Drawing Mermaids for Charity: An Interview with Artist Adrian Chang
Saving Sri Lankan street dogs, one mersona commission at a time
August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am
Nearly everyone who knows me knows that I’ve been mermaiding for several years now. This spring, I decided it was time for a tail upgrade when I discovered Finfolk Productions’ Mythic Tails, which feature individually hand-sewn iridescent scales. To help my chances of landing one, I joined their Pod Squad, which gives members exclusive early access to the website when tails are in stock—and doubles as a private Facebook group full of mermaid joy. (The color I wanted sold out in under five minutes—and I managed to get one!)
Through this group and a new mermaid-specific Instagram account, I’ve become more connected to the larger mermaid subculture. It’s wonderful to interact with others who are equally passionate about their tails and “mersonas,” or the mermaid alter-egos many of us create for ourselves.
Recently, artist and fellow mermaid-enthusiast Adrian Chang announced that he was offering commissions for drawings of our mersonas in exchange for donations to a cause he’s passionate about: aiding Sri Lankan street dogs. I jumped at the chance to get a custom piece of my own mersona, Mermaid Neptune—name chosen to draw on both my love of mermaids and outer space.
Based on my description and photos, Adrian created this stunning piece for me:
I love the embellishments Adrian made to my leaf top and the stars he incorporated into the design! I really like the idea that Mermaid Neptune is always looking up toward the stars—and toward her namesake.
After receiving my personal commission from Adrian, I had the opportunity to interview him via email about this project and his creative process.
As a light warning, some of his responses do include descriptions of cruelty to animals.
AK: To start things off, how long have you been involved in the merfolk community? What sparked the interest?
AC: I’ve only been officially involved in the mermaid community since March of this year but I’ve been in love with mermaids since I was old enough to remember … since 1984 when Splash came out, to be specific. I was 2. I remember my parents putting me in swim lessons for toddlers and being obsessed with perfecting my dolphin kick from the get go. My mom’s nickname for me has always been and still i is “merboy.”
AK: You’re currently offering custom full-color mermaid drawings with all proceeds going to charity. Is this something you’ve done before? Where did the idea initiate?
AC: No, I haven’t. Art commissions are new to me. I used to work in fashion in Asia, and while I escaped the clutches of that industry a couple of years ago, the desire to keep creating has stayed with me, as has the need to do something with my time which can benefit those in need. The fashion industry can be such an elitist, materialistic, and self-important world. I promised myself that when I got out, I’d put those same fundamental skills to good, meaningful use.
Adrian’s drawing of his own mersona.
AK: Something really special about the artwork you’re creating is that you’re bringing our “mersonas,” or mermaid personas, to life—can you describe your process for creating each piece?
AC: Something people outside of the mer-community don’t realise is that the community is a powerful cultivator for positive self-esteem, body-image, mental health, and the embracing of differences. It’s literally a global community made up of people of all body sizes, genders, races, sexual orientations, cultures, etc. Members of the community are incredibly supportive of each other. It’s really such a loving, accepting community. Anything that encourages love, respect, and togetherness to flourish out of embracing and loving our differences is like the holy grail to me! I want my work to reflect and spotlight the beauty in those differences among the community. That’s why it is so important for me to understand and capture each unique mersona. It’s kind of like putting a quilt together and each mer has their own square to make up the beautiful whole.
Members of the community are incredibly supportive of each other. It’s really such a loving, accepting community. Anything that encourages love, respect, and togetherness to flourish out of embracing and loving our differences is like the holy grail to me! I want my work to reflect and spotlight the beauty in those differences among the community. That’s why it is so important for me to understand and capture each unique mersona. It’s kind of like putting a quilt together and each mer has their own square to make up the beautiful whole.
When I work with a donor, I try to get to know them and understand their vision of their mersona as much as possible. Some donors have never really thought about it, so I encourage them to be creative, and I try to give as many suggestions as possible based on what I’ve learned about their own personality. Once I feel we’ve “painted a good picture” of their mersona, I get started on rough sketches. The ideas just kind of come to me, and I do my interpretation with the “material” they have given me. I’m not very formulaic when I’m drawing or painting. I prefer to sketch and sketch until it feels right. I’m often worried that I’ve missed the mark or misunderstood what has been described to me, but so far everyone seems to be happy when I’ve finished!
AK: All proceeds from your art are currently going to support charities that help Sri Lankan street dogs. Can you tell me more about these organizations and why they’re so meaningful to you?
Editor’s Note: Readers may want to skip this section if avoiding descriptions of animal suffering.
AK: Our two daughters, I mean dogs, Bee & Eydie are our world, and they are from Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan dogs are intelligent, beautiful, loyal, resilient, and loving creatures. The “pure” Sri Lankan wild dog is called a South-Asian “pariah-dog” and is considered to be the closest living relative to the planet’s first dog (when they evolved from wolves).
Adrian’s dogs, Eydie and Bee.
Before my husband and I moved back to the states in 2016, we lived in Sri Lanka. You can’t escape the street-dog problem there. You just can’t. Despite Sri Lanka being a beautiful Buddhist country, they consider dogs to be vermin. It’s not always a matter of cruelty, sometimes it’s a matter of education, or rather, lack thereof. That being said, the cruelty does exists and it runs rampant. Dogs are constantly being run over, left for dead, or worse, attacked, tortured, the list goes on—it’s horrific.
There is also a huge problem with the overpopulation of street dogs in Sri Lanka. They are breeding faster than they can be sterilized. I hate to be blunt but often the government’s way to control the population is by taking them off the street in huge numbers, throwing them into vans and dumping them in the jungle. These dogs, while wild in a sense, are not hunters by nature; they are scavengers. They don’t have a chance of surviving in rural areas without the presence of humans or their food scraps. Not to mention, the tropical weather creates the perfect climate for tick and parasitic diseases. One such tick disease, considered the “dog killer” of Asia, is called Babesia Gibsoni. Eydie was suffering from it as a puppy and she almost died. She has been mostly cured but it lives forever in her bone marrow. We count every day with her as a blessing.
We adopted Bee & Eydie when we first moved to SL. They were found in a cemetery in rural Sri Lanka at 2 weeks old in a pile of their dead littermates and mother. They had all been poisoned and our 2 were the only ones that survived, barely. They were rescued by a woman named Jocelyn Herath who is also the owner of the shelter Chooti Watte (Puppy Garden), one of the charities I have chosen to support. Jocelyn is a British expat living in a rural part of Sri Lanka who takes in stray and abused dogs, nurses them back to health and re-homes them. She has taken in hundreds upon hundreds of homeless dogs over the years and cares for them out of her own pocket. It is literally her life. Outside of the capital city of Colombo, awareness and education regarding animal rights is non-existent. Her ambition is to educate people in rural parts of Sri Lanka about how to care for and live peacefully with street dogs … and about the joys of sharing your life with a dog! She is a dear friend and an angel for bringing us together with our 2 babies. I will continue to support her till the day I die, as dramatic as it may sound. Sorry for all the talking! I’m telling you so much about her because she has barely any social media presence to speak of, aside from her personal Facebook account. I and a couple of her family members are helping her get her head around Instagram. She has already started one but is inundated with new arrivals on a weekly basis—she hardly has the time to post pictures at the moment. You can follow her on IG at @chooti.watte, please just be patient with photo updates as she is so busy— literally up to her elbows in puppies every day!
Animal SOS Sri Lanka is another organization which we have chosen to support. [It was] also started by a British expat, Kim Cooling. The organization runs entirely off of donations, and the facility in Southern Sri Lanka serves as a sanctuary and a medical facility for street dogs. I’ve chosen them as my second organization to support as they do so much for disabled and injured street dogs in Sri Lanka. They are in desperate need of donations as they have thousands of dogs, many of which are in need of medical care. Every day a new puppy is literally thrown over their garden wall in a bag. It’s horrendous, and they NEVER turn away a single dog. They’ve got a very strong presence on social media. You can find them on IG at @animal_sos_srilanka. Just be warned, sometimes the photos they post of injuries are difficult to look at.
AK: Your work is amazing, and I understand that you’re a former fashion illustrator. What is that work like? Any especially fond memories to share?
AC: Thank you! I know I already bashed the fashion industry, so I won’t bore you with that again! Working as an illustrator, rather than a designer, was a dream. I’ve never been huge on digital media for my own work and prefer traditional mediums. I originally wanted to be a comic-book artist or animator (hello, Little Mermaid!) when I was a kid. I always loved drawing people, especially in fantastical costumes with wings and mermaid tails. And then I studied under a fashion illustration legend, Gladys Perint Palmer, in college, and she changed the way I looked at illustration forever. She taught me to see color, movement, textures as a vehicle for representing the fashion form. Far more whimsical and meaningful than just drawing skinny people in clothes.
One thing I loved about working in Asia, especially as a fashion illustrator, was the privilege of having lived amongst so many different and vibrant cultures and seeing how they all interpret beauty—what they consider ideally beautiful. I learned so much from allowing myself to be enveloped by all of those experiences—it completely changed me as a person. I suppose you could say it wasn’t really just the art, it was the experience of being completely and constantly out of my element all the time throughout my career that made it so incredible.
One of my most favorite projects was when my husband and I designed an entire Japanese Izakaya Restaurant from scratch in Kuala Lumpur. He designed the restaurant, and I did the branding and artwork—the entire concept was for us to create. We came up with a concept inspired by the movie and manga Sakuran, and designed the entire restaurant like a Meiji era brothel. Bright colors, contrasting large-scale patterns everywhere, and I created large scale murals of Meiji era courtesans lounging around to cover all of the walls. Some of the murals were art pieces and others were blown up original manga pages I created with our fictitious characters. It was such an incredible experience to be able to create and produce exactly what we wanted.
The Japanese restaurant Adrian co-designed with his husband.
AK: What should people know before contacting you about a potential commission?
AC: I don’t just do mermaids. I can do anything you want really (within the realm of my capabilities, of course!). If something is out of my league or not possible, I’ll be honest about it. I’d love to do more fairies, warrior princesses, even superheroes. When I was still in college, my friends and I created superhero characters and came up with powers for ourselves, and I did all the illustrations. We didn’t use them for anything, just for being nerdy and for purely selfish reasons. I’d love to do something like that again. But I’d be open to anything really, even a challenge.
If someone is interested, I usually ask that they email me or DM me on IG or FB. I’ll then send them a pretty comprehensive fact sheet on how the whole process works before we get started. For any mersona or customized character, I don’t really need much. If you already have a persona in mind for your character, I would need you to describe that to me as best as possible, mersonality and all. Pictures of yourself are always helpful—whatever you are willing to share. I can even work off of just a face or a Facebook profile photo. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable about sending pictures of themselves to a total stranger!
In terms of timing, I do have a full time job and a side-business with my husband, so depending on the complexity of the commission I usually need at least 7-10 days to complete an illustration.
And [the] last thing I want to add is that I don’t want anyone to feel outpriced or that they can’t afford to have a drawing of them as the creature or character of their dreams, which is why I’ve chosen to start suggested donations at $25 for a simpler, fully colored drawing. Donors don’t make their donations until they receive a digital version of their artwork. Then I’ll ask for them to send the donation, and I send off the original! If someone is unable to afford even the starting suggested donation, I’m always willing to discuss a commission on a pay-what-you-can basis. I’d also ask that people be kind in deciding what they think their drawing is worth. This is a hobby for me and a charitable cause; I don’t feel right in telling people what I think my work is worth.
AK: Is there anything else you’d like to add (such as any additional projects) that I haven’t asked about?
AC: In addition to the street dog charity, I’d also eventually like to start a project with other interested mers, which focuses on promoting the positive mental health benefits of mermaiding to the general public. This is just a glimmer of an idea in my head, but mental health is also an important issue for me, my husband, and my family. I really feel the mermaiding community has the potential to do so much more for humanity than just taking beautiful photos and videos of ourselves. I think many professional mermaids are already doing this to a degree just by acting as positive role models for the young children they entertain at events. We could be a good example of just how much positivity and happiness can come from just being yourself and following your dreams. Not to mention, a shining example of how beautiful each of us are, despite AND in light of our differences.
For more information on Adrian Chang and his project, check out his Instagram where he’s posting commissions as he creates them.
To learn more about one of the charities his work supports, visit Animal SOS Sri Lanka.