Interview: James Tran

Artist. Art student. Tattooist. James Tran’s paintings and tattoos are fantastic work. Check out our interview when you click the link.


"Born in Colorado, raised in Los Angeles, living in San Diego. Parts are from Vietnam, but assembled in America. Multi medium artist with a focus in figurative oil painting. Currently finishing my B.A. Fine Arts at San Diego State University, should have graduated a few semesters ago, but man, that studio space is super nice. I apparently have a steady enough hand to be a full time tattooer at Full Circle Tattoo also!”

Affinity Parcels: How’s your day been?

James Tran: Busy, I’ve been up since 5am, doing Muay Thai, then I had a figure drawing class at 8, then I had to submit a few paintings for a student exhibition at SDSU. Then my day truly starts at 12pm when I get to the tattoo shop for eight hours of fun in the sun.

AP: Where are you from?

JT: Ethnically? Its been a while since someone has asked me where I was from and expected an Asian country.  Just kidding. Sort of.

Well I was born in Aurora, Colorado, but moved to far east LA county when I was three years old, a small obscure town called Walnut, right smack dab next to LA, Orange County, and the San Bernardino. Pretty much suburbs.

AP: Does where you’re from influence your work at all?

JT: It has influenced me to never return there. Don’t get me wrong, its a wonderful place to have a family and retire, very clean, safe, and slow pace. I love my city, but I also want to be near some sort of action.

AP: Do you have any direct influences or inspirations that help you create the work you do?

JT: I have grown fond of my colleagues and fellow students, always bouncing ideas off of them. The academic environment is great for art, sure sometimes you have to do some projects you don’t care for, or have to work with some people you rather not ever have to deal with, but everyone is producing and its hard to not feel motivated.  Honestly the Internet has made the world so small, you can see the work from all over the place instantly, people are famous in a manner of seconds, its always cool to see what’s going on.

From a more traditional stand point, Euan Uglow and Alex Kavinsky are some of the greatest figure painters ever. I love their work, the way the figure interacts with the space around it. It creates its own narratives.

AP: So you tattoo as well as make art?

JT: Yes, I have been given an amazing opportunity. There is a clear dichotomy as I try to keep the two worlds apart. Tattooing is a service industry, it’s a craft, and I try to up hold time tested traditions. My personal art, is well, just that it’s personal. It’s a lot of problem solving and experimenting. I enjoy painting loose and erratic. Very opposite from tattooing. Whenever tattooing is too much, or a painting is not working out, I get balance from the opposing forces.


AP: What came first? Did you want to tattoo first and art is a big part of tattooing? Or were you an artist and wanted to tattoo?

JT: I have always tried to create art. When I was a little kid I would doodle and try to copy comic books, in fact that’s how I was able to make friends, I just drew things for them. I hated art classes in grade school. The structure was killing me, I guess it took me a few years to mature and respond well to the direction. But to answer your question, I have always enjoyed art, I started my apprenticeship in tattooing, then was reintroduced to contemporary art through college.

AP: Do you have a preferred style of tattoos you enjoy doing?

JT: Anything that makes a good tattoo. Solid bold lines, bright simple colors. Naturally I enjoy traditional western folk imagery. Traditional American tattoos are so fun to do. They last forever, and it’s a throw back to my days as a pirate for Uncle Sam.

AP: How would you describe your art?

JT: I’m still trying to figure this out. It mostly has to do with the human figure in relation to space, the surrounding areas on the canvas. I want to use the body in unconventional and dynamic ways not found typically in figure paintings.

AP: What’s your story? Most people stop making art at a young age. Why or what made you continue to pursue art?

JT: Honestly I gave up on art for a while. I had no plan out of high school and decided to join the military. While I was serving I had a child hood friend who was trying to reach his goals as an artist, something a lot of people thought was a pipe dream and not practical in today’s world. Tragically, his life was cut short but he was living it on his terms. After six years of following orders and doing questionable things, it was finally time for me to live my life.

Growing up in an Asian family dynamic, we are fed discourses about finding high paying and prestigious jobs. I just wanted to have fun and have people pay me to make art.

AP: In my opinion, an artist shouldn’t only do art. Do you have any other creative outlets? Or hobbies? Or do you live and breathe art?

JT: I would go insane if all I had was art. I think everyone needs an outlet. To some people making art is their escape, for me, watching movies and reading gets me away from the grind of producing art. I must have some form of ADD cause I’m always reading about something new or trying something out.

AP: Do you have any favorite artists?

JT: Of course earlier I mentioned Euan Uglow and Alex Kavinsky. But I also love Tim Hawkinson, Richard Long, Ai Wei Wei, and Robert Irwin.

As for tattooers, I really look up to Bill Canales (my mentor), Filip Leu, Grime, and Marcus Kuhn.

AP: Why them?

JT: Euan and Alex are primarily figure painters, their work is so hauntingly beautiful, I just love the compositions and the way the figures are rendered.

Tim Hawkinson, Richard Long, Ai Wei Wei and Robert Irwin, cause their work is fearless to me. They push the boundaries of contemporary art and I love their contribution and innovations.

The tattooers, well those guys just work so hard, they’re tattooers tattooers. Pushing the limits of what used to be a marginalized craft in these parts of the world.

AP: If you lost the ability to create art, what other career or profession do you think you’d go after?

JT: I would be a chiropractor or lawyer. And travel to various Hooters restaurants around the country.

AP: Any reason why that profession?

JT: I never got into painting or tattooing for the money. If for some tragic reason I lost the ability to do the thing I am most passionate about, I would just turn my back to the world and gather as much material wealth as I could and numb the pain via retail therapy or general douche-baggery. Not to villainize lawyers or chiropractors at all, I would just use it for evil.

AP: If you had to describe an artist in one word, what would that word be?

JT: Endure.

AP: Why that word?

JT: Sometimes we have to to remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.

AP: To wrap things up, do you have any advice to give to another artist?

JT: Be humble yet confident in your work. Accept criticism like a gift. And just go out and make work, you can make excuses and find reasons for this or that later.

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    Some cool stuff shared by an artist.
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