Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Questions for a Starving Artist: Karl Escritt

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished some new work for an exhibition in Tokyo, my third this year. I always like to show a few new things alongside finished work done for clients. I am producing some motion graphic work for the Japonica music store in Kyoto (www.japonica-music.com), part of an ongoing collaboration which so far has seen me produce T-shirts, postcards and exhibition work for them. Also working on new things for Neutron in Kyoto, as well as the Pavillion event/record label.

Why Kyoto?
I lived in Edinburgh for 4 years before coming to Japan, and for me Kyoto is a bit like Edinburgh – lots of modern pop culture creeping out of the traditional woodwork. I also love the fact that I can walk to most places in 15 minutes. However, what I am realizing now is that the Kyoto network is so tight, everybody knows everybody. Once you become involved in the scene you very quickly get to meet the right people, who then introduce you to their friends, and before you know it you have a good size network of contacts.

What do you like or dislike about working in Japan, compared to England?
I like the way Japanese people see designers on the same level as artists, so the range of work a designer can do is much bigger. Commissions for live illustrations in nightclubs and huge room collages are examples of this, and things that I could have only dreamed about doing in England. On the negative side, deadlines are much tighter.

Do people here have different notions of what constitutes good design?
Yeah, ‘Street Graphic Design’, which I guess is the genre my work comes under, is huge over here and – as I mentioned before – is put on a fairly high level artistically. It is popular in England too, but Japan has tons more magazines, galleries, shops, books and so on that cover only this style of design.

Have you had to alter your work in order to make it appealing to a Japanese audience?
When I first came to Japan, I was producing illustrations and designs based on typical Japanese themes: geisha, kimonos, temples and so on. When I started showing these around, nobody was interested. Instead people were commenting on the work I had brought from England, so I stopped using the other stuff and began working in the same way I did before. I quickly realized that my kind of design is not seen so often in Kyoto, so this would be its main selling point. Of course, the colors and shapes I use in my work reflect my Kyoto surroundings, but I use these influences in a much more abstract way now.

Was it difficult to get started here?
Very difficult, and I almost gave up a number of times. The language is the main difficulty to get past (which isn’t to say I’ve done that yet). You can set up meetings and so on very easily in your mother tongue, but even the simplest tasks can be difficult with limited Japanese language ability. Your approach to clients has to change a lot, too. Whereas in the past I might have been able to talk a client through some ideas and get them to agree on a project with just one or two rough visuals, in Japan my visuals are the most important point. So when I present an idea for a project here, the visual has to be very near to the final thing.

What’s the weirdest project you’ve been involved with since you got here?
I was one of ten designers who were asked to design a poster to be displayed in Osaka subway stations. 10 posters, each displayed at 10 different subway stations, so if you wanted to see the whole collection you had to travel around a bit.

How much do you spend a week on groceries?
Maybe ¥5000, but it’s hard to tell as I usually just buy what I am going to eat for my next meal. Sunday is my big spend day for groceries. I have to have olives and mozzarella cheese.

What is your biggest indulgence?
Music. Records and CDs… I have 100s. I’m really into old 45" singles at the moment. I’ve also just noticed that I have 14 pairs of shoes, so I guess that counts as an indulgence.

What has inspired you recently?
I found an old book at a junk shop the other day called, The Wonders of Life on Earth. It’s full of amazing photos and the colors have really influenced my recent projects: I’ve got photocopies of the pages scattered all around my room right now. Also, the atmosphere and people I meet daily whilst sitting sketching at coffee shops in Kyoto.

Do you have any advice for budding creative types looking to get a foot in the door?
The best thing to do is carry your portfolio with you wherever you go. Take it to coffee shops, bars, galleries, stores and see who you bump into. Don’t be afraid of showing your work even though you can’t speak the language: if the work is good enough it should do all the talking.
Finally, having business cards and your work on some sort of website are a must.

Karl Escritt is a freelance graphic artist and designer from the UK.