HOTTEA is quiet, yet personable and truly appreciative of the opportunities he has been given because of his art. His work speaks for him. It’s an extension of his personality and a look back at his past. His grandmother taught him how to knit, and that knowledge inspired his non-destructive craft of creating art installations with the use of yarn. Colorful, vivid, and spirited images and words are weaved strategically within chain link fences, wrapped around poles, or hang loosely from structures often beautifying a landscape or complementing an eye-catching setting. He has a unique and creative vision for what his art can be and what it means.
I met HOTTEA on my recent trip to the islands for Pow! Wow! Hawaii as we both woke up early in the artists’ communal house in the North Shore, and caught him for this interview while he was in New York working on a new project.
JOHN PANGILINAN: First off, glad you got your laptop back, and for those that don’t know your story, why the name “HOTTEA”?
HOTTEA: When my partner and I first started playing around with the idea of starting a project together, we knew it had to be special. Not only would it represent us, but it would also represent my family and close loved ones. After I graduated from college, my parents decided to get a divorce. It was a long and painful process and my dad ended up moving into an apartment by himself. On Thanksgiving, my dad didn’t have anyone to spend [the holiday] with because my mom and him were not speaking. My partner and I decided to go down to visit and to take him out to dinner. We asked him where he wanted to go and he replied, “Bakers Square.” This was a place we would go to as a family growing up. Every weekend as if it was some sort of ritual. My mother would always order a cup of hot tea and cornbread after her meal. I didn’t remember this at the time my father requested to eat here, but we agreed to go there with him. We sat down at our booth, my partner and I on one side and my father on the other. I started looking at their drink menu and saw the [words] “hot tea.” At that moment, all of these cherished memories of our family eating here came rushing to me. I showed my partner the menu and pointed to the word hot tea. I told him that this is what we could call our project, and that is exactly what we did. We now had a name that not only represented each other, but also represented a time when my family was happy and together as one unit.
So how was your first experience with Pow! Wow! Hawaii?
At first, I was really excited to be able to create an installation for the festival. I am the type that likes to get right to work and then relax knowing that my responsibilities are finished. So not being able to start for a few days started to make me anxious. I knew the level of work that was involved to create my piece, so that is all I could think of when we were supposed to be relaxing and socializing with the other artists. Once I started working, everything was great. I was focused and knew what I had to get done at the end of each day. I love working. My mind is always thinking and when I work – it puts my mind at ease. Being able to work around other artists is not something I am typically used to, and for me, that was a great experience. I was able to connect with other artists that work hard and that are focused. I made lifelong friends here, which isn’t always common in this day and age.
Which other artists were you excited to meet during the event? Who would you like to work with in the future?
I was really looking forward to meeting Ernest Zacharevic, the ETAM crew, NoseGO, Maser, Aaron Horkey, Saber, and so many others. I really love working with people or organizations that do something very different than what I do. Sometimes if they aren’t artists, that is better. I love when two or more people can come together that are completely different and create something that feels completely natural. With that being said, I would absolutely love to collaborate with Pee Wee Herman. [Laughs] I don’t know what we would do but I know it would be magic!
HOTTEA was one of the few artists at Pow! Wow! Hawaii that ventured throughout the island to create pieces beyond the designated spaces. He says he chose this fence line on the North Shore for its views: “My fence work serves as a stage for whatever is in the background. I found some really breathtaking views and I knew that these locations would serve as a stunning backdrop for my typographic installations.”
Where do you find your inspiration as an artist?
I tend to base the majority of my work on past experiences with my family, close friends and personal moments. A lot of my bigger projects are inspired by memories of my Grandmother Socorro who I was very close to spiritually. I have done numerous installations that are based of moments that we shared together. I also find inspiration in public spaces –particularly abandoned areas that go unnoticed or ones that people don’t think of installing on/in. I don’t look at a lot of street art and graffiti to find daily inspiration. I find myself intrigued by architecture, sculpture, installation art, new media, film, painting – particularly color field – and nature. I know this may sound odd coming from someone who works predominately on the street, but I find this inspiring because it allows me to think differently to my approach to my own artwork.
You have chosen yarn as your medium to express your art? Can you give a little insight as to why?
It stems from my Grandmother Socorro teaching me how to sew and knit. I made the weirdest little objects knitting. One Christmas, I knitted my mom a pair of slippers but only finished one and got half way on the second one. She thought it was funny, but I was sad giving her an unfinished pair of slippers. I was so excited to see her wear them around the house. I love that yarn doesn’t really have any negative connotations. When people think of yarn, they generally think of happy/positive things. I want my work to bring something positive around so much negativity.
How many times have you been arrested for your art?
Before I began working with yarn and other materials to create my installations, I wrote graffiti, starting in 1996. Ever since I started writing graffiti, I had a history with the law. Growing up in a small town and being one of the few people that practiced graffiti, a lot of the graffiti incidents were pinned on me. I truly believe it was because I was a minority and the police officers were very prejudiced. I do not say this often – accuse someone of being prejudiced –but he would call me in for interrogation on all of the holidays, including Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving, and Easter. My mother finally broke down and asked why he was doing this and she started to cry. It wasn’t this moment that made me stop, but in 2005 I was arrested and this was it. I was in the orange jumpsuit and handcuffs for the second time after moving away. My family came to visit me in jail and I just told them I was sorry and broke down. To look at my family from the other side of bulletproof glass wasn’t me and it was too painful. From that moment on, I stopped writing graffiti and eventually this path led me to find yarn, which I am grateful for everyday of my life.
Why is non-destructive art important to you?
Doing work Non-Destructively is important because I think it adds a level of complexity that keeps me interested in doing my artwork. I love looking at spaces and trying to figure out how to install something without damaging any of the property. With a little extra planning and work, basically any space can be installed in, and that to me is so exciting!
Being from Minnesota, how is the street art scene there? Is it more or less accepted than say in LA or NY?
There really isn’t any street art scene here at all. I wish there was more but there just isn’t. I think it would be accepted if there were more people doing it, but there just isn’t.
The colors you choose for your work is that something that you decide before starting a project or are you limited to what the craft and fabric stores have in stock?
No, I decide the colors ahead of time, and then try to match those as best I can from the colors that are available. I love color and I love working with it, so I try and create installations that are very bright and bring life to spaces that may be overlooked. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends and often sat alone. It’s a memory that will always stick with me. There are so many kids that aren’t “cool” and may get picked on or nobody pays attention to them. I see the same with parts, objects or spaces in any given city. I want people to notice these spaces much like the kids in school who are so special and talented but go unnoticed.
I saw you had 2 duffel bags full of yarn for your trip to Hawaii. Is this what you usually need for a typical installation?
It varies, but it usually is a lot! I love making an impact with color as I stated earlier, and to do that I use a lot of yarn. It’s nice because my materials are so inexpensive that it allows me to create large installations for very little money.
You mentioned that you make your living 100% as an artist. When did you make the transition and how has this changed your life?
I made this transition about two years ago. I have been doing this for about 5 years now, so it took about 3 years to get to this point. When my partner and I first started doing work with yarn, we had no intentions of making a living off of it. Everything that has happened with my artwork has happened on its own, I did not facilitate any of it and I plan on keeping it that way until the very end. I am just creating what I would want to see in a public space and I am so honored that other people enjoy it and are kind enough to help me support myself by supporting my work. I am humbled and honored to be doing this full time because I know how hard it is to get to that point for any type of artist. I never want to take this for granted, and every time I travel I pinch myself just to make sure it’s real.
If you’re weren’t a full time artist, what would you be doing?
I would probably be in the army or working a job that allowed me to travel all over the world.
You worked with Sesame Street that must of been an amazing experience. How did that come about?
I have always loved Sesame Street ever since I was a little kid. Watching old episodes as an adult sometimes brings me to tears because the messages they are delivering are very deep and sensitive. One day I was doing work in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Sesame Street was filming on location across the street. I thought to myself how cool this city is to be able to be doing my work and have an organization like Sesame Street working across the street. Ever since that day, the seed had been planted. About two years later, a friend who also manages his own PR firm asked if I would create a piece for him in exchange for some of his services. I told him about my idea of collaborating with Sesame Street, and before you know it, I was in NYC working with Grover and Fat Blue. It was a truly amazing experience and a lifelong dream come true.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on multiple projects. I will be creating new work in NYC, San Diego, Montreal, and my hometown Minneapolis. They are all spacial installation which I am very excited about. They range in scale from 10 ft in height to 100 ft and in spaces ranging from abandoned train stations, gallery spaces to empty warehouses.
What projects do you have lined up for the future?
I am planning on doing an installation at every wonder of the world. It may not be done with yarn or be a physical installation at all. It may be a performance piece, projection or sound piece. Each site will inspire the materials and concept of the piece. I will be starting in Egypt with the Great Pyramids of Giza. I will then present them as a collection when I have finished all of the installations. I am very excited about this project!
Follow HOTTEA on Instagram @hotxtea.