Tony Hong never considered psychology, his undergraduate major, to be a calling or passion when he began studying at UCLA in 1995. Instead, he was known by his peers for drawing dudes with big nipples and baggy underwear.
After eating Rubio’s for dinner, he would sit and doodle at the four-person desk closest to the hallway in Powell Library’s reading room. He carried on this routine throughout his undergraduate years, and during the first years of his working life.
Eight years after he graduated, Hong answered an online post that led to his first showing, which took place in San Francisco at the SOMArts gallery. A year later, he had his first Los Angeles showing through Create:Fixate, a foundation that supports emerging artists through one-night art exhibits.
Hong, a UCLA alumnus, is now a part-time art teacher at New Covenant Academy, a small private school in Koreatown. His art has been showcased at one-night events in San Francisco and Los Angeles, most recently on Nov. 7 at Create:Fixate.
Hong’s college classmate, Tina Choi, sat next to him in their classes and said that Hong would be doodling all class long. They would often sit on the steps in front of Powell and people-watch, just for the fun of it.
“Those moments were definitely a source of inspiration for his doodles,” Choi said.
Choi and Hong remain close friends to this day. She said she has been to all of his shows.
After he graduated from UCLA in 2000, Hong worked part-time at the front desk of the UCLA microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics department to figure out what he wanted to do as a career. As soon as he finished his shift at noon, he would go straight to Powell to draw for hours on end.
He said this time of his life was rough, because he didn’t know what he was doing with his career and future. He felt ridiculous drawing in Powell, especially during finals when it was packed with students and he would just be there, drawing.
“I didn’t know what I was drawing or what I was drawing for,” Hong said. “I was able to develop my work ethic, but still not knowing what I wanted to do at all.”
He couldn’t afford paint at the time and said he decided to work with ink and organic material such as wood, creating a specific artistic niche for himself and his own unique style.
He then began painting trees and intricate tree rings in black and white tones.
With each ring found at the core of a tree trunk, another year’s growth is marked. Hong said the tree rings became symbols for marking the beauty in life despite the struggles he and his family had gone through.
When Hong showed his mother his work for the first time, she looked at the tree ring piece and said that everything in the history of the tree – the droughts, the fires, the floods – makes it beautiful.
“He’s very purposeful in his art,” Choi said. “Every piece has a deep meaning to it. It’s touching.”
Michelle Berc, founder of Create:Fixate Foundation, at which Hong has frequently showcased, said she admires the in-depth work Hong puts into each art piece.
“(Hong) always has a story for each painting,” Berc said. “He has a vision for each piece, and you can tell the type of energy that is being put into his work.”
Hong said he doesn’t feel challenged by the artistic technical process anymore. He said he now has complete control over the material, which allows him to focus on moving on to the next stage of his career, shifting away from his typical black and white tones.
In the last couple of years, Hong said he has been working on a new body of work. He has reinitiated his “Dudes,” the black and white doodles he began drawing in college, each having its own bio and story.
“In a way, they’re all little self-portraits and human moments,” Hong said.
There is a cyclical nature to his work, he said. After experimenting with different materials and styles, he has now come full circle in focusing back on his past college artwork.
“I’m really pushing myself in my art,” Hong said. “I’ve learned to be uninhibited. I don’t want to be bound by the size of paper anymore.”