Growing up without supervision, Kristopher Kotcher aka Frenemy, cultivated a rich imagination with countless years as a street artist. He runs us through being chased by a madman with a shotgun, moving to Southeast Asia, and collaborating with one of the largest international lifestyle brands in the world. Originally from Austin, TX, he now lives and creates from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Ben: How does a Texas native end up in Ho Chi Minh?
Frenemy: My wife and I originally moved from Austin to Seoul, South Korea, and then on to Ho Chi Minh City. My wife is a High School Art Teacher and she has always dreamt of teaching abroad. With the internet, I can work from anywhere. So, we decided to take the leap. It has been the best decision we ever made.
What's in Ho Chi Minh we won't find anywhere else?
The people. The culture. The sights. Everything about living here is so inspiring. It's a city that pulsates with life at all hours. Also, one of the big differences between Ho Chi Minh and Austin is that the art scene is smaller. The egos and attitudes you get with a lot of graffiti writers and sometimes other artists do not really exist here. No pretentiousness. It is refreshing.
You have a pretty punctuated style. What's it like being a tatted up white dude living in the largest city in Vietnam?
Haha. I actually get compliments on my tattoos all the time. People will tell me they think they're beautiful or give me the thumbs up. It is kind of crazy to me how nice and accepting people are about it. Even when I lived in Korea, people who might not like my tattoos sometimes asked what I did. I gave them a business card with my creatures on it, and when they saw I was an artist, suddenly, it was ok. It's funny how that works.
Speaking of, you're constantly creating wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, colorful creatures set in chaotic environments. Is the source of this theme external stimulation or introspection?
For me, I grew up with a pretty rough home life. As a kid I spent a lot of my time reading my favorite children's books and comics and emulating the artwork in them. I was always creating whether it was building things with Legos or drawing my own comics. Creativity was my way to escape from hard realities. I always loved the idea of making up a world that is your own. Building a new universe. So I would definitely say the source is introspection.
As I grew older, I switched gears with art and put that focus into graffiti as my escape from life. Now that I am older and a lot happier, I've gone back into the world of creating characters instead of letters, which I like a lot more. The possibilities are limitless. I also love to share my art with others. I want others to get lost in my characters and their adventures.
It's obviously working. You did a big collab with Converse Korea. What was the biggest takeaway?
Yeah. That has been a huge highlight for me. Growing up a punk/skater kid, I always wore Chucks, so I was excited to have the opportunity to design my own.
The biggest learning experience would be the edits and the fast time line. From the beginning of the whole process I had about a week to get them three designs. Then they wanted something with a more music/skate/graffiti culture feeling. I had less than a week to get them the edits. It was high stress because you want to deliver something you're happy with, but the time restriction puts so much pressure on you to produce.
Were you happy with the final designs?
In the end, I was really happy with the designs. I learned I work well under pressure. It's like working with any client. You learn to conform with what they want but still put your own style and voice into it. I have to say Korea showed me a lot of love. This K-Pop star, IU, even wore my shoes on her K-Drama television show. Working with Converse was an awesome experience and I really love Korea.
How do you conform to client needs while keeping true to your art?
Usually, if a client is working with me they know what they are going to get. I have a pretty solidified style that I don't really like to stray from. Still, every once in awhile, people ask me to do art for them that isn't at all my style. I think, "Have you even looked at my portfolio?"
Given the graffiti background, what's the sketchiest situation you've been in?
Graffiti has given me some of the greatest adventures of my life. It's hard to narrow it down to just one, but a good one is this time I was painting in a warehouse in Houston, Texas.
It was me and 4 of my friends and crew mates. To get into the place, you had to climb a tree, get on the roof and crawl into a window where the board was kicked out. This place was covered in graffiti. It's still a popular daytime piecing spot in Houston. We had done all our pieces and I was just finishing up and packing up my paint when I looked over to the top of the stairs.
There is this big hobo looking guy. Big beard, overalls and he was holding a shotgun. He says, "What are y'all doing in my house? Get out of here!" My friends immediately started packing up their stuff. My friend, Goose, starts repeating, "Just let us get our paint! Just let us get our paint!" The guy shouts "GET OUT NOW!"
I was closest to the window so I darted out across the roof and my friends followed. I climbed back down the tree. I'm standing there waiting as each friend drops down and starts running off. Then I see my friend, Sumoe, drop down and behind him is the hobo with the shotgun pointing down at us. He drops down off the tree and we start running as fast as we can and we hear "BLAM!" The guy had shot off the shotgun into the air. We all kept running but once we knew we were safe we couldn't stop laughing. One of my friends was super freaked out. He started calling everyone he knew freaking out about it - telling everyone he almost died. It was pretty funny.
For me, with graffiti, the sneaking around, the adventures and the crazy stories, those are all just as good as the actual act of painting.
You've done a lot of large scale work in your day.
Nothing beats the feeling of spending a week painting some giant wall and seeing your work on that scale. It's something I will always do.
I plan to be that weird, old, tattooed, grey-haired guy out at the wall spray painting. Shaking my cane at the youngins tellin' them how, "Back in my day we had to use nothing but stock tips!" Assuming that by then they have developed some space age spray technology. Haha.
Haha. Until then, what creative or systematic routines are part of your daily process?
I have to say, I'm pretty obsessive about my work. I usually wake up with my wife in the morning and make some breakfast. Once she heads out to work, I get to work. I put on some music. Recently, I've been spending a lot of time working on this video game app. So, I'll work on that for a bit. Usually with one of my cats sitting in my lap and the other laying on a pillow next to my desk. Then I'll work on any other client work I need to do or paintings for shows. I'll take a lunch break and then get back to work on the game or other work. I try to make time to fit everything in I can. When my wife gets home, I will spend some time with her, eat dinner and watch some tv. But when she falls asleep, I usually sneak back into my studio to work on more stuff. My loyal cat follows me around like a little dog. Always sleeps on the floor next to my workspace until I finally go to sleep. She is good like that.
Dude. You're a work horse.
I am. Haha. I have a lot I want to accomplish. I really want to get a Children's Book out into the world too. I've been working on that as much as I can lately. It's so much drawing and revising. I am always thinking big. This little world I make is so much more to me than just a hobby. I want to take things as far as I can with my art. It truly is my passion in life.
As a kid from a rough home life, how are you navigating the emotional process of creating for children?
My aunt said to me this summer when I was visiting, "You sure did do a good job raising yourself." I didn't have any rules, but I always knew I didn't want to be like those who hurt me so much.
Some people choose to repeat those patterns, but it instilled in me the person I knew I never wanted be. I wanted to be better and do better. Growing up like that also kept me a kid in a way. I didn't have any "adults" around to tell me how to act or "grow up" per say. That helped keep the creativity alive in me.
At a certain point in society, I think we are told "imagining is for kids," and slowly we let that child-like view of the world die in us. So, while I had to be kind of adult at an early age, at the same time, I kept this childlike view of the world. The excitement and wonder. So, writing and illustrating for children is something I feel comes easy. I want my characters to get kids excited about imagining and reading the way my favorite books did when I was a kid. I want to write books that have a good message, but at the same time are creative and fun.
What's it been like illustrating for an interactive video game versus something static?
We're actually working on two different games currently. It's super cool to see my characters run around on a screen and control them. The whole process has been fun.
The biggest frustration though, is that my work is highly detailed with heavy line work. Since it needs to look good on a small screen, I'm having to design everything solely in Illustrator and take out all that detail. It's so much work. I can still make characters that are like mine, but I have to take out the hair and stuff. I am really proud of the games we are developing and excited for when we finally get to put them out into the world.
When and where can people download the Frenemy games?
Well, we are shooting to get the first game out by Christmas 2014, but with these things you never know. I am working with a company in Australia so they will be first released in the Australia and New Zealand markets. Then on to the rest of the world through the app market.
You recently tweeted about implications of drug use informing your creativity. Can you elaborate on your thoughts about drugs as fuel for art?
Well, I get comments every now and then from people who will say things like, "Man, I need some of that acid," or "How much weed do you smoke?" It annoys me. The thought that, "without drugs I couldn't possibly think creatively," is not one I think of. I feel sad that the notion of creativity and imagination would be that dead inside someone - that the first thing they think is that I must be on drugs.
Everything I create comes from my own brain. No drugs needed. Maybe that says something about me. Haha. Spending a lot of time alone as a kid? Being socially awkward and introverted? Messed up life experiences? Maybe. But not drugs.
How about music? Has that influenced what we experience in your work?
I always listen to music while I am making art. It's such a huge part of my day. It might be a line in a song or maybe just the feeling the song brings to me and that will end up in my work.
For instance, I did this drawing a few years ago of a guy puking, and it said "Everything Tastes Unfun". I was listening to the Thee Oh Sees song, "Spider Cider". The first line of the song sounded like he said "Everything Tastes Unfun". I'm still, to this day, unsure if that's the actual line. But I really liked that line so I made some art based on that. Music is definitely a powerful factor of influence.
Listen to Frenemy's Work Jams - an artist-curated playlist on Spotify.
Any cool opportunities because of your work on society6?
I definitely think Society6 has helped me with gaining viral traction. People find my work on the site and then follow me on social media. I've been approached to show my work in some galleries from being seen on S6 and some European sites have approached me to collaborate with them. I recently had a luggage company from France approach me to do artist series luggage with them after seeing my work on your site.
Finally, any shoutouts to other S6 artists?
So many good ones. Here is a gang of them that I like a lot - Jon MacNair, Jack Teagle, Michael C Hsiung, Mikeaych, Anglea Fox, Slaggs, Birdcap, Josh LN, Alejandro Giraldo, Alex DeSpain, Matt Mims, Holm the Tooth, and Theodoru.
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