An Interview with Artist Martin Hsu, Man of Characters

November 3, 2010


Guest blogger Mayka Mei sits with up-and-coming visual artist Martin Hsu to discuss fobby roots, pursuing art, and fantasy chats with Hayao Miyazaki on the Cat Bus.

Full disclosure: Mayka is friends with Martin and helping him get the word out about his art.

Designer and artist Martin Hsu is no stranger to commercial art. By now the world has had the chance to fall in love with characters designed by Hsu three times over, with Ni Hao Kai-Lan, the Ruby Gloom franchise, and most recently Disney TV's Fish Hooks.

When it comes down to it, though, Hsu is a fine artist. In between designing for the screen, he can be found painting waterfalls descending from the top of a Hello Kitty mountain or cooking up ramen inspired by Hayao Miyazaki. Hsu’s waterfalls -- which are actually filled with red wine because, well, Hello Kitty is 36 years old so girlfriend is allowed to party -- are a part of Sanrio’s 50th Anniversary Small Gift celebration coming up in November in Los Angeles.

At five by three feet, the Sanrio tribute is Hsu’s biggest painting ever, and he’ll need all that room for the more than fifty Sanrio characters he’ll be detailing into his magical scene. We can’t share pictures of the artwork before the hanging, but you can visit Martin’s Facebook page for some sneak peeks.

So. Who is Martin Hsu?

Just another tall and skinny Chinese guy who played badminton in high school and gets to do art for a living.

You were born abroad. How long did you live in Taiwan before immigrating to the U.S.? What brought you to Southern California?

My family and I moved to the US when I was 13 years old. I had the privilege in attending school up to 7th grade in Taiwan so I was able to keep up with my Chinese. Ironically, my asthma was the reason that brought us over to Southern California. It was recommended for me to be in a much less humid place by doctors. No one mentioned the smog in LA, but thankfully the asthma left with puberty.

What was it like living in Hacienda Heights? Do you think your experience shaped your art? Was the environment, were the people around you supportive?

It was comforting growing up in a largely populated Asian community after our arrival. My friends and relatives made the cross-continental transition much more tolerable. Luckily, I've always had extremely supportive family that not only encouraged, but sacrificed for my well being. They have shaped my life and career on all levels.

How would you describe your background? How has it affected your work?

I consider myself as one of the few lucky ones who's walking on a road that's been paved by people before me. I've been given great privilege to pursue my passion, but not without sacrifices from others. These people have not only inspired my work, they are my work. The ultimate reward is acknowledgment and recognition from them above all others.

How long have you been in character design? Is that the industry you wanted to enter as an artist?

I've been in character design since I was drawing on a torn out Chinese calendar page at my grandparents' in Taiwan, but professionally since 2001. It was my concentration in the animation department at Cal State Fullerton. I knew it was a position that was difficult to get in the industry, but I was able to with help from friends and lots of bribe candy. 

Your pieces depict a mix of fantastical creatures. Where do you get your ideas for these supernatural beings?

They come from a bowl of steamed multigrain rice consisted of Chinese mythologies, childhood memories, wishful thinking, current events, and Hayao Miyazaki.

Pretend you're describing your work to someone with a blindfold on. What are your common themes? What is the blindfolded person missing?

The aromas of delicious and modern fusion Chinese cuisine! A blend of fun, fresh, colorful, natural, and original scents. 

Sounds tasty! Which three artists do you go to for inspiration?

Hayao Miyazaki, 華山川/Hua Shan Chuan, Akira Yamaguchi

Interesting that they all have Asian backgrounds, but I guess that’s evidenced in both your graphic design and fine artwork. There's a heavy Asian influence in your characters and paintings.

My fobby roots haunt me artistically like no other.

Have you ever had the chance to see Hayao Miyazaki in person?

Only on the Cat Bus once, but I'm still not sure if it was a dream or not.

If you did, what did you learn from him?

To work hard and focus on what truly matters in life. And to embrace my grey hair.

If you didn’t and someone gave you the opportunity to meet him one-to-one, what would you say? What would you ask?

I would ask him about how it feels to meet someone like me. Someone who admires his work and believes in what he does.

Your art is produced on T-shirts, books, prints -- a fan even had your panda design lazer-cut into a bamboo iPhone case! What are your favorite places to find your work? Like, when do you feel most appreciated, the most satisfaction from seeing one of your pieces in someone else's possession?

It's an incredible feeling seeing an original idea being carried out under any circumstances whether it's a t-shirt spotted at a music festival or original paintings in someone's living room. I think it's the connection that I appreciate the most, that someone at a given point in time truly understood a piece of my mind.

Where do you hope to see yourself, as an artist, in five years?

I would love to be doing everything that I'm doing now, but at a much larger scale. I'd love to keep doing commercial and animation design work on top of exploring more personal gallery work internationally. I also hope to be living in either Asia or Europe in five years if all goes well, fingers crossed.

It’s great to hear that your ambition is to grow and continue. What do you wish someone had told you in high school, in regards to growing up and making art your profession?

That don't be afraid to try everything, but be mindful of the consequences. And, to pay more attention to specifics and details in every moment. It's well worth the time and effort.

Describe yourself in three words.

Family, history, and origin.


Hsu will be traveling up and down California doing Hello Kitty proud in LA and stopping in the Haight in San Francisco through the end of the year.

Sanrio’s 50th Anniversary Small Gift Show. Los Angeles, CA. November 12-21, 2010.

Creature Comforts at Lower Haters Gallery in San Francisco, California. November 12-December 8, 2010.

Visit Martin’s blog and shop at

Mayka Mei tweets full-time for indie etailer At night she can be found practicing with Khamai Dance Company, sampling food trucks for NBC Bay Area's The Feast, organizing Santa Clara University's first Asian Pacific Islander Alumni Chapter, and capturing her thoughts and experiences in her blog Mayka's work has appeared in The San Francisco Bay Guardian,  Groove Effect, and That Minority Thing, but her ultimate dream is to meet the biggest Bernese Mountain Dog in the world and make it her pet. You can follow her on Twitter at: