Life in Salt: Honolulu-Based Artist Kris Goto on How Cartoons and Comics Made Way for South Pacific Tattoos, Water and Surf

by Owen James Burke


Art: Kris Goto.

Japanese-born Honolulu-based artist Kris Goto might have one of the most unconventional and eclectic backgrounds of any brine-based artist. She’s been drawing since she can remember, but only recently began calling the sea her muse after settling in Honolulu.


Art: Kris Goto.

From early childhood into her teens, she was primarily–perhaps solely–infatuated with the 19th century Japanese art of “Manga”, a term applied to a traditional form of comic or cartoon-making within Japan and an influence still identifiable in her work today.


Art: Kris Goto.

While in school in New Zealand, Goto found herself mesmerized by the tattoos on her Māori (indigenous New Zealanders) classmates’ tattoos, specifically the swirling lines which illustrate ferns and waves. She began copying them in her sketchbook during class. The seed was planted.


Art: Kris Goto.

Then in 2013, after moving to Hawaii and taking up surfing, Goto experienced the wonders of ‘the green room’, or the inside of a barrel for the first time at a surf break in Waikiki called Kaiser’s. She marveled at how the spray from the lip of the wave hit her face. She imagined popping open an umbrella in the barrel to shield the drops, and something clicked.



Art: Kris Goto

You say your art was inspired by Osamu Tezuka and Yuu Watase; but where did the ocean influence come from?

I think the ocean influence came from just being exposed to the element and one day the light bulb of ideas kept on flickering. I did spend most of 2013 just surfing my butt off (especially in summer). I think I surfed almost every day sometimes twice a day, and it was later that year that the light bulb flickering began more often just from riding wave after wave and seeing people in the line ups and noting down what I felt here and there.


Art: Kris Goto.

I find artists like Osamu Tezuka, Yuu Watase, Neil Gaiman or Dave McKean inspiring mostly for their level of imagination, coming up with stories, scenarios and characters that are beyond my own. They did not inspire me to do what I do now though. But the world they create in their own forms is just mind blowing.


Art: Kris Goto.

How did you come about depicting water like hair? At least, that’s how it looks to me. It seems so fitting, though I can’t recall having seen anything like it, not with those fine angel hair pasta lines. I’m obsessed.

When I dive into the water, then poke my head out of the surface and just float, it gives me this weird sensation of my hair just sucking off energy and sustenance from the water or releasing waste (stress, doubts and all the negative influence I create for myself sometimes) into the ocean from the tips of my hair. I Imagine my hair being more like the roots of a tree. Since my hair is long, it tugs on the water as I emerge. I worked on a few pieces depicting just that. But I actually do not really see them as hair when I include lines in my other pieces. Sometimes I get people telling me that the lines resemble muscle tissues too.


Art: Kris Goto.

And how about the umbrellas?

This one time in 2013, I got my very first barrel at Kaiser’s. Since I had never been in one before, I remember being extremely confused seeing these drops of water in my right peripheral opposite from the face of the wave. And it was splashing on my face, obstructing my view and I was squinting hard. I thought it would be funny to hold an umbrella when you’re in the barrel so that you can see clearly–hahaha.

One day I would LOVE to do a photo shoot of just this. Although realistically speaking, holding an umbrella in a barrel seem very challenging!


Art: Kris Goto.

So you were born in Japan, where Manga captivated you from an early age, but then you moved to New Zealand at age nine–where, by the way, I live now–how was that change?

So what happened was that I was born and raised in Japan until nine, then moved to Hong Kong, then moved to New Zealand for a little over two years, went back to Hong Kong to finish my senior year of high school, then moved to Hawaii when I graduated.

The moving didn’t really affect my obsession with manga all that much actually. I was still drawing manga when I moved to Hong Kong when I was nine, and still kept it up when I moved to New Zealand, and back to Hong Kong. Hawaii definitely changed how I perceived art back then. Manga was all that I ever wanted to do and suddenly I realized that the world was vast and limitless. At that time, I was starting to reconsider becoming a manga artist. I lacked in story-making originality.


Art: Kris Goto.

It’s no surprise that you would have fallen in love with Maori tattoos/artwork–I have too, and am looking to do a piece on Maori art before I leave. Have you implemented any Maori art into your recent works?

Unfortunately I don’t have most of my work from my schooling years. Very sad. But I remember finding the swirly but consistent line works of Maori tattoos very fascinating. I used to copy it on my sketchbook during class, mimicking Maori tattoos on friends’ arms with a pen during recesses. I think it’s probably safe to say that my obsession with lines came from here.

How did you end up in New Zealand, where did you live, and at what age did you leave?

I moved to NZ by myself when I was 14 in 2003. I lived in Tauranga/Mt. Manganui (New Zealand’s North Island) for a year, then moved up to Howick/Auckland for another year. I left after turning 16 in 2005. I went to NZ because I wanted to explore worlds outside of Asia.


Art: Kris Goto.

Where did you fall in love with the sea? You’ve been in Hawaii since 2006(?), but I imagine New Zealand, and perhaps Japan might have influenced you earlier. (You lived in the countryside in Japan, but where exactly? Coastal country?)

Apart from my time in Tauranga and until I came to Hawaii, I wasn’t really that exposed to the ocean (I was in the rice fields in Japan and surrounded by buildings in HK). I had gone to the beach and spent quite a number of times in and around the ocean but never really thought much about it. I definitely fell in love with the ocean when I started to take surfing seriously. No matter how many times I was wiped out and nearly drowned, or ended up with a seriously sun burnt eyes, I always went back for more!

Do you spend a lot of time on the water? Surfing? (I imagine you must to have such a grasp to illustrate the sport so well.) Snorkeling? Kayaking? Fishing?

I would like to spend all day every day in the water, whether it be surfing, snorkeling, diving or just frolicking on the beach. But having more and more work to do (thankfully!) it’s a struggle even to put surfing in my schedule nowadays… I just got this awesome Kahanamoku Sons 9’2” single fin but have only surfed with her twice! Meeh! Going to the beach is such a privilege for me nowadays.


Art: Kris Goto.

Work–in any medium–is a blessing and a curse, isn’t it? I LOVE your fish art, by the way. Especially the one of the girl stuffing the whole fish in her mouth.

With the piece you mentioned, its actually the fish coming out of her mouth. I got the idea when my friend blabbered on and on about absolutely nothing.

Ha! That’s even better. How do you come up with this stuff, or, better yet, how do you organize these ideas in order to translate them onto the blank page?

In that Fishy series, the fish has this implication. I usually work in series, having all the pieces in that same series follow the same theme. Therefore the Rice and Surf series, Wipeout series, In the Element series and such.


Art: Kris Goto.

Have you ever thought of doing film? Something tells me you and someone like Thomas Campbell–of Sprout, The Seedling, The Present, etc.–would make magic.

I have thought of doing film but have zero experience or knowledge as to how to make it happen. Thomas Campbell would be doing a lot of guiding. It would be so awesome to see my art come to life and to see the pieces start moving on their own! Sometimes I imagine the world I will be able to create with the power of technology.


Art: Kris Goto.

What is/are your favorite piece(s) of gear or gadget to have on the beach with you–the absolute musts?

My sketchbook, pen and water are a must! Or a book I’m currently reading.

Well now I’m going to have to ask of you the impossible: what’s your favorite ocean book?

. . . Because you asked, I actually went through my books and was surprised to see that I don’t have a single book about the ocean! I have a lot from Orson Scott Card, Robert B. Parker, random novels my friends recommended, graphic novels, a few artsy magazines, children’s picture books (I LOVE picture books) and just WAY too many manga!


The closest thing to water that I read recently was The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This one was really trippy.


Photo courtesy of Kris Goto.

Follow Kris Goto on Instagram, Facebook, and check out more of her portfolio at her website, here, and if you ask nicely, she might even bedazzle one of your surfboards for you. –OJB

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