By Jenny Chen
Justin Tran is just a rising junior but he’s already making waves in the Richmond art community
Justin Tran is obsessed with lines. He can tell you what kind of line work Foxtrot creator Bill Amend uses or analyze the line work of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. That’s because line work is what drives most of Tran’s own artwork. The rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University takes most of his inspiration from mid-20th century artwork. Artwork from that era is now known as “modern” style artwork and places a lot of emphasis on shapes and lines.
Tran said. that he grew up drawing and seeing the world visually from a very young age. His mother, Brigitte Le was an engineer before she quit her job to open an art gallery to sell traditional Vietnamese art. “She always wanted to be an artist,” Tran said. But as immigrants, both his parents took stable jobs in the sciences to provide for the family.
In 2012, Tran started school at VCUArts which was ranked by US News and World Report at the #1 public university arts and design program in the country. Joining the artistic community in Richmond was the turning point for Tran.
“It was view changing for me and changed my style of work,” Tran said. It was at VCUArts that Tran discovered that he was interested in graphic design – he had previously entertained the idea of being a comics artist. Tran said that being exposed to different computer tools allowed him to play around with different concepts that he wasn’t previously able to play around with on paper.
Tran said he spent the first year at VCUArts taking basic survey classes which bored him and pushed him into experimenting with different types of art.
At the end of last year Tran completed a series on the neighborhoods of Richmond, which received a lot of attention from local organizations in Richmond. The designs, which are simple and whimsical, aimed to capture the unique architectures and recognizable landmarks from each neighborhood.
“I’m actually from Northern Virginia, where you wouldn’t believe the amount of people who still have this idea about Richmond — that it’s the crime-ridden city it was twenty-something years ago. I thought I’d make an attempt to bring those who are still stuck in the past back up to speed by lionizing the city’s urban vibrancy, charming landscapes and diversity of architecture through simplified line illustrations and an extensive color palette,” Tran told The Visarts Blog. “I think it’s always been about celebrating the city and the overall appreciation its residents have for art and culture. Like I said, I was really surprised by it when I first came here but living in a place that treasures its art, music and food has certainly been an uplifting and gratifying experience.”
In the fall of 2013, Tran’s first nine neighborhoods of Richmond started circulating on Tumblr and he started getting requests to draw other neighborhoods of Richmond, including the Jackson Ward neighborhood. By the time Tran finished his series, he had drawn 15 neighborhoods in total. Now Tran is selling them for $35 each and he has become somewhat of a local celebrity – being featured in local TV stations, blogs, and magazines. His work has garnered him paid work from clients such as the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, University of Richmond, TEDxVCU and more.
How did Tran get the idea for the Richmond series and a lot of his other work?
“I do a lot of sketching,” Tran said. He also writes (“chicken scratch” he said), and reads design blogs. The process of ideation is extremely important to him. In fact, he advises artists, “the substance of your artwork is so much more important than the style. When you get the substance down, your style will come.” The student also attributes a lot of his success to social media – he posts regularly on Facebook, Twitter, and his keeps his own Tumblr.
Tran said his dream would be to make a living as a freelance graphic artist and designer. “There’s a freedom associated with being a freelancer,” Tran said. “Plus, you get to work from home.”