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When we enter the NYC studio of artist Shantell Martin, we cannot stop effusively gushing about how incredible it is. A tiny, stark white room with light streaming in from a skylight, Martin's space is packed with examples of her trademark black line drawings that cover nearly every object in the room.  

With a career that started as a VJ in Japan, Martin moved to New York in 2008, where she has grown into her self-described style that is "a meditation of black and white lines...a language of characters, creatures and messages." Her process is also an interactive experience, with most her work happening in live settings that range from music festivals to tech conferences; it's a multidisciplinary approach that Martin's art philosophy to transcend above the typical art world boundaries and translate to a range of audiences and experiences. 

We talked with Shantell about how she got started, Tokyo vs. NYC, and art-as-performance. Photography by Marisa Chafetz

Tell us more about your background. 

Where do I start? I'm from London and was an odd kid who liked drawing and doodling and doing stuff against the grain. That's what brought me to art school. It was a pathway where you could just be yourself and no one was trying to change that.

In school I did my degree in graphic design. [When I was there, it] was the first time I was around people with different backgrounds and interests, kids with pink hair who listened to crazy music. There are also a lot of Japanese students where I went [St. Martin's in London] so I got really into the culture — animation, movies, toys, and had the chance to go to Japan and visit. I loved it and felt pulled to be there.  

So like most people I graduated from art school and was like, "What the hell do I do now?" So I decided to go to Japan and travel and teach for a year. I did that for seven months and then went to Tokyo and found myself there.
 

How did your work change once you got to Japan?

When I was in London I was doing a mix of performance, tagging, and making little sculptures. When I got to Japan I didn't feel like I could just go write on walls or do things that were kind of illegal. You might get kicked out or put in prison! So my work completely changed…I used a 0.05mm pen and would draw very fine and in detail. In a new country, new place, my focus became this introverted view of quasi-human landscapes. 

And then eventually a friend saw that and she asked if I could do live drawings, done with a projection and camcorder. So we did that and it was one of my first performances — I was drawing to music as a band played. And it helped me realize, "Oh I'm a performer."

And so that's how I started my career, just doing visuals to Japanese avant garde noise music. And then eventually that evolved into the club scene, where I moved into using [a digital] tablet and computer. I'd open my computer, drawing software, and just draw to the beat — zoom in, zoom out. It was black and white for the first year, and then went very colorful. I would also draw on my fans, that became something I did. 

And this was something that not many other people were doing, right?

Right. It helped pioneer a way of doing illustration and music in clubs and it was received really well. I was sponsored by Wacom and was really successful as a VJ in Japan because I had a very recognizable style. 

But then, I was ready to leave Japan and came to NY for a holiday in 2008. Of course I loved it. I had never been to the US before then. So I got an artist's visa and moved here and then was like, "Oh crap. What did I just do?"

Was that transition difficult, work-wise?

NY has everything, but not if you move from Tokyo. The visual/club scene doesn't exist here like it did there. 

People weren't into projections ("It's a fire hazard"). I thought I'd be big here, but then I very quickly realized that no one knows who you are or cares who you are. So that first year and a half was a huge struggle. I was sleeping on couches just spending my savings. It wasn't until I decided to leave that things worked out. 

I realized that I was waiting for someone to give me the life I had in Japan. And then when I realized that, I knew I had to go out and create my own opportunity. So I asked friends about getting a space and started doing projections and then started getting calls. And things slowly started to take off. 

When do you feel like you really started doing things in the style you're doing now — black and white, more stark, and text-heavy?

Eventually I devolved. I went from the digital high-tech world of Japan to just picking up pens. I was doing what had been doing in Japan except analog, and as a performance. It would be a drawing in a performative space. And that's what I've been doing — drawing...really fast...on whatever is around me. 

Can you talk more about the different areas you work within besides just the traditional art scene?

I work in a few worlds. I'm in the fine art world, in the technology world, in the fashion world, and in education — I teach at ITP, NYU, and am starting a fellowship at the MIT Media Lab.   

Is performance still a big part of it?

Yes, I rarely draw without people watching. 

Your work incorporates a lot of language and the repetition of words. How did that start?

The words have always been there. It's always been words and lines, even when I was a child. Sometimes I look back on my work and realize I'm creating a language. 

Words I repeat are mixtures of: You-Me, Someday, One Day, Why Me, Today, Why Now, Why Here.  

Do people call you out on the streets about your daily uniform — black pants and a drawn-on white shirt?

I'll be on the subway and people will just be staring at me. Sometimes they ask. Sometimes they want to buy it. Mostly just stares, though!


See more of Shantell's work here

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