Koko Lee is a Taiwanese Canadian illustrator based in Seattle. She uses calligraphy brush strokes to create contemporary editorial illustrations for magazines, newspapers, books, and environmental graphics. In our interview, we talk about cultural influence, parenting, and making people smile.

Can you give me a little background on your Taiwanese-Canadian roots and how it informs your perspective on the world and in your creative practice?

I was born and raised in Taiwan, where I had the privilege of attending an art-gifted class at school. There, I received professional training in drawing and painting, experimenting with both Eastern and Western mediums. This is where I honed my skill with calligraphy brushes, which I now use in my illustrations. 

In high school, I immigrated to Canada, eventually attending the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD) in Toronto. There, I was inspired by the wealth of talent and diverse array of unique art styles that my peers displayed. I particularly fell in love with contemporary coloring styles and decided to combine these with my calligraphy brush strokes. 

One of the most valuable skills I developed during my time at OCAD was the ability to conceptualize my illustrations. In Taiwan, I had been trained to create beautiful images, but the Canadian education system encouraged me to delve deeper into the meaning and context of my work. 

Being in Canada also afforded me the opportunity to explore different cultures. My interest was particularly piqued by Japanese culture and Studio Ghibli films, which eventually led me to move to Japan after graduation. There, I found myself enamored with manga art and am currently exploring ways to incorporate it into my own illustrations.

Having experienced life in both Asia and North America, I am inspired to create art that reflects this cultural hybridity—a harmonious blend of East and West that captures the essence of my own personal journey.

Koko Lee

What do you love about summertime in Seattle?

I absolutely appreciate the temperate climate of Seattle during the summer. The pleasant weather, which isn't excessively hot or humid compared to Taiwan and Japan, makes it a joy to be outdoors. A highlight of my summers here is spending sunset at Richmond Beach; it's a sight that never fails to inspire me.

Equally, I love exploring the city's diverse parks and playgrounds with my son, each offering its own unique charm and adventure. The summer season is perfect for social activities too; I enjoy attending BBQ parties, having picnics, and going on evening walks with friends.

One of my favourite summer activities is berry picking, an experience that truly connects me with the bounty of nature that Seattle offers. I also relish the times I spend at Gas Works Park, basking in the panoramic view of the lake. This year, I'm excited to explore more water activities, and I'm even considering taking a seaplane ride. In short, summertime in Seattle is a vibrant mix of relaxation, exploration, and adventure.

Koko Lee

What are your favorite crime drama shows or podcasts?

I possess a deep fascination with crime dramas and documentaries, especially those based on true events, making Netflix an invaluable treasure trove for me. I've delved into an array of these intriguing stories, with standouts like Dahmer, Our Father, Don't F**k With Cats, The Tinder Swindler, Worst Roommate Ever, Bad Vegan, MH370, and Sins of Our Mother. I also find myself drawn to series that probe the shadowy world of cults, such as Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator. Additionally, the Unsolved Mysteries series has lured me in with its compelling blend of crime, mystery, and the supernatural.

However, let's be clear—while this extensive list of favorite crime shows might make it sound like I'm planning a grand heist or operating a secret cult, I can assure you that I'm as harmless as they come. My love for these dramas is driven purely by entertainment and an interest in the human psyche. As passionate as I am about crime dramas, I'm even more enthusiastic about my art, where the most "criminal" act I've committed is, perhaps, pinching an extra cookie from the cookie jar! 

So, rest assured, despite my enthusiasm for discussing cults, scams, and unsolved mysteries, I'm a completely non-violent individual with a passion for storytelling through illustrations. As voracious as my crime show appetite is, I'm always seeking new recommendations. So, if you have a crime show or podcast that has captivated your attention, please feel free to email me at info@kokoleeillustration.com. I'd love to add it to my ever-expanding list of must-watches.

Koko Lee

What are you listening to these days?

When I'm deeply immersed in creating my illustrations, my soundtrack is often a fusion of J-pop, country, and Scottish music. You might say it's a bit eclectic, but hey, variety is the spice of life! However, like any good parent, my musical landscape has been thoroughly colonized by children's songs. Thanks to my son, earworms like Thomas and Friends, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, Cocomelon, and Blippi have taken up permanent residence in my brain. 

In fact, these days my most recurrent "playlist" is my son's live performances. Nothing quite matches the acoustic range of a toddler, which I assure you, oscillates seamlessly between sweet crooning and rock-star-level screaming. So, while I still appreciate my favorite genres, you could say that the current top of my charts is The Symphonic Sounds of a Toddler: Unplugged and Unrestrained. I guarantee, it's a unique listening experience!

Koko Lee

Goals for 2023?

My primary objective, of course, is to ensure my little one stays as joyous and healthy as ever—not to mention alive! After all, maintaining the life of a human being you helped create ranks pretty high in the list of parental duties, right?

In terms of career aspirations, once my delightful distraction—ahem, I mean my son—heads off to preschool in September, I'm aiming to cause a little more commotion in the world of illustration. Nothing too extravagant; just attracting a few more clients, and maybe, just maybe, making my name a little more recognizable in the industry. Think "most wanted" illustrator, but in a good way!

Lastly, but definitely not least, I want to become an even better version of myself, both for my family and my friends, and for the fellow earthlings I share this world with. I'd like to keep on this journey of becoming a kinder, more understanding individual. And if I happen to make a few more people smile along the way, then 2023 will be a smashing success!

Find more of Koko’s work at www.kokoleeillustration.com and follow her on Instagram at @kokolee.illustration.