From drawing on textbooks to getting the Book of Records for painting the tallest mural at RED by Sirocco. How did he get to where he is now?
1. Hi Kenji, to start off, maybe a quick introduction about yourself?
My name is Kenji Chai, I’m a graffiti mural artist from Sabah and now based in Kuala Lumpur.
2. When and how do you know you wanted to become a graffiti artist and why?
When I was in primary school, I loved to draw a lot on my textbooks and I didn’t listen to classes. The feeling was amazing, it’s like the time freezes and you are with your drawing in a time zone, whereby everything is mute. When I was form 3, I decided to come to KL because there was nothing much we could do in Sabah.
I had a graphic design job but I realized that I don’t have much freedom because everything has been set like we are working in a square. Then I started graffiti as my friend taught me and I felt really happy every weekend. I found that that was the calling, I want to paint. Of course, at first, I couldn’t make money but slowly, I got some commercial job and after a few years, I was a full time graffiti artist in 2013. I think it’s been around nine years since 2013.
3. How did you find out the standard and the charges for this industry?
I asked my buddy because they have been in the game for some time. From there, I started and there’s a 10 times increment already from my first charge. However, besides doing projects and earning money, we need to have time in our lives to accompany our family and not just wanting to look for money all the time. Also, you need to have time for inspiration.
4. As you’re growing up as a kid, what or who do you think has affected you to become who you are today?
I would say my mom. My family, my friends, my cousin, they all just laugh at me but my mom, she’s a hairdresser so she’s also into art like it’s about styling. She never looked down on me, never laughed, she just told me to try my best, do my best, be the best and just be happy in what I’m doing. She has been supporting me all the time like paying for my school and college fees so I was blessed to have her in my life.
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5. How did you find your style for your artwork? How do you know for certain that that is your style?
When I was painting on the street, there was no one telling me what to draw. It’s all about imagination and my interests so that really helped me grow my style. Basically everyone, even me or you, we have our idol. We want to be like them but it doesn’t work that way because everyone’s strength is very different. You have to know if you’re comfortable when you’re drawing a certain style. For me, I was doodling then and I found I’m really really comfortable drawing comics and cartoons because that was something related to my childhood like Mickey Mouse, Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter and Ghostbusters. Being a full time mural artist, there are different kinds of approaches. One of them is like they always draw whatever the client requests so then this was me when I was younger but after I gain trust from my client, I would tell them that I only do this particular stuff.
6. Since 2013, what do you think is your biggest challenge that you’ve faced in your journey and how did you overcome it?
Sometimes, I won’t have a job for a month or two or even three months. You need to be very keen and really firm that there will be something good coming for you. I will try to do something to upgrade myself like drawing more, sketching, going to movies for inspiration or traveling. RED by Sirocco was my biggest challenge but I got the Book of Records for painting the tallest mural. At first, I felt that the height exceeded my limit because I was painting around 10 or 11 floors max before this but this was like a double of that.
I wanted to drop the project at first but since God chose me, I need to try my best to make sure that I can finish and fulfill this project because in order to achieve something a normal human being can’t do, you need to have the responsibility and guts you wouldn’t have. There will be more stress, more challenges, more scary things that you need to face. What I did was I just looked at the front whereby I just zoomed in and focused instead of looking backwards or downwards and I put on my music. Day by day, I was drawing lower and lower, I felt stable.
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7. What do you think the world would be like without graffiti?
I feel like it will be quite boring because there are not many colors. It will be a dead town and it doesn’t feel alive because colours can give some energy to the public to make sure that they can face the challenge, positive vibes.
8. Through your artwork, what kind of message do you want to send to your audience?
Mainly, it will be animals because I want people to really look into animals’ situation whereby it’s going extinct very soon. I want to remind them to take care of the animals so the next generation could still have a chance to really appreciate animals and nature because we’re moving too fast. We’re going into a digital era and everything’s so advanced.
Life is about being adventurous, it’s never about being safe. You need to be firm and very sure of who you want to be. Everything will fall into place because of “I want to be successful.” If you’re in the right environment, you’re talking to the right person, you’re on the right track. If you give up on your dream, you will not have the chance to be the real you, you will be a loser in your life. Know what you love, you will find every reason to do the thing you love. Love is everything.
Yes, you will have moments where you feel like you’re at rock bottom, you feel like you suck. Every time you fall, you need to study why you fail, study the number one reason. Of course, you can say it’s luck right? But no, it’s not because of luck, it’s because maybe they practice more than you, maybe they give more than you, maybe their strength is in different things so you need to learn and understand the situation in order for you to win.
9. If anyone reading this is interested in venturing into this industry in Malaysia, what do you think is the most important advice they need to hear before starting?
Actually, we have a lot of theories of why we are good. We have been absorbing a lot of things but we need to have practical experiences as well. If you really like something, if you don’t know how to do graffiti, how to start, just go and do it, don’t wait.
10. Everyone has their moments when they are uncertain about something, what is the one thing that you’re most uncertain about in your life?
Actually, I can do other things but I’m not happy, I’m not satisfied. I feel that it’s meaningless for me. It’s not about money, it’s the fulfillment in your heart so instead of doubting yourself, why don’t we just give extra hard work? Better than just sitting there and thinking of nonsense because it doesn’t help anything in your life. Of course I can tell you that I’m not super talented and there was a person in front of me when I was in college. He was number one every time so during the final year, I tried my best but I only got third place. I don’t feel sad but I thought, maybe I’m not that talented.
One day I talked to him on Facebook, he was telling me that he stopped doing design and he’s doing business now so I feel like this story almost seemed like the turtle and the rabbit. So once you give up, the turtle will always have a chance to cut over because it’s about perseverance. There must be a reason why you’re into the clubs, why you join them, why you’ve been sweating, spending a lot of time in it. Then your parents told you that you’re wasting your time that doesn’t help your future but who will know that? Who are we to judge our future?
The world has changed. You have TikTok, you have IG. We just do whatever we do the best and show to the world. That will be our main concern and not about defining things like “my mom says it’s not good.” How does your mom define the future? We’re getting old. The new world doesn’t care. You feel thrilled when you’re doing what you love but your parents would never understand the feeling so in their mind, it’s all just about having stable jobs, following the routine, never going out of the loop and you will be a safe person.
11. In your life, what do you miss the most when you look into your past and why?
I would say when I have nothing because when I’m nothing, I can be very sincere to what I’m drawing. But now, people who come to look for me, they have their own agenda, it’s not that pure anymore? My passion is also to really bring up someone but that person really needs to know what they want to do first in order for me to to encourage them. If they don’t have anything, it’s very hard for me to convince them because they don’t know the feeling of the blessing, they don’t know the feeling of the fulfillment in their heart. Once you feel it, you just need to think how you can really stay in this blessing for your entire life. If you couldn’t find it, you will be back to the normal, very cruel world and you will feel unhappy.
12. Last but not least, what do you want the most in your life in the next five years? Why?
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I’ve never changed, I always wanted to be an international artist because in Malaysia, there’s nothing much I can achieve. People will say that I’m the best in Malaysia but I don’t really have feelings towards this because the world is so big. I would rather be in the top 10 or top 20 in the USA or wherever. It’s better than being top 1 in Malaysia. 10 years ago, I told myself I need to have a style. After five years, I need to do what the client hired me, I just do what I’m good at. So after that, it’s to go overseas to share my art to the world. This has always been the dream that never changes.
We come to this earth to experience like we will die one day either you fail or you succeed. So it doesn’t matter for me if you fail because life is just about failing. It’s about how you live your life. I rather it to be like a roller coaster than just flat. It can’t be too safe, it has to be a thrill so that our heart is beating. One time, when I was waking up, I was in Hong Kong and I looked at myself in the mirror and asked myself, am I dreaming? So the best thing in life is to live your dream. That’s the best.