When Shantell Martin was a kid, she wrote something on the back of her bedroom door:
Who are you?
A simple question. An impossible question. A vital question.
Harnessing the raw potential of the black line, the artist has drawn her way through life, from a difficult childhood in the projects of Thamesmead, London, to art school at Central Saint Martins university, to early fame as a live-drawing VJ in Japan, to her current life as an artist in New York City, appearing on the likes of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “Gossip Girl.” Along the way, she has worked with everyone from Nike to Tiffany & Co., Kendrick Lamar to MIT.
And yet as she has evolved, she has maintained the core quest from her childhood: to be herself, and to constantly seek whothat might be—reminding us all that there is great power in the answer.
As you listen to this latest episode of Design Matters, we have a new feature here for our Drip Community: a glimpse at who Martin has been, and who she is at the moment today.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
All images courtesy shantellmartin.art.
A SAMPLE OF SHANTELL MARTIN'S WORK
Shantell Martin: My approach is, in a way, I'm going to do anything I like, anything I'm excited about, in any type of medium, in any type of industry, because that's what I want to do.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with artist Shantell Martin about her unorthodox career and about the business of making art.
Shantell: You know, we put artists through art school, and then we spit them out. And then they're taken advantage of.
Curtis: Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Shantell Martin draws on everything. She draws on cars. She draws on shoes and clothing. She draws on walls and buildings. She draws in black marker on a white surface, and usually on a grand scale. She also collaborates with musicians like Kendrick Lamar, with technologists and designers and with dancers. In late 2018, for the New York City Ballet, she created large scale drawings in the performance hall and foyer at Lincoln Center. She joins me today to talk about her unique style, her career path, and her many collaborations. Shantell Martin, welcome to Design Matters.
Shantell: Thanks so much for having me.
Debbie: Ever since you were a kid, I understand that you were obsessed with the number 27. Tell us about that.
Shantell: Quite simple actually, just I really love the shape of it. I think it's the best looking number of all the numbers. And when you kind of obsess about something, it starts to gain meaning and value in a way. And so I would see the number 27 everywhere as a kid, from bus numbers, to footballer shirts, to numbers on the road. It just became something kind of magical and almost a beacon in my life, and I would follow the number wherever I could.
Debbie: Now the number seven is an unusual number in that it can both be shaped with curves or straight lines. Which do you prefer?
Shantell: I prefer the straight lines.
Debbie: How come?
Shantell: I haven't thought about it actually before. It just looks better with straight lines.
Debbie: I was actually thinking you would say curves, that somehow the curves of the two and the curves of the seven somehow complemented each other.
Shantell: Yeah. I'm going to have to think more about that because that question came out of the blue, so we might do a little follow-up on this.
Debbie: Okay. Good.
Shantell: On just that question a little bit more.
Debbie: I thought about it quite a long time wondering what you were going to say about curves versus hard lines. Shantell, you grew up in Southeast London in Thamesmeade, a housing project characterized by lots and lots of concrete. And in one of the videos on your YouTube channel, you show a picture of your family, where you're posed with five Caucasian looking siblings. And you've said this about your brothers and sisters, "The only brown skinned girl with a an afro in what felt like a very blonde hair, blue eyed world." You had a different father than they did, and said you never fit in. But you said it taught you that you didn't need to. In what way?
Shantell: It's interesting. We all have assumptions about people. And those assumptions, in a way, is our baggage. For example, when I was at university, I didn't live at home. And I went back to visit my family one day, and I walked into my house. And when I was walking in, I heard someone should, "Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. A black girl just walked into your house." And I stopped kind of stunned and looked around and thought, "Where?" And then my sister stopped and did the same and was like, "Where?" And for the first time I really noticed is that, oh, the outside world see me as something different from my family. My mum's white. My brothers and sisters are white. We ate the same food. We grew up in the same house. To me, they're my sisters. To them, I'm their sister. It's not half or anything like that. But as soon as you step out of your house, you have to play a different role because people see you in different lights and in different ways. And in a way, you have to wear what people see you as sometimes.
And I describe that environment I grew up as my first passport because if there's something very unique or different about you that stands out, it doesn't have to be physically how you look, it could be the music that you listen to, or the interests that you have, people start to treat you differently. In a way, you don't have that pressure to fit in. You have freedom or a passport in a way to be yourself, or find yourself, or discover yourself because people are not accepting you, in a way. And so in many, many, many ways, that's refreshing and it's freeing. But as a young person, you don't really realize that's the case.
Debbie: Did you ever feel oppressed by what people expected of you or thought about you?
Shantell: Quite the opposite. There was no expectations. I'm growing up in a place that's ... I'm sure people had a very, happy, healthy, great childhood there. I can't say the same for me. But it's a place where my mother didn't finish school. Her mother didn't finish school. Most of the kids that I know didn't finish school. Their parents didn't finish school. And it's a part of this kind of working class cycle where there aren't a lot of positive influences in the area, and therefore, there's no real expectations for you to do anything beyond just be there. And so we're not seeing scientists and artists and engineers. We're just seeing people that don't finish school, or maybe get a job, or maybe get pregnant, maybe get a flat, or something like that.
In a way, because there's none of those expectations for you to go to university, or for you to speak another language, or for you to travel, there is a sense of I can do whatever I want because no one's going to tell me what I should do.
Debbie: You've said that artists don't choose the career of being an artist. It chooses them. But while you were growing up, you didn't really have exposure to art, or to artists, or to galleries. You had cartoons. Was that your first entryway into considering or practicing the life of an artist?
Shantell: Totally. When I was younger if you asked me, "Shantell, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I would've said a runner or a cartoonist. And when I think about that, it's like, oh, because cartoons was probably the most creative thing I had a connection to. And I loved all the Disney movies. I loved waking up on Saturday morning, watching all the cartoons. And I felt that, that's something that I could do because I enjoyed them. I related to them. I felt that there was an artistry to them, and even not really knowing what that meant beyond that. But it felt like something that was obtainable, or something that I could do.
Debbie: As you were growing up, your mom's partner, Colin, was an alcoholic. And I understand that he wasn't particularly nice to you, which then resulted in you keeping to yourself and creating art in your bedroom. Two questions. What were you making back then? And why wasn't he nice to you?
Shantell: Yeah. Wow, we jumped right in there.
Shantell: To expand on that a little bit, it's like sometimes when a lot of us are coming from, you can call them nonfunctioning homes, my mum, she didn't finish school. Her mother didn't finish school. It's a working class system. There is a lack of resources. There's a lack of support. There's a lack of alternatives. And so I feel like for a lot of these women, they're stuck in a way. And so my mom unfortunately ended up in a situation where I had a couple of stepdads who weren't nice, who did drink, who also themselves probably came from complete broken homes, and didn't really realize what they were doing either because there was no other real model beyond that.
And so I think my stepdads weren't very nice to me in a way because they weren't very nice to themselves or anyone else around them. There wasn't any other way than that. That was normal. And growing up where I grew up, that was normal. It wasn't kind of outside of that. And so in a way, I did go into my shell because I'm also very, very different from all of my family. My family are very loud. They're very in your face. They're not shy at all. And I say that I'm shy, but I don't know if I grew up anywhere else, maybe I wouldn't be. But growing up in the family that I grew up, I did tend to become more reserved. I did tend to be more by myself. And I think that was me, in a way, creating a safe space around myself. That was me creating a bubble around myself.
And so you survive. And I think I survived by creating this safe place around me, and by also getting stuff out through drawing and through writing, not knowing that it was art at the time, but knowing that it was a tool that I had to get these things out. And the writing that I did at the time was very lost. It was very helpless. It's very dark. And I look back at this stuff and I say, "Wow. That person was in a really, really dark place, in a really lost, helpless place."
But they were so lucky that they had this gift or this access to pens and paper, and a tool to get this stuff out. And I wonder often that people coming from similar situations and backgrounds, if they don't have that. Then how do they deal with those things? If they don't have that, how do they get all that anger and stuff out? If they don't have that, how do they evolve and experience their environment? And so the stuff I did was very dark, and lots of skulls and red and black, and words. But within there, I feel like there was still this fundamental fingerprint or identity that is still recognizably me now, even when I look back.
Debbie: I often think that while artists tend to be more sensitive, and see the world through that sensitivity, it's often what saves especially children from brutality.
Shantell: It's a way to deal with trauma in a way. Art, in a way, it is something that creates connection. It is something that creates experience. But it's also something that as us, as artists, we're able to self explore and self discover and self wonder and self explain. And there are lots of things that we can't really explain growing up in families and with our parents with these systems and with these patterns. And maybe art is a tool that somehow gets us closer to these answers, and somehow allows us to discover these things, and somehow allows us to understand that it's all okay, and that we can create and make. And that's perhaps a different path, or an alternative path, for us.
Debbie: Even back then you were using somewhat unconventional canvases for your artwork and your writing. You draw characters underneath your bed, on the insides of your curtains. What drew you to drawing on these sort of hidden parts of things?
Shantell: As a kid, I was always getting in trouble for drawing. It's something that I did all the time. I couldn't help it. I'd draw on my hands. I'd draw on friends at schools. I'd draw on my clothes. I'd draw on their clothes. I'd draw on the back of my school books. And I'd get in trouble for it all the time. So in a way, as my character became more reserved, so did my drawing, and my drawing would hide, and so I would end up drawing behind my curtains, or like you said, under my bed, because those are places that people weren't going. And the drawing wasn't exposed, and I wouldn't get in trouble if people couldn't see what I was drawing. But I was still able to get it out and do what I felt like I needed to.
Debbie: When did you realize that you were dyslexic?
Shantell: It's funny. I didn't realize I was dyslexic until my first week at Saint Martins. First week of art school at Saint Martins, I was writing some paperwork, and my friend sitting next to me looked at that and said, "Have you gone and gotten a dyslexic test?" And I said, "No, I'm not dyslexic." And she's like, "I think you are." And so being in an environment where absolutely everyone was dyslexic, it was quite apparent. And so I wasn't ... I was quite old actually. I think I was probably 20, 21 then. And at that time, I reflected back and remembered all the school breaks that I missed because I was in detention because I couldn't pass my spelling tests, and all those times I got in trouble for not reading fast enough. And so I was conflicted when I found out about it because I also realized that people hadn't paid enough attention beforehand. And they'd punish me for their lack of paying attention and seeing this.
And then on the other hand, I felt like, oh, it's a superpower, because now I know that it exists, and I know why I do these things in the way that I do them. And I know I'm surrounded by lots of people who can relate to this superpower. And so there was a plus and a positive side to it too.
Debbie: Before we start talking about your 20s, because I could easily go straight with you into that experience, I do want to ask you one more thing about things that you were drawing as a kid. Can you tell us what you wrote on the back of your bedroom door when you were a teenager?
Shantell: Yeah. On the back of my door, I wrote these words, and they're quite simple words. Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? And actually, I had them on my door later in life too. It was a reminder, not even a reminder, it was a question. It was a challenge. It was an adventure to ask myself and ask ourselves, who are you, everyday I think is quite a profound and important thing. And so as a kid, not knowing who I was, not looking like anyone around me, not thinking like anyone around me, and feeling quite lost all the time, it was something that almost grounded me in a way, this bigger existential question of just asking ourselves: Who are you?
And later in life, I learned to just lose some of the letters. So instead of the, "Who are you?" The first three letters are WAY. So now I can think about, well actually, this is a more practical way to think about that question. How am I finding my way in life? How are you finding your way in this life? And for a lot of us, it's an easier question to tackle because it's practical. I'm finding my way in life through this language of words and lines and drawing. You're finding your way in life through design and conversations and everything else. And so it's become almost like a theme or a philosophy within my work now.
Debbie: With who are you, the first three letters of each word spell out WAY. And then you also have another phrase. Are you, you? And you are you. And I kind of love that the first three letters of you are, you spells YAY.
Shantell: Yeah. It's kind of a little cheesy.
Debbie: Oh, I don't think so.
Shantell: But it becomes a philosophy. I'm finding my way to YAY. YAY is this place of celebration. YAY is this place of understanding. YAY is this place of knowing and loving self. But YAY is also this place that when we get there, we also realize that there's so much more to be done. There's so much work and learning and growing and understanding that still needs to be done. And so it's important to go back to that first question of: Who are you? And ask it in a new, unique way. And that's where the words, "Are you, you?" Or the question, "Are you, you?" Comes from.
And are you, you, is kind of like A or I, it doesn't really make any sense, but it shouldn't because you're on that path again. And so when you think you know yourself, you have to question yourself again. But question yourself in a different way. Otherwise, you're not learning. You're not growing. You're not progressing. You're not understanding that we're on this journey.
Debbie: When I met you, I think it was last year at Jessica Walsh's Ladies Wine and Design, you gave me one of your stickers that you have in your pocket. Who are you? And I look at that every day. It's now in my closet where I pull out what I'm going to wear every day. And it's on a little shelf, and I look at it every day. And I ask myself every day, so thank you for that.
Let's go back to 21. You're 21 or 22 when you created your first character, the hanged robot. And you've described him in the following way. He was a character that was unhappy, hence the frowning face, but he had a heart. He had a noose around his neck as well. But it had been cut free. He had a chance to create a new future for himself. He was lonely and upset, but had a heart and wanted to see the world. Shantell, you've said that the Hangman summed up who you were at that age, angry, upset, and feeling like you had no control over your future. But you had a heart. How did you first come upon the idea of Hangman? How did he emerge from you?
Shantell: I think as close as I can get to the answer is at the time, I had a roommate; he was a B boy and he was tagging. And when we walk home at night, he would tag and I would watch out, or just wait for him. And then at some point, I got bored with waiting for him, and I thought, "Oh, I want to do something too." And so I started to create, or draw, or throw up Hangman. And I don't really remember where it started. I think it was something that I was just sketching, or just doodling, or just making before that, because one of my first, and maybe I can dig this out at some point, one of my first business cards that I made when I was at art school was a wooden cutout Hangman that came with a little noose.
And so I know it was around before I started throwing it up, but I can't really remember exactly where it came from. But I do remember it. It was a character that, like you said, it summed up how I felt and who I was at that time. I knew that there was this potential, but I was just so angry and lost. And maybe it's just a part of being an art student, or being in your late teens or your early 20s, is that you do go through this kind of depressed, angry phase. And Hangman, wherever he came from, seemed to sum all that up.
Debbie: When did you stop drawing him?
Shantell: I stopped drawing Hangman when I moved to Japan, I think. When I got to Japan, there was this sense of relief, or a sense of a new adventure. And I had to leave a lot of this baggage, or this anger that I had growing up in London behind when I moved to Japan because I felt in a way that Japan and Tokyo didn't do anything to me. I didn't have the right to be angry at Japan. I didn't have the right to go around defacing its walls. It didn't know me. It didn't do anything wrong to me. And so I felt like when I moved there, in a way I had left Hangman in London.
Debbie: Before Hangman, but while you were in high school, Bexleyheath, I believe.
Debbie: You were very into sports. You mentioned running. You thought at that point you might even become a pro athlete. Where did the athlete and the artist begin to separate?
Shantell: Yeah. Pro athlete, that sounds so professional right now. But when I was running for my school and I was running for a team, and I was running the 200 meters, I was always fast. It was something that I was good at. I was always the fastest girl in the school.
Debbie: That's amazing. I was always the slowest.
Shantell: It's good being the fastest because people respect you.
Debbie: Yeah. It is.
Shantell: There's a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with that.
Debbie: And cache.
Shantell: Yeah. I had a bit of an ego when I used to be like, "I'm going to be you. There's no point even running." I think what happened is probably when I turned 16, 17, I got a boyfriend. I started exams. I stopped training as much. And to be a successful athlete at that time, that's the only thing that can exist. That's the only thing that you can be doing. And I didn't have the discipline. I just didn't. And I didn't know anyone around me that was that disciplined about anything themselves, so it felt okay. It felt okay if I just didn't follow-up and do this thing that I had some talent at.
Debbie: It's interesting that you say you didn't think you had enough discipline, because looking at your career in art, it seems like you're one of the most disciplined people on the planet. So maybe it was just the passion wasn't there, not the lack of discipline.
Shantell: Yeah. I think the path's already there, and we're on it. And it just wasn't meant to be because I believe that I can and will have much more impact doing what I do now than I would've if I became a professional runner for a few years and then changed careers after that.
Debbie: Is it true that one of your teachers in high school told you not to apply to art school because you wouldn't get in.
Shantell: Yeah. I don't really fault him for that. In a way, I do and I don't. It's like you want to be realistic, in a way, with your students. And knowing, I guess, kind of where I'm from and, in a way, I guess one, my teacher wanting me to do something more practical. He was just like, "Don't do this art stuff. Don't go to art school. You're not going to get in anyway. You might as well go on a path where there's perhaps more certainty, and maybe you can get a job doing that. And so that's more suited to you, so don't do that." Saying that at the time, there wasn't anyone telling me anything else that I could do. And I've always been a little bit defiant. So if someone's going to tell me I can't do something, there's something in me that wants to prove them wrong. At the time, I don't even think I really wanted to go to art school. I just wanted to prove him wrong, and so I applied, and then I got in. But yeah, basically that happened.
Debbie: And does he know what's become of you?
Shantell: No, no idea. Actually-
Debbie: We should find him.
Shantell: I've spoken to a couple of older art teacher, and they've heard this too. And they're like, "He was a grumpy whatever anyway." But I've also been back to my old school, Bexleyheath School, and spoken there. Now it's actually called Bexley Academy. And that was a strange experience because I went back and I said, "Hey. I was dyslexic when I was here, and you all punished me, and it felt horrible. But now you're inviting me back to speak to your students." And they said, "At that time, it wasn't that good of a system. But we're better now." And then I said, "You didn't even encourage me to do art, but now you want me to come back and encourage these younger students to do art." And they said, "Well, now we're focusing more on the creative kind of subjects. And you'll be a great kind of influence and inspiration to them."
Debbie: And so did you go?
Shantell: I did. I did. And it was a really weird experience going back and walking through some of the old hallways and stuff. And just looking at these kids who are 13, 14, and have no idea where the rest of their lives will go, and just also imagining myself back there as a 13, 14 year old that had no idea. Couldn't even imagine the life that I had now. And it was a strange, reflective experience.
Debbie: It's sort of amazing to look at the trajectory of a life and see yourself back in that time, when you sort of feel who you are now, but know that you were so different then, but you're still the same person, and wondering when those changes actually happen.
Shantell: Yeah. Those changes creep up on us.
Debbie: You studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins. And you had a specialization in illustration. But at that point, did you want to be a graphic designer?
Shantell: Graphic design seemed like the safe bet. I didn't want to do fine art because I thought fine art was for rich kid and kids that didn't really need to get a job at the end of art school. And so graphic design for me seemed also like the most practical, the most functional, the most logical choice I could make. And so at Saint Martins, just like you said, I studied graphic design. And then I veered into specializing into illustration because that's where it felt like I had a little bit of freedom to draw and go back to that thing that I like to do.
Debbie: At that point, you had suppressed a lot of your feelings and issues about growing up in Thamesmeade. And then in your third year at school, you dedicated a major project to it. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And you ultimately said, through this project, you feel like you came into your own.
Shantell: Yeah. It was funny being at Saint Martins. My first year, I went and I did projects where I swung milk around, and I did little performances.
Shantell: Conceptual, nonsensical stuff. And I remember turning up for my critique, or my portfolio review, at the end of the first year. And I just turned up with myself and I said, "I am my work."
Shantell: Very Saint Martins.
Debbie: What kind of grade did you get for that?
Shantell: I didn't even show up to see my grade my I didn't think it mattered to me at the time. And the second year, I was all over the place. I just didn't know what I was doing. And then the third year, I felt like I had to just deal with some stuff that I had going on with my family, and also just accepting all of that. You're at Saint Martins. It's one of the most famous art schools in the world. There's people flying in from everywhere. There's people from all these sorts of backgrounds. And for the first time, you're really exposed to how other people live, or think, or family units, or ambitions and imaginations. And so I think I had, at that time, struggling with a lot of where I was from and accepting that. And I think being very angry at my mum and all these things.
The only way I felt like I could deal with all of that, all of this stuff going on, was to do a project about it. And so I did this project where I looked at Thamesmeade almost like an experiment, and kind of my role in that. There was this very dry report almost, that I wrote about Thamesmeade, and kind of a very analytical, distant perspective of it. And then there was this very personal, creative part, where I found photography of myself at different ages, from being a baby to a young child around different parts of the estate. And then teaming those up with the present day, almost derelict versions of what it became. And also, just kind of the hopeful imagination that they had when they built this kind of housing estate. And so I got a lot of stuff out. And I think it was an extremely personal, but an extremely important project. And I don't think if I did that project, I would be where I am now, because I had to just dive in.
Debbie: You've said that even if you went to art school, you most likely were not given the tools you need to be a self sufficient, successful artist. Do you still feel that way?
Shantell: In a way. I'm hoping it's changed. And maybe a lot of people out here, a lot of younger students can tell me if it's changed. But you go to art school, even you're learning graphic design, you're learning illustration, you're learning fine art. And then you graduate, and you realize that you know nothing about negotiating, contracts, taxes, consignments. You don't know that you should be sociable, that you should do any of these things. And so it almost feels like it's done on purpose. We put artists through art school, and then we spit them out. And then they're taken advantage of it they don't have the access.
And so you have the artist that makes the art, the living artist that makes the art, and then you have the consumer and the people who consume the art. And then you have all these people in between that want to say that they can take some of that money, or take some of that power, or take some of that status, or take some of that prestige. And so what that does is it shifts the power from the artist. And there's this weird notion that we've romanticized about the artist is that they should be these creative people, who are separate from commerce and finance and money, which might have been true a very, very long time ago. But now, as artists, as creatives, we have to pay rent. We have to pay our taxes. And we understand that when our work goes to a gallery or an institution, it's commerce. And for the people who don't believe that it has anything to do with money, they've been blinded.
When I meet artists that say, "Oh, I don't like to talk about money," I'm like, "Well, why not?" "Well, it takes away from the purity of what I'm doing." And I say, "That's BS. You've been totally fooled because people are making money from you." And so I don't think there's anything wrong in educating yourself about all the aspects of your business. I'm not trying to say you have to be a lawyer, or you have to be a CPA. But you should at least be knowledgeable because then that knowledge gives you the power to make adequate and responsible decisions for yourself.
And so I think now we're seeing more and more where these courses or experts are coming into these fields, but for the first 10 years, 15 years of myself as an artist, you learn by your mistakes. You learn when people take advantage of you. And then you make sure that doesn't happen again. And so it's unfortunate that it's like that. But what I've also noticed now as an artist that's fairly successful, whatever that means, is that we have this built in reflex for artists, where if you become successful, now we call you a sellout. You want me to wait until I die, and then I can be successful? Because then people can make more of a profit from me because then they don't have to pay me at all. I don't know. It's a bizarre career. It's a bizarre industry. It's probably one of the very few unregulated industries. But at the end of the day, I'm a huge advocate for people exploring all the aspects that are involved in the art making.
Debbie: You were the first person in your family to finish school. You graduated at the top of your class. At that time, Shantell, you didn't think you could break into the art world because you didn't have the connections that some of your other classmates had. So you decided to leave it all behind, and you moved to Japan in 2004. And for a time, stopped making art. Why?
Shantell: It's funny. I still don't think I've broken into the art world. But that's, I guess, a different story. I moved to Japan, and I just wanted to run away from it all. I graduated with a first class honors, not that that means anything now I feel like, from Central Saint Martins, big fancy art school. And I saw that anyone that was getting a job or an opportunity was because of someone that they were related to. And I realized, oh, that's how it works. And I was working a bunch of part-time jobs. And I just didn't want to keep doing that. So I had this interest in Japan that had been there for a few years, based on just some of the really good friends that I made in London from Japan.
And so I thought I'd rather being teaching English in Japan than working several part-time jobs in London. And so I went to Japan, and probably for a year I stopped making. I stopped creating. I stopped drawing. I stopped writing because I think I just needed a complete break from it all. But one thing I discovered is that if that seed's in you, it doesn't go anywhere. You can ignore it. But it creeps up eventually because that's just a part of your DNA. It's a part of your operating system in a way. And so even not doing it for a year, it was there, and I could feel it. And then I just had to just start drawing again.
Debbie: You initially lived in Nagoya. You moved to Tokyo. But not speaking Japanese, I understand you felt really lost and alone. You eventually quit your job and moved to a town an hour away. I read how you first became yourself, you first realized you were gay. What was coming out in Japan like for you?
Shantell: It's funny when I think about this now. I moved to Japan in 2003, so before Facebook, before Instagram.
Debbie: Before YouTube.
Shantell: Before YouTube, before smartphones. And it was probably one of those last times in the existence of the planet where you could go halfway around the world and be totally disconnected from anyone and everyone. And so moving to Japan, I was in a position where I wasn't living up to the stereotypes that people put on me. And I wasn't living up to the projections or playing the roles of what people projected on me. And we can all relate to this. You go home to your family, and you fall into a role.
Debbie: Oh my God, yes.
Shantell: You hang out with your friends, and you fall into that role. But now you go where no one knows you, and no one's calling you or texting you in your pocket because we don't do that yet. And so for the first time, you really get to start with a blank canvas, so to say. You get to be like, "Wait. Who am I?" And so growing up in Thamesmeade, it was a very racist and a very homophobic space. And so I never imagined that I was gay because I saw what happened to those people. And so it just wasn't even a question for me. It's like, "I'm not one of them." And now being in a place where it's like, "Oh, no one's projecting on me. I'm not living up to any stereotypes. And I have this blank canvas to just really explore and think about and live the way I want to, and be free for the first time."
And so I think with that came a lot of reckoning and a lot of self exploring and a lot of being very true and honest with myself. And that was one of the things that came up. I was like, "Oh, that makes so much sense." And I would talk or write to some friends in London, and I'd be like, "I think I like women," and they're like, "Duh." But then it's something that I think also, just to survive, I didn't let that show, or even question it. And so I'm very thankful that I went to this place, and I had this space to kind of go there and discover that.
Debbie: How did you begin to start drawing again?
Shantell: I found a sketchbook, an accordion sketchbook that my friend, Christiana, gave me as a leaving gift for when I moved to Japan. And I was like, "Oh." I opened it up, and it was an accordion. And it just looked interesting. And I just sat down and started drawing. And then that was it. It just kind of continued from there.
Debbie: In 2006, you began doing live drawing on a Wacom tablet in Japanese clubs. The images were projected onto the club's walls in real time. How did this even come about as something to consider or do?
Shantell: Yeah. Actually, a couple years before that, I started to do it in more of an analog way. I was drawing in this tiny moleskin or accordion book that my friend gave me. And I was using a 0.0 fine pen, so like a really, really fine graphic drawing pen. And that's what I was doing at that time, and that's the only thing I was really interested in drawing at that time. And friends would see these drawings. And a friend said, "Hey. I'm doing an event at this venue. I'd love you to maybe do a drawing on a canvas next to the band who's playing." And I said, "Well, I'm only in interested in drawing like this at the moment, and it's really small." And so we figured out that I would draw under a visual presenter, or an OHP, and then we would have that projected behind and on the band, which made sense because for me, that made more sense because I'm like, "We're like TV nation kids," and if it's on the screen, then we instantly connect the music and the visuals.
And so I did that for the first time. And it really changed my life, and it started my career. And the first time I did it was some weird Japanese avant-garde band in some basement. And the music was really strange. I'd never heard anything like that before. It was like ... And so I was like, "Whoa. Okay. I've just go draw," because I noticed when I wasn't drawing, there was nothing moving on the screen, and then you have an audience watching you. And so you just have to draw. You just have to draw. You just have to draw. And then you feel like, "I need to be creative with this." And you bring your hands in, and magnifying glasses, and post-it notes. And then suddenly, you're creating this whole little world. And 45 minutes later, you see this vast drawing there. For the first time, it put me in a position where I didn't have time to think about what I was doing. I didn't have time to hesitate. I didn't have time to be insecure. I only had time to be me.
And then now you imagine you repeat that, and you repeat that, and you repeat that, and repeat that, you can start to extract the common themes, the common lines, the common threads. And that became the basis of my style, of my identity, of my fingerprint. And slowly, that evolved into what you mentioned in 2006. I was invited to do that, but in a bigger Japanese mega club. And so in a giant club, you don't want maybe the projection or the reflection of a white sketchbook in a club because it's going to be too bright. And so I thought, "Well, what about if I used drawing software? And then at least the background can be black."
And so I got a little Wacom tablet, or Wacom tablet, and some drawing software. And for the first time, I remember going to the club, and for three hours, I just drew with the eraser to the beat, and I zoomed in, and I zoomed out. And I moved it around. And then over time, this evolved into a whole career of being a live club illustrator. And I brought color into it. And I would use different mixers and different layers to it. And it became the foreground of an evening, versus the background. Sometimes when people are doing visuals, they mix all these clips together, and those movies together, and then there's a tunnel. And then there's a rabbit. And then there's some big lips or something. And you're like, "Why?" And it's very much the background. But when you're drawing, and you're drawing to the beat, it's relevant. It's in realtime. There's a connection there. There's an experience there. It can be repeated because it's for that time, in that moment, in that place.
And so it felt very present. And I didn't see anyone else doing it at the same time or at that time. And so I ended up being a beta tester for Wacom and testing all their new tablets. And I got voted top 10 VJ in the world a couple of times. And there was all this kind of hate on all the VJ forums, that Shantell's not a real VJ. Why is she winning all these awards? And so it was kind of an incredible journey.
Debbie: After five years of doing this, you decide, I want to move to the United States. And you spent all your money on immigration lawyers. You got an artist visa. But it also meant you really couldn't take a normal, in quotes, mundane job to support yourself. And you were incredibly broke. You spent the first year and a half living on your friends' sofas, on their couches. What was that like for going from this massive, sort of accidental superstar career, to now being in New York, broke, living on a sofa?
Shantell: It was kind of the cliché New York story. Right? It feels like everyone has to come here and be broke and sleeping on the couch. But it was extremely humbling. And I think in a way, it's also very comfortable. I'm comfortable struggling. I'm comfortable when things are tough. And so in Japan, I was building this career up. And I was building this success. And I was building this fan base. And I'd never experienced that before. And in a way, I didn't know what to do with it.
Debbie: Why did you just walk away from it?
Shantell: I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't ready for it. And I think a part of me was really naive because I just thought, "Oh, I had this career in Japan. So I can just come here and have a career here, and find ways of making money and stuff here." But then I got here, I realized that no one knows me here. And VJ-ing doesn't really exist here in New York. And everyone's an artist. And if people don't know who you are, they don't care who you are. And I'm stuck. And so my friends were kind enough to let me sleep on their couches. And it was incredibly tough. But like I said, I feel like there's something comfortable in that struggle for me.
Debbie: Things changed dramatically. In sort of one rather epic week, you got two phone calls, one to do live drawing at MoMA, and the other to do a guest spot on the TV show, Gossip Girl. And it was then that you began getting invitations to talk about art and creativity. French Glamor dubbed you New York's Coolest It Girl. What did that feel like after such a perilously tough time?
Shantell: Yeah. It was interesting. I think probably no one even remembers those two projects that I did. The first one was doing some of the projections like I was doing in Japan. I just started to do them here. Some of my advice I always give to younger artists is create your own opportunities and do that by using what you have access to. And so when I got really stuck, I was like, "Well, let me create my own opportunities," and do that by using what I had access to. And at that time, it was a friend's space. And so in a friend's space, I started to do the projection stuff and do my own shows, and invite people to see that. And very grass roots, they would invite their friends and their friends and their friends. And eventually, someone sees it and says, "Hey. I work for MoMA. Would love to do that at our friends and family event. And we're going to pay you to do that."
And so for me, that was really incredible, or from a TV show, and it's called Gossip Girl. And I didn't know what that was at the time. And I was like, "Great. They're going to pay me to come and do this projection thing." And so it was a great place and space to be in. I didn't think it would change my career or my life, but it felt like a first step to something.
Debbie: You also covered the walls and the ceiling and more of the Brooklyn apartment that you were renting. How did that go well with your landlord?
Shantell: Yeah. When I first moved into my new rented room, or almost floor in this brownstone, I was in a place where I felt like I had my own space. And I felt safe for the first time. And I feel like when I feel safe, I want to claim that space, in a way. And so I asked my landlords, "Do you mind if I draw on my walls?" And they were like, "Sure. Just don't go downstairs." And then that was it. It was something that I could do when I came home, or when I woke up. I'd have pens next to my bed, and I'd just wake up and just do some drawing. And it felt good, and it's kind of nice to wake up in your own world sometimes. And so it was good. It was good at the time.
Debbie: You talked about using pens. You're not a pencil fan. What happens if you make a mistake?
Shantell: You'll hear me often say, "There's no such thing as mistakes. You have to just learn to enjoy the process." And for me, that makes complete sense. If I'm drawing on a 200 foot wall, or my shirt, or cars, or something where there's a lot of pressure, that pressure doesn't exist because I feel like I'll never make a mistake because as long as you have good intention behind what you're doing, and as long as you're not forcing anything, you're just allowing it to be what it needs to be, and loving and enjoying the process, that's it. Yeah. There's no such thing as mistakes. Just enjoy the process.
Debbie: You say that your goal is to master the black line and make that into a whole world, making that into a whole universe. What about the black line continues to captivate you?
Shantell: It goes back to this idea of starting my career in Japan. And being in this space where you see people trying to really master one thing over a long period of time and not rushing, and not being distracted, and not trying everything. And so just understanding: What's one thing in my life perhaps I could master? Well, what if I work really hard and practice a lot at a line? And we all know when we first draw a line, that it's perhaps hesitation in there. Perhaps it's not as confident as it should be. But with practice, there's confidence that comes with that line, there's personality that comes from that line. But also, that line becomes recognizably you and yours. And there's this very simple concept for me that imagine everyone in the world has their own mark, and can create a line.
But what if you look at this black line? What if you look at this combination of lines? And you say, "That's Shantell's." And then now you think about the work that goes behind that. So you've got to the point where you've drawn a line, and that line is recognizably yours, even in its simplicity. There's a profound amount of work and history that is behind that.
Debbie: Absolutely. There are very few people that have a recognizable line. And when you come upon someone that can evoke emotion, pathos, heartbreak, in a line, people like you, Allison Bechdel, Christoph Niemann, there's maybe a handful that I know that can create a line and an emotion at the same time. In the years since you broke out in the United States, you've done some truly amazing work. You found great success in collaborating with big brands. You've worked with Maybelline, Warby Parker, Nike, Tiffany, Puma. You've worked with 1800 Tequila. And that's just really the tip of the iceberg. How do you regard the power of collaboration?
Shantell: Collaboration's where you really grow, where you really learn. And also, products and things, I think there's tons of potential there. As an artist, I think about: Well, if I'm going to create something, who will see it? Or if I'm going to have these messages, then who really gets to digest these messages? And then I think about, well, if I collaborate, there's lots of things that can happen. I get to explore someone else's messages and someone else's personality and someone else's journey. And also, we might get to create a project or a product that I wouldn't be able to do by myself. And then also on top of that, we get to expose that to a demographic that's not my demographic. And so I think with collaboration, there's also this sense that you have to put your ego aside and just explore the conversation, or the creativity, or the connection between the two of you, or the many of you. And so there's so much that you can get from a collaboration. And I think it's a really good practice.
Debbie: One of the things that really fascinated me as I was working on the preparation for the show and in my research was how important saying no is to you. And you say no a lot. You say no to brands and collaborations. But you also say no to collectors. Talk about the power of that, and how you were able to get to a place where you could say no. That's something that's really hard for me.
Shantell: Yeah. I heard this somewhere. I can remember where I heard it. But if you're saying yes to something, it means you're probably saying no to something else, and the other way around. If you're saying no to something, you're probably saying yes to something else. And so I think where this came from for me in the first place is that I've always used my instincts to guide me. And so it was almost like another philosophy in a way where if you feel this instant gut reaction, and it's a no, say no. If you feel this gut reaction, and it's a yes, say yes. And so basically, that's how you live your life. You say yes to yes, and you say no to no.
And what you might find is that for long periods of your life, you're saying, "No, no, no, no, no," because you're not in the right place, and you're not on the right path. But eventually, you get to this place where you start to say, "Yes, yes, yes, yes." And so I think just really homing in on that and practicing the nos first. And I think when we first met, I mentioned that you should try and collect nos every day. And so go out there in the world and be like, "Can I get a free coffee?" And they say, "No." And you're like, "Yes." And just be comfortable with what a no feels like, and almost searching for the nos because then through searching for the nos, and collecting those nos, the yes becomes more apparent. And you're almost training that yes muscle by collecting all these nos. Yeah.
Debbie: Do you ever worry that if you say no too much, there won't be any other opportunities?
Shantell: Yeah, but then you're coming from a place of fear. Right?
Shantell: And that's not where we operate. It's also like collaboration, going back to that point. I feel like sometimes, well, if I collaborate, it means I'm giving something away, or I'm losing my magic, or there's a sense of loss. And there's only a sense of gain with collaboration.
Debbie: So you don't ever feel like you're losing yourself in the process.
Shantell: No. And I feel like a lot of these things I say no to, maybe I'm giving someone else the opportunity to say yes to it. And so maybe it's just not my time. Just understanding that, especially with design, especially with art, there's tons of abundance out there. And if it's not you now, it might be you in the future if it's meant to be. And so it's okay to say no.
Debbie: Let's talk about a recent project, your transformation of the New York City Ballet, in which you installed an utterly massive pieces, or pieces, on the floor and the walls of their building in Lincoln Center. What was it like to work at that scale and at that location?
Shantell: It's interesting. Years ago, I remember being on the subway and seeing the posters for the art series for the New York City Ballet. And I was like, "Oh, I'd love to do that." And then you have this sense of, "Well, why is it not me?" And I also at that time, when I saw those posters, felt like that was for really successful artists, and I would never probably be that. And then years later, they're asking me to do that. And so it was a really incredible project, and a project I'm extremely proud of because I feel like it was a thoughtful project. And it started with conversations. And I sat down and I talked to a whole number of New York City Ballet dancers from new to the company, to the oldest dancer in the company, asking them this question of: Who are you?
And with that, that gave me almost the foundation, or the ammunition, or the material that I wanted or needed to then go in and do this exhibition, or this installation, because that felt like the right way to approach it, versus as an artist coming in and being like, "I'm going to bring this thing to your space." And so it started from the inside out, versus the outside in.
Debbie: What kinds of things did you hear from the dancers about who they thought they are?
Shantell: It's such a demanding career that they have, and life that they have. And so firstly, it was very interesting to hear how they all discovered ballet. And obviously, they all discovered it at very young ages. And then it was interesting how they deal with injury, how they deal with the vigorous rehearsals. It was interesting them describing who they are without the dance and without ballet.
Debbie: What did you hear? What did they think?
Shantell: I think one of my questions was: Where do you start and the ballet or the dance end? A lot of them felt like this is my life, and this will always be my life. And I think a lot of them felt like this is what I'm doing now, and when it's done, I'm done. I'll find a completely different career.
Debbie: Beyond companies and organizations, you've collaborated with a fair amount of individuals as well. And one of the most interesting is Kendrick Lamar. You worked with him at Art Basel. How did that collaboration come to fruition?
Shantell: Yeah. Just like most collaborations, the ballet, Kendrick-
Debbie: So Kendrick just called you, "Hey, Shantell."
Shantell: Someone emails you.
Debbie: Girl, let's do this.
Shantell: It never works the other way around. Can you imagine. I'm like, "Yo, Kendrick. I'm an artist. You should hire me." Or New York City Ballet, I love what you do. And I saw posters in the subway, and it should be me. It doesn't work that way. I feel like it's tough to convince people that they should believe in you. Either they've seen you and they get it, and then they can come to you.
Debbie: It's like not being able to show until you're shown.
Shantell: Exactly. It was a really great collaboration. Basically, we met and we sat down. We had a conversation. And through that conversation, we just started creating. And Kendrick made me some beats. And from those beats, I started some drawing. And then that drawing inspired him to create more beats. And so there was this nice feedback loop. And then beyond that, we did a concert together at Art Basel. But I think the most interesting thing that I took from that collaboration was just the process of creating. And so I got to see how Kendrick makes beats and comes up with the rhymes or the words. And it was amazing because I also play music. And I would never think that the process that I have for creating music or finding words would be the similar or same as Kendrick, but it was.
And so he would be playing beats, and then almost like mumbling, but as he's mumbling, he's almost searching for the words that exist somewhere, and pulling them into existence. And as a creative person, there's a similar process, especially with playing music. You're playing it, and the sound or the atmosphere, or something is pulling you towards the words that should exist in that moment. And sometimes, almost the same with drawing.
Debbie: You did a project that I found incredibly fascinating. It was called Mind the Machine, which was a collaboration with the computational cognitive neuroscientist Sarah Schwettmann, who created an algorithm that mimics your approach to drawing as it poses questions about authorship, originality, creativity. You and Sarah trained a deep neural network to recognize recurrent elements of 300 of your drawings and identify key elements of your artistic identity, enabling it to learn your artistic style. And after the training, the deep network could predict how you would complete a given drawing. What was that like for you?
Shantell: This is interesting. I feel like I'm very brave sometimes as an artist with some of these collaborations. And you also take a risk. The outcome of this project in a way was about the mind, the machine, and the person and the machine because in the end, I think the machine didn't predict what I was going to do. The person predicted that the machine would know what I was going to do. And then at the end, my collaborators were like, "Well, now we own your drawing." And I said, "Well, actually you don't." That was a collaboration that didn't end too well because there was almost ... I think with artificial intelligence, there's this kind of hype around what it can do. But it's really important for artists to explore what it can do and what it does. But there is a risk involved there. And so that was a project or a collaboration where there was that risk, and I was willing to take it. But then the outcome was, it's not about the machine. It's about the mind or the intention behind the machines.
Debbie: There was this sense of your process being machine learnable. And I didn't think that was even remotely possible.
Debbie: How could it possibly predict something that's improvised or made in the moment?
Shantell: But it's good to ask these questions.
Debbie: Yes, yes. On your website under the original art section you write, "The relationship between an artist and a collector should be just that, a relationship." If you're interested in purchasing original artwork, Shantell would like to get to know you a little better through a series of questions that will ensure the work she creates goes to great people that will love and value it. And this comes back to the saying no. Do you turn a lot of collectors away?
Shantell: I do. In a way, it's smart. But in a way, it's stupid because I end up with a lot of my own art. And I have a lot of my own art. But I feel like, and people will argue or disagree with me on this, but as an artist, we are only going to make so much work in our lifetime. And maybe it's a bad example, but it's like if you're adopting a dog, you want it to go to a good home, and you want it to have good parents that love it.
Debbie: It's harder to adopt a dog than it is to adopt a child.
Shantell: You want that dog to go to a good home. And I want my artwork to go to good homes. I don't want them to play a role in the secondary market. It will at some point, but right now, it's not necessary. And as a living artist, maybe I am too clinging to my own work. But at the same time, I love it when it goes to a family, or to a person, or to a group, that really love it, and they get it and they enjoy it. And for me, that's what it's about.
As an artist, it's about creating this connection and this experience, and even just the process of someone filling out this form. I ask you: Who are you? Why do you want my work? Where are going to put it? What's your idea of freedom? What did you want to be as a child? Where are you in the world? What's your budget? And so already it's not about this monetary exchange of take this and I'll take your money. It's like, no, you tell me a little bit more about yourself because I want to get to know you because you're going to be a part of my family. My work is going to be your work and become a part of your family. And so I think it works. And the people that now are a part of my family, I know about them and I've met their families. We've explored and had many conversations. And for me, I like that process.
Debbie: Paper Magazine said this about you, "Shantell Martin has shattered expectations, redefining what constitutes art." What are your thoughts on that?
Shantell: I don't really know what they mean.
Debbie: Do you think it has anything to do with your avoiding traditional gallery representation?
Shantell: It's weird. I think it's an odd comment in a sense. But I think it also does make sense. The way that I approach things is just very direct, and it is what it is. I think sometimes the art world is a big façade. And a lot of it is kind of made up because we have to make these things seem really important and we have to sell them for lots of money. So we need an air of mystery, or we need an air of importance, or we need an air of arrogance around it. And I don't have to play into that as an artist. And also, I feel like we have this world where it's like, "Well, what are you?" Are you doing this type of work, or this type of work, or this type of work? Because if you're doing more than one, we don't know how to sell you, or how to promote you, or where to place you.
My approach is, in a way, I'm going to do anything I like, anything I'm excited about, in any type of medium, in any type of industry because that's what I want to do. And I think that's where it is nontraditional. You find that I am working with brands. I am working with museums. I am working with neuroscientists. I am working with airlines. I am working with nonprofits and schools. And because at that time, these are the things that I'm interested in. And these are the things that I think I can have an impact in. And these are the things where I think there's a possibility for collaboration. And so in a way, I'm ignoring the rules that people have put there. And I'm just saying, "I want to do what I want to do. And I don't care where it falls."
The important thing is that when I look back at my career, I'm proud of all the things that I've done. And those things make sense because those things have helped me grow. And those are the things that are helping me understand more about myself and who I am in that journey.
Debbie: I have one last question for you, Shantell. And it's a bit of a woo woo question, which I ordinarily don't like to do. But this one felt real and important. You've been on a quest to document your projects and your life in video form. You've said it all about leaving a thread for generations to come. And so my question is: What do you hope people take away from this tapestry?
Shantell: That's a big question to finish with.
Debbie: It is, yes.
Shantell: I hope that people take away this sense of freedom to express themselves, freedom of expression. And I also hope that they take away this idea of asking themselves: Who are they? And asking themselves the bigger internal questions. I often ask a crowd of people. If I'm to ask you this question of who are you, and you're to answer without saying what you do and where you're from, or the roles that you play in your life, how would you answer? And so in a way, I feel like this career, this journey, is a search for the vocabulary and the words to figure out who we are as people at the core. And in a way, I'm using myself as an example of that.
And I'm not sure where that will go. I'm not sure where that will take me. But what I do know is that it will create a lot of connection. It will create a lot of experience. And it will create a lot of art and conversation. And that's the journey.
Debbie: Shantell Martin, thank you so much for taking us on this journey with you, making the world so incredibly interesting. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Shantell: Thank you so much.
Debbie: You can find out more about Shantell Martin and see some of her work at shantellmartin.art. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference. We can make a difference. Or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.