Artist behind the art: Howie Kim's spellbinding and vivid nod to pop culture

Howie Kim's distinctive, almost trippy imagery feels like something out of a fantasy world.
PHOTO: Howie Kim

What happens when an artist's sources of inspiration are a Living Dead Doll and a psychotic rabbit? You get Howie Kim, apparently.

Psychedelic, creepy, kitsch, whimsical, and cute are just some of the words that have been used to describe his works, says the Singaporean artist whose brand of pop surrealism has taken the nation by storm.

His creations are instantly recognisable, combining the use of vivid colours with references to pop culture and real life.

Even big brands and organisations such as Universal Music Group, DBS, Martell, Tiger Beer, and recently, the Singapore Tourism Board have been drawn to his dream-like style, and have commissioned him to create works for them.

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History was made when Female approached Howie to create the cover of its June 2020 issue - the magazine's first-ever illustrated and animated cover, celebrating an issue dedicated to fashion collaborations.

Most recently, Howie put pen to paper - or rather, stylus to tablet - for the music video of "Spirits Anew", one of the new songs featured at NDP 2021 and sung by Aisyah Aziz.

We speak to the 31-year-old to try and the dissect what goes on in the mind of a contemporary Singaporean pop surrealist, discuss his collaborative works, and find out what inspires his fantastic fantastical art.

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Wah! Your portfolio boasts a lot of commercial work - nice! What are some of your most memorable partnerships, and what made them so awesome?

I think that with all my partnerships and collaborations there is always something memorable about them - they could be for various reasons.

Working with local musician Gentle Bones was pretty memorable as he was one of my first clients when I first started freelancing years ago.

Besides, it is always fun working with another creative, especially one from a different artistic discipline.

[Swiss watch brand] IWC [Schaffhausen] was pretty memorable as well, as they are a huge brand and company.

In 2019, I also worked with Apple to give a "Today At Apple" session (shown above) and that was definitely noteworthy as it was pretty nerve-wracking having to speak to a large crowd.

Which piece was the most challenging, and how long did it take to complete?

I don’t know if I have one particular work that I find most challenging, but the longest time I’ve taken to create a piece would probably be one of my own, as there is no deadline. I’m a terrible procrastinator!

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The illustration you did for the "Spirits Anew" lyric video sung by Aisyah Aziz for NDP 2021 is dope! How did you get roped into the project? Also, what does the Singapore Spirit mean to you?

I was contacted by the NDP team earlier this year - they told me they needed a lyric video for "Spirits Anew" and asked if I would like to be a part of it. And I was, like, yeah 100per cent.

Hmm, the Singapore Spirit is... me leaving my bag at the coffeeshop table to go get food and nothing would go wrong, hahaha!

Who or what is the inspiration behind your art style?

There are many factors that inspire my style of work. One was a creepy collectible Living Dead Doll that was given to me when I was a young teenager.

Another is a sticker with a psychotic looking rabbit that says “Cute but kinda evil”. I think these two things kinda formed the basis [of my inspiration and style].

Apart from that, I am also inspired by a blend of pop culture, social media, the internet and memes.

Psychedelic, pop surrealism, creepy, kitsch, whimsical and cute are some of the terms that have been used to describe my works.

Random (and somewhat related) question: NS can be a surreal experience for some guys. Did your NS experience influence your artistic pursuits in any way?

Hmm, I believe that my main takeaway from my experience with NS is that people have all kinds of differences, but it is how you work with each other that matters.

So I think dealing with different people is a bit of a skill I picked up during my time with the NS - and that is sometimes rather helpful in terms of being a self-employed creative.

What's some of the most interesting feedback you've received about your art?

One thing that I like to do is to hide the number 759 in most, if not all, of my works.

For me, I use it as a signature, but I think it really intrigues people. I have been asked numerous times what the number means.

They often try to “decode” the number. Someone once came up to me and said, “did you know that 7 + 5 + 9 equals 21?” And I was like “yeh sure, and...?”. Lol

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What are some big misconceptions people have about Singapore artists?

I guess one of the biggest misconceptions about artists in general is that they don’t make money.

And people often think that it is a “free skill” and therefore you should do it for free or for a cheaper rate… or that artists are non-essential.

What do you enjoy most about being an illustrator in Singapore?

Well, I generally just enjoy doing what I do, I try to have as much fun as I can - even at work.

Or rather, I try not to think of it as a "job". To be honest, I couldn’t possibly imagine myself not being a creative.

What's next for you and what's your dream project to work on?

I’ve been working on making prints on T-shirts among other things so hopefully that comes out soon.

A dream project that I’d love to work on would probably be a film done completely in my aesthetic!

This article was first published in Wonderwall.