If you’ve ever found yourself in NYC’s Lower East Side, it’s likely you’ve stumbled across large black and white wheatpaste posters that confronted you with the question ARE YOU YOU, then affirmed your existence with YOU ARE YOU. This is the work of Shantell Martin, a British visual artist best known for her stream-of-consciousness drawings and light projections. We met with her at her NYC studio, where she talked about dyslexia, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the importance of following a line…
What was your relationship with reading growing up? I grew up in East London. It’s a place where education doesn’t come first. We weren’t exposed to books or how to get into them. My grandmother didn’t finish school, my mother didn’t finish school, my siblings haven’t finished school. I was really good at everything else but reading, as well as spelling, were always a challenge. Then in my mid-twenties, I found out that I am dyslexic.
Sometimes I’m jealous of people who are just like, “Yeah, I picked up ten books and I finished them.” For me to start reading something, it has to really grab me. I’m going to flip through a book and something has to catch my eye — be it big type, big words, big pictures.
What are you reading right now? Right now I’m reading this book called Soulcraft, which sounds very New-Agey but I’m looking forward to potentially finishing it. My good friend Alex said I should check it out, and when someone I admire recommends something, I’ll make a conscious effort to read it.
Do you have a book that’s especially meaningful to you? My best friend gave me the Goldie biography called Nine Lives in 2004. We were in art school and didn’t know what we could be. Goldie was someone we looked up to. He’s from a rough background but he did everything — acting, producing, graffiti, DJing. He used to date Björk at some point. I was slightly obsessed with him.
Goldie’s book was the first time I read a story and was like, “Oh wow, I see myself reflected in that.” He left London and went to New York to reinvent himself, or find himself, and then brought that back to the UK and shared it with everyone in the world. People tried to put him in different boxes, but he was beyond that.
There is a little note in here from my friend. I guess the book must have been a birthday present, because it’s dated October 1st. It says: “You and me are probably going to end up like Goldie. Unknown from the start and then recognized by the whole world. You and me have hardly seen each other, but whatever happens, you’ll always be my best friend.”
Goldie’s book was the first time I read a story and was like, 'Oh wow, I see myself reflected in that.'
What happened after art school? I ran away from everything and went to Japan to teach English. I felt that people were expecting me to do something big. I didn’t think I was capable of that. Going to Japan was my way of saying, “I’m not going to do anything you people think I can do. I’m going to go be away from the watching eye.”
At first, I ended up in the countryside in Japan and then went to Tokyo. In Tokyo, no one knows you, you don’t know anyone, you can’t speak the language, you can’t read the language. No one is projecting onto you who you should be and you’re not living up to any stereotypes of yourself. You’re just in this place, living and observing what’s around you. Observing the fact that, in Japan, everyone is doing everything to a really, really high standard of quality.
I think, subconsciously, I started to think about what I could make and master in this lifetime. I got obsessed with trying to make a confident line. At first, it was an awkward struggle, and it remained that way for a really long time. My line was very thin, but it felt good to make it, so I just kept doing it.
While I was in Japan, I discovered a book that became important to me. One of my fellow teachers asked if I had read Harold and the Purple Crayon. I was like, “No, I have no idea what it is.” And she said, “I’m getting you a copy right now.” I read it and thought, Wow, this book is about me. I’ve basically been traveling the world with a pen and a line which has brought me to all these amazing people, places, and opportunities— all of that with just a line.
A line can create your world. It’s just a line. But if it’s truly yours, then you can go anywhere with it.
Are You You? Self-awareness isn’t something that just happens. It also isn’t something that is guaranteed to stay with you. It’s a question about identity, self-discovery, and you finding your way in life. I bring my full self to whatever I’m doing. As long as it feels honest and I’m progressing in what I’m doing — and sometimes it feels extremely uncomfortable — then I am me. I just started making music and it’s very uncomfortable. But that’s how I’m going to grow. When you’re taking a break from your medium, you get to think about things differently, and you get to bring that back to what you’re doing. You see things from another perspective.
What are the words you live by? “Don’t hide in the corner.” That can mean many different things for different people and different circumstances. And I have a mantra, “You’re always in the right place at the right time.” Time is sometimes our worst enemy because it gives us the chance to be insecure and to try to mimic someone else who you’re not. When you take time away, you put yourself in a position where you can just be you.
Are You You is ultimately about finding your way.
Three people you admire: This morning I listened to a podcast with Zadie Smith. She was very inspiring and to hear her thoughts and where she’s coming from was pretty amazing.
The second person is Casey Neistat, because he will do things you don’t ever want to do. He’ll jump off things, onto things, into things, but he’ll do it in a way that is uniquely him.
And Kristjana Williams, who is a successful designer out in London. It’s been incredible seeing her grow.
If you were a character, you would be: Myself
Most surprising thing you’ve drawn on: I don’t know yet.
Bookstore or Library? Bookstore.
Hardcover or paperback? Paperback.
Best thing to pair with a book: Tea.
Something not to miss: Yourself.