AAPI Heritage Month: a GIPHY Arts Q&A With Faith Cao

Published in
7 min readMay 31, 2024

GIPHY Arts commissions hundreds of artists a year, all of whom do impeccable work. This month, GIPHY Arts commissioned Oakland-based artist Faith Cao for a series of GIFs honoring AAPI Heritage Month.

Born and raised from Oakland, California, Cao is a Vietnamese, Teochew and Cantonese American artist who runs a small business called Caoculator. Below, you’ll find an in-depth Q&A with Cao, as well as several GIFs from Cao’s commission.

How did you get your start as an artist? I saw on your website that you graduated in a STEM field before pursuing art full-time, so I would love to hear about that.

I actually get embarrassed talking about it because I graduated in chemical engineering at UC Davis and never entered a chemical engineering profession. During my last quarter of college, I started doing graduation photos and I really loved photography at the time. I realized, I don’t want to do chemical engineering. I really actually hate this. At the time, I just wanted to pass all my classes to get my degree. I was making a surprisingly good amount of money from photography and I was like, “You know what? I can actually make this into a profession.”

After graduating, I moved to San Diego and the pandemic hit. I quickly realized that I couldn’t do photography because who’s going to be taking photos during the pandemic? That’s when I started drawing. I had my tiny little Surface Pro and I was just drawing on a program called Autodesk Sketchbook. I started taking photos of myself and then drawing or lettering on those photos and then posting those online. I slowly started gaining attention and I started making more AAPI art.

I still remember a lot from my chemical engineering days. It’s really funny. Sometimes people will ask me why I remember this random stuff about chemistry. I actually used to really love chemistry and math.

Were you always creative growing up?

Yeah, definitely. In kindergarten, they would ask you to write down what you want to be when you grow up. I always wrote “artist” without fail. Of course, being Asian American and the eldest daughter in my family, when I grew up, my parents wanted me to be a doctor or a pharmacist. Initially, I pursued a path toward becoming a pharmacist, and then I got pulled from my friends in engineering to do chemical engineering. But then, I realized I really did not want to pursue that and I just did it to make my parents proud.

What has been your parents’ reaction to your journey as an artist?

It’s really funny because my parents are very traditional. I’m a first generation Asian American or, it could be debated, 1.5 generation Asian American. When I first told my parents that I wanted to do photography, they were like, “You got your degree in chemical engineering, you should do something with that.” I had to convince them that I could make money doing photography. For a long time, they did not believe me.

It was only until last year when they realized that I was booking big clients and making a living off of my art. My parents were really skeptical at first but I think over time they realized that I’m actually making a living. I’m doing okay. And I’m not struggling. They’re a lot more supportive now.

How did you develop your art style?

It’s definitely changed over time. When I first started, I was drawing a lot of things that were really popular at that time. During the pandemic, Animal Crossing was popular so I drew a lot of inspiration from that and other things that I thought were really cute. I was inspired by a lot of different artists. Nowadays, people remark how original my art style is, but I feel like everyone at some point has created art that has already been created in some sort of way, and it’s just taking inspiration and infusing it with your own unique style and experience. My art really started off with photography, and then it went into lettering, and then illustration.

Now, I’m into printmaking. I really like doing a lot of different types of art, but I think that’s attributed to my ADHD. I can’t stick to one thing. I still feel like it is still changing. I can’t expect my art to look the same a year from now.

Do you have any advice for artists figuring out their style?

I highly recommend artists to have a sketchbook and copy artists and how they draw things to learn their techniques. You also want to give them credit where credit is due and work your way up to learning from different artists and then making that your own, if that makes sense.

How did you get into making GIFs?

I started making GIFs in 2020. It was my birthday and my partner had just bought me an iPad to upgrade what I had been working on. I didn’t want to upgrade — I’m a very cheap Asian. I don’t want to upgrade things unless I really have to. But my partner bought me an iPad, and on there I downloaded Procreate because that was the popular app people were using to make animations.

I actually learned how to make GIFs from a YouTube video by Forest Mori. I watched that video and I was amazed because I realized that you could make GIFs and they could be used on all these different platforms. That’s when I applied to be a GIPHY artist.

I made it my goal that year to make GIFs and that’s how I started getting into it. I’m not a huge animator. There are some amazing animators out there and I would love to upgrade my animation style hopefully one day.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to work on?

I really would like to paint a mural in every big city, like New York. I’m Vietnamese, Cantonese, Teochew, and I would really, really love to paint a mural either in Hong Kong or Vietnam, somewhere out of the country, just to represent my side and have a little piece of myself in the homeland.

I was actually just in Vietnam last month. A lot of my art is heavily influenced by Vietnam as of right now. It’s really funny. I grew up speaking Cantonese, Teochew, then Vietnamese and then English, but I kind of lost a little bit of my Vietnamese. I feel like I’m just trying to reconnect to my Vietnamese roots through art right now; I’m drawing a lot of girls and áo dàis and bamboo hats.

You did a commission for us for AAPI Heritage Month. What do you hope your audience takes away from your commission?

It’s really hard to group a whole set of Asian people under the umbrella term, Asian. The term “Asian American” is such a huge umbrella for the diaspora that we have. I really had to think about how to make it as inclusive as possible, because there’s a lot of discourse on how AAPI isn’t really representative of a lot of different Asian people. I hope that audiences see that I’m trying to include everyone by including terminology like AAPIDA or APISA to represent South Asians and Desi Asians, and especially Native Hawaiians who don’t consider themselves Pacific Islanders, and even Central Asians — there’s a lot of different types of Asian people who get cut out of it all.

I hope people can realize that Asian people are not a monolith, and we are so much more diverse than people realize.

I love this GIF you made that says “Stronger Together.” It really speaks to the origin of “Asian American,” which was originally a political identity and coalition.

Yes, there’s a lot of pitting against each other, but I hope people realize we are one, and we should come in solidarity with each other while recognizing our own differences at the same time. I hope people can get that from what I created.

Is there an AAPI artist or work of art that you feel deserves more recognition?

During my last trip to Vietnam, I met a ton of Vietnamese artists, and I feel like they’re so underrated. The art scene is so different in Vietnam. I went to this art fair called LOCO Art Market, and they host a bunch of artists. One that really stood out to me was Lộn Xộn, which means messy in Vietnamese. Their art is more risograph based, and they’re really trying to put a spotlight on the Sekong River. A lot of people don’t see art coming from there, and they’re really trying to represent that area. I really love that about them, just trying to make art about things that haven’t been popular.

I’m really inspired by my friend Arah Kang. She’s a muralist. I really love her work. I’ve been in touch with Thao Le Thanh. I love their work a lot too, because they do a lot of linocut art. They really are political in their work too. I think it’s really important to have a voice and make art that also supports a good cause. I hope other artists can realize the art that they create is very political, and it does make a statement. It’s our duty to make art that reflects our values.

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