Visual artist Drue Kataoka prefers getting in on the ground floor of any new social media endeavor.

“I love getting involved with emerging platforms, because I feel like when they’re new, they still have a lot of creative malleability and spark in them,” she tells The Japan Times from her studio in California’s Silicon Valley.

Born in Tokyo, Kataoka was an early user of Facebook, Twitter and, most recently, the audio app Clubhouse, where she says she was among the first 1,000 people onboard after it launched in the spring of 2020. In the year since, she has amassed over 705,000 followers, established The Art Club space and has spearheaded various social justice-oriented causes on the app, including a #StopAsianHate campaign and fundraiser that raised more than $88,000 in the wake of increased violence against Asian Americans in the United States.

Striking up a conversation: The Clubhouse app uses portraits of its members for its icon. Now appearing on your phones is Tokyo-born artist Drue Kataoka.
Striking up a conversation: The Clubhouse app uses portraits of its members for its icon. Now appearing on your phones is Tokyo-born artist Drue Kataoka.

Now, she’s the face of Clubhouse — literally, as Kataoka became the latest person to appear as the icon for the app and the first Asian American woman to be featured in the spot. It’s a fitting choice for an early adapter who’s keen to push what’s possible with what’s known as social audio.

“One woman said, ‘I’m so happy there’s Asian representation. I’m in physical tears right now. Thanks for your tireless and inspirational representation. During the toughest of times,’ with a yellow heart and a crying emoticon,” Kataoka says.

Kataoka spent the first five years of her life in the area of Higashinakano before moving to the United States.

“The philosophical roots of my art are in Japanese culture,” she says, citing her early training with sumi ink painting. She pursued art but, as a budding artist, made the unorthodox choice to attend Stanford University in the 1990s.

“I really wanted to be part of this creative ecosystem, much to the chagrin of a lot of mentors of mine who thought that I shouldn’t be in Palo Alto (California) and that if I wanted to build a career in art I should go to New York or Paris,” Kataoka recalls. However, she believed Silicon Valley was shaping up to become the creative epicenter of the world. That hunch, along with some bad experiences in the gallery-centric art world (“I quickly got very disillusioned by the sexism, the racism and the exploitation of very young artists”), prompted her to start her own studio there.

“I decided I was going to take everything back in house, and that I would build my art studio independently — outside of the system — and model it after the very successful startups that I was seeing all around me,” she says.

Her career since has bridged art and technology, rejecting boundaries put between the two in favor of seeing how both sides can play off one another. That was what drew her to Clubhouse.

“The fundamental unit of Clubhouse is the room,” she says. “It’s a very flexible vessel. It can take any shape that your imagination can step up to and bring to it.”

That flexibility also makes Clubhouse a great place for activism. Kataoka says she has always been an activist, organizing philanthropic programs and focusing on political and social issues in much of her work. She believes the platform makes it easier to organize and build a community, allowing activists to focus on getting their message out to the world.

Kataoka has used Clubhouse multiple times to raise funds and awareness, best demonstrated this past spring with the aforementioned #StopAsianHate campaign.

“We led different conversations, not just about the hate crimes but also about Asian culture and identity and the abysmal representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood,” she says.

Kataoka hopes to continue seeing what’s possible with social audio, both as a tool for activism and as an artistic space in which she can experiment. Clubhouse couldn’t have hoped for a better icon.

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