What part of Flushing were you born and raised in? What elementary school, junior high school, and high School did you attend?
I lived in the same house my whole life. I was actually right on 43rd Avenue and 166th Street right by Northern Boulevard and Kissena Park. I went to elementary school at P.S 107, junior high school at I.S 25, and Francis Lewis for high school.
Were you in ROTC or in any Patriots teams in school?
I was part of the volleyball club and I played handball a lot, outside of school.
How did you like high school?
Well it’s high school… it’s a public high school in Queens, New York. So, you can’t expect it to be all that great [laughs].
How has growing up and being in your group of friends transitioned you from adolescence to adulthood?
You see a lot of things. You experience a lot of things. My friends were cool. I don’t regret anything. Yeah, [laughs] high school…
Do you think that Queens contributes to your group of friends? Do you have friends of all races and nationalities?
Actually because of the area I grew up in, I mainly grew up with a lot of Asian people. So I guess that has a lot to do with the fact that I mainly hang out with more of an Asian crowd. I would say that with my career, it’s helped me expand more. When you are in Queens, you just hang out with the same Queens crowd all the time. You don’t really venture out as much.
What are your childhood memories of growing up here? I know my cousins would say hanging out in front of Burger King in Main Street, Flushing.
Yeah, like I did that. Burger King, Macy’s, Main Street, we did a lot of that. I would go to the Fresh Meadows Movie Theater all the time. There was one summer when I watched every movie that came out. I would also play handball with my friends at P.S 26 and sometimes we would go to that junior high school by Francis Lewis, [JHS216 George J.] Ryan.
You mentioned that you were the only child. Do you have a lot of family here like cousins of your age?
No, my parents never really had friends. I didn’t really have friends either and I was an only child. So, I didn’t have friends until elementary school, which was when I started engaging with other human beings. My parents took me to church when I was in junior high school so I made a lot of friends through that. I was serving in Church a lot and I still practice Christianity today.
Did you attend Saturday school?
I never got to watch Saturday morning cartoons. I was always going to Chinese school and math prep. I went to ABC Math and Sigma. I never learned anything at them. I hated that part of my life.
You lived in a Taiwanese household, and you spoke Mandarin at home. You mention in past interviews how you had a traditional/strict upbringing, but what does that mean? How did it differ from an American lifestyle and schooling?
Yeah, my parents were definitely very strict when I was growing up. Well, my dad was stricter. I would go to all these prep classes and if I ever got a low grade I would get punished at home. It was definitely a lot of stress all the time. Math was also always a really difficult subject for me. It was definitely very challenging. My parents would always go to every parent teacher conference and ask about my grades. Even if I didn’t want to show them a test score they would find out. So it was extremely stressful and high pressure all the time. I even had to Photoshop my SAT scores. Yeah, so they definitely raised me very Asian style.
Now you live in Woodside?
Yup, and I work from home.
How do you stay productive at home?
I’m very comfortable and very productive actually [laughs] like it’s not a challenge for me at all. It actually helps me work better.
Do you still operate your Etsy shop? Or is that on the back burner?
I do, but it’s not like I create new stuff. It’s just a way for my fans to connect with my work. So, it’s not a big money maker, and I don’t think about it all too much. But when people order products, I definitely send them out. [Since this interview, the UNDO Ordinary Magazine has been added to her Etsy shop, which she heads the design and art direction of]
I think what’s really interesting about you is that out of the people I have interviewed (so far) who were born or raised here, they now reside in Brooklyn as an adult. Why didn’t you also move out to Brooklyn, where the young, hip and artist community is?
Yeah, I hate Brooklyn. I mean I can see the appeal. But I lived in Bushwick when I was college. It was closer, rent was cheap, and dorming was too expensive. But I think Brooklyn is a hot mess. I mean in many ways I can appreciate what’s going on there. I think it’s great that the community is getting better and that there is a lot of cool, creative stuff happening. Real estate is also growing, which is better for New York City as a whole, but as a Queens’s native I also see the things going on in Brooklyn that I don’t like. It’s not even New York. It’s like the New York people not from New York have made up. People from Montana or like Portland move to New York, and open up a coffee shop, and they think they’re New Yorkers. But they’re not. That’s also just an old school Queens’s mentality.
I am a very positive person and I try not to hate on things, but I personally wouldn’t want to live there because then it is too much creativity. Like, here in Woodside its families, and you know I had someone spit on my face and tell me to go back to my own country. It was shocking, but at the same time this is New York. This is the New York City that I grew up in, and I love it.
Of course, I still go back to Flushing, and that place has changed dramatically as well. But here in Woodside everyone kind of minds their own business and I like that. I can leave Manhattan and I can go to a place called home, and just relax. I don’t feel like we have entered all these hipsters and young people all around me. I think it’s cool, but it’s not for me and my taste. I have enough creativity. I know how to find inspiration and I don’t need to live in a bubble where everyone is inspired all the time.
That incident with someone spitting in your face, was that in Queens?
Yeah, it was like two years ago. I was just crossing the streets and this guy was riding on his bike and he drove by super-fast and spat in my face, and was like “Go back to your fucking country”. And I was like “That’s fantastic, that’s just fantastic”. I mean as gross as it was, the fact that there are still people like that in 2014 and in Queens, I think that is kind of cool [laughs]. You know, I would not want to live in a world full of hipsters and young people. It’s too much.
What do you think about people saying that you can’t really travel around Queens because it’s so big without a car?
Well, I recently bought a car and it’s been really helpful.
But you’ve navigated all your life without a car, right?
Yes, totally. I rode the bus. It took like an hour and half for me to go all the way down town, back and forth. It’s definitely inconvenient. But I mean for my lifestyle now, it is better that I don’t live deep in Flushing. But that’s just the way it is and if you don’t like it then move somewhere else, you know?
What does it mean to be from Queens? How has it contributed to what you do and who you are?
I’ve noticed that in this industry it definitely gives you a good amount of street cred. So, that’s cool. It wasn’t until I started working on my career that I would ever hear anyone say “Oh my gosh, you’re from New York? That’s interesting.” When I was growing up, everyone was from New York so it didn’t make any sense. I think it is cool and it gives me a sense of identity. It is also something I definitely take pride on and something definitely worth sharing. It is also a great opener when having a conversation with someone.
Yeah, I definitely think you’re a big proponent of always repping Queens whenever talking about you and your work. How would you like Queens to be represented?
You know, as silly as it sounds, I know I’m in the spotlight a lot of the time because of my work, but I actually really appreciate the people who do amazing things and are not in the spotlight. It’s one of those things that you only know if you know about it. I actually really appreciate that especially in this day and age.
Queens is a huge gem in New York City and it is one of the most diverse towns in the world. If you walk a few blocks you can see all these different nationalities and it’s just something that I think is really, really beautiful. I actually like that there are not a shit ton of outsiders coming in. People are not as interested in it, but the people who know about it are more than interested in it.
How do you feel about all the hype around Queens nowadays? Saying Queens is the best borough, but is underrated and under wraps?
I think it’s great. But people are still going to want to move to Brooklyn over Queens. So, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Think about it this way, when you walk down Roosevelt Avenue, imagine we were in Brooklyn and all these hipsters came in and started opening up their shops here. Then the Queens we all grew up in would not be here anymore.
But don’t you think that it is sort of happening already? A few writers are labeling Ridgewood as “Quooklyn” which is the border of Queens and Brooklyn.
Yeah, I don’t know, I haven’t read any of the stuff, so I can’t really comment on that.
Well LIC, Astoria, and Sunnyside, are being labeled the new Brooklyn, the new “it” place to live…
I mean I go to Long Island City and I just want to throw up. It is crazy how eight years ago, it used to be warehouses and all of sudden they are building all of this. I bet you that a majority of the people who do live there are not even from New York. I mean, it’s not like New Yorkers can only stay in New York, but I feel like when I grew up especially in Flushing, it was all immigrants from other countries. That was the melting pot of New York, and now New York has become this melting pot of just more American. Sometimes American culture annoys the shit out of me.
How do you feel about Queens now, being a working adult?
Oh, I love it. I think it’s great. It’s a place that I call home. I mean it’s different for me because I work at home and the way I interact with my home is different from how someone else would. I have plenty of friends from Flushing and it’s a huge shock for them to go to the city or hang out with their friends after work and go all the way back home.
Are you going to the Lil Wayne and Drake concert at the Forest Hills Stadium? [this concert was on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014]
No, I don’t really go to concerts. It sounds crazy [laughs], but I don’t really like loud music. I don’t like it when I have to talk over the music. I like to hang out with my friends at the more quiet bars. I don’t really go clubbing. I think it’s really cool that they’re doing that though. I heard that 50 Cent is doing a concert and I would love to go to that. But again, I don’t like standing in a crowd and people are drunk, spilling their drink on me. I try not to put myself in an environment like that. I personally, just don’t like it.
Yeah, like M.I.A and A$AP Ferg came to play at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth. I feel like more people are venturing into Queens.
Oh, I had no idea. I did not know any of that. Where is it?
It’s on Flushing Ave. You have to take a bus out there. It is a restored factory, but now they have concerts and art exhibits there.
Oh, yeah, it’s probably the influence of the R train and G train too just coming up.
With 5pointz being painted over and bulldozed down, two Brooklyn artists had put up a banner saying “Gentrification in Progress”. I know you posted on your Instagram that you don’t want Queens to become Williamsburg… what’s your opinion on this?
I think that’s really unfortunate. See the thing is, in Flushing, it’s like old New York buildings like the Wiz or Coconuts being changed into Chinese establishments, which I don’t mind because it’s immigrants. But when it’s like other Americans from Middle America bringing their shit over here, it’s kind of annoying. I feel like we can’t avoid it because there is so much money involved. For example, like illegalizing tobacco, they’re not going to do it because of the money involved. So it’s just bound to happen. I mean the ironic part is that when they’re building those condos; the people who are going to occupy them are probably people who own street art.
I totally agree with you on the Flushing thing. Way back in the day, it was very American. There were malls and you could eat brick oven pizza in Flushing, Queens, but now it is very Chinese centered, which is almost a different type of gentrification [Letter From Flushing: On Gentrification in an Unhip Place].
How is your knee doing? I saw you tweeted that your Meniscus knee tear was flaring up.
Oh, it’s good. I mean I still have to go to physical therapy. I’m having trouble finding people that will take my insurance. That is another thing; all the good physical therapists are in Manhattan or Brooklyn. There is no place in Queens that isn’t inconvenient. Nothing that is legit, so when it comes to doctors it’s annoying. When it comes with food delivery with all these cool apps coming out, no one ever delivers to Queens. It is the same thing for Uber, so there are frustrations there, but whatever, it’s where I chose to live.
How do you feel about maturing and being an adult?
I think it’s normal. Absolutely. I think for me personally, dating as well. Although I’ve been with the same guy for the past three years, he is completely different from me. I guess just interacting with people. Especially with my career, I’m always interacting with new people and discussing work. You definitely learn a lot more about yourself. Even in the interviews that I do, I feel like I’ll come up with a new conclusion as I am talking. It’s just a matter of regular maturing.
You are asked to speak at different events. How do you like giving talks and public speaking? Does it come naturally?
Yeah, I don’t know how it happened for the most part. I kind of don’t really think about it. I think in the past, like doing school speeches, it was completely different because you can’t speak the way you speak. So, when I do talks, especially when it’s about my work, I just speak how I normally speak. I don’t try to hide anything and I don’t try to be overly professional. I’m not a good speaker, so I just go on stage and be myself. It really alleviates so much pressure.
Recently, Sophia gave a talk on Thursday, September 4, at 7:00 p.m. at the Apple Soho store called “Art on Your Own Terms” where she spoke upon her work and how she made the transition from student to professional. Interview was done by Jeff Staples of Staple Design + Reed Space.
In one of your various internships, you mention you worked for Peter Chung aka Cool Calm Pete. How was that?
It was really great. He’s also a Queens’s native and an exciting thing about him is that he’s one of the most genius people ever. When you see cool creative things, you always wonder who the original that did it was. He’s probably the original. He’s made so much amazing stuff and he’s just one of those people who are not in the spotlight. He actually hates the spotlight. I think that’s extremely respectful. It was an amazing experience working with him. Not just with him, but in all of my internships. I am very humble, given the opportunity to study under such wise and experienced people. The fact that they allowed me to enter their work environment and learn from them was truly amazing.
Nowadays you can blur the lines of who you are and what you do. You can wear many “hats” as you say. Illustration can bleed into fashion, curation, motion and graphic design. All that stops you is learning the toolset. How do you go about balancing all these “hats” and not getting overwhelmed or burnout in this fast-pace industry?
I think that’s why I don’t get overwhelmed I’m doing all these different things instead of just one thing.
And it made perfect sense for that to happen with you, since your original interest was in the fashion industry.
Yeah, it’s really interesting the way that panned out. I am very grateful. I mean for me personally I feel like I just prayed for them. Each one of them is like an extreme blessing. I’m just a regular girl from Queens and of course I worked for it, but it’s really amazing for me to be able to reflect on my career and see that all these doors magically opened for me.
I feel like your story is special because that doesn’t “usually” happen to an Asian girl from Queens, NY.
Yeah, also for me growing up, I hung out with a lot of Asian people, Fresh Meadow folk, the more diverse people, and basically a lot of different crowds. But I’m the same person. I’ll see friends from junior high and they’re like “You’re like exactly the same, you haven’t changed at all.” I’m pretty self-confident and self-aware of who I was when I was growing up. I don’t know, I guess it’s very true, being an Asian female in this market and also being someone who grew up in Flushing, Queens seems unfamiliar. But it happened. I don’t know [laughs]. Yeah, so it definitely worked out.
So, the PUMA Brooklynite line of sneakers and apparel, was it your choice to do a Brooklyn line versus Queens?
Well the thing is Brooklyn is a much more marketable brand. I recently went to Japan and there was this store that sold mugs. They had a New York mug, a California mug, and then they had a Brooklyn mug. People were even walking around in Japan with shirts that just say Brooklyn on them. It’s that huge. All around the world people are looking at Brooklyn, people are talking about Brooklyn. It’s much more marketable, and there is much more content to work with. There is also already a set audience that you can cater too versus in Queens, nobody knows about it.
What do you think of working with Queens’s brands, like Belief NYC in Astoria?
I haven’t heard of anything or anyone. I would be happy to, but no opportunities have shown themselves quite yet.
How do you usually draw? You draw a lot of people, and so you have to know about perspective and the human body. Do you draw from photographs, live models, or? And do you use a Wacom tablet instead of a mouse?
Yes, I use all of the above. All different sources for the most part. I mean I will draw with my hands, pen and ink and I can also do everything digitally. So it really just depends.
Why do you think that Queens hasn’t gotten the respect or credibility that Brooklyn has?
Well the trendy people are usually located in downtown Brooklyn and the next best spot is downtown. So, if you look at the map, Brooklyn is right there versus Queens. I think it’s really just geography at the end of the day.
You say you’ve done a lot of cold emailing/calling and even now you continue to reach out to brands you have not worked with yet. How do you push through the radio silence and hearing no?
Nothing. I’ll send out 120 emails and I’ll only get two responses. That’s just the way the market works. Either they looked at the email and just didn’t respond or just deleted it. But, maybe they’ll remember me. I can go to sleep better knowing that I had sent something out versus me just sitting at home waiting for some big company. I’m very proactive.
And it doesn’t faze you? I think women struggle with this more so than men, rejection and thinking they’re not good enough or ready, but I think you’re more about leading.
Right, I’ve always been pretty confident with my capabilities and what I can and cannot do. Yeah, I’m not worried. I think it might be a Christian thing too. Yeah, I’m not worried at all.
Would you consider yourself one of the boys?
See when I was growing up a little bit, but now, it’s different. Especially with the internet you realize, “Wow there are a lot of girls that are like me” and they are not necessarily just “one of the boys” it’s just “you’re not a girly girl.”
You and your boyfriend seem like a power couple. Would you say so? You guys are both doing your own thing, young entrepreneurs, building their own identities and brand, but doing it together as a couple in today’s world where dating is desensitized and everyone thinks they can do/find better.
Right, I think that’s just everyone’s mentality. I wouldn’t say that we are power couple. We just happen to be a couple who have cool and similar jobs and reach a similar market, which is why we would appear as such. But, I think in terms of our relationship I just happened to have met a good person who fits my personality. It’s all personality. So, yeah, we have a good mutual respect. We’re on the same pace with a lot of things. So, all career stuff aside, we are a good couple. The career is just another thing. For the most part, it is not really involved in our relationship.
I like what you said in your Highsnobiety interview, where you said you make sure you enunciate your words and make eye contact. I know you said you wanted to change the stereotype of “a little Asian girl” in your first impressions. But in this male dominated society, sometimes that can be perceived as “bitchy”. How do you not listen to those people hiding behind their computers, where everyone thinks they have a right to their own opinion?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s funny. I mean, there are always going to be people like that. If you’re going to put yourself out there, it’s bound to happen. There’s nothing you can do about it.
How does it make you feel?
I don’t even know who these people are. I mean sometimes people say rude things and I call them out all the time and say something witty back to them, but I keep moving on for the most part. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t bother me, but I just keep moving forward.
What is your stance on doing “free” work and unpaid internships? I know you say how those connections got you to where you are today, but how do you feel about today’s current art world where interns are unpaid, and instead being compensated with credit and getting their name out there?
I’m all about it because I did my share of it. There was an internship where I actually got school credit. But everything else I did, I just wanted to learn. When you’re an intern, it’s about giving free work and then seeing what you can get out of it.
It’s kind of like you are unpaid, but you get compensated with the skill sets and having your name on things.
Well it’s more so skill sets and what you can witness as well as the type of environment that you are put in that you can’t put a price on.
What do you say to people who say some people can’t afford to have an unpaid internship?
They should get an outside job or work at night.
I know you mentioned you did jobs to pay the bills. So how do you warrant that in your mind between picking a job you do for money versus doing it for the love of it?
I think it is different for everyone’s situation, but I think if there is a will there’s a way. If you’re just saying stuff like that, you’re just making up excuses.
Nowadays one goes to pricey private schools and enters student loan debt until they die to attend an art school. Art schools are motivated to accept as many students as possible for their name and brand, some students graduate and don’t even work in their majors. What’s your take on this?
Well when I was in school, I knew I had a big burden to carry when I graduated, especially with Chinese parents. I worked hard. I wasn’t partying. I wasn’t doing drugs. College to me was not all the stuff in the media. College to me was the scariest of my career. When I graduate after four years of undergrad, I’m competing with everyone else who has been on the market for one year, for five years, for ten years. I’m going to be competing for jobs like that so I need to prepare myself as a professional when I graduate. Especially with all those internships, by the time I graduated, I had a full roster of clients, a very solid resume and experienced skill sets. It was all up to me to work hard, find jobs, and people who were willing to give me a chance. I actually tried [laughs].
You do web design. How code savvy are you? In today’s society, how important do you think it is to learn how to code?
Yeah, I mean there is a lot of money in it. I started doing it on my own because I just wanted to know about it. I have a basic understanding. I can make very simple web sites. I graduated with a degree in Illustration but I knew I couldn’t make a career out of just drawing pictures all day. So I wanted to learn other areas from logo design, branding design, to web design. So what I did was I actually audited classes and I asked teachers, “Hey, can I sit in your class and just be a student and participate” but it was not on paper. So basically I had full credits, I took extra classes every semester, I had a part-time job, and at least two internships. So I completely overwhelmed myself, but it was great because by the time I started freelancing I was already in that mindset, in that pace. I think it’s all about how badly you want it.
So, is it still slow season for you as a freelancer right now? I would think not.
Not really, no. I mean for the most part, slow season will come every year. It was about one or two months ago, but things are slowly starting to pick up again. When it is slow season, I know I have to start sending out emails and be a little bit more proactive. But when it is not slow season, I am just focused on whatever work I have on the table.
When it is slow season, what do you typically watch on Netflix?
I just watch the Office or Parks and Recreation over and over again. I just leave it in the background. I try to keep myself busy. So if there are people I want to work with, I work on passion projects with them. I’m not just going to sit at home and do nothing.
Hand lettering is big. I want to say the hype has died down a little, but the top dogs Jessica Hische, Dani Tanamachi, Friends of Type, Dan Cassaro (young Jerks), Adam Garcia, Anna from Rifle Paper, how do you fit into this genre of illustration/design? Do you love typography?
Yeah, I definitely appreciate typography. I am nothing compared to any of those people you listed. But, I still do it just for fun. I definitely have a lot of respect for people like that. It’s just a different way of expressing yourself. It’s like photographers, there are interior photographers, street photographers, landscape photographers, journalists, but they’re all photographers; they just express themselves differently.
You are probably sick of talking about No Reservations, how do you feel about people wanting to always pigeonhole you into one thing?
I don’t really mind bring pigeonholed. Yeah, I don’t mind [laughs].
From No Reservations to where you got the nickname “ESYMAI” [answered in Nick Onden’s #ShopTalkRadio podcast], I think those are the top two questions you get asked about, but I haven’t come across anyone asking you about your #bun? What is the story behind that?
Actually a lot of people ask me that. After I graduated, I was hanging out, and going out a lot. It was summertime and I have a lot of thick, Asian hair. So I just put it in a bun because it gets really humid in New York. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re that bun girl, I saw you from a mile away’. Then, when everyone started signing up for Instagram, I started taking pictures of my hair bun in front of people, places, and things. It just started picking up, so I realized it was a fun new medium for me to kind of explore.
What are you currently listening to when you work?
I’ve been really into the Bay area music, so artists like Ty Dolla $ign and people like that and within that category.
No, I hate electronic rap. It’s just regular rap music. Well, maybe trap music actually.
And my last question, the quote “iron sharpens iron” I’ve never heard of that proverb until you said it. Can you tell me what it means to you?
It’s from my friend Robin Arzon. She’s really great at coming up with all these cool quotes and it’s just about keeping yourself surrounded by people who inspire you and uplift you and challenge you.