I wouldn't say funny, but there's humor involved. It's pretty dark, too - these things I really relate to. I like to do work that asks questions from the darkest parts of myself, and the darkest part of people. Not in a way that's like, a bummer, but... there has to be an energy to it." How much of it are life experiences that tend to bring out that urge to present that darker side with your work? "Ahh, I guess, everything is life experience, in a sense. So, yes, totally. But some of (my work) is just the consequence of living inside of your own head a lot. You know what I mean? So there's that." That's the artist for you, huh? "Yes, it is. That's why I like to bounce around with commercial work (and my personal stuff), so I can stop living in my own damn head all the time. But a lot of that is just to express all those things, to get it all out, in almost a healthy way. Because you can talk about really dark subjects and create that discussion. So sometimes, it's also about things that you've thought about and want to discuss with people." ----- To be continued... [Part 2 is available here.]