April 12, 2010

Into the Tee’s of the Flying Mouse

An Interview with Illustrator and Tee-Shirt Designer, Chow Hon Lam

Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2 including Picture Gallery!)
Click on any image to increase it to original size.

When I first started looking into Chow Hon Lam’s works – which within only a few scant hours I found posted literally all over the web – I was reminded of a passage in one of my favorite
Terry Pratchett books, ‘Soul Music’. Well, to be honest, there’s very little in life that doesn’t remind me of Sir Pratchett’s works, but stick with me here. In this case, a new phenomena has swept the Discworld (look it up, trust me, you’ll love it), where ‘Music With Rocks In’ has invaded the local population the new and addictive music that has entered Discworld (‘It's lawless. It changes people. // It's called Music With Rocks In. // It's got a beat and you can dance to it, but... // It's alive. // And it won't fade away...')

There is a scene where one certain C.M.O.T.* Dibbler is thinking about setting up a ‘Woodstock’ like event (*= Cut Me Own Throat, a nickname owing to his typical sales pitch for his amazingly low price offers)

‘... and C.M.O.T. Dibbler thought of money all the time.

For example, there were the shirts. They were of cotton so cheap and thin that it was practically invisible in a good light and tended to dissolve in the wash. He’s sold six hundred already! At five dollars each! (OK money value is a bit different on the Discworld vs. Earth). All he had to do was buy them at ten for a dollar ... and pay Chalky half a dollar each to print them.

And Chalky, with un-troll-like initiative, had even printed off his own shirts. They said: Chalkies, 12 The Scours, Thyngs Done.

And people were buying them, paying money to advertise Chalky’s workshop. Dibbler had never dreamed that the world could work like this. It was like watching sheep shear themselves. Whatever was causing this reversal of the laws of commercial practice he wanted in big lumps.

He’d already sold the idea to Plugger the shoe-maker in New Cobblers (PLUGGERS, They’ve Got Soles, FEEL THE NALES!) and a hundred shirts had just walked out of the shop, which was more than Plugger’s merchandise usually did. People wanted clothes just because they had writing on!’

Now, one of the reasons this always strikes me as amusing is that you can pretty much trace where I’ve eaten or partaken in drink over the past years travelling in the United States, which to be honest, is not a far stretch away from the peoples and situations you find on Discworld. It’s just that I probably own a tee-shirt from every restaurant, bar or hole-in-the-wall that has offered even mildly digestible, uh, digestibles. Hey, it’s just what I do. The Japanese take pictures, I buy tee-shirts.

I mean, don’t we all love to wear our hearts literally on if not our sleeves then across the breast of our favorite tee-shirts? The ones with all your favorite film characters glaring out at the world as to say ‘hey, I’ve seen that movie, too, talk to me!’ Or the ones that say, ‘yes I may be a geek, but you know what they say about what geeks...’ And yes, even those ‘special message’ shirts you wear under your dress shirt that make you smile every time some moron mentions ‘Mission Statements’ or ‘Adding Value Moving Forwards’ without actually deciding on anything other than holding down the status quo and collecting his obscene bonus at the end of the year. But I digress even though only barely...

And as such, to find out about Chow Hon Lam’s works – with their sense of the fun, the naughty and the almighty tongue-in-cheek – was indeed a glimpse into the kind of design that touches at least my life every single day. We are pleased therefore to bring you a few words from this self-made Master of the Tee and also invite you to surf through the dozens and dozens of other offers he has ‘out there’ that we could not include here only owing to space!


Welcome Hon Lam! My first question is how does one become a ‘modern legend’ in tee-shirt design?

Modern Legend, LOL! That sounds cool!
(ZN: it’s true, see Hon Lam’s interview with his friends at threadless.com
here! Oh, and since my mom reads this sometimes - ha, as if - I will explain this only once: LOL = laugh out loud)

In terms of being well-known in the field of tee-shirt design, I think it’s all about "practice". I’ve almost done about 800 tee-shirt designs in the last 3 years alone.

Today, when I look back at my first tee design, I can really see that my skills have improved a lot. And that’s exciting, because I believe my works will be even better after another 3 years time.

Why tee-shirts instead of fashion or even more ‘traditional’ graphic arts?
I like story telling. Some people tell their stories through movies, or novels, dramas, or even comic books. And to do this, they’ll spend a year, or even few years to tell one story.

For me, I tell my stories through my tee-shirt designs. And one of the most amazing parts to me of using tee shirts as my ‘medium’ is that I can tell a different story everyday.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Were you always interested in illustration?
I was always interested in drawing, even though I never had a chance to attend an art school. My first job though was a part time final art artist in a small studio in 1994, and it was from there that I started my journey in life with illustration.

I worked there for about 4 years, then I resigned and started working on some freelance projects. I started doing some children book design, comics, cover designs, magazine illustration, and other character design jobs. And then in 2007, I designed my first tee shirt.

Some of the impressions I get from your art range from sexy, thoughtful, bizarre, absurd, and even morbid. Can you describe then how you come to each of these different stories, because you have said that all of your illustrations have a story behind them?
Yes, again, most of my illustrations have a story behind them.

I believe everything has it’s own story, even if it’s ‘just’ an object, or a human, or animals, or even the weather! I always think to myself that these things all have something to say, they just can't speak! So I try to speak for them though my designs.

And because different stories need different moods and different settings, that's why you can see so much variety and different art styling in my works.

I once conducted an
interview with a colleague working in Kuala Lumpur. What do you think of the local design scene like there?
There have a lot of talented artists here. Unfortunately, the governme nt does not really support art culture.

Also, most of the companies here do not really appreciate artists, they tend to quite often "bully" artists. They either try to hire with a cheap project rate, or even sometimes they never pay the artist after the job is done.

I think I had read somewhere that you have submitted literally thousands of ideas for designs, with obviously only a fraction of these being accepted. What is the hit and miss ratio like for your work and how hard is it to maintain your motivation?
Well obviously exposure is key, but it is nice to ‘win’ sometimes, too, you know to get your designs accepted and also to be able to make a living. So my basic plan is just to keep designing and try to get more and more people knowing about my works.

I'm not sure what is the return per se with all this hard work, but I do stay positive and am sure I will get something in return. It’s kind of like I’m trying to hypnotise people, you know so that they’ll keep in their mind that "Hey, Flying Mouse is a tee shirt designer".

But that’s just joking, I don’t think I will go that far! After all, I feel I'm very lucky to be doing this and to be having some success with it.

Speaking of hard jobs, I also enjoyed reading about and seeing a lot of your work from the FM365 project, which stood for ‘Flying Mouse's’ project of doing one design per day for a whole year! How hard was that to maintain? Did you have some days where time was running out and you didn't know what to do?
In order to stick with my targets, I literally rejected all job offers and spent all my working time on this project.

The hardest part of this project has been to come out a single idea and to try and draw it in the same day. I’ve overcome a lot of this by making sure I spend some time everyday just to think and note down the extra ideas in my sketch book. That way I have had some "stock" of ideas waiting and won’t have to feel all panicked if I can't get an idea drawn right away or even the next day.

Continued in Part 2 including Mucho Grande Picture Gallery!

All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Chow Hon Lam, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. Some pictures have been modified slightly only for the purpose of space limitations.

For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit

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