Why illustrator Michael C. Hsiung is a creative advocate for mermen art

Illustrator Michael C. Hsiung on developing his unique style, collaborating with his sister, and trying to bring the merman into the mainstream.


Michael C. Hsiung has a bone to pick. While many other members of the mythological community enjoy public-wide recognition, there’s one that lags far behind: the Merman.

“I started doodling a merman character after being somewhat disappointed with their lack of representation in popular culture. It was always the mermaid,” he tells us, “there’s nothing wrong with mermaids, but it always begged the question to me. . . where were all the mermen? Why were the mermaids always running off with sailors?” Since taking up the Merman cause, Hsiung’s version of the ocean-born creature has become somewhat of a calling card; “I started to explore this idea in various crude drawing, and my merman character remains one of my most popular characters today!”


Hsiung’s interest in mythology dates all the way back to his childhood, which he spent in various parts of the San Fernando Valley. In the 1970’s, Hsiung’s parents emigrated to California after his sister, Pearl, was born, and he grew up between Koreatown, West Covina and finally Northridge. Never the most enthusiastic student, Hsiung was more interested in Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts than math; “I think since mythology was something that school teaches you early on, kind of like dinosaurs, that I’ve never really lost interest in.” While Michael and his sister were both enrolled in summer art classes, he never saw drawing as something to study in the traditional sense, preferring to use his, and his sister’s, skills to create their own toys and games — “I have a distinct memory of asking Pearl to draw fake food so we could play with it. We even created our own Garbage Pail Kid cards, using paper and color penciled. We smartly called them Rubbish Junk Kids.”


If anything, Hsiung admits, his sister was the more natural artist of the family — it became clear early on that art was her calling. It wasn’t such a straight line for Hsiung; at San Jose State, he studied English Literature, focusing on Career Writing, and it wasn’t until he moved back down to Los Angeles in 2007 that he picked up his pen again. Living with Pearl and her boyfriend in Koreatown, Hsiung rekindled his love of drawing; “I spent three months getting used to my surroundings, and in those spare moments when everyone was at work or in the studio, I’d read or draw. It was during this time that I started to kind of doodle again with the support of my friends and family.” Drawing was still a hobby, however, and Hsiung secured a job as an assistant grant writer at a museum. His free time was spent uploading images to Flickr and Myspace, churning out a steady supply of his quirky, charming characters.

The hardest part is rolling with the ups and downs that come with being your own boss.


As things were really picking up for Hsiung, his wife Rachel and his family were right by his side to support him; “I started getting invited to shows, selling works, contributing to zines, and I guess just creating a following at the time. Pearl not only helped me answer various questions, such as framing, displaying, graphic design, but also took me to a lot of fine art shows, performances, and things her colleagues were doing which gave me more exposure to various stratas of the art world.” Hsiung’s profile was rising, and what could be taken as bad luck ended up being the push he needed to dive headfirst into a career as an artist. Laid off from his position at the museum, he turned to the support of his wife and friends and took the plunge. Very quickly, it seemed to be a good decision; “One of my first clients was actually Saatchi & Saatchi / Doc Martens, which at the time, sounded too good to be true.” The opportunity turned into two pairs of shoes, produced for Doc Martens which were sold in Asia and Canada; “It was pretty crazy.”


Since then Hsiung has worked with The Hundreds, Vice, and Vans, for whom he is currently the online editor of their art-centric Tumblr. And to bring Hsiung’s artistic journey full circle, his career in illustration has given him the chance to collaborate with Pearl again, this time as part of his wife Rachel’s creation, Bitchcraft, an event for craftsmen, artists, vintage clothing vendors and other creative types. “Pearl and I ended up collaborating on a series of drawings that we used for prints, cards, and t-shirts. We called our collaboration Fight To The Death, after a phrase my dad would jokingly say to us when we were fighting as kids.” While the decision to pursue a career as a creative has brought up numerous challenges, in Hsiung’s mind the sacrifices he’s made have been worth the reward; “It definitely wasn’t easy and still isn’t,” he admits, “but I think what ultimately is the hardest part is rolling with the ups and downs that come with being your own boss. Not having money, not being able to go out, having no insurance…” Hsiung is navigating the trials of with aplomb, however, with upcoming group shows at Q Salon, collaborations with Burton Snowboards, work in the Land Exhibiton in Spain and some top secret assignments too: “I have some upcoming projects which I can’t talk about yet. That’s the worst!”


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