Jax Ko is a Portland-based illustrator whose personal work centers on the exploration of identity. Her rebellious and yet totally joyous illustrations aim to expand the narrative of the AAPI community by embracing community, and to blast away white supremacist narratives by confronting stereotypes. 

In our interview we discuss marginalization, integrity, and not taking any shit from assholes.

What inspired you to bail on fashion school and relocate to Portland?

I wasn’t sure that the fashion industry was right for me. I felt discouraged by the fashion-school-to-corporate-brand pipeline that was being pushed on me. I realized that my favorite class was actually fashion illustration. I was friends with kids in the illustration program, and we drew a lot in our free time. I think I was finally able to connect to my drawing in a way I wasn’t taught to value before. Like, maybe my doodles are worth something?

I also just couldn’t afford to stay in San Francisco and go back to school. I visited PNCA [Pacific Northwest College of Art] on a trip to check out the scene, and it felt like the right place to slow down. I dreamed of having a dog and a porch swing so bad! I got both within my first year here :)

I think that fashion and style will continue to stay in my orbit. The older I get, the looser my concept of what being a successful creative looks like. I’m trying to follow my whims with less judgment these days. 

You’ve described your mural You Belong Here as a celebration of your femme-identifying AAPI community, and a demand that AAPI femmes be seen, heard, valued, respected, and protected. I can feel the power and importance in this statement, especially after a few years of increased AAPI hate crimes and horrifying racist violence. Do you think things are much worse as a result of COVID, or do they just seem worse?

While the rhetoric used to unjustly blame Asian and AAPI folks for the pandemic has fueled racist people to commit heinous acts of violence, what I think the last few years of increased AAPI hate crimes highlights is the lack of visibility our communities have had in general. We are, at best, left alone when we can serve as “model minorities,” yet we are constantly othered as perpetual foreigners. 

You Belong Here is dedicated to the six Asian women who were targeted and murdered in Atlanta last March. I still feel so much pain and anger over the lack of protection these women had. Asian and AAPI femmes have been dehumanized by harmful stereotypes. At the most dangerous end of the spectrum, we are seen as quiet, obedient sex objects. 

With all this ugliness, there is still so much beauty within our communities. The resiliency of Asian and AAPI femmes is astounding. I want to remind us that we belong here and we deserve to be seen in our multitudes. I want to encourage us to be bold, to crush stereotypes, to hold doors open, and to lift up our communities. 

That’s really beautiful, thank you. Which experiences and lessons from your years in the service industry have played a role in your career as an artist?

I’m a service industry person through and through. There’s nothing I love more than taking care of people and hosting a good time. In my younger years, I didn’t think I’d make a career out of working in restaurants, but I really grew to love and respect the hustle. I learned how to work a room, use charisma to connect with strangers, put out a million fires at once, and not take shit from assholes :) That last one is probably the best skill I’ve learned.

There’s such deep camaraderie amongst service industry folk in Portland. We really care for and show up for each other. We’re always sharing knowledge and rooting for each other’s side-hustles. I’m so grateful for these connections–shout out to my home bar, Hey Love!

Your bio mentions a few childhood obsessions, including hiphop and Sanrio. Who are some of your favorite 2000s hip hop artists?

I grew up listening to Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Boyz II Men, Mos Def, and Nas in the 1990s. When I think about the music that has stuck with me from the 2000s, I was really obsessed with R&B. I loved Aaliyah, Brandy, Monica, Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child, Mya, Da Brat, Lil Kim, Missy Elliott.

And your favorite Sanrio character?

What a cruel question! Well, I do have a tattoo of Hello Kitty … but I think I most identify with Keroppi! They’re a nonbinary icon, if you ask me. We also share a birthday!

I love how your website includes an invitation to collaborate on a myriad of creative activities, including social justice, intersectional feminism, BIPOC representation, decolonization, and dismantling white supremacy. I hope the bravery of putting your principles on the table is paying off in your professional life!

I’m proud to be leading with my values. I wanted to attract clients that aligned with me and find more ways to support my community with whatever skills I have. I’ve done lots of work with BIPOC-owned small businesses. I’m currently working on an illustration for the ACLU of Oregon’s annual magazine.