Misery and her Tang Tang Ladies May 30 2021

Tanja Jade McMillan (Misery), is a New Zealand-based wall and pop artist. Tanja has exhibited in Berlin, Taiwan, Melbourne, Paris, Hawaii and Los Angeles. Her creative reach is extensive, ranging from highly crafted paintings and wall art to animation, fashion, toys and children’s decor brand Misery Guts. Tanja also sculpts, having completed two commissioned bronzes in Auckland’s Art District of Karangahape Road in 2016. Stylistically she could be equated to a saccharine Bill Hammond, with obvious visual references to her Tahitian / Chinese heritage, which can be seen through her subject matter, flattened depth of field, mode of storytelling and outstanding ink work.

Interview by Gab Lewis. Photos supplied by Misery.

We're so excited to welcome you back to Outré! What can we expect from you for your first solo show with us?

I'm so excited to be showing with Outré!! I had a lot of fun making these paintings which I think comes through in the artwork. It's full of bright popsicle colour and heavily influenced by theatre, costume, Asian art and culture. I'm particularly in love with Tang Dynasty Court Lady figures at the moment which you'll find in some of the paintings. I love their rounded shapes and puffy, overly blushed cheeks. These ladies also inspired the show's title Tang Tang

Tell us about your creative background! What has brought you to where you are today, do you have any pivotal career moments to share with us?

I've always loved making things. As a kid painting and doing arts and crafts was my happy place and I've never grown out of that. My dad is a builder and my mum a costume designer. Growing up we were surrounded by art, costumes, pantomime and dance, and my dad building houses and making stuff. This all had an impact on me.

My art career began quite early on. As a teen, most of my close friends were into graffiti art. It wasn't long before I began going out and putting up my characters with them. My buddy Askew One (TMD) told me I needed a tag name.. and suggested Misery was a name with great letters he'd been saving! It seemed a good fit for my characters at the time. We were all very proactive and DIY about making and getting our art out there to the world. We were soon holding our own art exhibitions and being recognised for the work we were doing.

From here I moved on to fashion and producing graphic tee shirts for several years before deciding I really just wanted to focus on making art rather than the more commercial side of my career. I've been lucky to have been able to travel a bit with my work which is always an elevating and inspiring way to catch new opportunities.

My family has been an important creative influence throughout my life. We are a very close family made up of mostly women and all very creative. My mum's side of the family are French Polynesian/Haka Chinese/Kiwi. I've always felt incredibly drawn to anything Asian and Pacifika. Painting exotic imaginary characters and scenarios is kind of my way of exploring and finding connection to those parts of my heritage.

From umbrellas to decked out cars, your work has taken on many forms! Has there been a favourite project thus far and what kind of challenges come along with commercial commissions?

I'd have to say the two bronze sculptures 'Twist' and 'Thief' I was commissioned to make in 2014 from the Auckland Public Arts Trust is one I feel most proud of. It was such an honour to be considered for a permanent public art work and I felt a great deal of gratitude and validation as an artist. There's something ultimately special about public art. This may be from my background in graffiti, but I believe art is so important and something that should be available to everyone to experience wherever they are. The works commissioned were designed while keeping the interests of children in mind. It brings me so much joy walking down Karangahape Road and seeing kids hugging and interacting with the sculptures.

Challenges... Probably just time really. My husband Tomtom and I have an incredibly busy life. We run and own Sunset Tattoo with our art studios out the back and a cafe below. I also share a children's brand Misery Guts with my friend Shelly Robinson. We make children's gifts and homewares with my artwork. On top of that we have four amazing kids: Saskia (3), Billie (5), Ramona (13) & Charlie (16). Finding the time and mental space to paint can be challenging but it's also wonderful and I wouldn't wish it any other way.

Do you have a dream project that has yet to come to life?

Yes! I would love to create a giant neon light artwork and ultimate dream project designing a children's public art park. Maybe they would be part of the same project, actually. 

It looks like you're no stranger to varying scales. Talk us through how your creative process adapts between murals like your recent work in The Most Dedicated at The Dowse Museum and your smaller illustrations.

I'm pretty adaptable and need to make things wherever I am. I also quite love the surprise of what's possible depending on your circumstances. When I was in Vietnam on a job once, there was a roadside stall selling tiny, weird shaped turnips. I bought some and started drawing faces on them. This opened up an entire new world of Asian vegetable art. It's so fun when things like this occur.

At the moment, because I still have small children, I need to be able to work from home a lot. This usually means painting on the dining table or on the wall in the hallway, or sometimes in the garden if it's sunny. I love painting large-scale whenever possible. There's something incredibly free flowing about painting big. It's almost like a strange meditative dance – lots of moving around.

Your work has such a distinctive aesthetic, it's easily identifiable as Misery! Tell us about some of your biggest influences, what helped to shape your style?

Family, identity, travel, environment, my love for Asia-Pacific arts and crafts. Being around graffiti and tattoo culture a lot. I was born in Queensland and moved to Auckland, New Zealand, with my mum and sister when I was 12. My mum's father is from Auckland, we came here to connect with this side of the family and ended up staying. I've loved living in a city with a huge Polynesian presence and country so connected to their indigenous identity and culture. I feel so much gratitude to be able to experience and be a part of that. I'm also very much a nature baby – love being in my garden and close to the beach and forest. All these things have had a huge influence on my style, I'd say.

What is your recipe for a successful studio day? Do you have any remedies for creative block?

Calm and focus, good music and headphones. Preferably no children around! I work best with a deadline. Once I'm in my zone, I'm happy making away. When I get a creative block I find gardening, kundalini yoga, dancing and cooking yummy food very helpful.

As an international artist, how has the past year of travel restrictions impacted your practice?

I've actually loved being home over the past year and not felt a desperate desire to travel at all. Apart from missing family overseas, it hasn't really bothered me too much. As a busy mama, it's actually only been this year that it's been possible for me to have more of a full time art practice as my girls are more independent now. I've really enjoyed staying in one place and focusing on projects locally.

What's up next for Misery for 2021?!

After Outré, I have a solo exhibition happening at 12 Gallery in Auckland in late July. Tom and I are also launching our beautiful new gallery space The Mercury Plaza beneath our studio, which is super exciting. I'll be exhibiting with one of my best girlfriends Hannah Maurice-Melvile here in October.

Thanks for chatting to us Misery – we can't wait to see your new works!