Scrolling through Jai Tanju’s Film Por Vida blog is addictive. You encounter image after image of people you don’t know, doing things you don’t always understand, in geographical areas you’ve never seen before, and swear at the end of each page that this one will be your last.
Tanju is a self-taught freelance photographer from San Jose. He’s well known in skateboard and street photography circles for his gritty sensibility, his undying love of film and his constant companion Frida the dog.
Seven years ago Tanju started the Print Exchange, an international photo / mail art project, as a way to keep connected with friends and make use of the hundreds of photo prints he had stored in drawers and shoe boxes that rarely saw the light of day. “Being a skateboard photographer is a lot like NOT having a job,” says Tanju. “Your job is to wait around for other people to do things. And when there is a shoot, it’s typically in the late afternoon. Being a natural early riser, I had all this time on my hands.”
An artist friend gave Tanju a stack of DVDs to watch as a way to make use of all that spare time. The one he remembers the most vividly is the 2002 documentary How to Draw A Bunny about the relatively unknown New York artist Ray Johnson. Now hailed as an important figure in Pop Art with his collage work and his “New York Correspondance School” (sic) project, Johnson mailed hundreds of his art works to others though the U.S. postal service and encouraged recipients to add to them and send them on to others. Tanju finished watching the film and immediately thought: “Why don’t I get any good mail? It’s all junk.”
Looking at his wall and the pictures he had pinned up there, Tanju pulled down a postcard from his friend, photographer Joe Brook. “It was basically a photograph of him with a hand-written 'happy holiday' note and I thought, ‘Why don’t I get this stuff from Joe anymore?' And realized - well, because you never sent him anything, so why would he send you more?” Grabbing a photo print out of an over-stuffed drawer, Tanju sent it to Brook, and sure enough, Brook sent him one back.
Wanting more “good mail,” Tanju considered that more people could be involved and came up with the name “Print Exchange,” which let the receiver know that he wanted something in return. He sent mail art to his family and friends and posted it on his myspace page. “Anybody want mail?” he asked. It was slow going the first year, about 5 responses, then 10 joined the next year, but the exchange eventually grew to its 300+ current members. Everyone sends out photo prints not only to Tanju, but to each other as well.
At about this same time, Tanju started the Film Por Vida (Film for Life) blog and began posting the front image and address side of each piece of photo mail he received. “I find the sender’s name, their location, what they write, their drawings and even the stamp interesting. I thought other people would find it interesting too.” For five years he was dedicated to the project, answering anywhere from 2 to 10 pieces of mail a day, and posting them for the world to see. He was building a real world-wide web of acquaintances and friends for himself and others, one piece of correspondence at a time.
In 2010, heavy metal photographer (and Print Exchange member) Angela Boatwright offered Tanju an opportunity to co-curate a photo exhibit in New York City at a friend’s gallery. Tanju hung 1000 pieces from his mail art collection on string so that the viewer could turn the pieces to see both sides of the mailed art. “It was cool seeing people interact with it, and because they were randomly flipping the photos, it became this ever-changing exhibit.”
As a result of the NYC show, Jai received offers from Print Exchange friends to take the collection to London, Salt Lake City, Norway, San Francisco and Japan. He caught the curator bug and began wanting his own gallery, but thought there was no way he’d ever be able to afford storefront space in San Jose. Tanju’s wife Blanche kept encouraging him to at least look for a space, and after years of searching, they happened upon the Sperry Building in downtown, a mix-and-match retail hub about to open with the SJ Rock Shop as its main tenant. Jai and Blanche sealed a deal for a 400 sq. ft. street-facing space and opened the Seeing Things Gallery in November 2012. They show the art they like, which covers a broad range of genres, but feature many of the photographers that Jai met through the Print Exchange.
Seeing Things has had over 30 exhibitions in its short two years. Its rapid-fire schedule includes exhibitions that range from a few days to a few weeks and every once in a while the exhibits are by artists that have rented the gallery. It’s not an unusual model for today’s independent gallery owner in Silicon Valley -- we all piece together whatever is needed to make it work.
When I asked Tanju what he hopes to accomplish with the gallery, he laughs and says, “I was dreading this question... I just would like to add to what’s happening here and bring what I have and the artists that I know -- bring some of that to San Jose. I want to add to what we’re all doing here. Most of the people that we know and show are based in skateboarding, zines and photography.”
Tanju points out that our art scene has grown up a bit in the last five years with more independent galleries and creative retail stores opening in the downtown and outer areas and hopes it inspires more people to open more galleries. “I don’t know what the future holds. It’s definitely not easy to sell art, but it is the people here that keep us here. I think it’s a great thing - I think we’ve already achieved a lot.”
And what of the future of the Print Exchange project? “Having a gallery is a lot of work and you feel consumed; there is always a list of things to check off. I don’t know what would be the end of Print Exchange, but I want to keep it going.” It seems to be working out in his favor. An intern has come on to help document the incoming mail art and Tanju recently received a grant from the Knight Foundation to print a series of postcards featuring Print Exchange images. “We’ll have a station with pens, postcards and stamps... basically free correspondence so anyone can send art to anyone else." Tanju thinks this is just the project get new people interested in mail art.
“I think people are coming around to seeing that tangible things are cooler than digital ones,” he says. “Everyone says records are dead, but people are buying records; they say film cameras are dead, ‘no not really;’ that magazines are dead but yet, people are making books, and zines. People are producing things, it’s becoming relevant, they want things; the blogs just aren’t doing it for them.”