For those who’ve visited Taiwan, their memories of the island will most likely call to mind a rich world of sights, sounds, and scents. Perhaps it’s the view of Taipei 101 looming over the capital, the smell of burning incense wafting from the temples, or the street-side vendors who call out for passersby to peruse their stall. For Kaohsiung-based artist Zook!, Taiwan conjures up something altogether different. In his works, he spotlights the less-glamorous—yet indisputable parts of Taiwanese culture: betel nuts, cigarettes, and cheap liquor.
In the recently concluded exhibition at Arcade Gallery, Life Goes On Vol. 2, Zook! elevates these “lowbrow” vices into gallery-ready art, displaying them in vivid acrylics.“Cigarettes and betel nuts may not be exactly healthy, but they’re normal parts of life for much of Taiwan’s working class,” he says. “Vices like these are a daily luxury for them, and like other locals, I have my own bad habits, such as drinking and smoking. These things are all ordinary parts of life in Taiwan.”
The gold-teethed man who makes recurring appearances throughout Zook!’s works are self-portraits of sorts, and he’s almost never shown in a flattering light, whether it be loafing about a lit cigarette holstered in his belly button or passed out naked in a bathtub. Through self-deprecating humor, Zook pokes fun at the vapid folly of trying to keep up appearances. “Everyone loves to package themselves up perfectly,” he shrugs. “But life and culture are more nuanced than that.”
Zook!’s interest in art came at a young age, with hours-long doodling sessions at home. That eventually developed into an interest in graffiti in middle school, when he was exposed to hip-hop culture. The back alleys of Kaohsiung quickly became his canvas. “I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘artist’ though nor did I ever think only an ‘artist’ can create art,” he says. “Art is something everyone can do. Creating art shouldn’t be thought of as a profession.”
Despite his street-art beginnings, Zook! has begun working with a variety of mediums in recent years and now holds a newfound perspective of what “street art” truly is. For him, it’s no longer about making art in the streets—it’s about showcasing local street culture, in all of its gritty and grimy glory, through art.
“I just want my art to be representative of Taiwanese street culture,” he says. “The medium and locations don’t matter that much as long as I can show people what I see and what I’ve got going on in my head.”