The Modern Day Hustler: A Conversation With Sue Tsai

If there is any one true definition of a self-made hustler, artist Sue Tsai’s name would be included in that definition. We arrived to Sue’s gallery and pop-up shop, The Only Place I Feel Like Me, located in the Lower East Side, New York, at approximately 10:50 am to see the artist opening and setting up her own shop for an 11:00 am opening, a gallery that has been in the works for a year now and was finally unveiled to the public on August 20th. 
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Inside the gallery, visitors will be able to view the multiple pieces, including paintings and sculptures, that Sue has been long documenting the process of creating to her large social media following. She especially prides herself in the long hours and hard work that has been put into this gallery and her pieces, and the result can be seen in some of the most unique and beautiful works of art we have ever laid eyes on. If you're not familiar with Sue's name [which is highly doubtful], you're sure to be familiar with her work, which has taken the social media world by storm for the past couple years now. This presence has allowed Sue to be noticed and supported by some of the best of the best. We sat down and had an amazing conversation with this inspirational artist, where we discussed her new gallery and the process of creating the pieces, her experience designing and painting one of three of the album covers for Wale's most personal album to date, The Album About Nothing, her feature in T.I. and Akoo's "Book Of Kings" as one of the 14 leaders moving the culture forward [alongside artists such as Pusha-T and Pharell Williams], her ties to the Hip-Hop culture, and much more. Check out our in-depth interview with Sue Tsai below.

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HHWAP: This isn't your first New York City gallery, your first was Not For The Conservative Heart?

ST: Yea, this is my second.

HHWAP: Tell me how that feels, having a second gallery in your hometown.

ST: This show is so much more important to me than most shows, because I really feel like I've reached a really great point in my art career. I've grown so much since my first show, I've built my fan base and that has obviously grown in the past two years. So it's so much bigger and I'm so proud of my work, it's been amazing, it's been great so far.

HHWAP: You've also held galleries internationally, you had one in Taiwan as well, correct?

ST: I did one in Taiwan and Monaco.

HHWAP: You mentioned how your fan base has grown over the past few years, and I feel like even though it's been a couple years now, it feels like just yesterday I watched you blow up. I remember starting to see your artwork everywhere, even before the situation with Wale's "Bad". Give me a feel from the beginning with the Wale situation, do you feel like that was your coming out? I know artists like Rihanna and Meek Mill had posted your artwork before hand.

ST: You know, to me and my friends it's one thing, cause I've been doing art my whole life, but it's just that the social media has really given me an awesome platform to really show my work to the world. I get that it's a great opportunity for any artist or anyone who's trying to brand something to share with people. So with the Rihanna post, and the whole Wale thing, it's definitely elevated me now; I feel like I had gotten my art to a place where they would have noticed it. I mean, a lot of people will say "she owes her whole career to them", but it's like no, I've just gotten myself to a place where they took notice. You just have to get there.

HHWAP: You were grinding way before anyone took notice.

ST: Exactly. So when Wale gave me the opportunity to do the album or the single cover, it was amazing. It just worked very, very well. With his music and my art, we have a lot of similar themes, so it was a perfect match. Everything has been crazy since, it's been amazing.

HHWAP: For "Bad", did you have the painting done already and Wale noticed it, or did he come to you?

ST: He came to me. He reached out and said that he was a fan of my work, and he had this song that was coming out as a single. As soon as they sent over the song, I fell in love with it. I could relate to it so much that I started working on it that day. He was so cool; they didn't really give me anything to go with, they were like "Just do it". With single artwork and music, it's always digital. So when you make something, you can change it around. But with painting, once I paint it, that's it. It's fine art, so it was kind of risky. But I did it in a few days [day and night], and I sent it over, and they loved it. There were no changes.

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HHWAP: The great thing with Wale as well is that he's a very emotional artist, in the same way that a painter would be. With painting, whatever is present in your emotions transfers onto the canvas.

ST: Yea exactly. And most people see it as a bad thing for a rapper when they're emotional, then when it's a fine artist, it's seen as a positive thing. But it's always positive. People love to feel like they can relate to you, you know? So rappers tend to have to look tough, but I think it's a great thing when they're emotional.

HHWAP: That's the thing about Wale that people love, is how deep his art is. With your art and his, it was the perfect match.

ST: It really was the perfect match.

HHWAP: In that situation, you did his [Wale's] album cover as well. He had three album covers for The Album About Nothing, so was it a relationship that just grew on?

ST: Yea, ever since then, we had an awesome relationship, and I would consider him a good friend now. He's always supportive of me. So when it came time to do this album this year, which is such an amazing album, he reached out to me. He did three covers, and the one I did for him was more for his super, core fan base. It wasn't the commercial cover, it was the ones that his fans really felt, and it was so flattering to me that he would ask me to do that.

HHWAP: Tell me about that cover a little bit, because I heard that he had specifically asked you to recreate the Air Jordan 4 and 6 footprints.

ST: Yea, we had the agreement that we were gonna do two sets of footprints, one represents Wale, and one was supposed to represent Jerry Seinfeld, walking into the sunset. Then, after I showed them [the cover], he [Wale] was like, "Can we make them my favourite sneakers and his favourite sneakers?" I was like, how the hell am I gonna do this?

HHWAP: They were so small too!

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ST: It's the little things that count and make a difference, because after it came out, especially because he has a huge sneaker fan base-

HHWAP: Sneaker heads really took notice.

ST: Exactly, and they really appreciated it, so it really does make all the difference. So I'm glad we did that.

HHWAP: Let's talk about when you made it into T.I. and Akoo's "Book of Kings", alongside 13 other cultural leaders and amazing artists. How crazy was that for you? [The "Book of Kings" celebrates culture, art, music and lifestyle and the artists and trailblazers that are helping move the culture forward. The 14 leaders chosen included T.I., Pharell Williams, Melody Ehsani, 40 Oz Van, Jonathan Mannion, Pusha-T, Iggy Azalea, Lil Duval, Karen Civil, D-Nice, Eva Bleu, Amazin Amie, and of coarse, Sue Tsai herself.]

ST: It was amazing. To be honest, when they reached out to me, I was like "Oh, okay. I'm just getting featured in this book". They didn't really add anything. But I did the photo-shoot and I did the interview, and then they were like "You're gonna host the opening with T.I., Iggy Azalea, and Jonathan Mannion, and I was like "Oh shit, okay." So I go to the opening, and they have my face plastered on this huge billboard outside of the space next to T.I., Pharell, Pusha, Iggy, like crazy people. That was super flattering.

 HHWAP: And it's crazy, because it was only 14 people that they chose that are moving the culture forward and they were all huge people, so it must have felt so amazing. I don't often see fine art cross over to the world of Hip-Hop, but you've grasped onto the culture so much. The art that you're creating is truly impacting the culture and is showing the Hip-Hop world in a more emotional form.

ST: Fine art is a whole world in itself. When I started doing art, I was really hip to pop culture, and I wanted to create art that was fun and that people could relate to. And I think why my artwork ties a lot into Hip-Hop is because Hip-Hop stems from a place of struggle and building your own, starting from the bottom. I can really relate to that, and I think a lot of people can relate to the hustle that both my artwork and Hip-Hop have in common. With the music influence, I love Hip-Hop. So everything just comes full circle.

HHWAP: Your art is a very modern form, and you've created your own style. When I see one of your paintings, I know that it's a Sue Tsai painting.

ST: That's the hardest part of being an artist, because there's a million different artists out there that are talented. But finding your own style is one of the hardest things. Like when people just walk down the street and see your artwork, and can be like "that's Sue Tsai, or that's so-and-so", that's the hardest part.

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HHWAP: I've noticed when you post a painting on Instagram, you'll put song lyrics in the caption, and I can instantly feel how much that song influenced that piece.

ST: Even in the gallery, in the daytime I have a playlist; the playlist is a curated list of all the songs that I've listened to while creating all this work. So I kind of give everyone the same experience when they're looking at the art and hearing the music.

HHWAP: When you're creating the art or getting ready for a gallery, I'm guessing there's months of preparation in advance.

ST: Yea, I mean, this itself is a year's worth of work. Then as far as the gallery goes, it's at least a few months [of preparation].

HHWAP: Do you have one designated space? How does the process work when you're creating a painting?

ST: I have a studio, but I can paint anywhere, I started painting on my kitchen floor. Now I actually have a studio and an easel so it's a little more professional; but even if you threw me somewhere else, like outside or something, I could still create a painting there too. As long as it's peaceful.

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HHWAP: With painting as well, there's no rushing it. So no one can deny the amount of hours and work you put into a piece.

ST: Because with the finished product, you can't fake it.

HHWAP: Yea, there's no shortcuts. You also have no issue letting people know that even with the hard work you've put in, that you still get rejected as well from time to time. Most people will assume you now have every door open for yourself, but how is it really for you?

ST: No matter what, I think people assume because they see my success, that everything is now easy; that I now know tons of celebrities and have all these friends in high places, but it doesn't really work like that. I still have had to work for everything that I've gotten. You may get a phone call or your foot in the door somewhere, but you have to back it up with some real work. Rejection always motivates you to go harder. Even people that had ever denied me of anything, I never became mad about it, I just knew that maybe they didn't understand my work at that time. But they always end up coming back after, so it's funny when it works out that way. I always prove people wrong, i think that's one of my biggest motivations. At this point, I'm really comfortable with just saying that I've literally done everything, and I can't give credit to really anyone for getting me to where I am, except for myself.

HHWAP: At one point you posted up cover work that you had created for T.I. and you stated that sometimes not everything makes it, and that shows how proud you are of your work and how comfortable you are within yourself.

ST: I want people to realize that it's not easy. I've done work for so many projects over the past couple years that have never seen the light of day and that people will never know about.

HHWAP: It's probably assumed that everything you create for people immediately gets the "OK".

ST: Yea, everything you do see, people believe to be the only work I've done. They haven't seen the stuff that I've worked on and never made it. But I'm not even mad at those situations, it's all part of the process. Like with the T.I. cover, we've worked on multiple things together. When we did that, it was a super fun project and I got a painting out of it at the end.

HHWAP: It's great that you let people know, "this didn't make it, but I'm still very proud of it".

ST: Yea I wanna show people. I have tons of young artists come in here and tell me their story and tell me about their struggle, and I let them know that I've been through it too. It's not all as easy as I might make it look like.

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HHWAP: That's why, along with your artwork, you as an artist are very relatable.

ST: I try to always give more of my personal side, so people can relate to me on a personal level. I think a lot of the times, companies only put out the work, and you don't really get to know the person behind the work. I want people to get to know me, so with the artwork I'm branding myself and my story. It makes the art that much more relatable.

HHWAP: I've noticed that Swizz Beatz has rolled through the gallery, Joe Budden has rolled through, and many more. How does it feel to get that kind of support?

ST: It literally has been the most amazing experience, and it's only been a week. I'm one of those kind of people, in which I never really ask people for favours, because I kind of like to do everything on my own. So when it comes time with something like this [the gallery], people support me, no questions asked. Every single person I've ever known has walked through these doors. With the celebrities, it's more that they support me, and not that they're coming just to come. These are people who genuinely support.

HHWAP: It's more of a natural occurrence and a natural relationship, not because you asked them to come.

ST: Yea exactly, I don't need to. It's something that I'm really happy with and really proud of. And the people who know me know how hard I worked to put this on.

HHWAP: And the support goes beyond the Hip-Hop community. Someone like Swizz Beatz, that's a legend. That's something bigger. I think that goes to show how much your art has affected everyone and anyone, expected and unexpected.

ST: Yea, that's something I'm really proud of.

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HHWAP: How are you feeling right now? Are you on Cloud 9?

ST: I'm a little tired, but I'm also so happy. And I still got another week, so I'm sure there's many more amazing things to come in the next week before I close. But right now, I'm so happy with the outcome that's already come from the past week. First it's a lot of anxiety, because I put so much into it. I mean, these shows cost a lot and they're such a big investment. But you always get nervous, and everyone around me reminds me that I do this [become nervous] every time. Then the first day in, it was so successful, that you kind of move past it.

HHWAP: Going into anything big like this, in your mind beforehand you always thinks "This is going to be so amazing", then as soon as it's a few days before you're thinking "Uh.. maybe this won't go so well", and you start freaking out!

ST: Yes! I was full-steam ahead, I was so excited. Then two days before, I'm like "Oh my God, what if no one shows up?" I literally do that all the time. Then the day comes and people are waiting here like three hours before I open. I've had fans fly in from Vancouver, Cali, everywhere. I think, "Wow, they came all this way to see me." That's why I love these shows. It's so different in person, you know what I mean? You really get to appreciate the artwork that much more. It's one thing to see it on my Instagram or on my website; it's just a small picture and you don't really notice the fine art aspect of it. But when you come in and see them, people always say "I never knew they were this big", or "I didn't know they were this vibrant", so I think in person it's a whole different experience.

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HHWAP: In person you realize it's not just a picture on social media, it's a real painting. You get to see the details, down to the last stroke.

ST: Exactly. And I love being here in person to meet everyone, so they can get to know me a little more and learn more about the work itself.

HHWAP: It also must be different getting support on social media and getting support in person.

ST: Yea, I always wonder. Like here I have 100,000 followers on social media, but does that really translate to anything in real life? I knew it did early on, but for someone to take time out of their day to physically come into a gallery, it's different. So it's really surprising how that following does translate into people coming into the gallery in real life and supporting you. The internet is crazy, it's kind of like thin air. It's not really real, but at the same time it is.

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HHWAP: What can we look forward to for the future, what's coming up for you?

ST: After I wrap this up, I'm gonna take a little break. But my next project will be Art Basel in Miami, which I probably have to get on that like right after.

HHWAP: [laughter] Maybe take a few days and sleep.

ST: I'm gonna take a few days and do absolutely nothing! [laughs]. But this will be my second year going down for Art Basel, so I'm gonna focus on what will hopefully be a really dope show down there. ♠

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