John Tierney: The Kid Behind @KingPaleWave

John Tierney: The Kid Behind @KingPaleWave


I met John Tierney at West Coast Wine + Cheese, and only knew it had to be @kingpalewave because he walked in wearing a floral velvet blazer – one I've never seen anything quite like. He’s the epitome of boyish yet sophisticated, with a side of originality, quirk, and some 1970s swag (or maybe that was the blazer?). Tierney was raised in Sacramento, and at just 23, is bringing a fresh perspective to the realm of pop art and graphic design. He’s dabbled in acting, filmmaking, and relatively recently took a dive into the Instagram art world. His account @kingpalewave is on the climb, and better yet, he’s not afraid to admit that he’s just getting started.

MO: Your work is becoming somewhat of an Instagram phenomenon right now – where did you begin?

JT: My start actually wasn’t with graphic design. I was an actor as a kid, starting in third grade. Theater and musicals were my thing. My parents signed me up as a kid, and pretty soon all of my closest friends were theater kids.

MO: Theater kids are kind of the best… 

JT: Oh yeah, theater people are the most accepting. It’s a very loving community where all outcasts are accepted. Everyone was really different, and they’re still all my best friends.

MO: So what came after that?

JT: I got really into making short films in college. I made them just for fun, just to learn the medium. Then around January of last year I got freaked out about graduating from college. I majored in marketing because it was like, ok, this is practical, but what should I really be doing?

MO: I did the same thing! The whole “should be doing" thing can really throw you off track.

JT: Yeah! It ends up messing you up! A couple months away from graduating I was like, fuck this. What am I actually doing day-to-day that’s meaningful? I was inspired by other Instagram artists, so I started posting things I made everyday. That’s really how I got started.

MO: So you taught yourself graphic design during that time?

JT: Yeah it’s definitely all self-taught, same goes for film. I kind of just played around with it. I have a lot of fun. But now, having a day job and less free time means I don't have time to learn new programs or play around as much. 

MO: How long have you been at your day job?

JT: About 8 months now. It’s funny, I was in an Uber the other day listening to college kids talk about their plans, and their end goal was just getting a job. I was like, wow, I remember when the end goal was getting a job. Once you get a job, a whole new set of problems arises.

MO: It's so true. Suddenly you're in that job thinking, wait, how did I get here?  

JT: Society pressures are very real for everyone, and everyone fears the unknown. When parents are all freaked out about you getting a job, you believe that they know best. Then, once you're really on your own, you learn that you have to shape your own future. You have to face the day-to-day realities, but also keep going towards what you actually want to do with your future.

MO: Yeah and I think that’s the challenge, having what you need while also chasing what you want.

JT: I've found that the key is to be productively restless. I try to take one small step at a time while learning what the next small step is. My dreams are far on the horizon, but that way, I can feel better about today if I get an inch closer to that horizon.  

MO: I like that method, mostly because it’s so easy to forget that making those small steps towards what you want actually make a huge difference.

JT: I think a lot of people hold onto a very idealized version of their dream. Then, when reality hits, too many people let that dream go. As you get older, your dreams may change or the means of achieving that dream may change, but you can’t give up on the ambition of having these big dreams that you were allowed to have as a kid.

MO: Ugh to be a kid... What is it about being a kid? You're allowed to and even encouraged to believe you can be and do anything. 

JT: Oh yeah, when you’re making art or doing something creative as a kid, you assume that everyone will love what you make because you love it. 

MO: I mean, there’s no question about it. It doesn’t even matter if what you're making is accepted or rejected. You’re just celebrated for creating something.

JT: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I try to make art that makes me happy but whether other people like it also plays a role in it.


MO: How’d you land on the style or the aesthetic that you’ve committed to now, and how do you stay motivated to stick with it? 

JT: I found vintage magazines to be an awesome source. There are people who are far more talented than me, making collages by hand, like @mrbabies. But I think what I've learned is that just because I’m not THE best, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. There are tons of pop artists out there, but I still like to think what I’m making is cool and special.

MO: Do you have any plans to turn this into a full-time business? 

JT: It’s really not important to me if I’m making money on this right now. I’m definitely still learning. If I decide to keep doing digital art, I'll have to find new ways to explore. 

MO: It's so great that you’re willing to admit that you’re still figuring it out, because so many people feel that way and feel this pressure to act like they know exactly what they’re doing, or how they're going to make a living ultimately. 

JT: Oh totally, I’ll always be figuring it out. I think it's an advantage being able to say you're still figuring it out, and then you can surprise yourself when do something cool.


MO: Where do you turn for inspiration? Do you ever run out of ideas?

JT: I run out of sources all the time. My inspiration changes every week. I wish I could say I have one source that keeps on giving, instead I exhaust many different sources. I spend most of my time browsing.

MO: What’s your biggest challenge or hurdle right now?

JT: Finding enough time is the biggest challenge right now, especially with the 9-5. Time is the most valuable resource. I come home everyday and work on my art, but it’s also important for me to kick back with my friends. And as far as what I’m creating right now, I enjoy building an audience. At a certain point, I’ll definitely be branching out and learning new programs. 

MO: What have you learned through creating work and building an audience?

JT: I think the most important thing I've learned is that validation comes from within. Instagram comments and likes don't matter - as cliche as that sounds, it's easy to get caught up in that. In a Surrender Dorothy song, the lyrics say something like, “If you’re a rapper and you’re successful that doesn’t make you a rapper, that makes you a business man.” The same goes for any art – it really doesn’t matter how successful it is, you can’t judge an art based on business skills. There’s also a lot of coolness in not caring at all about who your audience is. But, I do think those artists later down the road might regret not opening up and getting their work out there to people who would appreciate it the most.


MO: Is there any other piece of advice you’d offer a younger version of yourself, or other young individuals figuring their shit out?

JT: Yeah, think of your decisions and the directions they may take you as probability tests. For instance, when you cross the street, if you look both ways, you're probably not going to get hit by a car. If you don't look both ways, you still might not get hit but that probability of getting hit goes up. You can apply the same thinking strategy to your life and what you do. If you work everyday on something, it’s probable that you’ll get better at it.

MO: Anything else?

JT: Listen to The Animal Collective. They're pretty much all I listen to while I create. 

See more of Tierney's work at @kingpalewave, and here

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