Zhao’s work is big, but his story begins small — in a middle-class family of six in the town of Taiyuan, an eight-hour train ride from Beijing. He was born Jianhai Zhao, a name which, ironically, roughly translates to “achieving something big.” He took the name Pop in 1993 so Americans would have an easier time remembering it.

“I didn’t go out to play with kids just for fun,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste my time.”

As a schoolkid, he’d stay after class drawing until darkness fell. On weekends, he’d take trips to the zoo where he’d draw all the large animals: elephants, lions and tigers. Born in the Year of the Rabbit, he’s never liked painting that animal much, calling it too