A picture is worth a thousand words: Jai Tanju gives a personal touch to digital works

If you scroll through photographer Jai Tanju’s tumblr page, you’ll find exactly the kinds of images you would expect to see from someone who got his start in skateboarding photography: boards in various states of flight, shirtless skateboarders, B-boys in baseball caps, bloodied fingers and faces. What you don’t see is the unabashed earnestness that is the guiding principal in everything Tanju does as an artist and as a person.

Instead of going to college after high school, Tanju did what almost every American adult has fantasized about doing: he packed it all in and moved to Hawaii. “I was more into surfing and skateboarding [than school],” he says. “Through that I started taking photographs of what I was doing.” Before long he was a skateboarding photographer, appearing in the pages of popular skateboard culture magazines like Transworld Skateboarding.

But after 10 years of doing street and documentary-style photography, Tanju was starting to get restless. “I was getting more into being an artist,” he says, getting into painting and collage.

Since they he has shown in galleries across the country, but not just his own work. In response to his own feelings regarding the rapid “death” of print and the breakneck transition into the digital age that happened in the late ’90s/early 2000s, Tanju started the Print Exchange Program, an earnest attempt at capturing the kind of personal connection that comes from receiving a physical piece of mail, and a way to connect photographers with each other to share their work in a personal way.

“Some years ago I decided to start an international exchange of photographers through the mail,” says Tanju. “I was inspired by Ray Johnson and his whole New York Correspondence School. This was at the beginning of Internet blogs and digital photography. I was really struggling with all those things in the beginning.” To him, just getting something physical, an actual tangible photographic print that can be touched and shared, and exchanging these things with other photographers was all he wanted.

Tanju took all the addresses of photographers and everyone else he knew, even his mom and aunt, and sent them photographs. People caught on quickly, and within six months he was exchanging with 20-30 people. He then printed all of the photographers’ addresses in a zine and sent it out to all of them, encouraging them to exchange prints amongst each other.

He then started the blog Film Por Vida (“film for life”) and began posting all of the mail he received on the blog. “Once I started doing that it was really easy for people to connect and to send each other mail,” he says. “It’s grown to 500 people now. I’m more just like the figurehead of it and everyone else is exchanging amongst each other.” He continues to update the blog regularly, showing not just the photos themselves but the envelopes they come in, the little sketches on the back of the photographs, the hand-written notes, the colorful stamps and stickers. He has received thousands of photographs in the mail and still gets anywhere from two to ten per day.

Through his work on Film Por Vida, Tanju got asked to curate shows using the photos from his Print Exchange Program. It started in New York and since then he has curated shows in Salt Lake City, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Norway, and Japan. At these shows people can touch the prints, turn them over and look at the drawings and stamps, and otherwise physically engage with the works in a way that is expressly forbidden in most galleries. Tanju has also had the chance to meet some of the photographers all over the world who have become his de facto picture pen pals.

After curating numerous shows and showing his own work at different galleries, building up buzz all over the world, Tanju decided to open a gallery of his own. Seeing Things Gallery in San Jose opened in 2012 and showcases both local and international artists, most of them people he has met through the Print Exchange Program and through his days in the surfing and skateboarding community in a kind of coming full circle of his life as an artist.

There is no overarching “theme” or mission statement at Seeing Things. It’s not a certain type of gallery that only exhibits a very specific subgenre of art. “It’s more to spotlight art that my wife and I like and people I’ve encountered throughout my life.” Tanju jokes, “We’re flying by the seat of our pants!” The gallery is a mixture of painting, photography, and sculpture, though lately there has been more emphasis on photography. “There was a lack of galleries in San Jose [that focused on] photography,” he explains. They’ve held 25 different shows over the last year and a half, often changing up shows to accommodate artists from all over the world who happened to be coming through town.

Attached to the gallery is a bookstore where they sell books and zines and prints. “There’s nowhere really in San Jose where you can get that kind of stuff,” he says. He has published a number of books and zines of his own through his own Film Por Vida print label. After years of running the Print Exchange Program and surfing the digital tidal wave, Tanju doesn’t believe in the so-called death of print. “It’s more just a reorganization of thoughts and how people are going to view magazines and what magazines are going to produce,” he says. “It’s not so much about advertising anymore [as much as] it is about thoughts and content.”

He sees zines getting more and more popular and predicts that books and print publishing will make a huge comeback. “People are getting bored of the Internet,” he states. With its endless flow of often-mindless content where it has become increasingly more difficult to discern quality from click-bait, and given the widespread cultural push towards all things hand-crafted and artisan and authentic, it seems almost prescient to say that print will see a major resurgence.

Today Tanju works two jobs while also juggling his roles as gallery owner, art curator, and artist. “I don’t know what to call myself these days,” he laughs. He still takes a lot of photographs, makes collages, and exchanges photos with others. Every photo he sends has some sort of doodle or drawing on it. It’s little things like this that he notices and that are important to him. “I don’t know if people notice things as much these days, driving their cars while on their phones.” There is something achingly sincere about everything Tanju does and says, “authentic” in a way that pre-dates the appropriation of authenticity for cultural consumption.