14.07.11 by Jeff

Howie Tsui / Interview

Say hello to Howie Tsui! He is one of the four Canadian artists who created work for our “Afterlife” project with Poketo. I am also giving away one of his wallets, details at the bottom!




Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

What was it like growing up in Nigeria?

I have romantic memories about living in Nigeria.  I had this crush in Junior Kindergarten, Lindsay, who I’d bring flowers to.  I had this bilingual African Grey parrot Oscar, that I’d always talk to. We had a chauffeur and a maid.  There were violent thunderstorms, high fevers and the resultant hallucinations of melting Disney characters.  Someone in our complex had a Bruce Lee figure on their motorbike license plate.  I watched a lot of anime and kung-fu dramas sent to us by my uncle. I went to an American International School and our class looked like a Benetton ad.

Sorry it’s all in fragments. Just digging through the banks.  Regardless, the irony is that I thought this was a magical wonderful place, while my mom was very paranoid that I’d get kidnapped and would pick me up everyday from school. We also had to get out because there was political instability and the airport had been taken over by a rebel faction.

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

How’s it living in Ottawa now? Is it hard to survive as an artist there?

It’s pretty nice here and the city has been very receptive and supportive of my work. It’s very comfortable living and there are pockets of folks that enrich our local culture. Unfortunately, there lacks some infrastructure and a sizable demographic interested in the arts to foster what would be considered a vibrant and progressive local art scene. People have been working hard for years, even decades to try to update and expand artistic tastes to greater swath of people. Despite that hard work and passion the city is often victim to the shadows of larger national museums and artistic brain drain. I would say bureaucracy, a culture of complacency and a general undervaluing of cultural capital is responsible for this.

In terms of food-on-the-table survival, being based here has its advantages. I have been fortunate enough to receive funding from all 3 levels of government to develop my practice. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that regional disbursement combined with a less aggressive artistic community has proven beneficial.  I hear out in Vancouver, where you are, there isn’t any municipal artist grants (only specific project-related grants) and provincial grants are fought over ravenously by everyone. I actually had an officer from the BC Arts Council come to my performance this past Friday at Centre A, and the third thing he said to me was, “there is no arts funding money out here”.  On the flip side, commercially, $400+ price tag seems to induce pee-dribbles for art buyers here, where as in Vancouver, there is a wealthier and more engaged collector base, with ties internationally, that understand the value of art.

The most difficult part about living here for me is the overwhelming mono-culturality in spite of the city’s diverse ethnic makeup. If that makes sense at all. The benefit is that I can really focus on work and not get too carried away by scene fuckery and social temptations. I used to think working in a bubble was horrible, but now, I’m not sure I could work in a situation where I share studio spaces with people.

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

Your early work was quite different and I believe you said it was like you were more focused on making work to sell. Do you find it a struggle now that you’re making more conceptual work, when your livelihood depends on people purchasing your work?

I think coming out of art school green, the commercial side of art was easier to comprehend. Especially, since those experiences were pretty small scale endeavours.  I think I looked more at commercial artists at the time and now I’m looking at art from both sides of the spectrum. Since I live in Ottawa, where there isn’t much of an art market here, I initially had to cater to the local price tolerance by making lots of small work.  Luckily, I’ve been able to get by without much of a focus on commercial sales in the past four years. With the support of public funding bodies,  I have been afforded the opportunity to develop my practice without the influence of market forces.  This has meant that I’ve been able to keep all my work intact and be able to present them together in larger and larger venues as the body grows and mutates.

The idea of selling an entire series to a museum, allowing for public access to my work in the future, seems very attractive and somewhat plausible now since I’ve kept all the children together and they’ve been shown across the country. My hope is that when I re-engage with the commercial side of things,  I will have left a solid public exhibition record which proves how my practice tends to organically shift into other areas when left to its own devices.

Who are some of the artists that have influenced your drawing style?

Hokusai, Akira Toriyama, Jim Henson, Yun Fei Ji, Barry McGee, Ikeda Manabu, Akira Yamaguchi, Anders Nilsen, the nameless Ming dynasty engraver who worked on “Mountain and Seas Classics”, Toriyama Sekien, Chris Hipkiss, Henry Darger, Jockum Nordstrom and Hanna and Barbera.

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

Can you talk a little bit about your artwork for this wallet series?

To be honest, I was super occupied producing this new project “Celestials of Saltwater City” – a magic lantern performance in the tradition of Utsushi-e or Japanese phantasmagoria. This new endeavor was a pretty big leap in my practice so it really consumed me whole hog.  I gave Poketo carte blanche with their choice from my Horror Fables series. Apologies for the artspeak, but this is pretty much the most concise way I can describe some of the ideas behind this body of work: Horror Fables is a scroll-painting project that uses imagery from ancient Asian ghost stories to satirize the disturbing climate of fear in contemporary society.  By juxtaposing disparate cultural practices, I emphasize the disjunction between how fear is administered in folklore to encourage morality as opposed to its deployment in modern society, where a pervasive climate of terror is used to further partisan political and economic interests.

I actually kept coming back to your Horror Fables series when I was thinking about this project so it worked out perfectly that you wanted to use images from it for this series. If you illustrated your own life as a fable what would the moral of the story be?

Whoa… That’s a crazy question. Maybe… ‘adaptation’ ?  I think the answer relies heavily on how I end up biting the proverbial dust.

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

I think in my life, I’ve vacillated between hard atheist and romantic agnostic. I have certainly been told that I am a ‘spirited’ person.  But that’s because I’m drunk (boo). Honestly though, I’ve been researching ghost stories, Buddhist hell scrolls, cultural superstitions and feng shui for the last few years, and the belief of something beyond the scientific has been playing a larger role in my psyche. I think a lot of atheist change notes momentarily when some serious shit happens, whether it’s coping with death, complications with health or being sideswiped by love.

I’ve also witnessed actual supernatural things while on tour with a band I used to play in (The Acorn). These incidents usually happen in old ass hotels.  At the Senator Hotel in Saskatoon.  I was stripped naked in my sleep (something I don’t do). Another bandmate woke up with what appeared to be a spilled glass of water on only the upper side of his torso; weird flashes of light in the mirrors; people getting locked in bathrooms even though it locked from the inside.  In the UK, we normally stay in this retirement town Folkstone before we take the Chunnel over to France. One night in our hotel room, a small diamond of light hovered over me while I was in bed. In a second it expanded, flashed and illuminated the room. I started laughing hysterically and my bandmate, in the other bed, thought I had taken a photo of him with flash.

Your imagery often come across like you awoke from a dream and immediately started painting. Do you keep a dream journal?

I used to when I was in school. These days, I still have super vivid and effed up dreams (thanks late night noodles), but I tend to just give them a thorough think through and interpretation when I wake up and then let it filter back into my subconscious.   I have a few scant sketches from here and there in recent years, but I haven’t been very prolific with the documenting.  Perhaps, I’ll get back into that since you’ve brought it up.  I really am a surrealist at heart.

Interview with Canadian artist painter Howie Tsui

See more of Howie’s work over here and at Centre A.

Watch a great video interview with him here.

See the entire Poketo x Booooooom “Afterlife” series here.

Now I’m gonna give away one of Howie’s wallets! If you’d like to win it leave a comment below with an encouraging message to Howie! I’ll pick a winner on Monday!

CONGRATS to James – you have won yourself one of Howie’s wallets! Check your inbox!

Jeff Hamada is the Founder and Editor of Booooooom. He lives and works in Vancouver.

  • It’s nice to see how large he works in comparison to how small it will be produced, and yet it still works. Delicate lines, washes, and spikes of color spread throughout – and of course the whimsical characters.

  • Amazing illustrations and technique! Look forwards to seeing some more amazing work in the near future!

  • Shane Cronin

    I find Howie’s work to be both immersive and nostalgic, it’s brilliant to see that he is getting the attention he deserves. I first came across him a few months ago with his book ‘Horror Fables’ brilliant illustrations and continuity. Godspeed!

  • Jimmy Liang

    I drunkenly wondered into Centre A one night after watching a Canucks playoff game in the mall (yes) and attending a couple suffocating openings blocks away, the work by Howie Tsui was the only thing that stayed in my head. They were some nice delicate drawings and they really brought back some memories from going to Buddhist/Taoist temples as a kid.

  • great interview!

  • eric smimsland

    Great work, like the content a lot as well as the color vibe!! I was staying in an old hotel in Waikiki a couple years ago called the Pink Palace (known to be haunted by the locals) we fell asleep (drunkenly so we were out) and we woke up and all the drawers in the room were open and the robes were nextt to the door on a ironing board. Creepiest thing ever, i’ve also seen green orbs in mexican hotel rooms!! yewwww

  • Gary Merrin

    Keep on keepin on, a group of Dubs here in Ireland love your work! My friends caught your work while on holiday in Vancouver and told me about you and by chance I see this interview here a few days later! Your practise relates a lot to mine! Peace and best wishes!

  • Absolutely amazing. Such a perfect technique to both emulate, and make the style his own. I’m going to check his stuff out in person at Centre A on friday.

    Keep up the brilliant work.

  • Oh Howie, looks like you’ve got your craft down. Traveling and seeing new places will only perfect it even more. Congrats and good luck. Don’t forget to have a beer and smoke every now and then.

  • Crystal Marie

    Wow, it really does show you are a true artist, Howie. I absolutely wish I could see your art in person but for now I’m stuck looking at a computer screen. I really hope you the best with selling a series of yours and art is obviously very much a passion of yours so keep on inspiring people with your art!

  • Really stunning work Howie! The work is beautiful, approachable, and steeped in meaning – a great balance. I’m glad to have read the thoughts of another full-time artist on the avenues for supporting one’s artistic endeavors.

  • Crystal Marie

    Wow, your work is truly amazing, Howie. I honestly wish I could look at your art and admire it in person but for now I’m stuck admiring it from my computer screen. I hope all goes well with trying to sell a series of yours to a museum, and by some odd chance I hope that museum is one close to me. Keep on inspiring people with your art, Howie!

  • Really beautiful work. It’s captivating how you’ve carved out a unique style niche while paying homage to your influences.

    I hope to see more!

  • emilio gonzalez

    awesome work. love the Asian inspiration behind all of the work.

  • Howie, Do produce more art work for the world to see! Do not give up even when you face hardship, for your art brings more colour to the people! =)

  • Shea Kennedy

    These pieces are epic! Your style is very beautiful, it reminds me a lot of Yoshitaka Amano’s work but with a lot more playfulness in your illustration.

  • james


    Just thought I’d let you know that I was amazed when I looked at your work, so I showed it to some of my unicorn friends, and they were like: “Dude! C’mon, there is NO WAY that anything that good could be real”.

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  • David Renaud

    Amazing work, reminds me of Edo Japan crossed with The Royal Art Lodge and Jim Jarmusch. I want to live in your paintings. They have energy and beauty and The Weird.

  • joy

    I love the way some of your paintings meander around the paper like a great river taking us on a journey through a strange land. And we gaze into the distance, stopping to look closely at all the detail and people and creatures. Making sure we keep our hands and heads in the boat at all times! We are all so amazed.
    Then a woman on the boat freaks out(a bit like that 1970’s willy wonka boat ride)and they end up falling out of the boat and an elephant type creature pulls her of the water with its trunk. She is never to be seen again.
    Yes, come and show your work in the UK!

  • Kristy

    Great inteview Howie. You said “I’m not sure I could work in a situation where I share studio spaces with people.” in regard to the monocultural life of your current city. Do you not think that your art can benefit from being around other people and getting diverse input and experiences?


    • howie

      Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find diverse inputs and experiences here. There’s a narrow spectrum.

  • wonderful work, Howie. I love the rawness of the drips and loose style.

  • I love how yur work(for lack of abetter word) flows- You drowned me in idea’s for my own work thank you-

  • Superfantastic! Love your oldschool style with a fresh bent on it. High-five on being able to commit time & energy to larger conceptual works. Inspiring. And Jeff, I have to commend you on this project, such an awesome idea.

  • Wowee, Howie!

  • Amazing. It’s old and new and not either of those things. There’s something really weird going on in that dude’s brain…and I love it. Nice work.

  • I really like your work Howie. Very cool stuff. And my wallet is in rough shape so…

  • Really wicked to see his inspirations worked into his overall style. Somewhat dreamy but very surreal.

    I love his colour usage as well. Keep on rocking man!


  • Anne

    Beautiful, dream-like illustrations. Great work!

  • kalm

    Hey Howie!

    I’ve seen you on the radar for a while now and have always been drawn to your work when I stumble upon it!

    The Canadian Choe meets Swoon!

    Keep it up

  • Jay VanPortfliet

    Great work Howie! Is any of your work going to be in the Bay Area any time soon? If so my wife and I would love to see some in person! Keep it up!

    • howie

      Hey Jay,

      A couple of these long vertical scrolls will be in a show called ‘Phantoms of Asia’ (working title) opening around May 18 at the Asian Art Museum of SF. Hope to see you then!


  • nino

    howie, you are a great artist. would love to see your work in person..

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  • Ernesto

    Señor Tsui, your art is awe inspiring, looking at it is like taking a trip through a nightmare that in which you try to scream yourself awake, but you can’t produce any sound, and only when you wake up you wish you could go back. Lovely work.

  • You’re work is my favorite kind, constant motion and creative ideas, but real images, not just abstract colors and shapes. Whether or not the pictures have meaning behind them, I looooove the hundreds of ideas in each work. Keep dreaming big :)

  • CONGRATS to James – you have won yourself Howie’s wallet! Check your inbox!

    Thanks everybody – stay tuned for the next giveaway (tomorrow)!


  • Oreka

    I know the contest is over but, Howie, your work is totally brill. It’s great that you’ve found your style of art from the artists who’ve influenced you. I haven’t found my style yet, my niche. Hopefully I’ll find my niche during my adventures at OCAD this september. And thanks booooooom for introducing Howie, a fellow Canadian too ;), because he’s now one of my fave artists. Wish you all the best

  • I love the style of your work!

  • howie

    Thanks for all the love everyone!

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