Creative Lives — Artist Shantell Martin on how she started from scratch twice over, in Tokyo and then New York

Posted 29 August 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

It’s not easy to drop life as you know it and plunge yourself into the unknown, but it’s something that Shantell Martin has now experienced twofold. Her reasoning? “I think it’s definitely good to renew yourself and rethink everything.” Keeping herself well and truly on her toes, she was fresh out of the Saint Martins graphic design BA when she decided to relocate to Tokyo, where she stayed for five years. It was here that she grew a reputation and fanbase as a VJ – she was even voted one of the world’s best. But after a visit to the bright lights of New York, Shantell caught the travel bug once more, uprooting and replanting herself stateside. In a notoriously tough city that saw her struggle to rebuild a career from scratch, she established herself through determination and graft. Her exuberant fluid lines, characteristic faces and rhythmic patterns in black and white have adorned everything from buildings to bikes, textiles to trainers. In the past year alone she released a line of sunglasses with Max Mara, collaborated with Kendrick Lamar at an Art Basel Miami event, and created her own set of drawing tools. Here she reflects on how she got to this point, from using teaching as a ticket out of the UK, to how a work-restrictive US visa became a blessing in disguise.

Shantell Martin

Job Title

Artist

Based

New York, 2009–present Tokyo, 2003–2009 (originally from London)

Clients

American Express, Max Mara, Refinery29, Lexus, B+N Industries, Red Bull, Keep a Child Alive, Saks Fifth Avenue, adidas

Education

BA Graphic Design, Central Saint Martins (2000–2003)

Website
Social Media

Shantell Martin; this image and above photographed by Catalina Kulczar

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I don’t like to overcomplicate it, but I basically draw, and that can be on a variety of different platforms.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The past year has been a fun one. I designed and 3D-printed my own drawing tools. I took part in a charity event for (RED) with Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. I did a project with Kendrick Lamar at Art Basel. I launched a line of textiles that was collected by the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and I launched a line of sunglasses with Max Mara.

Is being an artist something you always wanted to be growing up?
I didn’t even know that being an artist was an option as a kid. There weren’t artists, museums or galleries around me – it was quite the opposite. I grew up just being a little defiant, not settling for things, feeling like I could explore other areas.

Even when I was at art school, this wasn’t something I thought I could actually do. I did my foundation at Camberwell College of Arts and then I went to Saint Martins and did my BA in graphic design. I would have loved to studied fine art, but it doesn’t guarantee you a job. My thinking was: How can I be creative and still get a job? The solution was to study graphic design.

“My thinking was: How can I be creative and still get a job? The solution was to study graphic design.”

Did your studies impact your decision to move to Japan? 
When I was at Camberwell, which was in 1999, I made some Japanese friends. Coming from somewhere like Thamesmead, I hadn’t met a Japanese person in my whole life. I became really interested in the culture – art and movies in particular. Then in 2000, I went for my first trip there and I loved it. I was really drawn to their visual and animation culture. When I graduated with a first class honours, for the first time there seemed to be some kind of pressure to do something or be something.

Going to Japan and figuring out what I wanted to do seemed like a nice way of escaping all that to be honest. I can’t speak for London now, because I left 15 years ago, but for a working-class person to go to one of the best art schools and graduate top of her year, the options were still very slim. I knew that, because the industry is built on nepotism and other factors, that I would still probably end up working in retail or doing something else. So I decided to go and teach English in Japan for six months to a year, and that turned into five years. I started my career there and got to explore who I was on my own terms.

How easy was it to make that move?
Emotionally and physically it was quite easy. As an artist, I think it’s definitely good to renew yourself and to have periods of time where you rethink everything. I interviewed at a lot of Japanese English schools in London and I eventually got a job, trained for a certificate, packed my bags and left – it was a really easy decision. In terms of visas, trying to get one outside of teaching was actually quite difficult. But if you come into the country as an English teacher, the company you interview with and the company will take care of visas, travel and accommodation.

Shantell VJing in Japan

Projection work in a Japanese club

Projection work in a Japanese club

Were there any early projects in Japan that helped your development?  
It was pretty incredible when I first moved there. If you don’t speak the language you feel completely lost in many ways, but you meet these creative communities that have also moved over to Japan. There was also a really strong sense of collaboration, and a culture of sharing ideas rather than guarding them. I’d meet people making music, so I would do the visuals. From there I grew a VJ career, playing big venues, and ended up being voted top VJs in the world. I think that experience really drove this initial passion to make and share what I do, both with collaborators and audiences.

Being a VJ during that time really helped me find my own voice and style. When you’re drawing live, for example, in a club with computers or on a wall with pen, you don’t have time to think, plan, or let insecurities creep in. You don’t have time to hesitate or try to be anyone else.

When did you decide to move to New York and what took you there?
I moved from Tokyo to New York in early 2009. I had been in Japan for five years, knowing I didn’t want to be there forever. I had met a bunch of cool, interesting Americans, who I went to visit. I think anyone who goes to New York on a holiday loves it – there was just a real energy and a buzz there. People talk to you on the street, and that never happened in Japan.

The decision to move to New York was instant. I found an immigration lawyer and applied for an O-1 visa, which is the artist visa. It’s valid for three years initially, and then you can renew it on a year-to-year basis, or apply again and get it for another three years. To get the O-1 visa, I needed to show all my past work, some good references, an itinerary of my plan in the US and guarantees of shows and projects. This was all to prove that I would be an asset to the US industry. It can be difficult, but it was easy for me because at this point I already had a career our there.

“When you’re drawing live, you don’t have time to think, plan, or let insecurities creep in.”

Shantell drawing, photographed by Roy Rochlin, 2016

Drawings at 25 Mercer Street in SoHo, 2016

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Shantell’s solo show at Chandran Gallery in San Francisco, 2017

How did you find the city when you first arrived?
Naïvely, I thought my life in Japan would transition to New York, but it didn’t – I literally had to start my career all over again. It was actually kind of awful. In Japan I had been exposing my art to thousands of people each week. Then you move to New York and no one knows who you are. Here, if people don’t know who you are, they don’t care. VJing, projections and visuals wasn’t really a thing in New York at that time, plus, everyone in New York is an artist. So I completely started again in every single way.

I ended up staying on my friends’ couches and stuff because immigration lawyers are actually quite expensive. You’ll spend three, four or five thousand dollars to get the visa, on top flight costs and bringing your stuff over. In many ways it was also humbling, but it was a struggle for about a year and a half, working out how to eat and pay for the subway.

I started to meet with galleries because I thought it could be a great opportunity to do what I love. They would look at my work and say, “This is amazing. What galleries have you shown in?” I’d say I hadn’t, and they wouldn’t be interested anymore. The gallery world is like this catch-22, quite similar to how it is in London. So I eventually I found other ways of making the art and sharing it.

Kendrick Lamar And Shantell Martin: Music Meets Art for American Express Music, 2016

Was there anything in particular that helped you in those early days in New York? 
I never had a particular breakthrough moment. I just worked and worked until ripples began to appear, getting bigger and reaching further. This work eventually started to come back to me in the form of press, opportunities, collaborations, projects. But this only happened because I never stopped working. If you stop, these things stop; it’s like a never-ending commitment to just keep moving along and to keep progressing.

It was a bit of blessing in disguise that I had an artist visa, which meant I couldn’t do anything outside of art. I tried to get a part-time job in a grocery store and fitness centre but I was on the wrong visa. It meant I had to make artwork, so I just found little jobs and bartered to pay the bills. I also lived a very modest life to fit the money I was earning. You don’t go to anything that costs money, you walk everywhere, socially you sit in parks versus restaurants. 

What would your advice be for someone wanting to become an artist, and move to Tokyo or New York?
If I was to go back and talk to my younger self before I moved to New York, I’d say there’s no rush. Come out for a holiday, a project or an event. Also, wherever you are, are there people who have lived in New York? Invite them for a tea pick their brain, or ask them about New York or Tokyo or wherever it is. There are always resources closer to home than you think. It’s good to gain that information and knowledge before you jump into such a big commitment.

“​One thing Japan taught me is that people try to master things over generations, and there's complete patience there.​ There's no rush.”

Shantell’s collaboration with Max Mara

Work for the Keep a Child Alive ball, 2016

Work for the Keep a Child Alive ball, 2016

Work for the Keep a Child Alive ball, 2016

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One thing Japan taught me is that people try to master things over generations, and there’s complete patience there. There’s no rush. I thought about what I could master in my life or career. For me it was mastering a line, and making it look recognisably me. I think that it’s really important to find yourself and to find your voice within your work. There is a temptation – and we’ve learned it in school from our art teachers – to look at other artists and copy it. But that doesn’t actually help you find your own style. One bit of advice I would give for artists trying to find their voice is to put yourself in a position where you take time out for it. Give yourself challenges where you just draw on your own, take away any thinking or distractions. If you do that enough over a period of time, you start to see certain patterns or repetition. Then you can start to extract these things and slowly build a picture of your natural style. I think it’s a valuable exercise for us all to try is to look inside for that inspiration. Don’t look for it outside.

Posted 29 August 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration, Advertising, Art
Mentions: Shantell Martin, Max Mara, Kendrick Lamar
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