Behind the Lens with Lauren Tsai
From commissioning art for Nike Japan to walking in major runway shows like Dolce and Gabbana, Lauren Tsai continues to push the boundaries of what it means to be a creator. At just 20 years old, Lauren's big break came from her role on the Japanese reality show, Terrace House, where she was first beginning to explore her interest in modeling and illustration. Since leaving Terrace House, she has used her growing social presence to advance in her career and opportunities outside of the show.
We spent an afternoon with Lauren at our office in SoHo chatting about her career and her favorite things about Japan. Read the full interview below.
Photography by Marielle Sales.
You’re known in the industry as an accomplished illustrator and model, for those unfamiliar could you tell us more about your background and what you do?
Well, first of all, nice to meet you and thank you to everyone reading this! I was born in Massachusetts, moved to Hawaii when I was in elementary school, then moved to Tokyo about two years ago. I’ve been drawing my whole life and started modeling in Japan when I was 15. I’ve been working in Japan as a model ever since and have been lucky enough to travel and meet so many amazing people on the job. Art has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, but only in the last few years have I been able to go after it professionally. This last year I’ve been putting the majority of my time into my illustration work and hopefully it shows, so please stay tuned for the projects I’ve been working on when they come out later in the year! There’s really so much I can’t wait to share!
What were the major differences spending time in Asian and Western cultures?
There are definitely many differences between the countries I move between. Being able to experience and become aware of those differences has been incredibly helpful to better understand myself. From the way languages are constructed or how people generally interact, I think that if you have never traveled to Asia or have never traveled to the west, it’ll definitely open your eyes to a new way of living. You’ll realize a lot about what you like and don’t like about where you came from and I think that’s an extremely valuable thing to have. The perspective I’ve grown from traveling has helped me to understand what I want from my life and relationships with others.
You’ve spoken previously on how art has played a very personal role in your life, however now, your work has been a part of many campaigns and is shared worldwide. What was the catalyst for you to begin sharing your world to a larger community?
I used to be terrified of sharing my artwork with those around me when I was younger—it was something so personal to me—but now I’ve seen the empowerment in opening myself up to the world. I hope that by sharing my work, I’m able to connect to everyone by showing my vulnerability and to continue improving my work. I used to feel that I wasn’t ready or on a level of technical ability with my work that was ready to be shared, but I’ve overcome that fear and want to embrace my weaknesses so that I can grow.
Your work translates into illustration, digital art, and painting. How did your multidisciplinary approach to art evolve? Where did you start?
I began drawing when I was a very young child and started drawing digitally when I was 11. In high school, I got back into working traditionally more in preparation for my college application portfolio. Drawing digitally and traditionally excite me equally, I guess that drawing, in general, will never get old for me, so it’s exciting to learn how to express my ideas through various mediums.
How would you describe your personal style? What are some of your favorite brands?
I generally maintain the same type of silhouette in my outfits and play around with different colors and patterns. My go-to items these days are a-line skirts, skinny jeans, sneakers, joggers, windbreaker jackets, tight fitted t-shirts, hoop earrings, and bodycon dresses if I’m in the mood. I like vintage shopping around Tokyo too. Recently I’m into Nike, Helmut Lang, Alyx, Marc Jacobs, Stray Rats, The North Face, Undercover, and Ambush for accessories.
In an age where shopping is so remote and done online, do you find yourself shopping for things in person? Especially in a city like Tokyo where there’s a historically robust secondhand clothing scene, are you spending time browsing IRL, or do the rigors of your international work prevent you from visiting boutiques and vintage spaces in person?
I love to go to stores in-person and try on items before purchasing them. Browsing through stores, especially vintage shops, gives me a lot more satisfaction. That being said, it can be over-stimulating and burn me out for the day at times. So when I’m busy with work, I don’t generally spend my free time shopping, it’s not very relaxing for me. If I go, it’s a very focused, whole-day outing.
You’ve noted that you have at least a grounding in an “American” upbringing and way of life; given that you’ve now rooted your work and life in Japan, do you feel like you’re attuned to a Japanese way of life, or do you feel like an “American in Tokyo” (a la Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”)?
I lived in the states up until I was 18, so I definitely think that my foundational way of thinking is very American. But I have found a lot that I identify with in Japan socially and culturally. Living in Japan day-to-day feels comfortable for me and I love being based here. Feeling foreign at times has helped me grow in a lot of ways. I used to try to find ways to change so that I could feel more a part of everything. I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling of being an outsider, and embracing that has helped me to find a lot of peace with myself.
I’m learning how to work between the two cultures without compromising parts of myself, but I definitely have a long way to go. I don’t feel that I’ll ever identify completely with the culture of one area. I’m grateful that I get the opportunity to experience these things.
Coming back to the US for work or family makes me realize just how different life is in Japan. There are things I miss about the US. This lingering feeling of displacement that’s been following me during my travels is probably one that’ll be with me for a while.
Could you share some of your favorite spots to eat and shop in Tokyo?
I usually hang out around the Omotesando/Harajuku area for shopping and eating during the day and I recommend going to the Naka Meguro for restaurants at night! Shinjuku is great for nighttime outings too, but it’s a bit far from where I live so I don’t go unless friends are in town and staying there. The food scene in Tokyo is so prime, so honestly if you find a place on the internet it’s not likely to disappoint. One of my favorite meals is ShabuShau/Nabe (hot pot) and I recommend Serina if you’re feeling fancy or On-Yasai for a more affordable all-you-can-eat hot pot meal.
What can we anticipate from you in 2019?
I’ve been working on many art-related projects that I’m really excited to share soon! But 2019... honestly I can’t even fathom how the end of this year will be! I’ll just be here doing my best and continuing to challenge myself in my endeavors, so I’m excited to see what the future holds. Life is somewhat crazy right now and I’m ready and eager to embrace what’s next.