Seattle Pop Artist Enfu on New Work and Seeing through a Child’s Eyes

By Claire Emiko Fant

By day Ken Taya pulls a full-time stint at his job where he creates fantastic environments for video games that range from the sophisticated 3D reality of a fortress to playful 2D backgrounds. By night (actually at 4 a.m. in the morning) he is Enfu — pop artist and cartoonist, whose work adorns the walls of various local establishments that include restaurants (Blue C Sushi), museums (Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience) and shops (Kobo, Rock Paper Scissors, Uwajimaya). If you shop at Uwajimaya you may have caught sight of his trademark Asian mohawk or trucker cap as he autographed the shopping bags for which he created custom illustrations that make lugging around a shopping bag cool.

As Enfu, Taya’s creations are colorful expressions of his mash-up of the Japanese and American pop cultures in which he grew up. Childhood staples such as video games, Dragon Ball, GI Joe, Garbage Pail Kids and Bikkuriman inform his characteristic manga/anime-like cartoon drawing style. Enfu’s world is his own, though, populated with his unique creations — whether human, critter or other —infused with Taya’s sentiment and rascally humor.

Ken Taya is a bilingual Nisei (second generation Japanese American), whose parents immigrated to Chicago where he was born, and then later settled for a while in Delaware, where he spent his early childhood absorbing 1980s American kid culture. “There was no Japanese-American community to speak of in Delaware so my parents encouraged me to learn and speak English, even at home. When we moved to Seattle, which had a thriving Japanese-American community, my parents decided that I should learn Japanese,” says Taya. He also lived in Japan for awhile, and studied Japanese linguistics for which he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington.

With the realization that his love of drawing was greater than his interest in language in terms of forging a living, Taya enrolled in DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond for game design, where he honed his observation and drawing skills and embarked on learning the ropes to create video game art. “I worked harder during my two years there than my four years at UW,” Taya recalls.

Taya needed another outlet for his creative impulses. Thus, he began a prodigious output of drawings that were close to his heart — works that mined his dual heritage for fresh, hybrid perspectives flavored with a childlike innocence. When his daughter, Erika, was born six years ago, he discovered his muse in her, and has been drawing with her in mind ever since.
He created the “I Fart Rainbow” comic feature in English and Japanese for IBUKI Magazine. His protagonist is a girl named Elly with a sidekick, Puri, who looks like a gummy baby octopus. Together they ponder the peculiarities of Japanese and American values.

In “Nihon Town,” a panoramic poster mural, Taya commemorates Japantowns, those disappearing centers of the Japanese-American cultural connection to Japan, by packing it with popular icons of the East and West fused together into a new hybrid against an urban backdrop that itself is pieced together from two worlds. As in “Nihon Town,” some of Taya’s works are so jam-packed that they defy the eye to settle on one object for long. Other works focus on a single observation. Taya likes to explain the stories behind his drawings, because he feels that they add an inclusive accessibility to his work. He provided both English and Japanese translations of his comics, and writes about his work on his blog at www.enfu.com.

Enfu’s posters draw inspiration from his firsthand experiences in both cultures. Typical of Taya’s inspiration is a piece titled “Hinomaru Bento,” which depicts a traditional Japanese lunch with a lone umeboshi (pickled plum) in the center of a bed of rice. Taya: “To me this is the every man’s lunch and symbolizes to me the value of restraint and to value the simple things in life. I drew every grain of rice by hand to remind myself of the value of hard work and persistence. It is called Hinomaru bento because it also looks like the Japanese flag. This bento embodies an entrenched Japanese value of moderation, persistence and to hunker down in troubled times.”

Taya works hard to distribute his work, establishing fan networks through regional comic conventions, such as the recent Sakuracon, reaching out to business establishments and magazines and working his blog and social media sites. He also contributes artwork for auctions that assist community nonprofits, such as The Wing. Taya’s current project involves creating drawings of characters and objects that inhabit Enfu world including a digital game with all the concomitant merchandise, including fabric and trucker caps.

At the center of Enfu’s world is an artist who finds pleasure and fulfillment in the process of creating his imaginary world — one that takes its cue from the real world bi-cultural experiences of Ken Taya. He says that he derives the same pleasure of sharing his work whether he sells a canvas in a gallery or sells more accessibly-priced posters, collectibles and stickers to kids, or elicits a smile from his daughter with a spontaneous doodle.

“Remember that film, ‘Big,’ with Tom Hanks? Even though he is an adult, he sees with a kid’s eyes. That is me and what I try to capture in my work.”

Enfu has a trunk show of new work entitled “Enfu x KOBO” at KOBO at Higo on  Saturday, May 4 from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. and again on Sunday, May 5 from 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.  602-608 S. Jackson St. For more information, go to koboseattle.com or enfu.com.

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