YAEJI: POWER IN CUTENESS

"Cuteness has always been present in my life, but it's something I deeply suppressed for a long time."

interview by Claire Kowalewski
collage by Justin Wallis

Over the past year, the parallel worlds of miniSUPER Sticker Club and Yaeji have collided, resulting in some super cute stuff you may have peeped in our shop or on Yaeji’s tour. This month actually marks the one year anniversary of Yaeji’s first full-length studio album, “With a Hammer.” To celebrate, we gave Yaeji a call to talk about the different parts of her world that would inevitably inspire the album—things like growing up, her stationery collection, and getting scammed on MMORPGs. We welcome Yaeji and her Onion fandom to the miniSUPER sticker family.

The following interview has been transcribed from a call. The interviewer, Claire Kowalewski, is calling from Berlin at 5PM. The artist, Yaeji, is speaking to us from New York City at 11AM.

Welcome to miniSUPER! We are so happy to have you. Where are you joining us from, and what have you been up to today?

So right now I am in my room in Brooklyn, New York. I'm doing okay—there's been a lot of traveling, which is mostly a blessing, but I think I'm very sensitive to changing waters and what I eat. So I've been a little low. So taking it easy. I had a pretty late start to the day. I'm drinking my little tea and getting settled in as I talk to you.

For those who aren’t familiar with you or your work, let’s start from the basics. Could you introduce yourself to the sticker community?

Sure. My name is Kathy Yaeji Lee, and I make music under the name Yaeji. So technically, I'm a producer, singer, songwriter, D.J ...I also run a small business called JI-MART on the side that sells handmade things or cute objects that hopefully make your day a little better.

 

(c) Yaeji

 

I was snooping around and found your old Instagram post in 2020 about your friend’s touching childhood onion experiment. Suddenly the positivity in your songs seems so heartfelt. Beyond this single post, the presence of onions in your world is huge, and maybe a little confusing for newcomers. Could you quickly recap this project and what role onions play in your life today?

Thank you for checking that, that's really meaningful for me. Yeah, so my onion project specifically came to life when I was working on the title song from my previous mixtape titled What We Drew. I went to Korea, in the area where my family's from and where I grew up. I have a group of girls from there that I've met in my adulthood. I think they're special because they meet me exactly where I am now.

They reminded me of a childhood experiment we used to do in science class in Korean elementary school where we plant two onions in a jar filled with water. One jar we label something extremely loving and positive, like “I love you, you're beautiful.” Then in the other jar we will label something negative, like “I hate you.” We’ll continue to verbally reiterate those feelings to each onion every day and see what happens. Every time, the onion that was given a lot of love noticeably grew so much healthier.

This onion project was every child's science project. It's super ubiquitous. But as an adult, sitting with that idea again, it just struck something deep within. So onions became the big visual motif not only in that video, but for my project as a whole going [forward]—this idea that we can express love and nurture and grow each other with each other and create a space like that? The onion is very symbolic of me as a person and my work, in all of its layers and all of the changes it goes through. And the spiciness of it. Lots of metaphors with onions. Also I call my fans onions!

 

Where do you go, or what do you do when you need some more positivity yourself?

I still find positivity from the same basket of things ever since childhood. I think the first one, no-brainer: watching my favorite childhood animes. Just rinse and repeat.

Running has been a more recent addition to the basket.

Making music and taking walks too.

Obviously, writing in my diary, stickering, and decorating brings me a lot of joy and comfort. I used to exclusively use Hobonichi journals. These days I am only using their 5-Year Journal and I've transitioned to TRAVELER’S Notebooks because they work with my personality better. I can switch out the mini-notebooks it holds or make my own inserts! I’m so impatient… Whereas with the Hobonichi I would forget some months and be really sad about the empty pages.

I can show you how to make it cute! Actually, there’s a Korean society of kids that are doing this trend of totally decorating the cover, and they usually have a cute little clip…and then when you open the journal in the card insert pocket they have cute cards or sticker sheets that you can rotate to match. SUPER custom and SUPER cute.

This is my journaling station here at my place in NYC. I like, flop my journals here, and I have everything I need. On the top right, there’s a framed doodle from Justin. I'm always looking at this guy while I journal. As a tablecloth, I’m using a printed cloth I made from my drawings from the With a Hammer book!

So for some of my diaries, I like to decorate the first page to feel like a real place. This is one of the places I used to go. For this spread from 2022 I added keychains of the guys from Kuroko’s Basketball. They're like, literally coming out of the page to serve you.

 

the Yaeji x miniSUPER sticker sheet, created for the 2023 "With A Hammer" tour.

 

I hear that you were actually the first to reach out to miniSUPER founder Justin back in the day. How did you first come into contact?

I think not many people know but…I'm a lurker? I have a few finstas because I love to just see what everyone's up to, and I have a whole personal world of interests in cute things that I’m working on slowly integrating with the Yaeji brand.

So yeah, I reached out to Justin on my main account because I was curious if he listened to my music, but I had been following Justin's work for years! Literally years! [Author’s note: Justin had, indeed, been listening to Yaeji’s work for a while.] His style has changed a lot! I was just like Hey Justin, I'm a fan of your work. I wanted to know if you have a good email to reach out to? Very direct.

Normally I'm super shy. I remember it being a rare instance where I really wanted to reach out, I think this person is really cool, and I'm not sure what we're going to do together but I want to get to know this person better. He was, as you know, super friendly and gave me his contact. Initially, we were sending things back and forth that we like. I even made a whole mood board to share with him what I wanted my new webshop JI-MART to be like, since it was still in its super early stages at the time.

I really hope you guys can do more next time you do something amazing ;-> !

Yeah, we are still messaging from time to time! Our friendship is really sweet.

I know you and Justin were busy collaboratively designing one of your 2023 show posters and a limited edition sticker sheet that was sold as merch during your With a Hammer Tour. Can you tell us about the behind-the-scenes of the creation process, and the penultimate Y&J meeting?

Yeah, we got to meet in person last year on my tour! And immediately I was like, Oh yeah, Justin is super similar to me. I love it when you're a fan of someone, and they're also a fan of yours, especially with artists who work in different mediums. Usually, when that happens there's a lot of personality overlap–so sweet to realize and experience.

I remember for the poster I asked him: Hey can it feel kind of really loose, like you're just posting a sketchbook scan on your Patreon? Patreon is such a special space because you can be so much looser. It feels like he can be more relaxed? I was really hoping to get that different language. I loved how it turned out.

For the stickers, that was me giving Justin assets that I have from my With the Hammer book. Justin took it from there and fully, fully created that sticker sheet, which is SO legendary. And actually, can I say…? I don't have any? I think I gave some of my team members my only sheets. I don't know what happened.

 

Artwork by MILKBBI (Justin) for Yaeji's stickers.

 

Sketchbook style artwork by MILKBBI (Justin) for Yaeji's tour posters.

 

Having one sticker sheet is the same as having zero sticker sheets, you always gotta have these.

Yeah, you don't want to use them! I love them. I’m going to ask Justin for some more ASAP.

 

It seems only natural that we found each other! miniSUPER and the Yaeji brand seem to value: character design, curation and collection of cute, and spreading positivity through creativity 24/7. You seem like someone who has a healthy need for “cute” in everyday life. Why is the concept of “cute” important to you? And what are some cute things that you own that bring you joy daily?

I think cuteness has always been present in my life, but it's something I deeply suppressed for a long time.

I've always had a very high-pitched child-like voice. In my adolescent years, when we're going through puberty and everyone was visibly maturing, I didn't.

I always saw my cuteness, naivete, or childishness as a negative. I was made fun of a lot, so it made me externally hide those things and hide my interests to appear more… maybe, masc or mature. But on the internet, I was whoever I wanted to be, so it didn't matter. And then as an adult, I've realized all of this and came to terms with it.

I started to understand that there's actually so much power in cuteness. Because I am putting out visible projects as an Asian femme working in the music industry, I think making cute things is such an act of power. Expressing and owning up to how I love cute things or how I love pink is just so freaking powerful.

 

Yaeji performing at the Sydney Opera House in 2023

 

The whole concept of With a Hammer came from this discovery. It’s about me cosplaying another version of me that is cute but psycho.

Honestly, it’s really nice sharing this side of me more. I don't know if this is why other people feel shy, but because I got bullied, I just deep down don't wanna share some parts of myself. But as an adult who is trying to share more, when I find another person who deeply likes this stuff as much as I do the connection is…is so deep, you know? It's almost instant friendship a lot of these times. That's been really special to me for sure. I cherish those moments.

And then, to answer your question about the cute things I love… Claire, my space is just littered with cute things that I love. This was the first cute place I made because I had to hide it literally. I’ll show you around now and then send some photos for the readers so they can have a tour too.

Pencil case from middle school that is always on my desk. I’ve always loved music/music-themed stationery.

Vintage Gokinjo Monogatari memo-pad. It helps you sketch your OOTD or sewing/styling ideas.

 

Do you have a favorite classic old-school character, perhaps from Sanrio or San-x? What about them won your heart?

Oh man, that's tough. For a while, it was definitely San-x over Sanrio. They used to have a super active website that offered free wallpaper and games. My favorite character at the time was Mamegoma, a seal character. I was just obsessed.

 

Official illustration of Mamegoma, created by San-X

 

At the time, there was this unique concept rollout for Mamegoma that you could keep one as a pet–it was very enticing. They had these little aquariums you could buy where they would live. And that concept made me create this fantasy that I had some real Mamegomas as pets. I would decorate their rooms, stuff like that you know.

 

Mamegoma Keychain

San-x Mamegoma free wallpaper

 

For us collectors, there's a special appreciation for objects and the things they signify. Are there any things that you are always looking to buy while you travel?

Mmm. Such a good question. I have so many cute little thingies that I collect from the Japanese resale chain Book Off. But every time I visit Tokyo now, I go further and further out of the city to go to Book Off locations that aren’t already, you know, emptied from all the people who are already looking for the same thing. So I remember traveling almost an hour on the train [to find the good stuff.]

I'm always looking for vintage stationery, stickers, pencil cases, or diary inserts specifically for ring diaries. I'm so lucky that I get to travel a lot. I don't always get free time but when I do, I'll just search on Google Maps for a stationery or art supply store with an old-school vibe. And you can just kind of tell, regardless of what country you're in, if it's going to be good. The best is if it’s family-run, one that's been around for a while. Then I know they'll have old stock that hasn't been sold for decades.

 

I was recently reading an interview with Tamagotchi creator, Yoko Kuroyanagi. Her motto is: I dare people to move backward into what has become obsolete. Nowadays people use emojis, not stickers. What is the value of a good old sticker?

I think it's part of this bigger scene that's going on these days where people focus on things that are tactile and hold space.

I'm trying to spend less time on screens, and I think this year is a year of recognizing my addictions. We are all addicted to our phones for the most part, and it's just whether or not we choose to do something about it or just continue living like that.

And I think stickers, though it may seem trivial to some, it's a way for me to pull myself out of these addictions, out of the screen and motivate me to do something with my hands and look at something with my eyes that's not blue light. That alone is super valuable.

But on top of that… there's a personal connection for me. As a kid, I was always collecting them and making difficult choices about where to stick them. I love that interacting with stickers now is a thread between me then and me now.

 

I have so many stickers. This is my bin of stickers–half is the main collection and half is archive- meaning stickers in clear-file display booklets. I have more in Korea.

Music note stickers I frequently use from a brand called Sticker Fun. Bought from Japan.

Vintage Korean sticker sheet by PONY BROWN from 2000’s-2010’s. I really liked this in middle school because I thought she looked like me.

Vintage Mashimaro stickers I found in an old Korean stationery store.

Earth Photo by NASA sticker by Mrs. Grossman’s

I've been collecting American anime stickers, like this American Cardcaptors sticker sheet. I love Cardcaptor Sakura. Vintage Sandy Lion sticker sheet of U.S. series titled Cardcaptors (known in Japan as Cardcaptor Sakura)

This is like the Korean special edition sticker sheet from stationery artist Arsene. They used to do sticker orders once a month and you had to order directly from their blog. Kind of hard to get if you're not in Korea.

 

Do you remember the moment when you realized that stickers were important to you?

The first stickers I made were in middle school in Korea. There was a website where you could create your own “cafe”, which was just a forum. So I made my cafe, and started to sell handmade stickers.

I would literally carve stamps out of erasers and stamp and color in with markers on blank sticker sheets. Only a few people bought them, but I did sell some! And I was literally so young—in middle school! But that was my first artistic transaction.

I was already really into RPG and my favorite job when playing games is to this day, the merchant. And so this was my first experience of being a real-life merchant. And since then, the rest is history…which has been literally just a continuation of my cafe.

Beyond the sounds you make, you run JI-MART which sells a variety of adorable limited-edition items! JI-MART seems to be “run by” your adorable mascot, Woofa. Can you tell us a little bit about Woofa’s origin?

Yeah, Woofa first came when I was hanging out with my friends who are all goofy and watch lots of anime just like me. Together we made up a hypothetical world, of all of these DJ characters where my character Woofa, formerly known as Subwoofa, lives. I always envisioned him to be a poodle mutt who loves the sub and bass music.

I created an animated music video for the first time for the song Waking Up Down, and Woofa was a big part of that music video. It gave him life–I got to see him moving and I was like, oh wow, Woofa is real.

 

Screenshot of Woofa as seen in the "Waking Up Down" MV, 2020.

 

Designing my own plushie had just been a bucket list item for me. We found these ladies in Korea who make them by hand, and I went back and forth choosing the fabric and all of the details with them. As a plushie he became naturalized as an object and he felt even more real!

 

Woof plush, the bread and butter of JI-MART.

Detail shot of the Woofa plush tag.

 

Each item you sell feels so personal to your private world. Can you tell us about how JI-MART got started, how you decide what to sell, and why the brand/digi-space is important to you?

JI-MART started as a continuation of my childhood dream. Yaeji is really what allowed me to start JI-MART, which regardless of what my job is, I would have wanted to do in my life.

I've always loved the idea of creating tiny objects. I'm a big believer of making/owning objects that not only bring you joy, but also have a whole life of their own, which if we have more time, there's a whole thing about shamanism, and it ties into my album as well, but essentially I really believe objects have life of their own that we imbue in them, and so yeah, I've always wanted to share that with as many people as I can, and selling handmade work is a way to do it. It just brings me so much joy and inspires my music as well.

I've met so many cool people through it, like Ibuki or Justin, all of these people that I collaborate with that isn't about music, which is so refreshing to me.

We've kind of pivoted to sell a lot more handmade items. Once I make them they are photographed and put up on the shop. It is so liberating and direct–very different from my work in the music industry.

I love these Woofa dioramas I made. They motivated me to make more handmade things for JI-MART.

It's so funny, I feel like people would want to call the things you sell on JI-MART your merch, but that's so incorrect. It's so personal.

Yeah, I struggled with that too because I actually have my merch store over on yaeji.com that sells stuff still designed by me, but it's definitely geared for my music fans. I’m still trying to figure out how Yaeji and JI-MART are separated and where they overlap.

Usually, when people reach out to me for collabs they're more excited for a Yaeji collab [instead of JI-MART]. The other thing I'm potentially exploring, which will even blur the lines further, is reselling my personal collection of vintage items on JI-MART. I usually do Book-Off runs and just sell my stuff there, but sometimes these items mean a lot to me, and I know it would mean a lot to someone who finds it. I want to help it get to that person somehow.

 

When we interviewed the (pixel mastermind) miniSUPER artist Christy Frisbee she told us she was let loose on the internet from a young age with little to zero monitoring. What is your personal relationship with the internet? When did it begin and what role did it play in laying the foundation for the things you create?

I too had zero monitoring, essentially. My grandpa practically raised me, and he didn't care too much as long as I ate dinner on time. And because I had no friends at school, I was deeply on the internet.

My earliest memories of finding community online was through MMORPG, through online RPG games. I remember the first one that got me hooked was this game called Elancia, which is still miraculously online. (Note from the editor: Yes, you can still experience Elancia, with an account, the right software, and a decent amount of patience)

 

Elancia starting screen

 

It's truly magical. There's even a movie about the game now called People in Elacica directed by Park Youngjin. But back to the game, It's on Nexon, which is famously known for MapleStory, which I also play. Elancia has really cute pixel art. The emphasis was always on customizing your character.

 

Examples of Elancia avatars, scavenged from the web.

 

I loved that I can be anyone I want to be. I loved fulfilling my need to collect all the different outfits, all the different hairstyles, in all the different colors, and then also show it off to other people to find friends and build little communities.

And my first big memory of betrayal and getting scammed is also from Elancia! So traumatizing. Lots of life lessons, but I was definitely living on it.

 

Assorted Elancia in-game landscapes and players.

 

It’s clear that you love web design-between the current interactive design of your webpage (which encourages visitors to smash your portrait with a mini hammer), to your more minimalist early-internet-style JI-MART page. Could you drop some web/print design names that are big inspirations? Do you have any good stories about how you came across their work?

Neo Cities has been big inspo for JI-MART and kind of something I snoop around when I have extra time to see what people are making. It’s a revival of GeoCities which I wasn’t [originally] a part of, but it’s essentially a free website platform that centers around CSS framework. Cini on Neo Cities… that person is really cool.

Neocities also has a helpful browse menu that features all the cool people that I like to use. There's also this one called 99GIF Shop that is another inspiring example of digi-collecting. [But] there isn't a specific graphic designer or artist that I follow.

I had to unlearn all the things I learned about graphic design, same with fine art. I'm honestly a huge supporter of just self-learning now. The people I follow these days are mostly illustrators and maybe some 3D people.

I used to be on Are.na but recently pivoted to Pinterest. Their algorithm really changed a lot! There's a way bigger scene for all these niche things that we're talking about here. But I try my best to not look at it because it is kind of “doom-scroll-y”.

 

yaeji.com featuring an interactive sledgehammer clicking feature to celebrate the 2023 Launch of Yaeji’s Album With a Hammer.

 

In 2021, you premiered a music video commissioned by Bandai Namco titled PAC-TIVE to celebrate PAC-MAN’s 41st anniversary which sampled audio from the OG game. What a dream! How on earth did this come to fruition?

Oh yeah! This project really came out of the blue. I got an email from Bandai where they were like Pac-Man is celebrating its anniversary. Would you like to make music for it? and I was like Yeah! The concept of PAC-TIVE was to use the world of Pac-man to motivate people to be more active in their day-to-day life.

For this MV Woofa is back in a pixelated little tracksuit leading the way. Actually making the track started with them giving me all the sample audio files from Pac-Man which was cool. The back-and-forth finalization was challenging which isn't uncommon you know. Music is hard to talk about.

In the end, all of us were really happy with it and we even got this funky video for the song that I made with the artist Weirdcore—he's the one behind all of the Aphex Twin video art. Now we're friends!

 

PAC-TIVE still featuring Woofa exploring the world of Pac-Man searching for Pac-Man points.

 

Let’s end it there on a high note-very much looking forward to the fashion, the music, and snagging something handmade from one of your upcoming JI-MART drops! Love from us at miniSUPER to the moon and back. Hope to see you back in our shops soon to celebrate the next album! ; )

You guys are so sweet-thank you so much Claire! Have a great evening. Looking forward to all the exciting things to come.

 

♥︎ Yaeji's Favorites

Ringtone:

Okay…this is tough because mine is a little crazy. It's birds.

Time of day:

These days it's been 8 a .m.

Comfort movie:

Honey and Clover (2006) live action.

Phone gaming app:

Not current, but I had a phase of being on Livly Island. Essentially you collect little guys and you decorate your little home with them.

Dog’s name someone else came up with:

TUNA!

Flower:

I love Lily of the Valley-very animal crossing I know.

Music video:

Kamehameha by Balming Tiger

Convenience store go-to meal:

Tuna mayo onigiri, mentaiko onigiri, a cream-filled brioche type-thing, and a Boss black coffee.

Stage you’ve played:

Sydney Opera House. That was pretty crazy.

miniSUPER sticker:

"Final Bosses" by Yue Wu.

 

Follow Yaeji [here] / Shop Yaeji [here] / Play Yaeji [here

About the author: Claire Kowalewski

San Francisco-born, Tokyo/ Berlin-based creative.

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