Tae Won Yu, photo by Gail O’Hara of Chickfactor
The man sitting to your left at Sycamore might be an an artist for Radiolab and the woman to your right might draw covers for Marvel. There goes the guitarist for your favorite band. Here comes another order from the man in the corner. You may have been staring at his illustrations for the last decade, not knowing who he is or that you’d happen upon him in your neighborhood bar. With a little luck, the conversations in Sycamore are worth eavesdropping in on.
I first met Tae Won Yu in that bar on the night of the first presidential debate this past October 3rd. While most of the rest of the crowd at Sycamore stared at the television with mouths agape like kids watching Mustafa die, Tae had his back to the TV. He was studying the crowd as he sketched them. The quick sketches — one of which he allowed us to post on the blog — captured the scene perfectly.
After the debate, I complimented the drawings. He introduced himself and then, when questioned about his career, asked if I knew of Built to Spill. It turns out he’d drawn the cover for one of the 1990s greatest albums, Built to Spill’s weird 1997 masterpiece Perfect From Now On. You can give it a listen here.
The story begins in Manhattan.
While Tae wound through the East Village during the early ’90s when he was a student at Cooper Union, he was turned on to a new world of music by his “more musically astute friends” from NYU that opened him up to new bands, “in particular the K RECORDS roster,” he told afogofideas. “I was living in the East Village and going out to shows almost every night, so it was a natural progression from audience to performer.”
A buzzing scene of music nerds and fan scenes surrounded the nascent bands of the time. Watching Sonic Youth play early Daydream Nation shows influenced and pushed Tae further. Through the music he’d recorded to cassettes and handed out to friends and bands, he met Rachel Carns and eventually formed Kicking Giant.
Check out this 1994 performance by the band at Yo Yo A Go Go in Olympia, Washington:
“I remember also that we were true believers in the idea that anyone can make art and to cultivate an individual style is far more worthwhile than ever trying to sound like someone else,” said Tae to afogofideas, “so that gave us a lot of freedom to be this ramshackle two piece punk band with a cobbled together stand up drum kit and cheap guitars, also we were able to practice in my apartment on 10th st and 2nd avenue, it was still a iffy neighbourhood then and no one ever complained.”
Diving into this scene led him to Liz Phair, who became a close friend. Liz gave her first cassettes to Tae and no one else. Tae handed them out and, eventually, that led to her becoming one of the preeminent female singers of the ’90s.
“The problem was that Liz knew she was a genius,” said Tae. “She’d record these songs and give them to me. I’d hear them and know they were incredible and she wouldn’t do anything with them. She assumed it would all just happen for her.”
It did, thanks in part to Tae.
Kicking Giant moved to Olympia in 1991 where they became deeply embedded in the northwest punk scene. That scene would end up dominating MTV airwaves. Tae played the sort of impossibly catchy, plenty abrasive lo-fi indie rock that would eventually catapult Sub Pop and other local labels into the stratosphere. He attended the countless shows and befriended countless artists around the time.
Tae saw Nirvana’s first tour, sure. And yeah, he saw Pavement’s first show. He shrugs during those stories. Beyond the big shows, the most important thing Tae got from his musical beginnings was a set of principals he referred to as the punk aesthetic: Do it yourself and do it right.
Beyond music, Tae’s talent as a visual artist was already apparent in the ’90s. He worked on several album covers, including a number of Built to Spill’s best works.
“They just hired their friends,” he said. “That’s the way it was.”
These days, jobs don’t always come that easy to Tae. Most of the time, he says, he doesn’t seek out jobs. Offers come in thanks to the work he’s done, and he’s generally able to pick and choose the projects he likes. Today, he’s working on books, woodcuts, illustration, cards and songs. To stay sharp, he practices illustration regularly, whether he’s sitting in a dark bar or on a shaky subway.
“Know your worth,” he said to other freelancers out there. “Struggle is part of the process. Sometimes you’re hungry, so we have to say yes to everything.
From those beginnings, Tae’s career has spanned decades, including work at major corporate clients where he made an “embarrassing amount of money” as well as a long list of smaller projects that reflect “punk idealism.”
All art by Tae Won Yu unless otherwise noted.