The Last Suffer: An Interview with Surreal Salon 14 Winner, Tai Taeoalii
For years, Juxtapoz has teamed with Baton Rouge Gallery and their annual Surreal Salon juried competition to highlight and showcase pop-surrealist/lowbrow art. For the 14th edition, BRG brought in artist Carrie Ann Baade to be the judge, and her selection for best in show was Tai Taeoalii, the Hannibal, Missouri-based artist whose The Last Suffer piece caught her eye (seen below). We sat down with Tai to learn about his influences, growing up Samoan-American and his history with the Surreal Salon competition.
Evan Pricco: Talk about your own art history? What got you into art?
Tai Taeoalii: I started drawing at a very young age, maybe 6 or 7 years old. Back in the early 80’s, I was around 10 years old and I did a drawing that I felt, with all my naiveté, was going to be the next design for Powell Peralta skateboards. My mom actually sent that drawing to Powell and they sent back a standard, “Thanks, but no thanks” letter. I still have that drawing, and it’s so bad, I’m surprised they responded at all. I was an ambitious kid with aspirations to be an artist and my parents were very supportive of that. I was enamored with Garbage Pail Kids & Mad Magazine and I know both of those played a major role in inspiring me to become an actual working artist. I was constantly drawing my own version of Garbage Pail Kids characters and attempting to create Mad Magazine knock-offs.
In my teens I became enamored with skateboard & punk culture. Growing up bi-racial in the predominately white suburbs of Salt Lake City, the punk scene was a natural subculture for me to gravitate to. I was attracted to the artwork being used on skateboards at the time and I was also very attracted to album cover art. I spent a great deal of my teen years trying to draw Derek Riggs’ Iron Maiden mascot, “Eddie” and Brian “Pushead” Schroeder’s Zorlac designs. Those were formative years for my artistic expression. I was tormented with cultural identity angst and I had some pretty rocky years but I was fortunate to discover that drawing was an effective way for expressing my frustrations.
In my late teens I was constantly side-eyed and scrutinized by teachers & counselors for the artwork that I was creating at the time, which was surreal, before I knew what surreal was and was also very aggressive. Those negative reactions to my expressions from the adults caused a great deal of self-doubt and often had me questioning my own sanity. I never thought I was crazy or troubled, but years of that judging from grownups wore on me. I was seriously on a dark path, until one day my high school art teacher, who recognized my struggle, introduced me to the work of Salvador Dali. That gesture had such a positive impact on my inner-doubts and significantly affected the trajectory of my artistic ambitions. I’ve been confidently creating ever since and I’m eternally grateful to her for that. Naturally, I progressed into the graffiti scene and my style lingered in that realm for a few years. I got busted for some graff work and the arresting officer recommended me to submit art for a poster contest of an “anti-crime” hotline campaign they were doing in our city, so I did. I actually won the contest and I used the prize money to pay off the fines I accrued from the arrest. That was the moment I had realized I could make money from my artwork. At that time, mostly the only kind of work for an artist were jobs that required art degrees and school wasn’t ever an environment I progressed in. Instead I ordered a tattoo gun from a tattoo magazine & worked as a tattoo artist for a few years in my early 20s. That was not something I enjoyed.
So to make my long answer shorter, I guess you could say that teenage angst led to my artistic expression and “pop” sub-culture was and is my main inspiration.
How did you know about the Surreal Salon competition?
I’m a longtime Juxtapoz appreciator, since it’s inception actually, and I saw the competition listing in Juxtapoz. I had a piece in the 2019 Surreal Salon 11 curated by Camille Rose Garcia and I had a piece in the 2017 Surreal Salon 9 curated by Greg “Craola” Simkins.
Who are some of your art heroes?
As I mentioned, my high school art teacher is probably most responsible for my artistic career, so she’d be a hero of mine. And of course, Salvador Dali was & is the artist that I most appreciate for his popularization of Surrealism on a grand scale. I know there were many others before him and after him, but he made it into a rock-star like existence. I also very much appreciate the works of Basquiat. I’ve recently been doing a deep-dive into Michelangelo and DaVinci for my new “Renaissance Period” series. I’m very fond of the artists from that time period. As far as visual artists who are alive today, I’m a big big fan of Herakut, Pez, Craola, Phlegm, Brusk and Dulk1. I’m also a huge fan of the artists responsible for decades of inspiring craft hip hop music, like Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, Doseone, Atmosphere and the many others. All heroes in my book.
How did growing up in the US, with a Samoan heritage effect your art-making?
The feeling of indifference is probably what caused most of my identity conflict, which caused a ton of angst and is probably a direct consequence of my particular style and expression. So I guess you could say growing up with a minority heritage effected my creative process, but not really specific to a Samoan heritage. Something more emblematic of Samoan culture is that I grew up with a close immediate, and large, extended family, all of which were extremely supportive of one another. Though I couldn’t pinpoint any specific moments at this time, I know they were all encouraging and complementary, because they still are to this day. It would be interesting to think of how my art would’ve turned out having not had my Samoan heritage, or even if I would be making art at all.
Talk about the winning piece, how did it come to fruition?
My piece is called “The Last Suffer” and it is obviously inspired by Leonardo DaVinci’s painting “The Last Supper”. I have wanted to do a depiction of the Last Supper ever since I was a kid, but never had the right sentiment or skill for it and then, at the hands of the pandemic, the long dark months of isolation in 2020 provided me with the head-space and time to bring it to fruition. The piece was done with ballpoint pen, watercolor, color pencil, charcoal, marker ink and water-based acrylics on milky-translucent mylar and took me about 2 months to complete. To date, that’s the longest I’ve spent on one piece. There are many different & poignant layers of commentary in this piece, but my creations derive mostly from my subconscious, so I’ve yet to discover all of the connotations. I do prefer the viewer to have their own discoveries when viewing my work and I’ve heard many interesting interpretations so far, regarding The Last Suffer. Hopefully many more out there will be exposed to my piece and I look forward to hearing their views as well.
For more information about the Surreal Salon competition, visit https://www.batonrougegallery.org/surreal-salon