Interview with Michael Adelstein: A Tribute to Miyazaki

Interview With Michael Adelstein
Location: Nova Expansion Gallery
Interview Date: 2/14/2022

Anime Herald: What was your first exposure to anime?

Michael Adelstein: I believe it was ‘Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood’. My older brother, Caleb, and I watched Full Metal together and it quickly became one of my favorite TV shows. Sometimes I’d laugh, sometimes cry, and was always impressed by the artwork/ animation. There was such a great balance – moments of intensity balanced by playfulness. And I loved the bond and friendship that the brothers shared throughout the story.

Anime Herald: Was there any character that you particularly connected to?

Michael Adelstein: I liked Mustang, Armstrong, and Alphonse. As the youngest brother myself I always related most to Alphonse.

I really liked the use of mythology and religious metaphors throughout the show, (Seven Deadly Sins, the story of the Chimera, etc). It felt very deep, incredibly well made, and mesmerizingly beautiful.

Anime Herald: How old were you when you got into it?

Michael Adelstein: I think 16 or 17. Okay…now that I think about it, Full Metal may not have been the first anime that I got into, but it’s the first significant memory I have with the art style. Hmm, which was my first…it’s hard to remember. I know it was around high school age that I was introduced to Anime. Around that time, a good friend said I had to watch ‘Princess Mononoke’ by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. That film blew me away and was the catalyst for a deep dive into Miyazaki’s filmography

Anime Herald: Speaking about Miyazaki, do you have a favorite among his works?

Michael Adelstein: Definitely Princess Mononoke. Although I love the other movies, I connect most to that story. I mean, who doesn’t want to ride a giant wolf spirit into battle?! Haha the story of those who live in harmony with their environment vs industrialization is powerful. The voice acting is on point and each character is well rounded and feels believable. Miyazaki’s ‘villains/ antagonists’ seemed more dynamic than those in most other animated films I had seen, as they were so multi-faceted.

Specifically in Princess Mononoke – I adore the connection to wildlife and nature. The illustration of forest spirits was incredible, and showing the health of the forest change through the literal transformation of some of these magical creatures was a very visually powerful way to approach that idea.

Anime Herald: It’s one of the last movies I saw in a theater. Alamo Draft House had a screening. It is a powerful piece of cinema. Is this your first piece that you’ve done that was anime related?

Michael Adelstein: I’ve done some anime tattoos but yeah, this is the first time I’ve ever painted anime characters. I wanted to stay true to the look of the characters but play with different textures and colors where it seemed to make sense. I paid very close attention to the references as Miyazaki’s work is so stunning and I wanted to honor that. There’s a couple of areas where I deviated though – like the Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke which looks a little different in my version, and Totoro is gray in the film, not green like he is in my painting. I tried to stay as close to the originals as possible, while still allowing myself to get playful and mix it up here and there.

A painting of Hayao Miyazaki as his creations leap from the page.

This project began shortly after the initial shutdowns/stay-home orders of the Covid pandemic. Where I, like many, dealt with several losses and was struggling with a fierce depression. I sought comfort in isolation by working out my emotions on canvas. Then I saw a documentary about Miyazaki and his comments resonated with me on a profound level. He said – “I want to stay grumpy. That’s who I am. I want to get lost in my own thoughts. That’s not socially acceptable so I plaster a smile on my face. Everyone feels like that sometimes. Why would I smile when I’m like that? Art is made at moments like these.” That resonated and seemed to give a great sense of purpose to the moment. A reminder that this was an opportunity – a moment where I could channel that pain and uncertainty into something beautiful.

So, I decided to express a moment of mixed emotions and chose to paint an artist (Miyazaki) sitting in front of a blank paper surrounded by his past creations. I wanted it to feel open to interpretation, that it was definitely Miyazaki but it could represent any creative individual in the moment right before the first mark on the page. In that moment, many thoughts and feelings are experienced – Maybe excitement to start on the blank page, maybe filled with trepidation. Maybe feeling confident with an idea locked in, or full of self doubt and unsure of what’s next. Maybe inspired by past work and giddy to get to work again, or distracted by the previous works – finding it difficult to branch off to something new and aware of growing expectations with each project. I wanted to paint that moment of mental back and forth, brainstorming, and debate, before the eventual jump into creating. I find, for myself, once the project begins, it gets easier and easier to stick with it, but that initial mark or brush stroke seems the hardest – both exhilarating and scary

I chose Hayao Miyazaki and his animated characters for this idea because he is one of my favorite artists. And I imagine, as skilled as he is, he likely still deals with self doubt, frustration, and uncertainty. Yet he finds ways to keep creating stunning works of art, year after year. I respect that level of dedication to keep exploring new ideas, no matter the circumstance. To put away the excuses, and with the full intention of acting on the answer, keep asking oneself – “What’s Next?!”

Anime Herald: That’s where you got the name of it. What was your artistic training?

Michael Adelstein:  I didn’t have any formal training but I had a couple of art classes in high school. And then I got a tattoo apprenticeship in Bellingham when I was 20 years old.

Anime Herald: You started your tattoo apprenticeship before you started painting, apart from what you did in high school?

Michael Adelstein: Yeah, I would paint periodically when I was younger, but after getting into tattooing full time, I predominantly focused on drawings/ tattoo designs and spent most of my free time in the mountains. It was about two or three years ago when I really began to devote serious time to paint again.

Anime Herald: You’re currently working on the three witches series?

Painting of a demoness holding a candle. A blue snake lingers in front of her.

Michael Adelstein: Yeah, the ‘Vicious Vixens’ series. It’s a witch and a cat, a demon and a snake, and a vampire and a bat. I’m very excited about these.

Anime Herald: Do you have any pets yourself?

Michael Adelstein: I do. I have a cat named cloud. He’s nine years old.

Anime Herald: Good kitty.

Michael Adelstein: Yeah, he’s a sweetie. He was my brother’s cat. Caleb moved and has a big family now. Since Cloud is a fairly nervous/anxious cat, we figured he’d prefer a more quiet home, so I adopted him a little over a year ago.

Anime Herald: Are you tight with Cloud now?

Michael Adelstein: Yeah, we’re great. He’s very shy so it took a while haha but we’re fast friends now. He’s mostly quiet and doesn’t meow much, but every once in a while he’ll make this super cute, high pitch, chirping noise.

Anime Herald: When my cats see the birds outside they make these little chirping noises. Do you read manga as well? Or just watch anime?

Michael Adelstein: I don’t read too much manga. I’m sure I’ve read some but there’s nothing that’s really sticking out in my mind.

Anime Herald: Are you watching anything currently?

Michael Adelstein: I moved closer to the mountains recently, and love being surrounded by trees again but the internet service is not great out there. So streaming things now is tough haha. Some of my favorites though are Castlevania, Attack on Titan, Seven Deadly Sins, Animatrix, Dark Fury, and Samurai Seven. Samurai Seven is amazing! It’s a modern re-imagining of the classic Akira Kurosawa movie ‘Seven Samurai’. I own the anime series on DVD and rewatch it often. I love, love, love that retelling of the story. The concept is the same – villagers in trouble, being raided by corrupt samurai, seek warriors to come back and help them defend their village (P.s. the movie ‘Bug’s Life’ from Pixar, one of my favorites as a kid, borrowed this exact story structure). This anime, mini-series version of the classic is set in the future though, so some of the Samurai are robots, which is so cool! The combo of ancient and future worlds is really fascinating to me, and probably why I love Samurai Jack as well.

A few years back, a fellow tattoo artist got me into Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Metropolis. I especially loved the drawings of sleek motorcycles in Akira and how dynamic and fast all the movement/ action felt. I know there’s a wealth of amazing anime art/ films out there yet to see!

Painting of a witch holding an apple. Her hands are stained red, and a black cat sits in front of her.

Anime Herald: Do you also play video games? And if so, is there any art in the video games that impress you.

Michael Adelstein: I don’t play too often these days. I used to quite a bit though. My favorites growing up were the Nintendo games and as I got older, I got more into Final Fantasy (especially VII, VIII, and X), Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, and the Resident Evil games. I think my all time favorites were SSX Tricky and SSX 3. I had so much fun getting wildly tricky on a snowboard, the mountain landscapes were stunning, and the creativity behind trick combos always blew me away. Playing those in middle school and high school kicked in a desire to learn to snowboard when I was older. Now I’ve been boarding for 4 or 5 years, I get so much joy from it, and I have SSX to thank for that.

Anime Herald: You’re talking about the RPGs they have some fairly famous artists attached to them. Yoshitaka Amano with Final Fantasy series. Akira Toriyama with Dragon Quest. Do any of those art styles inspire you?

Michael Adelstein: Definitely, Final Fantasy and Warcraft art inspired me the most. I remember as a young kid, my older brother had an ‘The Art of Warcraft’ book or maybe it was a playing guide or something. Either way, there was a bunch of concept artwork in that book and I’ve never forgotten that. It was so cool to see various sketches of orcs, trolls, dwarves, and stocky humans in armor. Massively inspiring!

I remember, two of the best drawings I did when I was younger were – Tidus from Final Fantasy X, and a forest troll from Warcraft.

Anime Herald:  Do you know roughly when you started thinking, I want to be an artist as my career?

Michael Adelstein: Honestly, I never specifically set out to become a tattooer/ painter, though I always knew I needed to pursue something creative, even if only in my free time. My interests/ passions shifted over the years and mostly art was a hobby while working other jobs, playing sports, and going to school. Over the years, I dabbled in drawing, painting, writing, making music/ film, woodworking/ carving, and the culinary arts. While I often dreamed of turning whatever current passion I was invested in into a career, I was often warned of the ‘starving artist’ stereotype and that art was not a wise pursuit for a career. Truly, I wasn’t confident about ‘making it’ as an artist until the tattoo apprenticeship began. I then saw that I had a passion for tattooing, could learn quickly, and handled the pressure of that high-stress job fairly well. As long as I worked hard, I realized I had found a way to pay the bills with artwork and grow my skills. So…I guess, weirdly enough,  I would say it was less of an aha! moment and more of a gradual evolution over time. If things had played out differently it’s likely that art would still be a hobby for me instead of a career.

I’m always inspired by people who say they knew what they wanted to become from an early age and then became it. It’s so direct and determined. That was not my path though haha. I just kept trying things until eventually I found something I loved and stuck with it. I love getting creative. I love making things. I would have always done that somehow, no matter what. But I can’t deny that it was incredibly fortuitous that I found the tattoo apprenticeship when I did. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Anime Herald: Before you found that apprenticeship were you already into ink?

Painting of a vampiress wearing a leather jacket and a collar. A bat hands upside-down in front of her corset.

Michael Adelstein: I thought they were cool but I wasn’t very aware of that world or industry. I’m from a small farm town with no tattoo shops. Tattoo shows weren’t popular yet, or at least I was unaware of them, and the only one from my family/ friends who was tattooed, was my older brother Caleb. I thought his tattoo was cool and decided I would drive down to Seattle when I was 18 and get inked as well. A little over a year later, I went into a local shop and set up an appointment for a second tattoo. As I was talking with the guy at the counter, I noticed a bunch of beautiful paintings on the wall. I was mesmerized, and asked ‘Who did these? They’re incredible!’. He responded – ‘All of us, we all paint in our free time as well.’ I told him they were stunning and I had been enjoying working on various art projects over the years as well. He mentioned that they were looking for an apprentice and if I was passionate about art, I should bring in some of my pieces, get to know the owner and see if we meshed. I did not see that coming. I just thought I was getting a new tattoo. And here a career path had suddenly been laid out in front of me.

I brought my art by the shop, met the owner, and then started showing up to the shop daily. I worked at a pet store down the road and the tattoo shop was open 2-3 hrs after the pet store closed, so I would walk to the shop each night and hang out until closing. Getting to know the artists, learning about the tattoo lifestyle, offering to help with anything I could, practicing my drawings, and mostly to show them that I was serious about earning the position of apprentice. After several months and a trial period, I got the apprenticeship and the rest as they say is history.

Anime Herald: What are your artistic goals?

Michael Adelstein: One of my big focuses right now is human anatomy. I’ve mostly worked on landscapes, objects, and animals in the past and avoided drawing/ tattooing/ painting many humans, because it was my weak spot. On the rare occasions where I would work on a person, it was never full body (usually focused on the head) and I would almost always try to find a way to hide the hands or feet (usually what I struggle with the most). So, right now I’m focused on turning that weakness into a strength haha. I’m studying human anatomy and proportions more and am actively trying to make progress in that area.

My main artistic goal is to get to the point where my anatomical fundamentals are strong enough that I can draw any type of character I can imagine, without needing a reference photo. It will require a massive visual library, a complex understanding of proportions and perspective, and years of study, practice, and dedication… but I believe I can get there.

Anime Herald: Are you planning on doing any more anime-related work?

Michael Adelstein: I would definitely love to do more anime-inspired designs and paintings. I’m getting pretty close to finishing the vampire piece and that will be the final piece in the Vicious Vixen’s series. After that, I have a few other projects in mind.

I found this Youtube series called ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ – a British paint competition where you can observe multiple artists working in different styles each episode. And it is so enjoyable! The way that they’ll break down specific paint strokes, light sources, etc, has been so helpful for me, especially on mornings where I have, say the goal or the intention to paint, but I’m sensing that hesitation/ nervousness to start. And so I’ll put on an episode of that show and likely see a unique technique or blend of colors that inspires me and kicks the motivation into gear to create something myself. Because of that show, I’m planning on practicing several portraits soon, but it would be fun to try and take animated characters and turn them into more realistic portraits. The first that pops into my head for that concept would be Samurai Jack.

Anime Herald: Any other projects in mind?

Michael Adelstein: I love Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Hobbit so much. I’ve been brainstorming a landscape painting where I’d combine one of my favorite mountain vistas here in the Pacific Northwest with some fantasy elements. Like, maybe a painting of Mt. Shuksan on a stormy day with Dementors flying about, or a meadow of Mt. Rainier with Shadowfax running in the background, or the rocky ridge of The South Twin Sister Mtn. with Gollum sneaking about. I also want to work on an alternate version of a city, like an ancient Roman cityscape but with Batman standing high on a pillar. Who knows what I’ll work on after those ideas but they ought to keep me busy for a while.

Anime Herald: How long did ‘What’s Next’ take you? Any other details you’d like to share about the project?

Michael Adelstein: I’m not positive, but it was over 100 hours. I’m assuming 120 to 130 hours, give or take. I worked on it for about three months, on many of my days off and often before or after work as well.

This is a small detail but in the reference photo, Miyazaki has a cigarette in his mouth. I spent a long time debating whether or not I wanted to light his cigarette in the painting and add a bunch of smoke. I thought it would look so cool and add some nice flow. But I decided to leave it un-lit. For one practical reason – I work on art and smoke and rarely do I combine the two. Because when you look down at your project with a lit smoke, your eyes burn from the rising smoke and the ash falls on the paper. So I just couldn’t do it. Miyazaki is a smoker as am I. We’ve experienced this. While I can’t speak for him, I know I prefer to have a puff during a break or to wait until I’m done painting. It just didn’t feel right to light it haha. But that was something I kept going back and forth on for weeks. Instead, I filled some of that space by adding bubbles that I justified because of Ponyo and her fishy aquatic background.

I painted over Totoro maybe four or five times, I tried a bunch of different colors. I don’t like gray all that much so I knew from the beginning that Totoro would be different in my version but I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted to go with it for some time. One version was super bright and multi-colored but that was too chaotic. One was deep red which looked too aggressive. It took several attempts to find something that felt different yet true to Totoro’s character. Thinking back now, I probably could have taken a picture of the canvas and done a quick digital color adjustment instead of painting so many different versions…but I didn’t think about that at the time haha.

I had a lot of fun tweaking the apron. In the original reference, the apron is pretty plain looking but I enjoyed adding some contrasty colors like pinkish-salmon vs minty-olive green. The sweater too was a lot of fun. I tried this different technique where I took one of my older paintbrushes and spread the bristles, barely dabbed in the paint, and then tapped the canvas quickly, leaving this more textured and wild look to the sweater to differentiate it (wool) from the shirt and apron.

I’m sure I could share more about the process but that’s all I can think of for now.

Anime Herald: Very cool. Thank you for granting us this interview.

Michael Adelstein: Thank you so much! Sorry if my answers were long-winded. I know I can be a tad loquacious.

(Editor’s note: Michael also did a citrus-themed rock/paper/scissors series. Michael can be reached at [email protected] for prints or commissions. You can follow his current projects on his Instagram)

Special thanks to The Nova Expansion Gallery for setting this interview up.

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