Tokyo Los Angeles: An Interview of Darren Romanelli On The Creative Alchemy of Sushi

Darren Romanelli on limited edition chairs, part of Richard Prince’s cannabis brand,Joan Katz and John Dogg, on view soon at MedMen in Los Angeles

Darren Romanelli on limited edition chairs, part of Richard Prince’s cannabis brand,Joan Katz and John Dogg, on view soon at MedMen in Los Angeles

interview by Emilien Crespo
photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

For the last twenty years, Darren Romanelli, or DRx, has been alchemizing his disparate interests through experiments with fashion and art, through his agency Street Virus, and through his brand Dr. Romanelli. It’s a laboratory of sorts where he has dreamed up collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Black Sabbath, Nike, Coca Cola, and artist Richard Prince. Art is the foundation of everything and art is everywhere in his agency’s office.  With the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Romanelli has been thinking a lot about Japanese culture and his countless visits there. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his agency, Romanelli and Tortoise Agency will be hosting a unique one-night invitation-only Japanese street market called Darren San’s Sushi at LA’s premiere fish distributor, Art & Fish. Complete with sushi flown in fresh from Tokyo and a number of craft beer brands that are appearing in the US market for the first time, Darren San’s Sushi is an evolution of Romanelli’s community driven effort Pancake Epidemic, which he hosted at his mid-Wilshire office above IHOP and became a staple on many a creative’s social calendar in Los Angeles. We caught up with Romanelli at his office to discuss Space Jam, sushi and the power of community. 

EMILIEN CRESPO: Next Friday in Downtown LA, there’s this event called Darren San’s Sushi. Can you tell us what it is?

DARREN ROMANELLI: It’s the second Darren San’s Sushi event at Art & Fish, which is an incredible sushi hub run by my friend Taka. Taka provides sushi and distributes fresh fish to a lot of the most amazing establishments in Los Angeles. We decided to come together on this concept, which would give people an opportunity to experience the same electricity that I feel in Tokyo, specifically inspired by Tsukiji market. The relationship I developed with fish at Tsukiji market over the years and the ability to overnight that fish, have it arrive at LAX, and go all the way to Darren San’s Sushi, giving our guests a chance to see the fish come off the truck, select their fish in real time, and have it made in the kitchen. I think that’s one experience that we’re excited about refining with these experimental sushi gatherings, which are going to be periodic. And then, we decided to also create a Tokyo Cat Street vibe, which is the idea of cramming in a bunch of brands, whether it’s a noodle brand, a green tea brand, a curry brand, a Japanese stationary company. In Tokyo, real estate is a lot more sacred, so things are a lot smaller. We want to squeeze in authentic Japanese community, riding off the freezer. That’s what Darren San’s Sushi is—a little bit of Tokyo in Downtown LA.

CRESPO: Los Angeles has a lot of creative people, but one thing that I think has been a common thread through your career is collaboration and bringing people together. You had this practice, for instance, in this very office, the Pancake Epidemic that was so much in your DNA?

ROMANELLI: Our offices are above IHOP, and I love coffee, so I decided to combine these two things. The early days were literally pancakes from IHOP and Stumptown Coffee. We would have a barista on hand, a La Marzocco, and Stumptown would ship us beans from Oregon because they weren’t in California at the time. So, this was the only place for a couple of years where you could drink Stumptown Coffee, and I decided to create this Friday morning event where we would send out a bunch of emails to different creatives and invite them by to have pancakes and coffee. It became this staple of everybody’s week, but then I started to think about having something other than pancakes. So, we started bringing chefs in, and we’d theme the Friday mornings out, and I’d have new art in the office. The offices slowly became showrooms and then it became a full-scale think tank. We opened cafés in South Korea, we did a pop-up at the MOCA Geffen. We really used coffee, and our relationship to coffee as connective tissue with our clients, and potential future clients, and friends, artists, other creatives, curators. It really became a safe environment to break bread and exchange ideas. 

CRESPO: So you went from pancakes and coffee, to sushi from Tsukiji Market…

ROMANELLI: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about 2020. For me Tokyo 2020, the Olympics have always been something I look forward to. I moved to LA in 1984 from San Francisco. We moved to what I thought was Coca-Cola land, because they were the title sponsor for the Olympics. I started collecting Coke pins and Coke swag, and I did a project with Coke, five or six years ago and I got to celebrate those memories, bring those back, flip them a bit as I tend to do with Dr. Romanelli. At the same time that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are happening, the stadium’s opening in Downtown Inglewood, and my agency has been working on the retail development for the last few years. So, my job specifically is culturally curating the retail development. Thinking about how to bring in interesting anchors to differentiate the developments from other developments.

CRESPO: 2020 is also the twentieth anniversary of your fashion label and your agency.

ROMANELLI: There’s a lot coming together on this year, but I also feel like I’ve been a brand for twenty years so I’m more confident in what I can offer, how I can add value. These puzzle pieces seem to organically be connecting together, which is exciting because I’ve been going back to Japan for the first time in a while, and I just did an installation there, and I’m thinking about how I can create a larger bridge between Tokyo and LA. Tokyo is so great and I end up travelling there a few times a year, but it’s getting more difficult with kids now, so I want to bring an authentic Tokyo to LA, but I want it to come here with the right anchors, the right brands, and the right people. 

CRESPO: Your history with Japan started a long time ago, because I think that one of your first clients was Beams.

ROMANELLI: Yes of course, well, they saw my Nike jacket at Maxfield, they bought the jacket, and I did seven collections with Beams. At that time, streetwear was just really starting out, so early 2000s. There was definitely a movement, but it felt DIY.


Rams helmet by Sayre Gomez


CRESPO: What did you learn in Japan?

ROMANELLI: I learned the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into production out there is on a whole other level. I understood what it meant to be a brand, and this is before smartphones so everything was magazines, it was really important to go to Sawtelle, to go to the Japanese bookstore to buy the magazines, a lot of clippings, a lot of mood boards with magazines. But also thinking about how I could contribute to the movement in Tokyo, and I was lucky enough to have that relationship with Beams. Then I had a relationship with this store called Celux, which is a members-only boutique on top of Louis Vuitton Omotesando. I did a bunch of projects with them. Then I went to Loveless, and then tons of work with Poggy and United Arrows, and then of course different consultancies on a lot a of projects out there. I would always look at doing my best work for Tokyo because it meant the most for me, the consumer and the market is the most critical there on details, on quality control and hardware. I would always think about Tokyo first, and that’s how I’d set the bar.

 CRESPO: Back to your Los Angeles community, we talked about fashion, we talked about food, we talked about art and music, what is the common thread among your community?

ROMANELLI: I think the common thread we share as a community is that we all want to be inspired, we all want secret things. The same need and want to connect on imagery and distribute imagery. To share it creatively.

CRESPO: What do you want to bring to Los Angeles with your upcoming projects?

ROMANELLI: I think something that lacks here compared to other places is authentic community and being able to really connect with a group of people that share the same interests other than the gallery opening, or the institution opening, or the house party. But to really have a network of creatives that can share this common want of connecting is something that I think LA is lacking and has lacked.  

CRESPO: Is there any specific project you can talk about to bring the community together?

ROMANELLI: Yeah, well I’ve been working on a project as you guys know in Inglewood the last couple years. So, one dialogue that I’ve been paying attention to is how to create something unique that can pass the test of time. It needs to be relevant for the next decade. I’ve been experimenting over the last year or so at the Brixton market in London, which they’re calling Brixton Village now. We’re building a recording studio above the market, and we’ve been acquiring a bunch of great emerging contemporary works that we’ll house inside the studio. We have the ability to take those works and experiment in the market when the vendors are in between leases—sometimes these storefronts will go up for a month—and highjack those with the work that we have, and then it energizes the market and make a space feel more approachable.

CRESPO: I think one thing that’s always fascinating about your various projects is that it’s kind of always unexpected. You worked with Nike, you worked with Coke, with Mick Jagger, with Kanye West, with Disney, with Felix the Cat, there’s so many unexpected crazy things. Very few creatives in the world have touched so many different universes, and mixed and remixed them, even if you may not like the term remix, but I think I read in an interview that your dad also worked on Space Jam?

ROMANELLI: Yeah he started Warner Brothers consumer products in the 1980s. 

CRESPO: When you explained that he took you to Nike to meet Michael Jordan, I thought maybe that was part of the explanation. Because suddenly it was like a guy in a room said, “you know what? Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan and Nike, let’s do it.” That’s kind of what you’ve been doing ever since in a way.

ROMANELLI: Yeah it’s interesting because that trip to Nike was super important in my deciding where I went to college, plus I saw the Grateful Dead at Autzen Stadium. I went to college in Oregon for four years because of that experience. Primarily that weekend of meeting Jordan and seeing Jerry at Autzen was like a dream. My obsession with the brand, with the swoosh really was over four years being at school in Eugene, Oregon, where Nike was born. And thrifting. I came back after four years with incredible vintage Nike. Not knowing what I was going to do with it—just collecting them. Growing up, I was always collecting. Whether it was Swatch watches, or Jordan shoes, Stussy shirts, whatever it was at the time, Coca-Cola gear, Polo gear…. Whatever I was collecting, I was just collecting it to have it. So, I didn’t know that I was going to be reconstructing these vintage Nike pieces.

CRESPO: To end on Darren San’s Sushi, this feels like a celebration of this community, of this energy, but it’s also almost like a teaser for what’s ahead. 

ROMANELLI: There’s definitely something unique happening now. It’s incredible, we did one on June 13th and it was really unique to feel authentic Japanese energy in Downtown. I know we have to perfect it, and this is the second one, but you’ll come experience it, hopefully some of the readers can come experience it. For me, more than anything similar to how the Epidemic events were back in the day, was more that authenticity, the organic connectivity between like-minded individuals exchanging ideas, and the power of that to me is ten-fold with this event because it’s coming with 2020. So I don’t know, come and see.




Ritualized Catharsis: An Interview of Hyon Gyon

text by Adam Lehrer

South Korean New York-based visual artist and painter Hyon Gyon’s Chinatown studio is hard to miss. Walking down Canal Street past the skateboarders that grind the rails along the bike path at the bottom of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan bridge, the markets that smell ripe of fish and assorted edible sea creatures, and the dizzyingly busy intersection of a diverse population, you finally take a right on Eldridge Street. Quite visibly from the opposite end of the block your eye catches an out-of-place looking two floor building with a massive sign that reads “Hyon Gyon.” The building looks more like a hut or a place of worship than an emerging visual artist’s studio. Considering Gyon’s aesthetic and work, that notion could feel rather deliberate on part of the artist. But talking to Gyon for any length of time quickly dispels that notion. Her studio is just an outgrowth of her practice, and her practice lacks any grand conceptual conceit. She channels energy into her art. What you see is simply what has come out of her.

Inside that studio is a visual world perhaps even more rarified and indicative of Gyon’s work than the locale’s exterior. The first floor is half work space and half gallery displaying several of Gyon’s large-scale and quite spectacular paintings that combine the markings of abstract expressionism and traditional Korean shamanistic imagery alongside Gyon’s scattered work materials. The room is accented by vibrant Korean carpets that cover almost the entirety of the floor. Upstairs, Gyon maintains a sizable collection of art and design books and has been stockpiling an assortments of garments that Gyon has taken to painting, deconstructing, and refashioning. At the center of the artifacts and tasteful junk is Gyon herself: ethereally beautiful, petite, and adorned in a sparkly pink top over a Rolling Stones t-shirt, she abstractly resembles the ideas that flow out of her in her work.

Gyon was attending university when she decided to be an artist professionally. Initially interested in fashion and having even worked at a studio that designed traditional Korean garments, Gyon’s decision to work in the fine arts was catapulted by the death of her grandmother. When Gyon’s grandmother passed, her family took part in a gut (pronounced: “goot”) ritual for her; in these ceremonies, a Korean shaman leads a series of sacrifices, physical gestures and prayers to the gods that theoretically enable a peaceful transition for the human spirit to leave the physical plane and enter into the spiritual plane. But in a more tangibly relatable manner, the gut ritual serves the purpose of allowing the deceased’s loved ones to move on. To purge negativity. To experience catharsis. That ritualized catharsis had a deep impact on Gyon, and she knew then that she had found her subject manner. “It’s hard to describe what happened to me,” says Gyon referring to her catharsis felt during the gut ritual. “Something in me had changed. I knew that I wanted people to experience emotion through my work.”

Gyon focuses on bold paintings and abstract sculptures with textile elements that use the faces and bodies of monstrous characters, or “incarnations” as she calls them, that are emblematic of specific emotions from the wide scale of human feeling. After working and developing her practice in Japan for 13 years, Gyon moved to New York in 2013 on a residency supported by her new dealers at Shin Gallery. The residency first resulted in a pop-up show entitled Hyon Gyon and The Factory that referenced Warhol and saw Gyon producing at truly Warholian (or should we say Herculean?) rates. This year, Shin included Gyon’s work alongside titans like Balthus and Salvador Dali in a group show entitled I Wanna Be Me that used its Sex Pistols aping title to celebrate utterly personal expression in a world of appropriation. But the greatest testament to Gyon’s talents at this juncture was her first eponymous Shin Gallery solo show that ran over the summer. The centerpiece of the show was the sculptural Headpiece that saw Gyon applying oil paints to pillows. Every pillow was its own face unlike any of the other faces and, according to Gyon, each represented a human emotion. The stacking of the pillows on top of one another and fashioning them to collide into one another was emblematic of any single human being’s psychology: chaotic and disorganized but still working together to create a definable whole. While so much of the conceptual art world explores the anxiety and paranoia that technology has unleashed upon the world populace, Gyon looks toward a concept that is, if not divine, than spiritual. Her work is awake and tapped into something that lives above the cacophony of daily existence. I had to talk to her.

LEHRER: What were you going through emotionally while in university that led you to transition into creating art works?

Gyon: During my first master course, I was working through my own personal experiences with my grandmother having just passed and that prompted me to focus on my work. I was enjoying making art, but really didn’t know what I wanted to make and I wasn’t sure what my subject matter would be. I was looking for something. We held a a “gut” ritual for her and that had a big impact on me.

LEHRER: Obviously having your grandmother pass away is an emotional event, but what was it about the ceremony specifically that you connected with making artwork?

Gyon: I was not very close with my grandmother.  I was not a good grandchild. I did very bad things to her. I regretted this. After she passed away, I couldn’t do anything for her. It made me so sad and I wanted to meet her again. 

LEHRER: So you felt making art somehow would connect you to your grandmother in the way that you couldn’t while she was alive?

Gyon: Yes. During the Guy Ceremony, I felt I could meet my grandmother, like I could talk to my grandmother. I had such negative emotions in my mind and after the ceremony, they were gone. Not completely gone, but my emotions changed.

LEHRER: Your artwork is obviously very emotional. I was curious, I read that as a child, you liked burning textiles and that this became a part of your process later on. For you, was that destructive act also a creative act?

Gyon: Mhmm

LEHRER: Could you explain that a little bit?

Gyon: As a kid, I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to play with my friends. I just wanted to be alone. My mom had a lot of fabrics and I wanted to do something with them. Draw, paint, write. But, I used a lighter. It didn’t work. It all burned

LEHRER: I’ve read articles about the fashion designer Margiela when he was still around.

Gyon: I love him

LEHRER: When people asked why he sent ripped clothing down the runway, he said for him ripping clothes is just another creative act. It’s like you’re destroying something to create something else. 

GYON: I use that process, always. When I make a painting, I’ll destroy it, remake it, destroy it. It’s much better in the end. 

LEHRER: Your work has been broken down into these five different ideas: Incarnations, hair which I guess is a metaphor for life and how life can continue after death, the stigma of the shaman lifestyle of being ostracized or put away from your community, but called upon for important funerals and things like that, and catharsis. That sounds very specific. What sort of lead you to focus on these five ideas?

Gyon: I don’t think it’s so specific. It’s about life and death. Happy or unhappy.

LEHRER: So many contemporary artists now are dealing with the paranoia surrounding the digital age and surveillance technology. But your work is still dealing with the big themes of life, death, and spirituality. Obviously you have have a laptop and Wi-Fi, but do you feel yourself consciously disconnecting from technology to get in touch with your work?

Gyon: I’m not a huge technology person.

LEHRER: That helps

Gyon: I have to use laptop, i have to use iPhone. Instagram brought you and I together, it has a power. It’s so amazing. I use it, but I am very human.

LEHRER: Are you religious or just spiritual?

Gyon: I don’t have any religion. Shamans aren’t about religion, they are spiritual. 

LEHRER: Right, and they can be like medicine men too? Healers? 

Gyon: Yes, healers. That’s why I’m interested. I’m not very interested in religions. I mean, I used to go to church and used to go to Temple. You know, the Temple is a very interesting place in Chinatown. 

LEHRER: I was wondering, too, because your work does have elements of abstract expressionism and also some figuration to it, were you influenced at all by the conventional schools of art history? Are you trying to blend these concepts of ritual with the traditions of art history?

Gyon: Blend. Everything is hybrid. I always use juxtaposition—so high culture and low culture. I am always trying to juxtapose emotion and culture. My work does not just focus on shamanism. 

LEHRER: Yeah, because it still is in the context of contemporary art and art history and things like that. So for some of your work, Headcount for instance, when I first saw it I was amazed by the way it almost implies an explosive imagination. How do all those faces and characters appear to you? And how do they flow out of you?

Gyon: They just came out. And each piece is different, with different faces. I didn’t make them as a portrait, I just filled them in with emotions. I was transformed by other people. It just came out. 

LEHRER: Do you think that they’re all feelings? 

Gyon: Yes. I don’t know, it just came out and I can’t explain why. I made it by myself. 

LEHRER: You don’t use assistants or anything? 

Gyon: Some people helped me with the sewing and stuffing the cotton, but basically I do it by myself. 

LEHRER: That’s what’s so interesting about art criticism is that sometimes we take meaning from the work that’s so much different than what’s intended. 

Gyon: So different, yeah. And I really hate that people want to know what the meaning of the painting is, of these characters. It’s too much for me. I really don’t want to explain everything, every marking

LEHRER: One thing I did want to ask you though is you used to design traditional Korean garments? When did you notice the potential in those fabrics for other creative purposes? 

Gyon: I always loved clothing. I always loved the fabrics. I wanted to be a designer more than a painter. I don’t know why I’m a painter. That experience was really amazing. I didn’t even want to be an artist because I thought that it was impossible to live as one. I just went to the interview and had no idea how to make the clothing, I still can’t do it, but the designer hired me because I was really good with using color and good at drawing. And so that’s how I started working there. It was amazing. Amazing. I didn’t know how beautiful the traditional Korean dresses were. I’m very proud of it. It’s super inspiring. I mean, that’s why I went to Japan, because I wanted to study fashion. 

Follow Hyon Gyon on Instagram. text and interview by Adam Lehrer