Hoang Tran is a self-taught, professional artist known for the wax sculptures he carves on the tip of Crayola crayons. 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. “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. 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 his idea for the show, but at that point, he’d never done anything like that before. Tran 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. “After that first show, I realized I enjoyed doing it and it seemed to get a good reaction from my friends.” 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 him a little bit more motivation because he knew that people liked what he’s doing. 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. Then 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 91,000) on his brand new Instagram account. Orders to his Etsy store spiked and he started getting interested from brands to do advertising work.
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.”
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.
“I try to choose things to carve that I like personally. However since I try to sell these carvings, I also make things that I think other people will like.”
I’m fairly well versed in pop culture so even though I don’t watch for example, Doctor Who, I’m familiar enough with it that I make carvings based on it.”
“The main criteria though is if I can actually carve it out of a crayon and will the end product turn out well. I’ve thought of things that would be just too difficult or time consuming to try.”
“Luckily, there’s an endless amount of subjects to carve so there’s always another idea waiting for me.”
“Each one can take a few hours. It depends on the complexity of the subject, how delicate it is, if extra colours are involved, and so on.”
“Carving something for the first time can take a little longer as I try to figure out the best way to approach it. I’ve made certain characters many times so those because easier to do.”
Some people think that the crayons are painted but all the extra colors are from the wax of other crayons.
“The painting would probably be a lot easier but I’m a purist and want the entire carving to be made of crayon wax.”
“I don’t want to reveal the exact technique but I basically melt wax from one crayon and carefully apply it drop by drop to the main crayon I’m working on.”
In a way, it is like painting, but the artist can also carve it when it hardens.
The tricky part is that the melted wax will end up melting some of the main crayon as well and cause undesired streaks of one color going into the other when he wants them to be distinct and separate.
“Just like with carving itself, over time I’m getting better at handling the melted wax but it is definitely still a challenge at times.”