5-Notable Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Underground Art

Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander artists working outside of the gatekeeping established art world. Here are five underground artists whose works are worth collecting.

It is my personal preference when highlighting 5-notable persons in Art or Real Estate, is to talk about the environments in which these notable men or women find themselves. This usually entails the commercial side to Art or Real Estate, in other words, the market!

The following is an assessment of the current state of the Asian American Art Market as published in the Journal Panorama. The Panorama is a peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication dedicated to American art and visual culture, and is published twice a year.

The following are excerpts taken from the Panorama Journal article, “Asian American Art and the Obligation of Museums” :

The market for Asian American art, as opposed to other collecting areas—contemporary art, Old Master painting, mid century American abstraction—is slim. There is a minimal market for Asian American art. Collecting institutions, such as museums, have the unique capacity to acquire and provide long-term care for art objects. As with any acquiring museum, the market value or asking price of a potential purchase plays a major role in an institution’s ability to acquire it. Generally speaking, lower price tags should help museums, with their mostly limited acquisition budgets, acquire work by Asian American artists. Why is it, then, that so few museums have work by these artists in their collections?

Several complex and intersecting reasons might explain the lack of institutional representation of Asian American art; market interest is but one metric for understanding the full value of any object. Even so, what does this deficiency of market interest tell us about the historical exclusion of Asian American art from museums, mainstream art institutions, and scholarship?

The lack of Asian American representation in the larger art world economy has certainly impacted what and how knowledge about it has been produced and disseminated—if art objects are not available on the market or within museum collections it is difficult to know what actually exists. Networks of contact and engagement among artists, curators, art historians, gallerists, collectors, auction houses, and dealers help shape and define the overall value of an art object or field of art. Asian American art has been undervalued in almost every major arena of the art world: art-historical scholarship, museum collections and displays, and the art market. Is it going too far to say that Asian American art has never been considered valuable?

Private collections and artists’ families hold a significant concentration, if not the majority of, Asian American art in the United States. 

In part because of this lack of museum support, Asian Americans have served as their own arts advocates, forming collectives and structures to support their work when mainstream institutions would not.

Major museum and institutional interventions surrounding Asian American art have occurred primarily in the format of large-scale, loan-based, sometimes traveling exhibitions.

It takes a small village to make an exhibition happen. Even so, the application of resources toward a temporary exhibition is a finite, and not an ongoing, institutional investment. Hosting a major exhibition of Asian American art is not the same type of investment as actively building, conserving, storing, and exhibiting it. A curatorial position within the museum also impacts an institution’s future investment in the material. 

Collection building is not the ultimate or only solution to issues facing Asian American art and history. One can argue that building art collections within museums reinforces their imperialist origins, consolidating their power and ability to hoard culture, and further sutures together the relationship between race, capitalism, and representation. Moreover, museums can also acquire art and banish it to storage.

Even still, we should consider that for hundreds of years, museums have devoted their resources to the collection, preservation, research, and display of work by very select groups of predominantly white male artists—and generally speaking, this is still the case. It is significant that even in 2021, few major US institutions collect the work of Asian American artists with enthusiasm or rigor. 

See link to read the full text, Asian American Art and the Obligation of Museums – Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art

Graphic Novelist

Jen Bartel [https://www.jenbartel.com/]

Korean American Jen Bartel is a juggernaut in the world of cover art for graphic novels. She is best known for her drawings of beautiful and strong women. Her first big break came in 2015, when she did the cover art to “Jen and the Hologram #7.” Jen and the Hologram was an American animated musical television series that ran from 1985 to 1988, revised as a comic book series in 2015. 

In 2018, she wrote her first comic book series Blackbird. It was the first time she did the interior artwork for a comic series. Bartel told Los Angeles Times Reporter Tracy Brown, “Comics are boot camps for artists.”

In 2019, the German shoe manufacturer Adidas and Marvel Comics collaborated with Bartel to create the Jen Bartel X Adidas. This collaboration was part of the promotional release of the movie Captain Marvel. According to one Yahoo sports headline, “These New Captain Marvel X Adidas Sneakers Just Broke the Internet.”

Realism Painter

Warren Chang


Korea American Warren Chang is classified as a fine artist. I do not write about this part of the art world, the world of the art establishment. Chang is being acknowledged for his work as a painter of realism. 

Realism has never been accepted in the established world of art. In the British article, “The revolutionary realism of Caravaggio,” it notes Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), as being one of the first to develop genre painting, by showing the lives of ordinary people. Two of the early examples given were The Gypsy Fortune-Teller (1594), and The Cardsharps (1594), as they focused on the lower class.  Baroque was haute, it was flamboyant, and such themes were counterintuitive to this extravagance.

Realism as an art movement emerged in France, in the wake of the 1848 overthrow of the French monarchy of Louis-Philippe. Realism revolted against exotic subject matters, exaggerated emotionalism, and the drama of earlier Art movements. Instead, it portrayed real and typical contemporary people in situations with truth and accuracy by not avoiding unpleasant or sordid aspects of life. 

I first discovered Warren Chang as he was a featured artist in the Silicon Valley Creates publication Content Magazine, Issue 13.4, Fall 2021, Profiles. Here I have selected some passages from the article, “Warren Chang: Candor on Canvas,” written by Johanna Harlow. This entire issue of profiles in Content Magazine’s Issue 13.4 is a necessary read for anybody interested in the creative culture, and easily explains why the issue quickly sold out!

For Korean American painter Warren Chang, his neoclassical techniques invoke the gravitas of the Old Masters. Chang’s autobiographical focus steers him clear of Baroque-era depictions of courtiers and merchants. For example, a painting of a bearded homeless man with a Coke and cigarette, likely all he’ll have for lunch, isn’t exactly a narrative covered by Vermeer or Velázquez. But the Monterey-based artist’s honest portrayals of the modern experience are deeply and insistently human. It’s an undercut that weaves its way through many of his pieces. 

Chang featured a number of these rural renderings in a 2019 exhibit at the New Museum of Los Gatos entitled Voices of the Fields, and then again this year in his Social Realism in California exhibit at the Triton Museum of Art; this time alongside depiction of drifters and Black Lives Matter protesters. There’s a sincerity to Chang’s dedication to painting the truth. His narrative paintings have gained him several solo exhibitions with art museums and earn him representation by Carmel’s Winfield Gallery. Some of Chang’s most popular work with art collectors and museum curators are his farmworker pieces. To stand in front of these paintings and truly take them in is to recognize these workers in their toil. It is to acknowledge the humanity and experience of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

Another example are the paintings depicting Chang’s personal life. His interior paintings find the artist’s environment to be rich in character. The painter depicts his home, studio, wife, son, students, and his models. With that trademark candor, Chang admits he sometimes wonders if people connect to these private scenes. 

“However, unusual as it is to see a family portrait painting of myself as an Asian-American painting in my studio with my wife who is from New Hampshire… The fact is, it’s me,” he concludes. “This is the life of a real American Artist. And whether you can relate to it or not, it’s the honest-to-God truth.”

Prison Tattoo Artist

Robert Pho


Cambodian American Robert Pho was a prisoner who became a prisoner tattooist, and since his release from prison has successfully transformed his prison hustle into a lucrative Nationwide tattoo business, with tattoo parlors in Brooklyn, Honolulu, SoCal, and Las Vegas, including a location inside the Caesars Palace. His goals are to open parlors in Beverly Hills, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, Maui, Manhattan, and major international cities.

Pho was born in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. His family fled to France when he was two-years-old. At age 10, his family immigrated to the United States, where they landed in the biggest US County, the County of Los Angeles.

The City of Los Angeles, The County of Los Angeles, and Metropolitan Los Angeles, also known as Greater Los Angeles with a population of nearly 20 million, is the gang capital of the planet!

As a teenager, Pho fell right into the pervasiveness of L.A.’s gang culture, and at 16 was arrested for attempted murder. The case was settled in court by a plea deal, where Pho pled guilty in exchange for 14-years inside California’s prison system for youth, known as California Youth Authority (CYA).

He landed at the infamous Youth Training School (YTS), a juvenile prison so notoriously violent it was nicknamed “Gladiator School.” In 2010, it was shut down when the State had no other solution for the violence and mayhem going on behind its fences. One State Attorney, according to published articles, called it “an especially horrible place” and hundreds of workers lost their jobs. SeeGladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS.” 

According to the Los Angeles Times, “It was there that Pho’s tattoo career began. He bought a guitar string off an inmate to use as a needle and rigged it with the motor from his prison-approved Sony Walkman. The first tattoo he did was his gang name on his own knees. Then he started charging other inmates $60 to $80 a tat to survive.”

30-years-later, he is a highly sought after realism tattoo artist. Clients travel across the globe just to get inked by Pho. One client paid $300,000 for a full body suit of clowns, mobsters, and mythological gods that popped right off this wealthy client’s skin!

NFT Artist

Drue Kataoka [https://www.drue.net/

Japanese American Drue Kataoka was born in Tokyo, Japan. At age 5, her family immigrated to the United States, moving to Washington D.C., then Seattle and later to Silicon Valley. She attended college at Stanford University. While in attendance, she completed 27 commemorative prints. They include, the official print for the 100th anniversary of the Stanford University-California Big Game, University President Gerhard Casper’s retirement gift, and the millennial portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Her commemorative prints are archived in the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Kataoka majored in Art History and graduated in 2000.

Her early canon of works were in the style  of Sumi-e, a brush painting which uses black ink as a wash. This was the genre she used for the cover and interior art for Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis’s 1998, A Fiddler’s Tale. A Fiddler’s Tale was commissioned by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Her artistic response to 911 (9-11-01) was an extensive community outreach project in partnership with the Rotary Club of Menlo Park. All proceeds went to the Rotary Club of Menlo Park Foundation’s newly endowed Drue Kataoka Arts Scholarship.

In 2012, she was chosen Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum summit at Davos, and in 2016 she created 400,000 Is Not A Number to highlight the Test400k campaign. A campaign to resolve the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S.

“I wanted to invite the viewer to literally stand in the midst of roughly 400,000 circles – each one representing a life, a family, a community, a world that has been impacted. The overwhelming sum of layered circles coalesces to form the image of one woman— unifying the experiences while allowing them to remain distinct. Some of the circles are so tiny and faint that you have to come very close to even see them, but the art beckons you forward. So the circles are also like grains of sand—— we will never be able to fully count nor measure the collective pain and loss of these rape victims.

For me, the woman in profile with wind swirling through her hair is also reminiscent of a nautical “figurehead.” Throughout history, across cultures, figureheads were placed at the prow of ships and were believed to protect the ship from rocks, storms and dangerous winds. In the same way, the woman in the artwork is imparted with a protective quality, drawing on strength from rape-kit analysis advocates, activists, community leaders and policy makers. As this intrepid community leans forward into new waters, she offers her protection on the metaphorical seas.”

Ten-years-later, Kataoka would curate #TheGoldStandard, the first ever exhibition dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian American artists on the Internet platform SuperRare.

SuperRare is a marketplace to collect and trade unique, single-edition digital artworks. Each artwork is authentically created by an artist in the network, and tokenized as a crypto-collectible digital item that you can own and trade. You can think of SuperRare like Instagram meets Christies.

In celebration of AAPI Month, SuperRare announced its inaugural month-long exhibition dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian American artists on the blockchain. Ten artists refract the Asian American and global pan-Asian experience through their diverse practices.

“Asian American artists have been the backbone of digital creativity for decades,” declares Kataoka. “From pushing visual technology to its limits in Hollywood special effects, to building virtual worlds for top gaming experiences, to advancing the frontier of technology art.

Asian Americans have played a critical role in turning the best-known digital franchises into household names, all the while toiling in the shadows. Now, as crypto art and NFTs liberate artists, armies of incredible talent are claiming their sovereign artistic identities along with their Asian heritage. So, for this first of its kind show, I came up with the name #TheGoldStandard in reference to Asian skin, but also to excellence, and of course– to the roots of cryptocurrencies (and crypto art) as the ‘new gold.’”

Graffiti Artist

Jason Pereira [https://www.instagram.com/jpxinsta/

Samoa American Jason Pereira was born in Carson, California. On December 30, 2020, Pereira was the Artist-In-Residence at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum trying to heal a piece of heritage that was harmed in a series of desecration against the space.

“I come from this world – tagging, writing, graffiti, graffiti art, gettin’ up – all of that. It has its own rules, code of ethics, generational perspectives; and what drives it is that basic human desire – acknowledgments, attention, fame, notoriety. So I get it. I get the ‘why.’ It’s the ‘what’ part that hurts tho’…” Pereira wrote on Instagram.

The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum is the only museum in the contiguous United States with a mission to amplify the collective wisdom of the people of Oceania. Through a permanent collection, educational programs, rotating exhibits, and living arts, its purpose is to connect the community to resources and foster intercultural exchanges with appreciation and respect.

The artwork I am highlighting here is Pereira’s work called OMAI. OMAI means “everyone to come”, in the Samoan language. According to Pereira, OMAI is inspired by OMAI FA’ATASI – SAMOA MO SAMOA; a Visual Communications film produced in 1978. The documentary profiles the Samoan American youth development organization of L.A.’s South Bay. 

I thought you should hear in his owns words the idea behind this piece in the wake of #StopAsianHate:

“I wanted this piece to celebrate the cultures coming together, and to connect to the work and the people in OMAI FA’ATASI. In fact some of my family – Uncle Simi, Auntie Vine, Uncle Tupe – were part of that organization and are in that film. I am grateful for work that they did to bring our Samoan community together back in the day.

Seeing what they had done, I wanted to create something that tells a similar story: one where Asian and Pacific Islander communities are coming together today. To prepare for this piece, I thought about my experiences with Asian and Pacific Islander communities through my life, and the different artistic influences.

I’m always drawn to the natural world. I thought about some of the patterns and animals that have been symbolized in our cultures. The pattern-work on the left derive from our Pacific Island cultures such as CHamoru, Fijian, Hawai’i and Samoa. Towards the right side you see patterns familiar in Asian cultures such as the lotus flower, motifs from India, Japan and the Philippines. I saw the left and right sides as ornate patterned door panels, sliding open to reveal a Phoenix descending through the clouds from a fiery sky, and a Whale emerging from the deep blue ocean through the waves to encircle the Visual Communications eye-through-the lens logo at the center. Both the Phoenix and the Whale hold deep meaning and fantastic stories for our respective Asian and Pacific Island peoples, so I felt it very apropos to symbolize them here together.

As the festival is hosted each year by Visual Communications, their logo here represents the “Omai,” the call for Everyone To Come to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival! As the Phoenix and the Whale answer the call, we see them as filmmakers, storytellers, actors and artists coming together in harmony around the logo, to share their stories and cultures from their worlds.”

Be sure to click over to the Home Page to check out the over 200 Art Museum Quality prints for sale by C-Note.


I am a Fine Art and Real Estate Broker with 40 years of experience in all aspects of the Real Estate Industry. A member of the National Association of REALTORS®. I advocate for Prison Artist C-Note. With the right wall art, your room will go from functional to functionally enchanting. Contact me for your Fine Art & Real Estate problems.

If you have additional information, my audience and I would love to hear about it. Tell us about it in the reply.