I meet the comic illustrator known as Tango — real name Gao Youjun 高幼军 — in a studio in the West Village on a chilly day in early December. He is dressed casually and neatly, in a dark green plaid shirt and black-framed glasses, giving off an air of ease and simplicity — two features that also define his work: penguins standing in formation; various animals looking at their shadows; cats playing Go. Fresh off a signing event for his first English book, Backside of the Moon, Gao looks relaxed and satisfied, as if he’s exactly where he belongs.
Gao has held art exhibitions around the world, including in New York, France, and Belgium, but the publication of Backside of the Moon — which collects some of his best drawings since 2010 — represents his proudest achievement to date. “It’s like a formal introduction after years of warming up,” he tells me. The book has already been praised by No. 3 Magazine as capable of making “stressed-out salaried folk see the primitive beauty of our existence,” filled with drawings that Storypick says can surprise people “to the moon and back.”
But don’t be fooled. It was hardly a given that Gao would ever make it to this point.
A Shanghai native, Gao was born to a family of traditional middle-class Chinese parents. His father was in the military, while his mother was a kindergarten teacher. “I’m more like my mom and the opposite of my dad, who always appears conservative and serious,” Gao says. In early childhood, Gao showed an extraordinary talent for painting; his work was displayed at an overseas exhibition curated by the United Nations when he was just 10 years old. While his peers spent their after-school time in supplementary tutoring classes, Gao’s adolescence was all about drawing and sculpting in the city’s largest children’s center sponsored by the China Welfare Institute. Meanwhile, he still managed to demonstrate excellent academic performance at school, especially in science.
A sculpting teacher advised Gao to attend an art institute in Zhejiang Province, but his parents strictly forbade it, saying they didn’t want him leaving Shanghai or pursuing art. After all, he had to carve out a stable and lucrative career for himself. “So I opted to enroll at Jiaotong University,” Gao says. “It’s near my home, and the school’s reputation satisfied my parents. There were a dozen majors that I could choose from, such as engineering, material science, and naval architecture, but none of them was of my interest.” Gao wound up selecting mathematics because it seemed to require the least effort. “Only a paper and a pen are needed to solve a math question,” he says.
Outside school, Gao continued to attend drawing workshops, and he chose to hang out with a circle of artist friends. But studying math helped him acquire an unconventional way of thinking, which, in return, made a remarkable impact on his artistic style. “It was during that time that I developed my own language,” Gao states. “Drawing my cartoons is very much like working on a math problem. I get great joy in surprising others with an unexpected result after an impeccable reasoning process.”
In his senior year, Gao decided to apply to graduate school at the Central Academy of Arts and Design, hoping to be mentored by Liu Guanzhong 柳冠中, who established the first industrial design department in China and insisted on recruiting fresh blood — students from scientific backgrounds with some art experience — into the world of design. “I read my professor’s theoretical books day and night, while most of my classmates were preparing for a master’s degree in computer science or financial engineering,” Gao recalls. He even remembers how he was teased by his teacher, who was aware of his decision and once said in class, “One student among you apparently overestimated his capabilities. Such a joke that he wants to be an art student.”
Gao’s parents stepped in again. But this time, as a grown-up, Gao was determined to pursue art. He successfully enrolled at his dream school under the mentorship of his dream professor. Gao felt liberated, though sometimes frustrated by the school’s narrow social dynamics. “I couldn’t make friends with students of another professor, who belonged to another school of thought,” Gao says. “Students from the industrial design department were often looked down upon as half artists.”
Upon graduation, Gao was hired by a prominent advertising agency as an art director. During his three years with the company, Gao says he was under the illusion of “creating something of my own.” But with time, he came to realize that he was, in fact, merely fulfilling his clients’ dreams. He quit his job and started his own company, which allowed him more freedom to create.
When friends introduced Gao to Weibo in 2010, he had no idea what to post. Not a fan of oversharing on social media or confident enough in his ability to craft witty captions, Gao could think of nothing to do but draw. His friends told him it was impossible to create original drawings on a daily basis, to which Gao replied, “For me, it isn’t.”
Gao started with caricatures of his acquaintances. “I just wanted to amuse them,” he says. But after he had drawn all of his friends, he looked to common objects for inspiration, which is how he ended up creating some of his best work: a cat whose shadow represents an umbrella; a pugilist pig punching a bag in the shape of a sausage; a nail clipper looking at a clipped nail in the shape of a crescent moon.
Spurred on by his devoted and growing social media following, Gao tried to capture any and all things that could make him or others laugh.
To date, he has doodled more than 2,000 comics, and accumulated more than 864,000 fans on Weibo.
Gao’s cartoons are sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, and sometimes both. His subjects, be they cats, smartphones, or even toothpaste, are plucked from everyday life. The process of generating an idea, however, “is not as effortless as the final product seems,” Gao says. While each comic might take only half an hour, the brainstorming that goes into it can be painstaking.
“Behind every post is a couple of failed attempts,” Gao explains. “Many ideas get aborted halfway through the process of thinking. It’s not like I wake up every morning to a fantastic idea.” Gao, who is soft-spoken, also expresses reservations about being labeled an artist. “True artists are self-absorbed. They don’t have to think about whether the general public can understand their works or not, as long as there is a fraction of people who appreciate them,” he says, adding that he has yet to reach that level. And since most of his works have no captions, it’s his obligation to make sure that they are comprehensible to all, regardless of nationality or location.
That partly explains why Gao’s cartoons have such a global appeal. At home, he is the author of two books, Sleepless (2014) and Stop Dreaming: I Have a Dream (2015). Abroad, Gao held a New York pop-up exhibition, Dream On, last year in Chelsea Market. Dubbed the artist “who’s introducing the West to therapeutic comics,” Gao is well aware of the larger mission he carries on — to craft a sort of visual humor that is light, clever, and universal. Not bad for a math major.
At one point during our conversation, Gao asks me if I found his book joyful and humorous. After I nod assent, Gao seems reassured and relieved. “This book’s goal is nothing but to bring laughter to my readers,” he says. “It can be your essential toilet reading, placed next to the paper roll.”