Q&A with Artist Ray Young Chu

Ray Young Chu is an artist who routinely convinces grown men to dress like Furries. The Westminster based canvas artist created four wickedly silly avatars—Ninja Nate, Donut David, Sheep Head and Mascot Mannie, who come complete with head to toe jumpsuits—with whom he does mangled hip hop performances, and canvas projects. 'The Yummies' are all cartoon incarnations of Ray—a media experiment that allows Chu to unpack his schizoid art styles into four perversely twee pseudonyms. Chu came up as a graffiti artist, honing his craft on both legal and illegal walls in the mid to late '90s. Failing to see his future in the ever tense graffiti scene, he made a transition to canvas and eventually commercial art, adopting a style that incorporates anime, landscape art and photorealism. Ray's style is ribald in its display and cutesy in its philosophy; he can rock out an anthropomorphic cartoon character, but couch it in the splattered, toxicolored urban aura of graffiti art. Along with his friends at Joy Engine, he's doing his best to keep Denver's design and art scene on the map. Westword caught up with Ray during a busy Friday night, in which he was tying up loose eyes prior to a trip to Los Angeles:

Westword (Roshan Abraham): Where you going after this? Ray Young Chu: Um, they have like 19 cent wings. After 11pm, they have like pitchers of beer. It's kind of a going-away party, I'm going to be bouncing out for a couple months. Maybe longer.

WW: To L.A.?

RC: Yeah, so I wanted to see some of my friends before I go.

WW: What are you doing out in L.A.?

RC: This firm that I'm working with, that I do commercial work with. I want to start getting into some group art shows.

Ray rolls up into the parking lot of Buffalo Exchange, and reminisces out loud that he used to tag on the adjacent walls back in high school. He approaches the skinny, Buffalo Exchange hipster girl at the counter with a basket of 'Yummies' t-shirts, and tells her that someone named Chrissie had promised him a check for… a million dollars. The hipster girl tells him she can't give him his check immediately, because he brought the clothing after 8pm. She tells him he should be getting a check for a hundred thirty six dollars. Ray earnestly says, "can you check again? She told me there would be a check for a million dollars." The hipster girl cracks a smile and plays along, saying, "I'll check up on that."

WW: So this is for the Yummies?

RC: Yeah

WW: Can you tell me a little bit what that's about?

RC: We're an art collective, but right now it's just currently me. So I play all these roles in the Yummies, they're imaginary, kind of monikers. So, I play Ninja Nate, Mascot Mannie, all these characters and they have their own styles. I just thought this concept was a great umbrella to create imaginary characters under.

WW: If I compare it to the Gorillaz, would you wince?

RC: Gorillaz. Kool Keith. Yeah, Gorillaz are pretty good. Or Gwar. Sesame Street.

WW: Gwar?

RC: Yeah, Gwar. But I want it to get to the point where it's kind of like Sesame Street. It's kind of an abstract idea, too. It's never been done in the arts. I mean, in the visual arts scene. So it's a little bit different than in music.

WW: What's your goal?

RC: To basically get all the four characters showing nationally, and then internationally. As people find out who's behind it, maybe eventually to have my own career. Because eventually I'd kind of like to have employees painting in a certain style, like Takashi Murakami. Having fifty painters paint, according to what you want, you know?

WW: Is there anyone else contributing?

RC: Right now there' s a couple people that are contributing. But it's kind of really about quality control, you know. Finding people that have the skills to do it, so we're not quite there yet. For the time being, it's just me, pretty much the art, and the clothes is on the side. We really just want to focus on the painting, this year. Last year we were painting, focusing on clothes, and performances.

WW: Tell me about the performance

RC: Performances, that was like Gwar. We performed as those four different characters, like rap and stuff. DJ-ing, and then we do live painting. It was some friends that kind of volunteered to do that. Pretty much. I would say I'm pretty much the director, there's still a lot of people that get involved.

WW: Do you want to do other stuff with it?

RC: No, I think our biggest form is painting. We just want to focus on painting, as good as we can, and then kind of go off from there. Because everybody was asking us to do performances and stuff. Which is good, but that's not my personal passion. Until I find some people who can perform really well, and that's their passion, they can do that, then I'll pursue that again.

WW: I read on your website that you got kicked out of high school. Is that true?

RC: Yeah.

WW: How old are you?

RC: I'm 29.

WW: How old were you when you got kicked out?

RC: 16, 17. Junior year.

WW: Did you end up graduating?

RC: I did. I actually ended up going to a different high school. But, long story short: it was just a pornographic Simpsons-style message with the principal and vice principal just telling him to leave, because we didn't really like him. It was kind of a political message, and a guy who was kind of looking out for me that night ratted out on me. I got expelled that way. It was a really big mural. It was seven feet by ten feet. And, teachers would take their classes to check it out, because it was right in the parking lot, so everybody saw it. Everybody saw it, period.

WW: You just took it up in the morning and laid it out in the parking lot?

RC: No, I did it late at night. And then everybody came in the following day. The guy who was watching out for me, he was tagging up his name. He wasn't a graffiti artist or anything. And then somebody ratted out on him. Because he put his little moniker or whatever. He spilled the beans.

WW: Then you got expelled.

RR: I got expelled, I think he just got suspended. You know, that's what rats get.

WW: Stop snitchin'!

RC: Yeah. But, you know, I went to a little bit better high school. Northland high school. Had better fun, met some cool people there. All in all, I got blessed. It was a blessing. I mean, I guess it's a sore. I'm not sure if I totally regret it, but I felt bad about hurt feelings.

WW: That must have been '96 or '97.

RC: '95.

WW: Wow. That's way in the past. Did you ever talk to the teacher?

RC: When I came back to visit my friends from that high school, I got a ticket and the vice principal and principal left that following year. It was pretty embarrassing for them to come back, and sure all that stuff. So I'll never talk to them ever again. I mean, I wrote an apology letter.

WW: Because you had to, or you just wanted to apologize?

RC: I kind of had to. But it's interesting, because the grammar was really good. And it was a well-written letter. And I still have it to this day. It'd be really interesting to post it up on my site years from now, after I feel less guilty about it.

After dropping off his Yummies apparel, we drive over to a gallery opening at Indy Ink on South Broadway. On the way, Ray points out some walls he used to frequent and talks on his early days as a graff writer.

WW: Were there a lot of legal walls back in the day?

RC: Kind of. But, I'm pretty out of the graffiti world now. I don't really know too much what's going on. I still see some of the—I call them graff kings, because they're pretty old school, but they're the best graffiti artists as far as muralists and stuff.

WW: How long were you doing graffiti?

RC: 94 to 2001, maybe? 2002?

WW: So not for a while.

RC: I got bored of just bombing, doing legal graff. It got boring after a while. I guess according to your definition of graffiti, if you're doing illegal stuff, around 2002, around that time is when I stopped. But I transferred a lot of that stuff to the canvas. Financially it makes a lot more sense. But when I go to the streets, sometimes I still do street art work. Like already painted images, posting them up. That's really good marketing I guess.

WW: There's a lot more street-art in the past few years.

RC: I don't think Denver has. New York and LA, probably more. What with Banksy being fine art now and all that.

WW: But you're out of touch with the graffiti scene in Denver.

RC: I know some of the older heads, but it doesn't really interest me, and there's always that beef. Always. And you always sense that. You sense those vibes, and it's like, man. You know? It sucks. I'm more into, my friends are like designers or painters that are more in the gallery scene. You get older, you have to make a living. I got to give a shout-out to all my friends at Joy Engine, up in Boulder. They're pretty much my boys. And Indy Ink. And the fabric lab, the shop. Plastic Chapel. Those are kind of the people who are still keeping in touch.

WW: Is there a pretty vibrant design scene, overall?

RC: The community is pretty close. Like those people I just mentioned, I feel like they're building up a really good community. They're interacting with each other, they're communicating with each other, and it's not just about themselves, it's about building each other up. Just hanging out. I think it's good, man. I don't know how it's like on the east coast and west coast, I'm sure the community is small too. The design community and art community starts getting smaller, you know. But we have our own little community too. I don't know how it compares to LA or NY.

WW: Ever thought about leaving?

RC: This L.A. trip is kind of the next step, I've been planning it out little by little. In NY, we've gotten offers to do shows out there. But we weren't getting paid to go out there. And when I say "us", I mean the Yummies and myself. I always say it plural. As I'm going out there, things are opening up, doors are opening up. I bought a one-way ticket. I don't know if I'm going out there for two months, six months, maybe longer, but my hopes are to always come back to Denver. I really like our community, and it's continuing to grow. The hardest part for us is the resources.

WW: There isn't a lot of money to do the kind of stuff you do around here.

RC: No, resources are—yo! (Ray spots one of his friends and yells at him out the window) That was Aaron, one of the guys. The lack of resources man, people are not really spending money on the scene. Spending money on art. Pretty much, our culture is kind of struggling because of that. But we still have people that are working hard. I'm working with national companies. It's kind of like the easiest way to try and make income.

WW: Where are you staying in L.A?

RC: I'm staying at a friend's house. He's opening up a warehouse, and I might stay there too. But it's in Costa Mesa, which is close to all the clothing companies.

WW: Is that how you're making the bulk of your money?

RC: Right now, yeah. I was really hesitant to do commercial art. I was doing fine art for a lot of years; I haven't been able to make that much.

WW: Can you have fun doing commercial art?

RC: Yeah, that was a surprise, because if you look at my portfolio, it's really things that I like to do. And I don't like to do things that I don't like to do. (laughs) That's why I do fine art. The stuff that I do, it gives me a lot of creative freedom. I think that's why I didn't do commercial work for so long.

WW: Did you feel constrained by the stuff you were doing?

RC: You always get things, when you're on the street, like meeting people and they're like, 'oh, you're a graphic designer'? Cool, I need a business card. And I'm opening up a Laundromat.' And it's like, alright, you have fifty dollars? And it's kind of lame. So I really stayed away from that, and I think it payed off to a certain extent. I mean I was without money, I'm not rolling in money right now but…

After we arrive at Indy Ink, Ray connects with some designer and artist friends. He also spends about twenty minutes hitting on a girl by asking her if she approves of women who shave their body hair. After a long, awkward conversation, Ray turns to me and says, "I was trying to talk to her, man. I don't think she was into it." After Indy Ink's keg is nearly depleted, we head out to Eighth Avenue and Santa Fe for the monthly First Friday Gallery openings. The always affable Ray is hugging and shaking hands with an endless flurry of friends and acquaintances for nearly the whole night. Eventually, we drunkenly abscond to get some smothered burritos and finish the interview.

RC: To define who I am…I like anime, I like 80's stuff, I like graffiti stuff. It's not really anything crazier than that. My background is, some of the college fine art history type stuff, I love. My goal is to be like, Takashi Murakami, that level. If I can't be in the high-end art world, then I don't want to be making art. That's my goal, my high end goal. I always want to like make people smile. Make a positive impact. You can see that in the Yummies and you can see that in my work. But that's definitely something I really strive for. And I know I'm not the best artist. I'm not technically the best, something I strive for is to make a positive impact on this world.

WW: Let's do some word association to finish up. Hamburger.

RC: Salty, big.

WW: Tai Kwan Do

RC: Elementary school.

WW: Ministry.

RC: Life.

WW: Voltron

RC: Community

WW: pancakes

RC: Making love.

WW: Peanut Butter

RC: The joys of life.

Check out Ray Young Chu's artwork, and buy clothing here and here.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Cronin