Cleveland illustrator Jordan Wong turning heads with new exhibit, upcoming MidTown art installation

The artist pulls inspiration from both the natural world and various Japanese anime series that inspired him as a kid to create his vibrant illustrations.


Cleveland-based artist Jordan Wong spreads out in front of “Tall Grass XLR (G. Garden),” one of his pieces currently on display at the Akron Art Museum. It’s heavily inspired by Gundams, Japanese toy model kits that Wong’s father used to bring home from business trips to Japan. Photo by Collin Cunningham.

Cleveland-based artist Jordan Wong spreads out in front of “Tall Grass XLR (G. Garden),” one of his pieces currently on display at the Akron Art Museum. It’s heavily inspired by Gundams, Japanese toy model kits that Wong’s father used to bring home from business trips to Japan. Photo by Collin Cunningham.

Despite being the first artist to ever display work in the Akron Art Museum’s outdoor garden, Cleveland-based illustrator Jordan Wong walks around the exterior of the facility like a playground. Even in a suit, he excitedly hops from one of the handful of pieces on display to another, and before long one sees a pattern emerge. Or, rather, a bunch of patterns. His work is covered in them.

For Wong, also known as WONGFACE, the influences are as important as the final work itself. The 31-year-old creates and layers all sorts of colorful, bliss-inspiring images into his collage-like drawings, a few of which became the first pieces to go up at the Akron Art Museum’s Bud and Susie Rogers Garden in May before expanding to an indoor gallery earlier this month. Both exhibits will remain open through May 15, 2022.

To call it pop art may be apt; to term it “anime-inspired” may also be fitting, but it feels a bit reductive, hinging on references to the Japanese animation that has come to define popular recognition of the style. For while Wong’s latest exhibit The 10,000 Things at the Akron Art Museum pay direct homage to the cartoons and other media he loves, they’re also so much more than that because they’re original.

The trajectory of Wong’s career is something that Clevelanders should teach themselves about because it only means more public art for the city; already Wong has plans in motion for an ambitious interactive sculpture in the city’s AsiaTown neighborhood.

“I think we’re always influenced to deviate from the things that excited us when we were young,” explained the artist, whose work has also adorned the Art Wall at Cleveland’s Public Square.

“You hear it all the time: grow up, do things that are practical, [figure out] how it’s going to make you money and earn you a living. We’re constantly bombarded with quote-unquote advice to move away from the imaginative, from the silly and from that which delights us.”


One of Wong’s large horizontal illustrations, “Journey (to the West)” is one of the first pieces to ever display at the Bud and Susie Rogers Garden at the Akron Art Museum. Photo by Bob Perkowski.

One of Wong’s large horizontal illustrations, “Journey (to the West)” is one of the first pieces to ever display at the Bud and Susie Rogers Garden at the Akron Art Museum. Photo by Bob Perkowski.

Wong has managed to hold on to that level of imagination, opening the door for the upcoming public art project and Little Library that he intends to open in Cleveland next spring. More on that later.

Talking to The Land in the museum garden, the second-generation born Chinese-American artist freely admitted to the hallmarks of Asian Culture that he wears on his creations: Dragon Ball, Fullmetal Alchemist, One Punch Man, One Piece, Mob Psycho 100 and FLCL.

If unfamiliar, do an image search on any of those titles and the transition from influence to piece is immediately evident in Wong’s library of work. The artist plays with visual concepts from the aforementioned anime series and modernizes them,  somehow making the thick black lines even chunkier and the bright colors more versatile and poppy.

But perhaps the most impressive facet of the work is Wong’s ability to tell a story by juxtaposing characters and concepts he enjoyed as a child against newer creations that are all his own.

10,000 Things, at least

Akron’s gallery is home to Wong’s latest exhibition, “The 10,000 Things,” the name of which is a reference to the litany of pop art and culture that inspires the graphic designer’s current work. The first full exhibit to display on the museum’s verdant lawn, “Things” is comprised of six pieces set to remain outside through May 15, 2022.

Wong described his art as “quirky” and “dynamic” but also heralded its ability to convey meaning. He realizes story elements through a diverse array of motifs, drawing from history through the use of Sun Wukong, the legendary monkey king from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”

On the more modern end, many of his prints include variations on Gundams, human-piloted robot weapons from the Japanese anime franchise of the same name.

“I’m not so much concerned about one singular story or one particular narrative that I’m trying to share, it’s more about the feeling in general,” the artist elaborated. “I’m just combining specific stories from when I was a kid with the stuff that I enjoy as an adult and using that to create these new imageries, these new symbols and these new iconographies as visual metaphors for ideas that I want to share.”

Super Mega Wonder 1999

Don’t let the (intentionally) obtuse name fool you: Wong’s next big project, Super Mega Wonder 1999, has a fairly simple concept. It’s like a Little Free Library that will be home to comic books and other forms of visual media that inspired Wong in his youth once it lands in Cleveland’s AsiaTown neighborhood sometime next spring.


The front and back of SMW 1999, which will be structured like a vending machine. The final installation will be seven feet wide and five feet tall. Designed by Jordan Wong.

The front and back of SMW 1999, which will be structured like a vending machine. The final installation will be seven feet wide and five feet tall. Designed by Jordan Wong.

With a red, blocky design reminiscent of one of the buildable Gundam kits his dad used to bring home from business trips, Wong intends for Clevelanders to be able to borrow comic books, manga and graphic novels from SMW 19With a red, blocky design reminiscent of one of the buildable Gundam kits his dad used to bring home from business trips, Wong intends for Clevelanders to be able to borrow comic books, manga and graphic novels from SMW 1999. Simultaneously, anyone who reads something visually impactful is invited to place the book on one of the shelves housed on the back of the unit, which itself is covered head-to-toe with WONGFACE artwork.99. Simultaneously, anyone who reads something visually impactful is invited to place the book on one of the shelves housed on the back of the unit, which itself is covered head-to-toe with WONGFACE artwork.

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So most little libraries that we see are mainly built out of wood. They kind of mimic little houses, with a little roof or whatnot.

I wanted to play with the idea of first creating this public artwork and then a bonus function of that is that it’s a little library. So it wasn’t like I was thinking ‘Oh, little library first, art second’ it was kind of like ‘It would be really cool to also have this be an opportunity for book exchange and whatnot.’

— Jordan Wong

Wong states on his website that one of the larger aims of the project is to inspire the next generation of Asian-American artists and creative professionals by helping them to imagine new opportunities for public art.

He intends to stock the library initially through a donation drive but will rely on the goodwill of Clevelanders to keep the media flowing.

“So we’re almost done with the fundraising,” Wong said excitedly. “$18,000 was the goal and thanks to individual contributions a contribution from MidTown Cleveland and also being awarded some money from the Fowler Foundation and a donation from Channel 3 WKYC, I am at $16,000 out of 18. I have some meetings scheduled and I might be able to just hit it.”

Though Wong doesn’t have a firm opening date or location, he said his successes only knocked him slightly off track to meet his goal of having SMW 1999 installed and operational in autumn of 2021.

The five-by-seven-foot-tall metal box will feature a panel on the back, allowing it to open like a vending machine. And while the price tag may sound steep, it covers installation and material costs, both of which have risen during the pandemic.

Northeast Ohioans can now get a sneak peek at the SMW 1999 design starting with the recent expansion of the exhibition into the museum’s Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery. Wong referred to the indoor collection as a “behind the curtains” look into the process of creating his illustrations.

But what is it that makes Wong’s work simultaneously mystifying and cozily familiar?

 Symbolism for fun and communication

Wong said that symbols are like visual metaphors, and he uses his art to define it. Stare at Wong’s pieces for long enough, and they do form a certain codex. Like Bouchard discovering the Rosetta Stone, it all sort of starts to make sense.



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 “Sometimes symbols can be really complex,” Wong explained. “But for me, I’ve always loved logos and iconographies and these days I’m even more fascinated with it and combining it with the more detailed illustrative elements and playing with that harmony.”

He says this while facing a steel monolith display called “Choose your Character” which depicts 12 panels beneath the word “Select.” The piece, which has a sister version in blue featuring a different set of a dozen characters, references character selection screens from classic fighting games — think “Street Fighter” or “Mortal Kombat.”

Though the viewer only gets to see a portion of each character’s body as confined to the small squares, each panel has just enough detail to allow one to extrapolate what the rest of them look like.

The use of symbolism is another example of Wong inverting the mundanity of modern art creation, accomplished by repurposing icons created by others and himself.

“So they’re like shortcuts to meaning, but they’re not only shortcuts. They’re also these bold declarations, aside from how they [look] visually, which is just impactful in their minimalistic appearance,” he added. “There’s even some connections to East versus West. So it’s been fun to incorporate those things into the work from just a delight in the juxtaposition and contrast.”

A prime example of this is found in the tongue-twisting “Tall Grass XLR (G. Garden),” the bright fuchsia spread featuring one of the Gundam robots in the center. Despite being a military-designed weapon in the Gundam universe, Wong’s construction stands tall surrounded by grass and flowing water, symbols of the natural world that seem out of place aside the flying tank.


Jordan Wong standing next to “Tall Grass XLR (G. Garden)” at the Akron Art Museum’s Bud and Susie Rogers Garden. Photo by Bob Perkowski.

Jordan Wong standing next to “Tall Grass XLR (G. Garden)” at the Akron Art Museum’s Bud and Susie Rogers Garden. Photo by Bob Perkowski.

The piece also includes a smiling flower that should be familiar to streetwear aficionados. It’s Wong’s take on contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s trademark flower design, with the words “a la Murakami” appearing next to the Cleveland artist’s rendition, which trades the flower’s petals for hexagons.

Besides Murakami, Wong listed his other human influences as Filipino toymaker Quiccs and American figure maker Kaws, whose 3D designs often sell for over six figures. Then there’s Chinese filmmaker and sculptor Ai Weiwei, who has spent time in jail for his activism efforts.

What they all have in common is a taste for the eccentric, exploring their ideas through three-dimensional media. Wong said he doesn’t want to take a deep dive in the 3D modeling game, buthe thinks one of his first original characters — a tiny, caped sumo wrestler who the artist has dubbed “Little Hero” — would be a good fit for a figure.

The Hero’s small size is indicative of the themes of Wong’s art, his desire to triumph over the people and forces that have tried to pigeonhole him and other artists into conformity.

“Sometimes I create imagery that is inspired by like heroics and facing that which is much bigger than ourselves and just straight up terrifying and overcoming that. I mean, that’s what’s in all of the stories that I love as a kid and still love as an adult,” Wong added.

Anyone who has yet to see Wong’s work on the garden walls at the Akron Art Museum should visit soon, as they can now get a deeper look into drawing his process after the aforementioned second part of the exhibit opened in the Corbin Foundation Gallery earlier this month.

Wong said the work that recently debuted indoors consists of additional illustrations and multimedia pieces showing the process he used to create the art on display outside as well as collaborative work between himself and fellow Cleveland artist Karl Anderson.

A collaborative show might seem strange for Wong, whose work often literally speaks its own language and ties into his background, but the vibrant creative said he’s enjoyed seeing how other talents and cultures interpret various styles.

“It’s a curious thing how this Asian aesthetic, and again more in particular the Japanese anime and manga, is not just confined to Asia anymore. It’s truly global and ubiquitous to the point where it’s influencing other works and new series that aren’t even from Japan.

“It’s just so explosive and fun and it’s so wild. It just appeals to that childlike fascination of the wacky, the improbable, the mystical, the imaginative and it just really ignites your creativity and sense of wonder.”

“The 10,000 Things” will remain open for view at the Akron Art Museum through May 15, 2022. The museum is currently open Wednesday through Sunday, between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. The garden is always free during open hours, and the inside is free on Thursday, when expanded hours keep the building open until 8 p.m.

Learn more about Jordon Wong at http://www.wongface.com/.

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Collin Cunningham is a freelance journalist who lives in Tremont.

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