Hock Tee Tan, better known simply as Tan, is a Chinese-Malay artist living and working in London. Tan’s parents were born into farming communities in Guangzhou, China; his mother was of the Sim family, his father from the Tan family and as was customary, their marriage was arranged. Fleeing communist rule in search of a brighter future brought the newlywed couple to the then small fishing town of Bintulu, Sarawak in East Malaysia. His entrepreneurial father opened numerous and varied shops to cater to the booming fishing industry providing for their eleven children of which Tan was the fourth.
From a young age, Tan had a talent for drawing and, despite expectations to join the family business, at eighteen years of age left home to pursue his passion at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. After graduation, he remained in the city, finding employment at the OG Department Store, the Harrods of the East, and for two years was responsible for window dressing and styling.
Feeling less than satisfied, in 1975 he bought a flight across the world to Paris to reconnect with his friend, Lim Kim Hai, who he had studied with at Nanyang. Lim had moved to Paris to work as an artist and is now world-renowned for his highly collectible paintings of apples. However, a couple of months into his Parisian adventure, Tan wasn’t enjoying the lifestyle and couldn’t see a future in the French capital. Instead of returning home, he traveled onwards to London.
There, Tan presented himself at The Malaysian Embassy, which at that time was located where The Mall meets Trafalgar Square. The Embassy offered Tan hostel-style accommodation reserved exclusively for Malaysian citizens. Using this as a base, Tan explored the capital, soon realising that London was where he wanted to be. With his tourist visa expiring Tan had to consider his next steps.
Knowing he could easily secure a student visa Tan decided to return to studying. This presented him with an opportunity to not only remain in the UK but to also get a degree and improve his artistic skills. By this time, many of the University application dates had past, and with the clock ticking on his visa, he had to enrol in some form of further education.
Tan attended an open day at the West Farnham College of Art and Design, (now University for the Creative Arts) and shortly after applied to study for a degree in Graphic Design. Tan has always been extremely grateful to his parents for their support, they generously aided with the tuition and living fees over the next three years. Alongside his study, Tan worked for the college cleaning the ceramic department.
For his final year project, Tan returned home to create a journal of the indigenous Malay people, The Iban Tribe. The Iban’s reputation preceded them as a fearsome warrior tribe renowned for their practice of headhunting and are distinctively recognisable for the tattoos that cover their skin and their stretched ear lobes. Despite this, and with aid of one of his brother’s friends who had a tribal connection, Tan traveled by boat down the Kemena River into the jungle to reach the Long Houses where the tribe lived. Tan’s journal can be viewed here.
Returning to the UK, equipped with the photographs he’d taken and the stories he had been told, Tan submitted his final project. In the summer of 1979, Tan graduated with a 1st in Graphic Design.
Tan now faced another visa deadline needing to secure a job to obtain a work visa to stay in the city he now called home. As with most things Tan does, he adopted a unique approach to securing employment. Carrying a bulging portfolio, Tan arrived unannounced at a number of the capital’s advertising agencies asking to speak to their creative director. Headstrong and determined to start his career, Tan was finally offered a job as an art director. After a few succesful years working in agencies, Tan decided to go freelance enabling him to work on a wider set of projects.
In 2003, following 20 years as a graphic designer, Tan made the decision to return to his earlier passion of painting and drawing. To give his new path the direction it required, Tan enrolled at The Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea. Over the following years, Tan trained in different mediums; oil painting, watercolour, carving and sculpture. With daily life drawing classes, it was at Heatherley’s that Tan found his direction; the female form. It was also at Heatherley’s that Tan created his own unique form of watercolour painting. This method resulted in the Gravity series found here; strong vivid watercolours being painted directly onto a silkscreen which is then pulled through onto watercolour paper. It is this unique process that creates the dripping water effect and stunning images.
In 2009 after six years at Heatherley’s, Tan’s tutor told him that there was no more for him to learn and he should establish himself as an independent artist. Although Tan enjoyed the supportive environment at Heatherley’s, with the confidence of being accepted for exhibitions at Vivartis, New English Art Club, Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the Royal Society of British Artists, Tan took the leap. In the following year, he was accepted by the Affordable Art Fair with his Gravity series, marking the beginning of his professional career as an artist.
In 2012, Tan acquired his studio beside the Thames, enabling him to paint daily and focus on his career as an artist. For the past decade Tan’s work has gone from strength to strength, and is now exhibiting throughout the year across the UK and Europe. With clients from Singapore to the States, Tan’s work has become highly desirable and widely collected.
Tan is constantly pushing the boundaries of his creativity and is now exploring alternative mediums such as neon to capture his signature subject and is becoming bolder in relation to the size and scale of his works.