Here at Looking Sideways we’re lucky to work with some amazing artists. And as well as inspiring us with their work, they also inspire with their own recommendations as well: like when LS artist Phil Morgan introduced us to artist and illustrator Michael C. Hsiung. Phil and Michael go way back, so we asked Phil for a few words on his friend and collaborator. Here’s what he had to say…

Michael C Hsiung is an illustrator based in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. I first came across his work back in 2007 through his range of graphics for the skate company Enjoi Skateboards. He is a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons, wizardry, bearded sea creatures and narwhals. As well as skateboarding and bearded beer drinking dudes, all of these influences come across in his imaginative black and white ink drawings. I’m such a fan of his style that I even had one of his illustrations turned into a tattoo.

He’s had his work displayed all over the world, most recently with a solo show at THIS Gallery in LA. I’m really happy to be showing my work at Looking Sideways London next to such a rad artist.

Tell me about yourself. Where you’re from, how you got into art?

I was born in China Town in downtown LA. My Dad was from mainland China, my mum was from Taiwan. They came over in 74, and I grew up in San Fernando Valley, so am fully Californian.

My sister is a painter, but I moved away from that when I was a kid, probably because of her to be honest. I went to college and studied English lit, lived in San Jose, worked, skated. Then when I was in my late 20s, I moved back to LA where my sister, family and friends lived. I quite my job, moved back and started drawing again. Just doing weird shit, showing them to my sister and friends. At the same time, a good friend of mine Mike Stilkee was also working as an artist, and he was just starting to take off. He started taking me to shows – mentored me in a way. He was someone I grew up with skating from when I was about 15 or so. So when I met back up with him in a bar, we started hanging out again with a bunch of other old skate crew friends. And it grew from there.

Left to right: Hippie Johnny, the Elf; Magic Mike, The Elf with the Unicorn Hat; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Elf; Samurai Warrior of the Bird Klan: all available in the Looking Sideways shop

So would you say skating influenced your art in any way? If so, how?

It had a total influence. Those were all things that I grew up with in California. Toy Machine and Ed Templeton, seeing people doing graphics, then setting up companies and doing it for themselves. So when I started doing my own art it just seemed natural. Like, ‘Of yeah, I can make my own art, so I’ll screenprint it’. You know, I didn’t even think about it. At the time it just seemed natural, but when I reflect on it now it’s definitely because of all that stuff. Because I would never have been exposed to it if I hadn’t seen everybody else doing it. The people I grew up skating with were always doing their own stuff – creating art, building a ramp, making patches and zines. So yeah, it’s a huge influence which you almost take for granted.

Most artists we speak to say the same thing, that it’s the overall creative atmosphere of the skate scene that encourages creativity and a DIY attitude. You’ve also done some work for skateboard companies as well right? Tell me how that came about?

Yes, that was one of my biggest break. I was working at a museum as an Assistant Grant Writer and working on my art in my spare time. Enjoi asked me to design a set of board, and it was a huge opportunity for me. It also led to me doing more boards here and there, as well as wheels and other bits since.

You also did some boards for a friends company recently?

Yeah. They’re called Amigos Skateboards from Seattle. They’re a really awesome company which one of my old skate buddies Bryan and a bunch of friends in Seattle pulled together. So when they asked me to do a graphic, of course I was down to support the cause!

I always think if you grow up skating, there will be a couple of things you always dream of doing: building a ramp, starting a band or doing your own board graphic. Doing one for a friend’s company is another, one of those goals you can tick off right?

Yeah, it’s great. It’s funny, every time I do a skateboard graphic it’s like it’s almost more meaningful than a solo show (laughs).

Talking of skateboard stuff, I also recently did some different but skateboard-related stuff which I can just about speak about now. It was for the Tampa Pro, some art for the ramps at the comp, which was really cool. I don’t really do a lot of big commercial stuff, and at first I was almost reluctant. But you know a bunch of really cool artists have done it in the past, like Travis Millard and Todd Bratrud. I worked on it here and they’ll be putting it on the ramps. It’s a great concept so I’m excited to see how it looks.

Ouroboros Swimmer

I guess it’s an interesting one, the relationship between an artist and the commercial work. It’s essential if you want to work as a full time artist, but might often feel like a compromise artistically. Must be nice to get a commercial commission that’s linked to skateboarding though?

Yes, that’s definitely something that’s exciting. And hopefully it lives on the photographs and video of the comp and skatepark, which is always a really fun thing and gets you more exposure. Plus, the tie-in with the contest, with it being the 20th anniversary of the Tampa Pro, made it really cool.

Can you tell me a bit about how how you work? Method, mediums etc?

I guess I’d describe it as illustration, narrative style, black and white, mostly ink or pen & ink. It’s character based, and it’s sort of humorous. Comic-ish. But not really. I never really know how to describe it!

How about themes? I have ‘hair’ written in my notes here – you seem to draw a lot of hirsute characters: beards, animals and birds, which I think really show the detail and technique of your style really well. Tell me about that and other themes in your work?

Ha. I have a lot of friends with facial hair and beards, it’s a common thing to see, so maybe that just seeped into my work. Also, it’s a fun thing for me to pattern. It’s almost soothing. I can draw a greater picture or character, then work on these great details, adding arm hair, back hair, beards, feathers, fur. It’s a fun thing for me to draw and it works well with the content. Also I’m kind of obsessed with Vikings and medieval history, so I often end up drawing things like that.

I was going to mention that. It seems like the almost magical, hybrid human-animal characters you often draw seem to have an Norse or European mythic background, rather than, say, an influence from your American-Asian background? Is that fair to say?

Yeah. I think that’s definitely true. I’m a true Chinese – American hybrid, and that influence comes from when I was reading a lot of literature and studying it in college. Renaissance literature, Medieval history. You know, I played Dungeons & Dragons. I was really into Greek mythology. Maybe that’s because of the school systems out here, as that’s a lot of what you learn and study. So I’ve always really been into that.

My favourite period of literature is medieval literature. Knights, chivalry and all that. So when I started drawing, all those elements started to seep out. Like, I’d start researching unicorns and all these weird types of mythical creatures, where and when they came from or appeared in history, and that had an influence.

There’s this one artist I really like called Olaus Magnus. He was an old Swedish or Norwegian mapmaker guy, and came up with all those old creature drawings you see in maps. Now the copyright is used up, you see it everywhere. They come from his drawings, which are some of the best stuff. I love his style, and a lot of his titles, when they translate into English, is often what I like to allude to in my titles. Like, I always pick up these long, elaborate titles which is kind of a play on his stuff. Or old books like Tom Jones or Don Quixote, which have really long chapter titles.I think that must be something that comes from being an English nerd. I still like to work it into my artwork!

So literature is a big influence. How about other arts? Music for example? Do you listen to music when you work?

I do. I go back and forth. I have periods where I listen to a lot of music, a lot of classic rock stuff. I like a lot of sort of heavy stuff, drone-y stuff, but then sometimes I’ll draw in complete silence. Or sometimes I listen to the radio. But I think music is definitely a big factor, depending on what I’m drawing. You know, energy wise it’ll change what I’m drawing into something different. More aggressive or more battle scenes, ha ha.

Have you ever done any artwork for bands?

Yeah, you know it’s LA. There are tons of band. I’ve done some record covers for Henry Clay People, a 7”, 12” and album cover. Sometimes I’ll just do random T-shirts for bands too. But I always think the music I’m into, like the really heavy stuff, they wouldn’t probably hire me to illustrate their covers you know. Hahaha!

So what type of stuff are you working on at the moment? Any projects that you’d like to tell us about?

Yeah, so as well as the Tampa Pro thing for Gatorade, I’m going to be in this other show coming up called Out of Towners in San Jose, at the Seeing Things gallery. It’s photographer Jai Tanju’s gallery and it’s with Jason Adams and a couple of other guys which is cool. So I’ll be travelling up there for that. I’m also releasing a print with Poster Child Prints here in LA soon, which I’m excited about. They do really high quality prints and have a crazy roster of artists. They’ve just started a local artist series and have picked me up on that which will be rad, as the drawing they’ve chose is one of eight dudes on a skateboard that I made. That’s coming out at the end of March.

Cool, look forward to seeing that and we’ll give it a shout out. Finally, to finish up, are there any other things, projects or artists you’re into at the moment that you’d like to tell us about, so our readers can check them out too?

In terms of artists, it’s great through the internet. I get to meet a lot of artists from all over the world, who like to blog and write me, which is rad. Sometimes I think maybe because my art is really accessible to them but people seem to like to write to me which is great. So I met this one artist from Perth, Australia called Sean Morris and his stuff is really, really cool.

And then Luke Pelletier, this kid who’s like 19 and had come out here and set up these really big shows. I didn’t even know he was that age when I met him and took him to a pub and slowly realised he wasn’t even old enough to be in there. And he’s this prolific kid who makes prints, zines, really solid stuff and has a crazy amount of energy. He’s definitely worth checking out.