TLSJ Vol.1


Fiction. Based on a True Interview with Shrine. 17 minute read
“I had a lot of those moments, but that was the one that stands out as being kind of like, you’re either going to do this or you’re not. And it’s like, ‘why can’t you do this’? Because of your grandmothers. That’s not going to change. So in that moment, it became clear to me that you can’t kill yourself. As much as you might want to? You’re going to have to stick around because it’s just not fair.” -Shrine


by Mingjie Zhai

Shrine—He is holding a cup of Joe, leaning casually against his art van. It was 5:40 am. Most of the Angelenos were still dreaming of global travel or making love at this hour, but when MJ woke up 4:30 this morning, the last thing she expected was to walk into the conscious world dreaming. She stepped into the arts district at DTLA.


“It’s a documentary interview,” she had explained.

With no budget. She failed to mention that.

“It’s for suicide prevention,” she had told him.

My suicide prevention. She failed to mention that.

Perhaps that’s why she dreaded this interview.

They’re going to discover that I’m a phony.

She overthinks.


Perhaps that is why she is late.  MJ is ill-prepared, ill-dressed, and frankly, just ill. Ill from the anxiety of having human-to-human interactions. He cooly leans against the vehicle. He is on time. Jim, the videographer, is here. Shrine is here. She is 10 minutes late and now walking up to both of them looking like she had just gotten out of a burner party—hair disheveled and colors clashing.

He continues leaning while she is putting money in the meter. Los Angeles is so expensive. All eyes on her. They know, she knows, this is her project, and she was the last one there—10 minutes late. In Los Angeles, that’s an instant “onset fire.”. The energy is stiff. MJ is now beating herself up for it.

The way he leans, it has a West Side Story cool factor. Cartoon eyes. His gray owl eyebrows raise as she draws near.

“So this is what I had just finished,” he says.

Both Jim and MJ look up at the three-story mural, an elaborate display of earth tone colors splatters in elaborate shapes and sizes.

Photo by Jim Francesco

Photo by Jim Francesco

Bleeding Black Heart

“I love the black bleeding heart with the words, ‘Los Angeles,’ inside it,” MJ tells him. “You’re telling all of our stories, especially mine,” MJ smirks back at him.

Looking at the mural, MJ notices from the corner of her eye, Shrine observing her observing his art. It’s as if she was somehow observing Shrine’s body. Naked. Vulnerable.


To her right, a vast array of colors floods her senses. It was the 3-story mural of Angel City Public House & Brewery, located in the heart of DTLA’s art district on Alameda and 2nd street. They had commissioned Shrine to paint this historical building.

Her eyes fall upon Shrine. His spirit reminded her of Peter Pan—ageless, like the mural on his body, inked through many travels his art has taken him. With over sixty interactive walls around the world and over fifty murals in Los Angeles, this man keeps busy.

Many thoughts race through his mind in a single second. He’s hyper-aware. He senses the anxiety, perhaps from MJ for being late, perhaps from Jim for being new to LA. As if to relieve the collective state of everybody’s tension, Shrine starts to point out the flaws in his mural. Don’t beat yourself up. I’m not perfect either. He starts pointing out the flaws.

The energy level rises. They become comfortable. Shrine isn’t just a physical artist; he is an energy artist.


Los Angeles is a new start. He just got out of a hectic relationship and moved to LA from Philadelphia to start anew. It’s been awhile since he had picked up a camera and now the adrenaline kicks in. He’s glad to see MJ.

This is what he’s meant to be doing. Filming—It’s why he went to film school in the first place. Now that he’s in LA, what’s my excuse?  He’s here. That’s what matters. This is why he came here to LA. He’s getting back into his creativity again.

Shrine inspires him.

Perhaps it’s because this man is making a living doing what he loves. He doesn’t want to think about what he would be doing three hours from now. He would be sitting in front of the computer again, resizing photos all day. It pays the bills, but this….this is why he came to LA.


“How did you become a successful artist without the formal education?” MJ asks.


She was mostly asking for herself. She had quit her job, and now she’s staying at a friend’s place because she couldn’t afford the Santa Monica studio apartment on an entrepreneur’s non-existent salary. Now she’s acting as a producer. She wants to know the secret behind his success. Though she says nothing of this nature, Shrine picks up what she’s putting down.

Taking Responsibility

He becomes excited.

This is why Shrine does art.

Moments like this.

To inspire others.

Shrine begins talking about his early struggle:

He was living in a tiny apartment with two kids to feed. Already separated from his mother’s children, he was determined to transition out of construction and into making a living from his art. One day, he had overheard two wealthy businessmen talking while he was painting the mural of House of Blues.
“So how was the deal?” the first businessman asked.
“It went well. The guy made off with half of what I was ready to give him,” the second business man bragged.
“Yeah, you are worth what you say you’re worth,” the second businessman said.
Money was all made up. Son of a bitch. A few weeks later, Shrine bought two books on negotiation, read it cover to cover, and the following week, when House of Blues commissioned him for another project, Shrine applied what he had learned. It had paid off.

“Take responsibility for every single thing that you have created in this reality,” he continues.

After the interview, Jim offers to do a follow up for Shrine’s next project, this time at a church. This is MJ and Jim’s project, yet she has a hard time accepting help from him.

“I’m not taking advantage of your time am I?” she asks him.

“Not at all,” he responded, “I’d love to go.”


3 months prior

“It’s for suicide prevention?” Kristen Woo repeated MJ’s question.

“Yes,” MJ said.

They were side by side.  Dream Rockwell was giving her press speech on the synergy of transformational festivals.

“You have to meet Shrine. He’s got a beautiful story to share,” she said to MJ. She led her to a tall, skinny, and mysterious man.

2 months prior

“So what do you want me to talk about?” Shrine asked over the phone.

“Um. It’s for suicide prevention,” MJ said. She was driving to a show. He was tired. He had just gotten back from Croatia.

“Artists tend to have bouts of depression, and I’ve noticed there’s so much stigma around it. It gets worse when we don’t have a place where we can openly discuss it,” MJ said.

“So what do you need for the interview?” Shrine asked.

“I’m asking you for your personal story about love and loss,” MJ said.

“Relationships?” he asked.

“It could be anything. When we become vulnerable and share, it helps another person out because then they don’t feel so alone,” she continued,, “so anything that’s related to love and loss. It could be death, an identity, or a relationship.”

Pause. It seems like an eternity.

“Yeah, I think I can say something about it,” Shrine said.

1 month prior

“I’ll give you my home address,” Shrine says. “You can take photos, videos, whatever. I don’t have to be there. The door’s always open. People come and go all the time. I will say the front yard looks like death. I haven’t done any work in years but it’s grown on me.”

Three months after Post-Production

Perhaps it is because MJ remembers how much his grandmother means to him that she brings her up the first chance they are together again. Perhaps it is MJ remembers Shrine stating how he almost blew his head off in the interview that she confides her multiple suicide attempts.

The production is finished. Can you blame the editor? It wasn’t like she could pay him. Yet, she was angry. Angry that nobody else cares about this project as much as she does. Paid or not.  She didn’t edit the footages, but it still reflects on her. She came over to his house for tea because he invited her when they met at Symbiosis, but really, it was so she could come face to face and apologize that it came out half-assed.

“Take responsibility for every single thing that you have created in this reality,” Shrine had said. 

“I’m going to redo the entire article,” she says to Shrine.

“I thought you already finished it,” he says.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t happy with it,” she says.

She was speaking for both of them.

His understanding of her inner turmoil lingers at the tip of her sentence endings. A pause. Silence. Energy. He feels her sincerity.

The topic changes.

“I’m still struggling with it. Everyday,” MJ confides.

She looks into his eyes. They are red.

She’s speaking for both of them again.

“I was sick all last week. So sick, I couldn’t move. For a week, I was in bed, isolated from everyone. My phone was dead…”


“It was interesting…” Shrine said.

This is a man who has gone to the abyss. He has ridden the downward spiral plenty of times and looked into the eyes of demonic insanity.

Yet, they both have loved ones here that keep them both grounded. His kids and grandmother. Her parents. His art. Her Love Story.

Without them, they would both be floating like a balloon, rubber that never loses its air.

“I had a lot of those moments, but that was the one that stands out as being kind of like, you’re either going to do this or you’re not. And it’s like, ‘why can’t you do this’? Because your grandmothers. That’s not going to change. So in that moment, it became clear to me that you can’t kill yourself. As much as you might want to? You’re going to have to stick around because it’s just not fair.” -Shrine

A few months later

They are now drinkers. Tea drinkers. He made chai—brewed from a bronze miniature kettle. They are tea drinkers who discuss death their second in-person meeting.

“I want you to consider joining the Board of Advisors. We need an artist’ perspective. As someone who has attempted, you understand the mission. You will enhance it.” MJ says. She shows him the prototype. She shows him the printed journal with the quotes from previous artists who, like him, have opened up. Shrine was distracted by her high energy–her eagerness to show him, sell him, persuade him. Her nervous energy pervades the cool ambiance of his house.

He shows her pictures of when he started his own non-profit project almost a decade ago. Pictures of school walls painted with vibrancy—vivid colors in gray neighborhoods in the poorest communities. He’s been through this. MJ realizes. Should she be nervous that this is a non-profit? It ain’t easy, is what he conveys.

He takes pieces of trash and builds them high because he appreciates the beauty in the ugly— Kristen and most of the art community calls him the Godfather of Art in Los Angeles.  Shrine has taken a liking to MJ. She wonders if it’s because she has been feeling like trash the past 4 years, abandoned by her ex-husband, defrauded out of her money by a digital magazine hustler, and feeling too embarrassed to ask for money for her organization.

And like trash, he sees treasure and builds them up where they can be appreciated again.

He picks up her energy. Quick. Too quick.

“If you ever need someone to call. It doesn’t matter the hour, you call me,” he says. His eyes are red, perhaps weary from the long hours installing his pieces in Croatia, in Florida, in wherever his art takes him.

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