Shaun Tan: Suburban Strange


“…anything has the potential to be something else. As a child and teenager, I used to think that the place I lived in was far too boring to comment upon, that all the good, interesting stuff was somewhere else. It was only when I started painting local suburban scenes in my twenties that I realized the subject was not so important, it was how much thought and imagination you applied to it. So a painting of a simple suburban footpath could be as fascinating as the most exotic landscape, given enough emotional investment (I often think of Van Gogh’s paintings of a chair for guidance, or Morandi’s little groups of bone-coloured bottles, brilliant paintings of banal objects).”


“Of course, I do introduce a lot of exotic, surrealist elements into my suburban visual stories in a seemingly artificial way, as a kind of ‘what if?’ exercise, but the initial inspiration for these comes from observing pretty ordinary things; like looking at an overgrown vacant lot, for instance, and asking ‘who lives there?,’ or a walnut shell and wondering if it would make a good little suitcase, or a TV aerial and imagining people decorating for some special occasion. Suburbia is definitely bland and generic, but there’s also a suppressed strangeness there, a culture foreign to itself. And the fact that it does, on the surface, seem uninspiring, or escapes creative attention, means that it’s an excellent canvas to be painting (or writing) upon; it’s blank, quiet and opens up quite easily to absurd intrusions.”  – from an interview by Mitchell Jordan, 2009

Further Observations

“Drawing a good picture is like telling a really good lie – the key is in the incidental detail.”

“I would go so far as to say that all art and literature is about some kind of disconnection, brokenness or discrepancy.” – from The Guardian, 2009


“You discover how confounding the world is when you try to draw it,” Tan says. “You look at a car, and you try to see its car-ness, and you’re like an immigrant to your own world. You don’t have to travel to encounter weirdness. You wake up to it.” – from The New York Times Magazine, 2011


Shaun Tan is an illustrator and writer who grew up in the suburbs of Perth, Australia. He now lives in Melbourne.



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