Making aesthetic judgements is notoriously tough and rankings can be poorly received. Take mythology: When Marsyas and Arachne claimed to be numero uno at playing the flute and weaving, respectively, the Greek gods punished their hubris with flaying-to-death/transformation into a spider. When Paris went on the record regarding which goddess he found most beautiful, the resultant blowback ignited total war and brought about the fall of Troy. When Sonny Wong, on the other hand, was voted Best Artist in a tough field of competitors by the North Coast Journal''s readers this year, there was nary a murmur of dissent.

His hustle comes in at least 31 flavors, as befits a painter/graffiti writer/hip-hop head/graphic designer who's been immersed in beats since before your time. You might have encountered Wong's art through the graphic design work he's done for Humboldt clients, or through the gonzo caricatures he turned out like clockwork for every cover of Savage Henry magazine from 2010 until earlier this year. Thanks in part to the vast piece Wong completed this July in Old Town Eureka as part of the Eureka Street Art Festival, he's arrived at a whole new level of name recognition vis-a-vis the general public.

I caught up with the artist in Blue Lake, where he was completing a commissioned mural at a client's house. A single-track gravel road rose abruptly from the highway. On an outdoor deck on top of the hill, the 45-year-old Wong was putting the final touches on a technicolor view of the Pacific off Houda Point. It showed a corduroy set of waves rolling in, Camel Rock's double hump silhouetted unmistakably against the setting sun.

The new Wong mural overlooking a parking lot at Sixth and G in downtown Eureka shows an angular, bearded, silver-haired hipster ("it's really a platinum beard") who bears some striking similarities to the artist himself. This cat appears fully engrossed in his idiosyncratic task manipulating a tiny schooner in a bottle. Inside the bottle a Technicolor sunset somehow rages and a sea serpent rears its head. Visible for nearly a city block in all directions, this work is the biggest "hand painting" Wong has done to date. "I always wanted to do huge," he said. "I had the idea that I could tie (this project) together with Humboldt Bay, make it about this shipbuilder." Execution was a challenge, because of the wall surface — "really old, flaky redwood" mounted on concrete.

click to enlarge "Siren at Sunset" - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • "Siren at Sunset"

While Wong prefers to complete the outlines first, he had to work "backwards" here: "I had to do the fill first, then came in and sharpened up the lines at the end because of the gnarly surface." This technique was more like that of graffiti writers, who tend, he said, "to do big fill colors, then draw the outline."

Wong prepared to tackle the wall's expanse by drawing on sources of inspiration old and new. As a kid growing up in Yreka and Santa Rosa, he said, he "watched a lot of cartoons," everything from anime to Scooby-Doo. His style was shaped by hanging out at punk shows, skate parks and graffiti yards. He also credits the local work of muralist Duane Flatmo and a series of hip-hop side projects undertaken with musical collaborator The Sheik.

At ease in graffiti writing subcultures since he started frequenting Santa Rosa graffiti yards in the 1990s, Wong is increasingly invested these days in a parallel but separate endeavor: painting narrative. "In graffiti, you're writing your name ... while in this style of work, you're using painting to tell a story." The mural at Sixth and G streets is "a snapshot of a story" with its builder of tiny ships, a genial hobbyist/maniac with an obsession for miniaturization.

Some of the linework in this piece shows the influence of those classic Hanna-Barbera animation cels (zoinks!), while other parts recall Japanese woodblock prints, but the nervous energy that percolates through everything in sight, as though a tide of espresso were building just beneath the surface, is very much Wong's own. Everyone's got an opinion on what it means; it seemed to me the figure's activity made tongue-in cheek allusion to Eureka's romanticized past, miniaturizing and enshrining the rep the city cherishes as a salty, foggy waterfront dive populated with immigrants, sailors, hunters, fishers, basket weavers, loggers, fugitives, shamans, tree-huggers, libertines, animists and renegade intellects.

Some fans who are familiar with Wong's paintings, magazine covers, live shows and recordings may not be aware of his other creative outlet: He's been gainfully employed as a graphic designer ever since graduating from Humboldt State University in 2004. "I'm good at computers," he explains, "and I taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator." Wong has been working in cannabis even longer, since the 1990s, when the illicit market was the only kind there was. For almost a decade, his Savage Henry covers graced dispensaries up and down the coast, becoming a fixture of off-the-grid cabins all over the Emerald Triangle. His design work influenced the look of Humboldt's rapidly evolving cannabis industry during the 2010s, when it was undergoing major upheavals en route to legal status. Now he's one of the designers working to develop a new visual vocabulary for the local industry, one that goes way beyond tie-dye and dank nugs.

click to enlarge Paintings of Wong’s hanging at the Diver Bar & Grill in Eureka. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Paintings of Wong’s hanging at the Diver Bar & Grill in Eureka.

Now that cannabis is "in the process of becoming normalized," he says, niche marketing is the name of the game. Increasingly there's no single approach to design that says "cannabis," but many. "There's going to be stuff geared at soccer moms and stuff geared at young guys who play football. You put the same exact product in a different box," Wong said, "and all of a sudden other people are buying it."

Post-legalization, his outlook on the brave new world of legal weed is positive. "I'm not seeing mom-and-pop operations going away," he said, referring to an outcome many in the local industry had feared. He does not lament the loss of the outlaw mystique formerly associated with illicit market cultivation in these parts. Change was necessary, he says; as a parent of four, he can take satisfaction in the fact that California cannabis "is now way more regulated than food." Especially, he joked, "now that all my kids are teenagers."

When Wong's not working design jobs or making murals or rhyming over beats, he can be found painting outdoors en plein air, oftentimes alongside The Sheik. "We find a beautiful spot and set up our camping chairs — we've done this all over Humboldt County." For a graphic designer accustomed to working in close consultation with clients, plein air painting is "rewarding and free" by comparison. "You're doing it only for yourself." But Wong also appreciates the built-in creative constraints — particularly the time limit — that the outdoors imposes, precisely because he's someone who enjoys getting lost in the process. "When I'm in the studio working something up, I'll work on it for six months. I get real quiet, I get in my own space. In the moment of the painting, without a deadline, I might never get to a spot where I say: 'This is done.'"

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Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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