Justin Wharton  is a digital artist mostly known for his vaporwave-inspired paintings of popular Super Smash Bros. characters. His immense talent, charming personality, and easily recognizable style has led him into a road of success, becoming one of the most popular artists in the scene. He has done multiple portraits including popular faces from the scene, these include: Leffen, Alex19, Mango, and many more.
[For convenience sake, the more 'serious' questions are marked with the color orange and the 'less serious' questions are marked with the color blue.]
Jose Kattan: First of all, when did you start making digital art and what kind of art was it? Was it something you would have envisioned doing in the future?
Justin Wharton: I started creating digital art in 2013, it was mainly for school and was experimentation. I then started painting portraits in 2015 and started to feel more confident in my painting abilities. I started creating work for the smash community around June 2016 with portraits of the top players. At the start of 2017 I began painting the vaporwave art that has become my staple. In the beginning I didn't think I would ever be doing this for a living or have fans so I am very thankful and appreciative for all the support and love people give me. Doing art for a living is a dream of mine and I couldn't thank people enough for letting me pursue my passion.
JK: Around what time did your art start getting popular? Do you have a theory of why did it get so popular?
JW: Sometime before Genesis 4, when I did the Mango portrait, as for the theory I think it got popular because Mango has such a big fan base and I feel that my art also filled a niche that the smash community didn’t know it had. So with this aesthetic of vaporwave, I could make art pieces relatively fast and I believe that having the more quantitative right at the beginning helped me because it kept something in front of people’s eyes.
JK: Now, in my opinion, Smash and vaporwave are two very unrelated things, if you think of Smash you think of Falco, Fox, Samus etc. and when you think of vaporwave you think of palm trees, nostalgia, Saint Pepsi, the aesthetic in general. Do you believe that the reason why smashers suddenly all like vaporwave is attributed to you?
JW: I-[laughs] I don't want to sound big-headed, I mean, I guess it could be attributed to me...I can imagine, maybe dream. [chuckles] I think melee and vaporwave go pretty hand and hand due to how melee looks, its general aesthetic uhh aesthetic is a very overused but...there is no other way. [chuckles] How it looks, how it feels, how everything is rendered in the game matches very heavily with certain sections of vaporwave so I feel like if you like melee, you most probably like some vaporwave.
JK: How did you come up with the idea of mixing both together and why?
JW: I was part of a group and one of the members did a roman bust of Marth and it wasn’t very vaporwave...and I sat there and was like ‘oh, that’s cool, I like that...I feel like I can expand and do something...crazy’ so I did the Captain Falcon vaporwave painting. At that point in time, vaporwave was a very...interesting medium. It’s a lot of reuse of assets that are either free-to-use or uhh...taken. So what I wanted to do for the medium was to do something different, so I actually painted my assets, I actually create the things that I’m using and there’s certainly people that do that but it’s not uhh...not very common. So I wanted to do both of those [Smash and vaporwave] but I also wanted to give back to the community that I love.
JK: What separates vaporwave from other styles?
JW: Uhmm...it’s nostalgic...to a certain decade. It’s very bright. In general, vaporwave is an interesting medium. I like it because it allows anyone to be creative, you don’t even need to know anything about art in order to pick up GIMP or any photo editor and put things together, recolor them, alter them, and MAKE ART. It’s really open to anyone and that’s what I love about it because being creative is very important to me and not a lot of people have that creative outlet anymore so the ability to make vaporwave is really open to anyone. What differentiates it from other art-styles is probably how surreal it can get at times.
JK: What is your usual approach when starting a piece and how do you prevent from staring at a blank canvas for hours?
JW: My usual approach is trying to think of what I’m trying to show the audience or tell the audience. Smash is very...fun and nice because most characters have a specific move that they are known for or feeling that they have so I can try to go for those general feelings. I normally start off getting rid of the white canvas as soon as possible, I immediately fill it in with colors because white canvases are pretty scary, I start off with very rough scribbles just to get something on the page. For example, I actually don’t do much line-work...which I may have paid for it right now but it’s not my easiest suit because I actually go straight into values...black and grey, so stuff like this gives me the ability to understand how my mind works when it comes to stuff like that, ultimately, so I don’t get stuck and don’t lose interest in what I’m doing.
JK: What programs do you usually use in order to make your art?
JW: I use Photoshop CS6.
JK: I see, you’re a man of culture as well.
JW: [laughs] Uhm, I’ve been tempted to use other programs but I really haven’t gotten the time, I’d love to try Maya or some other 3d program, I think that’d be fun. At the moment though, just Photoshop CS6.
JK: Respectable choice might I add.
JW: [chuckles] Yes, it is very multi-purpose.
JK: On average, how long does it take to make one piece?
JW: Uhm...paintings can take up to about four to...seven hours for the vaporwave...stuff. But some, for example, like the Dreamland painting and the Pokemon Stadium painting, those can take much longer, about thirteen to fourteen hours. I’m working on Pokemon Stadium right now and it’s super detailed and super...uh...complex, so because of this they take a bit longer.
JK: So do you finish paintings all in one go or do you take breaks or procrastinate?
JW: Mmmm, depending on the day uhh...a lot of the vaporwave stuff I can sit down and finish in one sitting uhh...sitting not meaning like I’m sitting the whole time but as in I can sit through it in one chunk of the day. But I usually just have to get up and do stuff, run some errands...or whatever and come back to it later at some point
JK: Now, there a lot of young artists who want to get into digital art and while some use different aesthetic, there are always some that want to...in a way...imitate you and do vaporwave art as well, so based on this, what do you think sets your art apart from other artists in the scene?
JW: Uhmm, I think that the fact that I’m actually painting my assets like I said earlier...really...sets me apart from other artists in the same medium. Nothing against them, they are great guys and I talk to them a lot....actually, many people think that the other guys [artists who also do vaporwave] and me have beef but in actuality I love them...they are my homies. We’re actually pretty...closed knit, we have a Facebook page, we have our own Discord, etc. Other people say that my shape relation and my color schemes are what makes it unique too. Another thing is that a lot of people have never had classic training...like I understand color relation, shape dynamics etc. mainly because I’ve read them and studied for a while.
JK: I agree with that, most new artists feel like they can take the short route and just straight up just rip other people’s work and recolor them and distort them a little bit and call it their own.
JW: Yeah, for example...I take multi-media photos...and I use those as backgrounds or for effects but in my eyes I think I do a pretty good job in using my own photos, drawings, etc.
JK: How does it feel being looked at as a some sort of ‘celebrity’ and I use the term celebrity very loosely, in the smash community, specifically the smash-artist niche?
JW: Its...uhm...its very weird. Because I never would’ve imagined. I’m in a very interesting position in which people tell me that I give them a lot of inspiration and they look up to me, that means the world to me. It makes me feel like I actually made an impact and I’ve given back to the community. In fact, not a lot of people know how I actually look like...this is probably because I never really posted content regarding...myself. This wasn’t really done on purpose because my social media is mainly for my art and not...selfies or whatever. So because of this a lot of people don’t recognize me at events. I’m starting to wear my Akira jacket so that it becomes a staple and people start to recognize me. I don’t really let it go into my head but I really do appreciate all this love and support that I’m receiving from the community.
JK: Do you receive critics? If so, how do you deal with them?
JW: I do, critics are very important for growing as an artist. You have to be able to filter out a good critic from a bad critic. A good critique can still be harsh, a good critique can still be...mean...but you have to be able to pick apart a critique from what is actually a critique and what is just… mindless hate. If someone tells you that your work is bad, that’s mindless hate because they are not giving constructive criticism. So for example, if I draw an eye and someone says ‘it looks like a squashed watermelon’ [chuckles] ...that’s still a constructive critique because they told me what was wrong and why it was wrong. It still has a hurtful tone but you have to take the hurtful tone out of it however it is extremely hard. Basically, you’ll discover your greatest weaknesses through some of the harshest critiques.
JK: Who do you look up to as an artist?
JW: There’s a couple. Within the community I look up to Lauren...@meowth on Twitter. She’s the one that got all of this started. If she didn’t talk to me on to going to Genesis I probably wouldn’t be having this interview. I probably wouldn’t be making art in general. Outside the community I look up to many of the classic artists, my favorite painter is Norman Rockwell...never going to have an opportunity to talk to them or pick apart their brains but that's ok I guess [chuckles]. I really look up to them, they really made a difference.
JK: If you weren’t a digital artist, what would you most likely be instead?
JW: Oh man...uhh...see...I’ve been doing art for such a long time. I knew that I wanted to do art and I also knew that I want great at other subjects at school and I did work at my family’s business which I was able to quit and make art full-time. So with that said, I have no idea what I could’ve been. If I weren’t doing art I don’t know what I’d be doing. I used to play music but I was never the greatest at it, it was never really a passion it was just fun...not a thing I could’ve done for a living.
JK: How do you feel about numerous young artists ‘imitating’ your style? Do you find it flattering or somewhat disrespectful?
JW: It’s...I don’t feel like I’m being disrespected...I’m usually flattered by it and I don’t have a problem with it until money is involved...then I kinda get hurt or upset. The main thing with that is that some people view me as their introduction to vaporwave. This results in these ‘imitations’ being so close to mine. Everything from the layout, how it looks etc. But then again vaporwave is very broad and I’m not saying I own vaporwave. It just saddens me when vaporwave is such a massive medium filled with so much stuff in which people can take inspiration from and execute through art that they think I’m their only source of information within the subject. I really implore people to look at other types of vaporwave art. I’ve also talked to two artist...I won’t list names...basically I told them that I’d rather them not sell it and that I will work with them to create and tailor a style specific for them and just draw it away from my work because yeah...I guess my work is pretty unique but it really saddens me to see people get enclosed within a bubble when the community and vaporwave is so much bigger than me and what I do. If there is one lasting impact that I would like to give to the community would be that when I ‘go’, if I have convinced people to be creative and do things with their lives that otherwise they wouldn’t be doing then I would’ve met my goal.
JK: What advice would you give to a digital artist who wants to enter the industry?
JW: Do a lot of research! I’m self-taught, everything from my traditional paintings to the stage paintings is all self-taught. I learned through Youtube, through books, through my local library. The information is there, you just have to find it. Get out and shake peoples’ hands, it’s very easy to just stay in your room and going anywhere and not doing anything...that's how I was. The second you start shaking hands that’s when people will start to know you and you will start making connections. You can make a living from not going anywhere but it is very helpful to have those connections when you need them. Another big thing is that you can only compare yourself to yourself. It is easy to be envious of someone else’s skill or talent. However, it is only healthy to compare yourself to you, this is because you may or may not be discouraged when it comes to comparison. Be patient, success will come if you keep trying.
JK: Now that the boring part of the interview is over, shall we start with the fun part? Who do you main?
JW: [Laughs] In Melee I main Falco.
JK: Dang Justin, you really are a man of culture. Is there a particular reason in which why you main Falco?
JW: [Chuckles] Actually...I do, it’s a pretty funny story. When I first started I was a Luigi main and mained him for like half a year and I went to my first local. And in that local I met Fat Goku in bracket...he proceeded to wavedash me off the ledge and spike me with his shine eight times in a row.
JK: [Laughs] Wait really?
JW: Yeah. I just sat there and I didn’t know what to do. I was like ‘there is nothing I can do’. It was a vice grip around my throat. I really respect him though. After the horrible event, I asked him ‘what do I do?’ and he said ‘well, in all honesty, I just did what I had to do against Luigi’. It wasn’t even the fact that he was playing against me. He was playing against Luigi. Now, I’m all for respecting for the character you want, but at that moment in time Luigi just broke my heart. So I figured I needed to do something else. From that point on I started experimenting with Falco and realized that I felt comfortable with the bird. Eventually I mained him and since then I have never looked back. But yeah, that’s one of my favorite stories to tell people...me getting popped by Fat Goku...I think it’s funny.
JK: [Cackling] So wait… [Even more cackling] the sole reason why you play Falco is because you got demolished by Fat Goku this one time? That's hilarious!
JW: [Laughs] Yeah, my heart turned to stone and you know...I don’t get a whole lot of time to play in the first place due to art.[laughs some more] Funny enough, when you start doing something for a living you don’t really get to actually play as much. So I figured in my head, Luigi is viable...but you have to put extra time and effort whereas Falco you can pick up and play and you can still do good. This is my opinion! This my personal opinion!
JK: Besides Smash, what other games do you play? Or used to play given your tight schedule.
JW: I used to play League of Legends, I got way too addicted for me. I would not get work done and was very unhealthy for me. I’ve stopped playing LoL since then, still love the art, still love the community and the players regardless. I also play a lot of classics which include Luigi’s Mansion, Mario Sunshine, Donkey Kong Country etc. Right now I’m playing a game called Elebits. It’s a lot of fun, it’s not very known so I classify it as a hidden gem in my personal opinion. Maybe people know it more than I give credit for but I feel like it was a banger.
JK: A banger? [chuckles]
JW: It’s a hidden banger ok! [chuckles]
JK: What is it exactly?
JW: It’s a...uhm...it’s so weird. So you have the Wii remote right?
JK: Oh please dive into it some more [chuckles]
JW: Now I HAVE to get into it now. [laughs] Ok so the elebits are like little sprites that give electricity so your house pretty much goes in a blackout and you have these small eight-minute ‘mini-games’ in which you have to collect a certain amount of them. They are hidden in objects and you a have a little raygun and you move the objects around. You scavenge them, you collect them. Each of them have certain abilities. One of them if you wake it up it wakes up all the other ones.
JK:That sounds like...something else [laughs]
JW: It's...just...just look it up.
JK: [Looks it up with incorrect spelling] Oh, wait I know this!
JW: Yeah! It was like a launch title for the Wii I believe.
[We both then proceeded to delve deep into the topic of this 11-year-old game]
JK: Dang, people should know more about this game, this actually looks like fun.
JW: Exactly! So if there is one thing you can pull from this interview, it’s that more people should play Elebits.
JK: [Cackling] Yeah sure, let’s just ignore your past, your advice to new artists, your come-up. Screw all of that.
JW: No! None of that! Just...Elebits man. Look, my one service to the community is bringing this 11-year-old game back to life. I want to see speedruns, walkthoughts, content, etc. Actually let me look up if people speedrun this game…[Looks it up]. Yup, there are people speedrunning this game. [Laughs]
JK: We need more though!
JW: Yes, we need more! We need more people to at least know about the game.
JK: Ok let’s segway roughly into another question. Who is your favorite vaporwave producer?
JW: My favorite is a toss-up between Macross 82-99 and Saint Pepsi. Luxury Elite is really good too. I’m a fan of old anime so Macross is from Robotech. I like that.
JK: Also, there is this trend going on. A lot of people that like vaporwave also like lo-fi hip hop. Do you like it?
JW: Yes I do. It’s fine. It’s really fun to listen to. I like a lot of the sub-genres, for example witch house, it’s a much darker genre...much darker synth. It is not for everyone! Heads up, it is definitely not for everyone.
JW: Not a lot of people notice but I’m actually a huge horror movie buff. I love horror stories. H. P. Lovecraft is my favorite writer. I don’t let the horror bleed into my work because I feel like it alienates too many people. I did one painting recently that was on the creepier side and a lot of people said it was creepy and that they were really surprised. I always had this thought in the back of my head that if I were to do horror paintings and stuff like that I would have to do it in a different account.
JK: Now, I should’ve asked this question earlier but how did you get into Smash and why did you think you were the best in the world?
JW: Mmm, it must’ve been at Evo. The first introduction I’ve ever had to a bigger scene in smash was watching wobbling. I saw wobbling in a video and was like ‘woah! You can do that?! There are these advanced techniques you can do?! That’s cool!’
JK: Little did you know…
JW: [chuckles] Yea, little did I know. Around 2014 when Evo rolled in. I realized ‘Oh this is where it’s at! This is awesome!’ and then I started playing, [Melee] I picked it up and I started researching on boards and discussions on how to play...eventually I became a huge stream monster.
JK: Oh, was it Smashboards that helped you improve at the game?
JW: Yes! I believe the first discussions I read were on Smashboards.
JK: Shameless advertisement by the way. [chuckles]
JW: [Chuckles] How shameless! But hey, it’s actually true. Anyway, I started reading all of this awesome stuff. Then I found the uhm...Luigi boards [laughs]
JK:[Laughs] The Luigi boards!
JW: Little did my poor heart know, Fat Goku was gonna come and end that dream. [chuckles]
JK: If you were any Smash character [from whichever game] which one would you be?
JW: Mmm, well I wouldn’t say Falco because I don’t know how I would deal with the feathers you know.
JK: Yeah that’d be weird. Just to clarify, a Smash character that you would turn into...as in ‘in real life’
JW: Oh man that’s pretty...uh...I don’t know....Ganon is pretty powerful you know.
JK: So you would be this 3-meter, burly, monstrosity of a man?
JW: I don’t know! Do I get his powers? Or do I just physically become him?
JK: You physically become Ganon.
JW: Oh no. [laughs] Then I guess Captain Falcon. I might do that instead, hell yeah.
JK: Justin, this is the final question of the interview. This question will decide if you are truly a man of culture or a Jim. Justin Wharton...does pineapple belong on pizza yes or no?
JW: Aww...see that might be the dealbreaker because I grew up in Hawaii and I love myself some pineapple. I don’t eat it as much as of lately but I do put pineapple on my pizza sometimes.
JK: Justin, I’m very disappointed in you [chuckles]
JW: Hey, I am a man of culture. [laughs] But not the right culture! [cackles] I also put some pineapple on my BBQ.
JK: You are one weird man. [laughs]
JW: But that’s not fair! You have to ask me these controversial questions! [laughs] I have a note next to me saying ‘STAY PROFESSIONAL, DON'T GO INTO ANYTHING CONTROVERSIAL!' And then you ask me these controversial questions [laughs]
JK: I simply cannot believe you, they do not taste well together.
JW: No because savor and sweet man...they go together. Savor and sweet can go together.
JK: Absolutely not.
JW: Yes dude!
JK: No, savor food should stay with other savor foods and sweet food should stay with other sweet foods.
JW: But people are putting bacon in their freaking donuts...that’s salty and sweet.
JW: Better question, would you eat a donut with bacon in it?!
JK: No Justin, that’s disgusting [laughs]
JW: Ok! I believe it’s disgusting too!
JK: Then what are you trying to prove Justin?!
JW: But that’s diff-- [laughs]
JK: [laughs] Anyway [continues laughing] where can people hit you up Justin?
JW: I mainly use Twitter and Instagram [@justwharton] in both. I opened up a new website in which I post all my work in a gallery that looks really nice, it’s [http://justwhartonart.com/] and I’m now starting to stream on Twitch [https://www.twitch.tv/justwharton]. Finally, don’t follow me on DeviantArt. [laughs] We archive that. That’s no more man. [laughs]
JK: [laughs] JustinWharton.zip. Anyway [chuckles] are your commissions open?
JW: My commissions are open. I have a queue of people that want commissions so if people want to commission me they have to understand that it may take a little bit to get to it.
JK: Thanks a million times Justin for your time!
JW: Same to you! It was fun!
Thanks for reading and have a good one!
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The Mind Behind Smash Vaporwave: An Interview With Justin Wharton