Inside the charming animal metropolis of Kozyndan

You want to be friends with artists Kozyndan. Their work is relatable, subversive, funny and quintessentially LA.

Kozy and Dan Kitchens are a married Highland Park-based couple. They create worlds full of Japanese culture, sea animals, cityscapes, and absurd visual puns.

Kozy is Japanese, and Dan is from California. They met in art school at Cal State Fullerton and have been creating art together ever since, when they’re not traveling the world or swimming with whales.

Their most well-known piece, “Uprisings,” was inspired by the famous Japanese wood print, “The Great Wave.” That 19th Century image has been reproduced millions of times on t-shirts, postcards, and museums.

Kozyndan replaced the sea foam on the cresting wave with white bunnies that tumble over each other into the sea below.

“Uprisings” by Kozyndan, 2003
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created in the late Edo period by Katsushika Hokusai.

Why bunnies? It’s a simple case of cross-cultural wordplay. According to Kozy, Japanese surfers call whitewash “flying bunnies.” It’s one example of the layers of visual jokes that pop up frequently in Kozyndan’s work. “Uprisings” has been a best-seller at the gallery and store, Giant Robot, since Eric Nakamura created the brand in 2001 and put “Uprisings” on the cover of Giant Robot Magazine in 2003. Giant Robot is known for curating the best in Japanese- American kitsch, selling prints alongside manga, toys, and posters. It was a first home for Kozy and Dan, who showed Nakamura their work when they were just starting out as illustrators.

Since then, Kozyndan have illustrated album covers for bands like Weezer and The Postal Service. They’ve become a stand-in for a certain brand of LA culture.

Their new show at Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Chinatown is called “The Golden State.” It’s a love letter to all things California.

“MOUNTAIN LION DINES ON KOALA (ONLY IN L.A.),” 2017

This painting is based on the infamous lone mountain lion of Griffith Park, P22. In 2003, the lion broke into the LA Zoo and “ate the face off a koala,” according to news reports. “We just thought that was a really only-in-LA moment, like that’s maybe never happened in the history of the world,” Dan said.

Detail, “Mountain Lion Dines on Koala”

The lion is painted in traditional Japanese Nihonga style. In Japan, animal features are often exaggerated to look more mythological. Most ancient Japanese painters never saw the animals they were painting, so they replied purely on imagination. Case and point: look at those pretty eyes!

Detail, “Mountain Lion Dines on Koala”

There are some tiny people in the painting, standing by the observatory. But you can barely see them. “I like animals better than people,” Kozy said.

Detail, “Mountain Lion Dines on Koala”

“SUPER BLOOM” 2017

You can’t make a show about California without including the Super Bloom. In this case, it’s a bit of a Where’s Waldo situation.

“Super Bloom” detail

“A lot of our paintings have that, like, really massive nature with tiny, tiny little naked hippies in them that are just like, the size of an acorn, just running around the scene,” said Dan.

A little #superbloom #painting #wip by @kozykitchens.

A post shared by Kozyndan (@kozyndan) on

This hippie is specifically based on Kozy and Dan’s friend, Bianca. It’s an inside joke. Both Bianca and Dan love to run and hike in the woods sans clothing.

“COYOTE STREET GANG (THE BEST GOOGLE STREET VIEW EVER),” 2017

 

“Coyote Street Gang” detail
“Coyote Street Gang” detail

This painting is based off Kozy and Dan’s neighborhood walks in Highland Park. Notice the In-N-Out cup — another ode to the Golden State.

“Coyote Street Gang,” like several of the other paintings in the show, is mounted on a hanging scroll. Kozy actually brought the paintings to a traditional scroll maker in Yamanashi, Japan, where she was born and raised. Her parents work in the religious relic business, making meditation cushions, prayer beads, and other materials that are used in monasteries and Buddhist temples.

“HOW’S THE MEEEEEEE?!” 2017

“How’s the Meeeeeee?!”

Then there’s a fan favorite, “How’s the Meeeeee?!.” There are so many inside jokes and visual puns in this one, it’s hard to count. First, the title is actually a reference to an SNL sketch from 1992 where a chicken serves himself to a family at a restaurant, and as they eat him, he asks, “How’s the Meeee?”

In the upper right hand corner, the Japanese text translates to “Am I delicious?” — another reference to the SNL cartoon.

Chicken Boy is a statue in Highland Park, on historic Route 66. The statue originally created for an LA chicken restaurant near Grand Central Market, and was moved to its current location on Figueroa in 2007, after being held in storage for two decades– its head in one unit, its torso in another.

It may be frustrating to try to decode all the inside jokes and early ‘90s references. But that doesn’t bother the artists.

“We don’t really try to always make that joke really obvious to communicate it for people,” Dan said. “I feel like there are a lot of jokes that are just for us.”

Kozy and Dan Kitchens. Photo by Gina Pollack.

After the 2016 presidential election, the artists found themselves at a crossroads.

“Where do we go from here?” Dan said. “Do we have to dedicate ourselves to making political art, or do we have to keep our chin up, and carry on, and continue to make what we make? We did the latter.”

“As a Japanese person, the political situation made me feel very unwelcome in the States,” Kozy said. “So when I was thinking about the show, I wanted to focus on using Japanese materials and Japanese techniques. I could have reacted with anger towards this administration, but I decided to focus on celebrating California and what makes California a really wonderful place. Focusing on my culture is the way I can resist.”

While Dan found himself spending more time than usual on the couch, sad about the state of his home country, Kozy began to lean further into her own cultural heritage. She went back to Japan, spent time with her parents, and drew inspiration from the traditional relics of her childhood, the prayer beads and scrolls, fabrics and paints. When she returned to the U.S., she was inspired to start painting again.

She and Dan saw “The Golden State” as an opportunity to make work that celebrated the union of their two cultures as an act of love and defiance.

“The Golden State” is currently on view at Gregorio Escalante Gallery. The show was originally slated to run through October 8th, but it’s coming down early due to the unexpected death of the gallery owner Greg Escalante, who suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. The show runs now through October 18th.