“I liked art in elementary school. But as you progress in grades, art becomes less and less important.”
That’s Hoang Tran. He’s a self-taught, professional artist known for the wax sculptures he carves on the tip of Crayola crayons. If you look through his Etsy store, called Wax Nostalgic, you’ll see sculptures he’s done of pop culture icons, like Boba Fett from Star Wars, Gizmo from the Gremlins, and Hobbes (the tiger) from Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
Although Tran is extremely bright, it turns out he was wrong about the role art would play in his life. After progressing through many, many grades, the standard K through 12, then four years at the University of California-Davis, majoring in genetics, and another three years of dental school, Tran came back to art.
He’s been selling and showing his crayon carvings for a little more than two years, and in that short time has accomplished much. His work has been featured many times at Gallery 1988, the popular L.A. space known for showcasing the best in pop-culture-inspired art. He’s done work for massive brands, including Verizon, Progressive, and AT&T. And in November 2015, Instagram’s official account shared photos of his work and he became a viral hit on social media as well as art and pop-culture blogs.
Tran’s art career started the summer of 2013 when a friend named Shiu Pei Luu, now an art director at Facebook, invited him to participate in a one-night, pop-up show at the a.Muse Gallery in San Francisco. Tran was one of about 30 artists participating.
“It was just a pop-up, one-night-only art show, and she [Luu] invited a lot of her artist friends to do stuff,” Tran says.
The question was: what would Tran do?
In grade school Tran drew comics to entertain himself and his classmates. And in undergrad he contributed a weekly strip to the college paper, but his artistic urges were tamped down during the three years he spent in dental school. Tran dropped out at the beginning of his fourth year of dental school. But not before he learned how to carve wax.
“In dental school we had to work with wax and carve teeth out of wax,” Tran says. “So I saw this person carving wax on crayons and at the time I was like, I can do this. I have all the tools needed. I wanted to do it, but I was just way too busy with school and I didn’t ever have any time.”
Now he’d left school, was living in Sunnyvale with two of his brothers, and he finally had the time to give it a shot.
The theme of the pop up was Game of Thrones.
“I wanted to carve the animal mascots of each house, like the wolf, lion, dragon, etcetera,” Tran says. “That was my idea for the show, but at that point, I’d never done anything like this before.”
He did a test run before the show, carving a horse out of a pink Crayola crayon using his dental tools. He liked how the horse turned out so he decided to keep going with the Game of Thrones mascot idea. His first carvings are unlike what he does now in two major ways: he sketched out a kind of blueprint before he started carving, something he no longer does, and he hadn’t yet begun adding color and adding wax.
“Carving teeth in dental school, it isn’t like we start out with a block of wax and we carve it down. It’s actually an additive process,” Tran says. “We start with a base and then we melt wax and add that on to bulk up the tooth and then we carve it.”
Among his dental tools is a machine that melts wax. So when he first started, he knew adding crayon wax of different colors was an option, but it wasn’t something he was initially doing. Those first few months of carving, he would do one color only, and it would take hours and hours to get the character right. Now, for many of the characters he sells in his Etsy store, the ones he’s carved many times, he’s perfected the process and is able to carve much quicker.
“After that first show, I realized I enjoyed doing it and it seemed to get a good reaction from my friends,” Tran says.
Over the next few months he kept carving, tweaking his technique and broadening his subjects. Eventually he decided to sell his work online and started posting photos of his carvings to Tumblr. The carvings were well received online. Some photos he posted of his work would receive thousands of likes on his site.
“That gave me a little bit more motivation because I knew that people actually liked what I was doing,” he says.
In August of 2013, only a few months into the crayon sculpture game, he set up his Etsy store and the next month he sold his first carving. A few websites profiled him and featured his work. He reached out to galleries in L.A., like Gallery 1988 and the Hero Complex Gallery, and they decided to show his work. Tran’s carvings started to gain some traction.
In the beginning he carved what he liked. He did Game of Thrones, a lot of characters from Star Wars and the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time. Now he takes orders, so his subject matter varies a bit. For example, you could hire Tran to carve the bust of your dog on the tip of a Crayola crayon.
“When I’m coming up with ideas, I think about what will fit in the space of a crayon,” Tran says. “It needs to be a long tall cylinder, so some things don’t really work out, things that are really wide, things that have really narrow parts because that could bend or break.”
It’s hard to tell Tran’s story without dwelling on his decision to leave school. He left at the beginning of his fourth and final year.
“There were certain aspects of [dental school] that I liked, like helping people and the satisfaction of the actual work I was doing,” Tran says. “But there were a lot of little things I didn’t like and it just built up until finally my dislike of dentistry overcame my fear of quitting school.”
To hear him explain it, the decision makes a lot of sense from his perspective.
“I thought, why not stay for one more year and get my license and then work for a few years and pay off all my debt,” Tran says. “But if I graduate and have a license, and then start working, I probably wouldn’t quit. Then I would be in dentistry the rest of my life. I thought if I made a solid break, I wouldn’t have a net to fall back on.”
He made the hard choice a lot of us think about but ultimately run away from.
It wasn’t until very recently Tran started to consider his carving a career.
“To be honest, I’ve never really been confident about doing this full-time,” he says. “Just because my work is popular online, it doesn’t necessarily equate to being financially stable.”
But every few months, he’d make a little bit more money than he made the few months before. He saw growth and that helped him stay the course. Regardless, in September he decided to change things up. He moved from Sunnyvale, California to Pittsburgh to live with his sister and think about getting a day job to help support himself.
“I didn’t want to give up because I accomplished a fair amount, but I had a plan to do some extra training or take some classes and try to get a job, one where I can do the job and still do my art” Tran says.
It was a practical plan. But it changed in November when Instagram contacted him and asked if it could share a photo of his art on its official account. He went from 20,000 followers to 40,000 almost overnight (now he’s at more than 70,000). Orders to his Etsy store spiked and he started getting interest from brands to do advertising work.
“It’s been very exciting,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see where it goes because it’s all kind of happening now.”
Tran has had an unconventional path and career so far, but he’s making it work. He’s finding success on his own, without representation, without formal art training, and without a safety net.