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Residence Is The place The Artwork Is: Meet Hong Kong Digital Artist Jonathan Jay Lee

Residence Is The place The Artwork Is: Meet Hong Kong Digital Artist Jonathan Jay Lee

A rising star on the Hong Kong scene, digital artist Jonathan Jay Lee tells Prestige why his success has become a full circle journey.

Along with the rise of the metaverse, blockchain and most things that seemed futuristic a hot minute ago, digital art has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong, where there are now dedicated exhibition spaces, such as Arte M Hong Kong. The city has also become a hot spot for Web 3.0 events, including the annual Digital Art Fair.

Jonathan Jay Lee at the Digital Art Fair 2023. Photo: Supplied

This rise in opportunity – and, quite frankly, credibility – has trained a spotlight on talented local digital artists. Among them is Jonathan Jay Lee, the Taiwanese, American-born, Hong Kong-raised artist who headlined the Digital Art Fair 2023 with his Take Your Time multi-sensory experience. Commissioned by Oriental Watch Company, Take Your Time delicately depicts the streets and alleys of Hong Kong, capturing numerous aspects of local culture in the city. The multicoloured neon signs, the diminishing cha chaan teng, trams, tong lau buildings, and other familiar sights reveal the ordinary yet heartwarming moments of life in the metropolis.

But when I speak to 38-year-old Lee about his work, he’s far away from here – in Bangkok, to be specific. “I’m here because I fell in love – my partner’s here,” Lee tells me. “I met her in Hong Kong about six years ago and it’s been back and forth since then. It’s great. I don’t know why people say long distance doesn’t work, because I think it’s amazing. Especially with the pace of life in Hong Kong.”

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

And by the sound of it, Lee really does like the back and forth between home and the Thai capital. “I thought there was no other way to live,” he says of life here. “But I think it’s just because it’s a byproduct of being expensive. Now, only in recent years – because I’ve been coming to Bangkok more often – it’s starting to occur to me that you don’t have to live that way. Like, also if you do the math, and I literally did the math!

“One of the running jokes, I guess, here for Thai people is that Hong Kong people are rude,” he says. “I think I used to think that way too. But really, I think just the language itself has pretty harsh edges and is quite curt in approach.”

Jonathan Jay Lee is a rising star on the Hong Kong scene. Photo: Prestige

Despite his love affair in and with Thailand, Lee says Hong Kong will always be his base. “I can’t be here for too long because I start to lose my hustle a little bit,” he says, laughing. “You know, the hustle. But that’s Hong Kong. And I’m very much a city boy. My roots are there. So, I ultimately need to be in that kind of environment,” he admits.

That wasn’t always the case. As a child, Lee says he didn’t always fit in and often felt like an outcast growing up in Hong Kong. “My parents are from Taiwan and I was born in America,” he explains. “So when you come to Hong Kong as a seven-year-old and you look Chinese, but you speak with an American accent, especially in the ’90s in the New Territories, it wasn’t common. I got a lot of weird looks and I didn’t understand it at the time.”

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

Although growing up here, Lee nonetheless found himself on the outside when he was rejected by Hong Kong’s leading design schools. Despite good high-school grades, offers didn’t come rolling in. Instead, he found himself with the rare opportunity to study at New York’s prestigious Parsons School of Design, where he graduated with Departmental Honors in Illustration.

“That was like the ultimate validation,” he admits. “Initially, I didn’t think I’d go because New York was too far from comfort, too far from my home.” He was also unsure as to how his parents would react. “Not getting accepted by local schools and also getting rejected from a couple others in the US wasn’t reassuring to my parents, who are both academics,” he says.

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

That all changed one day after an unexpected heart-to-heart with his mother. “I had a conversation with my mom when I was about 17. She told me, ‘Jon, this really is too good an opportunity to not take,’ and that surprised me, because I didn’t think they were that supportive. But it turns out, they really were – and as parents, they only worry about you and your future.”

But his parents needn’t have worried. Lee adapted to life in New York without a hitch and excelled in his studies. During his final year, he created a comic book, drawing artistic and cultural influences from his upbringing in Hong Kong. It landed him a job with Marvel and quickly launched his career as an artist for hire.

Even this didn’t come easy for the young artist. When he eventually submitted his work to Marvel for consideration he was turned down. “The guy flipped through and liked it, but told me that Marvel’s comics had a unique style and that they wouldn’t be able to publish my work,” Lee recalls. But after some further conversation with the Marvel bigwig, they made him another offer.

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

“We started talking and it turns out his girlfriend is from Shenzhen. Then we find out we both love the same TV channel, the same movies and all that stuff. He then looked at me and said, ‘You know what? You’re lucky you’re talking to me because I’m putting together an indie anthology for Marvel called Strange Tales.’ He was looking for independent comic-book creators who don’t normally work for Marvel to do short stories based on a character. So he basically gave me a little gig on the spot while I was still in school. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’”

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Since then, he’s gone on to work for an extensive list of international clients, including HSBC, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, San Miguel, Red Bull, Lamborghini, Superga, Mercedes and Disney Plus. It was determination and opportunities like that which gave Lee credibility as an artist – so much so that he now gets to do expert talks at the same Hong Kong art schools that initially rejected him. “City University of Hong Kong is one of the schools I didn’t get accepted by, so for me being there feels a little cheeky. I kind of like the idea of coming full circle – getting rejected from the school and then getting to speak there now.”

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

For Lee, it’s more than just validation though. He says mentoring and working with young artists is particularly important to him. “Even I had my moments of doubt, and I’m glad I stuck at it – that’s why I feel strongly about education,” he says. “I visit schools and give talks, because I like to be that person who can encourage and show people what the possibilities are, that you don’t have to live this way in Hong Kong. You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe you do, because you’re good at it. But there are other options, especially if you’re creative.”

“I think part of why I do those talks is to prove a point. Hong Kong is all about straight-A students, good grades, DSC, top IB scores. And I’m telling them it’s not the end of the world if you’re not the top student – you don’t have to be,” he says.

Jonathan Jay Lee’s Take Your Time

Now that he’s known for his comic-style illustrations and Hong Kong depictions, can we expect similar artworks about other places? “A lot of people want the Hong Kong thing and I think they resonate with the story. But I’ve done some similar work in Singapore and Tokyo in the past, too. “Ultimately, whatever comes my way, I’m going do the best I can and always try and serve the artwork first,” says Lee. “This often occurs in Hong Kong for me, so a lot of people associate me with that. I’m proud of it, but it’s not the only thing I do. I’m also curious to see what would happen if I create more work outside of Hong Kong,” he admits.

If the public reaction to his latest collection of Hong Kong artworks at the Digital Art Fair is anything to go by, his mesmerising depictions of other major cities is surely only a matter of time.

Source: Prestige Online

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