Love It Or Hate It: A Trip Inside the Artist’s Mind with Frenemy
Thanks to the Internet’s ability to connect across continents, I recently had a chance to speak with illustrator Frenemy, who wears many hats as a mural and graffiti artist, a tattoo artist, and the painter of 2022’s PNP entry Treasure Hunters.
Frenemy spoke to me from his studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in which he keeps a number of colorful figurines that spark his creativity, ranging from Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy and Aaahh!! Real Monsters to Star Wars to his own work and that of his artist friends. It’s an impressive wall of vinyl inspiration, and a kind of cabinet of curiosities that feeds his dreamlike aesthetic. Before he lived in Kuala Lumpur, Frenemy (whose given name is Kristopher) has lived in Austin, TX; Tel Aviv, Israel; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Seoul, Korea, and he’s drawn inspirations from each of these places. For example, while living in Vietnam, he incorporated motorbikes into his work, and while creating a children’s book he named its central character Kimbop after the Korean snack, having been grateful for the embrace of his work by the Korean community while he lived there.
If you’re not familiar with Frenemy’s work, no matter the canvas — be it skin or wall — his artwork pulses with color and creative chaos. Minds expand and explode. Ghosts emerge. Color and pattern pulsate with an intensity that transcends “real life,” lifting off into the realm of imagination.
“My illustration is super-influenced by children’s books and the cartoons I liked,” Frenemy told me.
“I like character design. So, when I create, a lot of my paintings are about imagination and about exploring. I’ve lived in four different countries overseas now for eleven years, so I’m really into exploring the world and going outside. A lot of my work revolves around those themes.”
Within the painting that comprises Treasure Hunters, for example, a central figure with blue fur and a yellow face dominates the scene. Frenemy explains that this is an early version of the character Mochi, who recurs thought his artwork, often alongside his best friend, a pencil dog character named Doodle Dog. “With my work,” he explains, “I try to create a whole universe of characters. I like bright colors and creating a new universe that you can go into and explore, so that’s what I try to do with my work: invite the viewer into my universe.”
Photo above: Treasure Hunters Puzzle in his Studio (top) / Mochi & Doodle Dog figure (bottom)
As for the collaboration with Soonness, Frenemy explains that founder Soon Cho initially reached out via email and Instagram DM to say how much she enjoyed his work and to ask if he would submit illustrations with an eye toward creating a puzzle. Though Frenemy had submitted several designs, Soon ended up suggesting an older illustration from his social media that she liked, and they ended up agreeing on that one, paving the way for the Treasure Hunters puzzle. He’s happy with the choice. “It has a bit of storytelling to it,” he says “The way it’s laid out makes for an interesting puzzle as opposed to some of the other illustrations that might be a bit harder, with too much of one color.”
Photo above: Treasure Hunters by Frenemy
In terms of the PNP event period itself, Frenemy wasn’t so much nervous about the puzzle’s meeting its minimum preorder as he was excited, especially as puzzlers reached out via social media to express their love for the artwork and their excitement at the prospect of its being made into a Soonness puzzle. While he’s not a puzzler himself, Frenemy remembers having completed puzzles growing up. Nowadays, he says, “I spend so much time on my art that it’s pretty much all-consuming and it’s all I do. I don’t even have other hobbies.” Since the puzzle’s release, Frenemy has been thrilled by the response, especially when puzzlers share their love of the puzzle and have made creative reels that show it off on social media.
Considering the intricacy and detail of Treasure Hunters, it may come as a surprise to observers of his work that Frenemy has no formal art training. “I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid,” he told me. “I was influenced by cartoons and children’s books. Then, I got into graffiti in my late teens, and that was my art school and how I learned how to use color and form. One of my favorite things about graffiti was the adventure of it. I loved the adventure of it almost more than what was painted at the time. And when I started painting graffiti, I wasn’t very good. I didn’t know how to use color. One of the beauties of graffiti to me is the act of doing it is more important than the outcome. You can paint it, and then the next day it might be gone. You might never see it again, so it’s real pure. You’re making it just to make it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s there tomorrow. The experience of doing it is the most important thing. And that’s something that has stuck with me. A lot of artists might paint something and they become real attached to that painting. For me, because I have that background in graffiti, where you learn to just give it up to the street, you paint it, and maybe it’ll survive for years and years and years and it’ll fade in the sun and disappear over time, you learn to just say — ‘okay, it lives its own life.’ There’s something nice about that.”
As a complement to his work as a graffiti artist, Frenemy is also a prolific tattoo artist, having come of age as a fan of punk rock — and having sung in a hardcore band himself. “Tattoo culture is a part of that. I’ve been wanting to get tattooed since I was a teenager, so I always liked it.” While the forms may seem quite different in terms of their permanence, he explains that they have one particular commonality: confidence. “When you paint murals or you paint graffiti, you have to have a lot of confidence in the way you do your lines. So when you’re applying a tattoo, the minute you second-guess is when you waver and you mess up — same with a mural.”
When he started painting graffiti in 2000, it was still a taboo art form, something to be done in secret. As time has gone on, graffiti has become more accepted, even if Frenemy acknowledges that people often either love it or hate it. In fact, that duality is part of how he got his artist moniker. “From 2000 to 2009 all I did was graffiti,” he told me, “and I painted lettering graffiti that everyone sees on the street that most people hate. I always kind of doodled my characters, just as a fun thing to do; I never thought to do anything more with it. Then around 2009, I started to do more with this. I started painting them on the street, and I wanted to have a different name that wasn’t my graffiti name for this new thing I was doing. You know, when some people see graffiti and street art, they hate it — and some people, they love it. So, friend/enemy, frenemy. I thought it was a catchy name. So my characters are ‘frenemies.’
It turns out his colorful ‘frenemies’ will soon have a new life within a new medium. Frenemy is currently working on a video game for the metaverse gaming platform The Sandbox. In the game, which will be titled Imaginarium, players will choose an avatar and venture into an imaginary world — Frenemy’s world — while helping to save it. Along the way, a panoply of ‘frenemies’ will feature. The game is planned for a Summer 2023 release, and will be available on The Sandbox’s website as well as announced via Frenemy’s social media.
It’s clear from speaking to him that Frenemy has a non-stop drive to create, and that passion and energy comes through in his work, especially his Soonness puzzle. Similar to the community that has arisen around puzzling, especially since the start of the pandemic, Frenemy told me that he’s found fuel for his creative efforts through forging community bonds with his fellow artists wherever he lives or travels. It’s that connection of like-minded spirits that roots Frenemy to his craft, and it’s a similar energy that enlivens Soonness’s PNP event, bringing together puzzlers by encouraging them to explore and embrace different artists and artwork, and even mediums, that they may not have otherwise found. Through Frenemy’s puzzle Treasure Hunters, a world of imagination awaits. Enter if you dare, one piece at a time, and then take it apart. After all, as Frenemy might say, “It lives its own life” for as long as it’s on the table. And then, after that: well, the rest is up to you.
Favorite visual artist?
Dr. Seuss was a huge influence. I checked those books out as a kid. I tried to emulate how he drew and made his own universe.
Favorite mural to paint?
I painted a mural in Oklahoma City for a mural festival a few years ago with a character holding a sketchbook and a little pencil dog, and its head is split in half and out of its head its imagination is exploding onto the wall. The concept is ‘what if you could see inside someone’s imagination or see it come to life
Favorite tattoo someone’s gotten of your artwork?
Recently, I got to do one of my Doodle Dogs on a friend of mine, which was a cool one to do. And then I also recently did one of my characters, a cyclops psychedelic grim reaper character that was fun to do. Any time I get to do my own characters is fun instead of doing the normal traditional designs.
Last song you listened to?
Chad VanGaalen, “Rabid Bits of Time.”
Favorite pace you’ve lived?
Each place is special in its own way. I have favorite things of reach one, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. I really like Kuala Lumpur, where I am now, so maybe here. I also really love Tel Aviv, I really loved Seoul, and I loved Ho Chi Minh City. They’re all so different, even Austin where I lived before I lived overseas. I loved living in Austin.
Place you would most want to visit that you haven’t already?
Japan. I had plans to go, then the pandemic happened. Peru would be the second.
Who inspires you?
I have a lot of artist friends. I’m in a big art collective called The Ghost Club that has a lot of really talented artists, run by Mumbot. I would say Mumbot is one of the artists who really inspires me and is a friend of mine. All the artists in that collective, they’re all doing crazy stuff and we all push each other to be better artists and do more. Having a large group of artist friends, that inspires me.
Get to know the Author: Richard Patterson
Richard (aka Piece By Piece Puzzler) is a puzzle Instagrammer and YouTub