One of artist Tofer Chin’s favorite art memories involves passing notes under a glass door at the Hammer Museum with Barry McGee.
“One night around midnight, I was coming home from a late night class I had at Otis and I saw Barry McGee painting through the window at the Hammer Museum. So I got out of the car and was just staring at him. Then he started talking to me through the window,” says Chin. “He was locked in the museum. We kept talking and exchanged drawings underneath the museum door.”
That coincidental magical moment, when a young artist meets one of their older artist heroes and actually makes a connection – a memory that will continue to influence them creatively – always happens by chance.
That happened more than 10 years ago, back when Chin was an undergraduate at Otis College of Art and Design. Since then, he’s had solo shows in San Francisco, New York, and Barcelona, created large public installations in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and published two books of photography (Finger Bang and Vacation Standards).
When we met up, the 36-year-old artist was positioned on a lift, methodically painting strokes of white onto the silver wall of an empty, giant silver freezer that used to house thousands of packaged mochi ice cream. Located in a warehouse-filled Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, this freezer and the surrounding empty spaces — perfect for Tofer and artists like him who like to go as big as possible with their work, painting onto walls, sides of buildings, and existing urban and rural architecture — would be home to the Be Street Weeknd Festival, to celebrate the U.S. launch of the magazine of the same name.
Lanky, with closely shaved black hair, Tofer Chin grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and now lives in Silver Lake. He spent his childhood years falling in love with Saturday morning cartoons (his favorites were He-Man and The Transformers), copying cassette cover-art from Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses albums, and redrawing comics like Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield.
From an early age he knew that he would do something in the arts.
“I wanted to make a cartoon, but I didn’t know if I was going to be an illustrator or photographer,” Chin says. “But when I was in high school I was dabbling with a lot of drawing and painting. It wasn’t until I took my first oil painting class that I immediately fell in love with painting — and I haven’t stopped since.”
His painting of two slanted, off-center, giant white triangles on the silver interior of the former mochi freezer is quite emblematic of his work. Chin’s work is highly influenced by his surroundings, and his public work takes place on it, including outdoor walls, buildings, interior walls, and really anything that he can visually capture and take over with his painting abilities. Typically for this public work, Chin goes to the site and stakes his claim, sketching out how his large-scale, site-specific paintings will appear to onlookers. Chin’s work is commissioned all over the world, and as an artist he travels often to make work and remain visually inspired.
In a recent installation entitled Fifteen Grey at Maderas Village in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, he worked with a pre-existing environment, but wasn’t able to sketch anything out beforehand. He arrived on site, and got to work immediately creating stalagmites that looked like they were already a part of the natural environment.
“When I approach a public piece or a mural, I take into consideration how it is going to be hanging, how it is going to interact with the space, and how I can build off of the existing architecture,” says Chin. “I want to make a mural that feels like it belongs there and is accentuating the existing architecture.”
Chin approaches the work he creates for galleries in a similar way, exercising the same amount of passion and energy, focusing on the meticulous details of the work itself. The main difference may be that for his work in a gallery, he is more focused on the smaller angles of the visual work that would normally fold into a large-scale mural. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective.
Chin’s next big project, which is separate from his fine art, brings everything back full circle to his childhood obsession with cartoons. After 10 years and three network deals, Chin and his creative collaborators signed a deal with Comedy Central to produce a short-format, stop-motion animated comedy called “Gusto Rules!”, about a dysfunctional royal family of eggs. This is a series of characters, in fact, that he’s been working on for years.
“When I was in college, I always wanted to make toys but no one was coming to me to make a toy. So I made these characters myself – 1200 of these egg men, these little characters in egg suits,” says Chin. “No arms, no legs, just faces with crazy expressions.”
It’s been a long road from his childhood days of late-night drawing sessions, but finally, “Gusto Rules!” will be featured in the second season of Comedy Central’s TripTank, with the first episode slated to air the beginning of 2016.
“Wall To Wall” is a monthly video series that offers an inside look at a working artist’s inspirations, aspirations, and art-making process.