Shantell Martin

Hey, You’re Cool! Shantell Martin

Photos Ruben Henriquez

London transplant Shantell Martin found her way to New York via Japan. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2003, she traversed the globe to begin her career in visual art. Since moving to Brooklyn, her art has adapted to reflect her new surroundings and she has pushed herself towards a new medium. Martin, 33, takes a stream of consciousness approach to her drawing, scribbling on everything and anything — walls, bottles and clothing. Her art is a performance, and within minutes a white blank canvas is peppered with lines, figures and glyphs. The simple intricacies of her work caught the eye of Suno, Nike ID, and Vespa with whom she has collaborated on dresses, sneakers and bespoke helmets. Despite her obvious talent, Martin remains a laid back Londoner living the New York dream. 

Mass Appeal: You had an interesting family dynamic growing up.

Shantell Martin: My dad is black but my siblings’ dad is white — so I grew up with four blonde sisters and a blonde brother and I was tanned with an afro in a working class, white part of London. In a way, that was my passport out. My brothers and sisters had this pressure to fit in with everyone else. But, if you look different, people will treat you differently, and when you do things differently people don’t question it. Maybe if I had looked like them, I wouldn’t have explored my art and I wouldn’t have moved to Japan and done all those things.

How did your upbringing inform your art?

I think the reason why I make art has changed. When I was a kid, it was more of an escape. When you draw you have control of the world you create. You have control over the characters and the places that you draw. You can give them names and superpowers. I think that’s what I did as a kid, I created a world, characters and a place that I could be a part of.

So what inspires you now?

I get asked that a lot, and I always say myself. People think that’s a bit of a strange answer. But why do you need to look outside of yourself for inspiration? You yourself are so large, so vast and so unique. You have so much potential inside you.

There are a lot of recurring characters in your work.

I like stick men because they’re enablers. They’re always pushing and pulling and climbing. They’re the people in my life who pop in and out, but they enable me to go to the next step.

I really like birds. There are always three birds because my number three when I say it [because of my accent] sounds like the word “free,” which I have a lot of trouble with in the States. So I draw three birds because that’s showing freedom.

I’ve seen your wheat pastings throughout the city. What do you make of street art and graffiti culture?

I’m kind of out of it. When I was 19 I would tag up in London but I was also a little angry then. I feel like graffiti definitely has a place but I’m not an angry 19-year-old anymore. I respect it but I’m also a big fan of pushing. For example, tattooing, the founders like Sailor Jerry and all those people. They were super motivated thinkers who were about pushing it forward. Then there were people trying to keep it traditional. If you keep something traditional you can stop it from developing. There’s a thin line between ”let’s respect it and keep it the same” and “let’s develop, progress, move forward and change.”

 Are there any famous artists in particular that you admire?

I really admire my friends who are creative around me. I get to see them and experience their work and their journey and see how they progress. It’s difficult for me to see people in the mainstream or other artists because I don’t know them. To admire people, I really like to know them and experience that journey with them.

Moving from London to Japan and then, New York. Culturally, each place is so different. What was that like?

I had reverse culture shock. But, I really like living in New York. If you come here and you work hard people will celebrate that. People are okay with you saying, “Hey, I worked my ass off for the last few years. I’m doing awesome.” If you come from England and then Japan, they are two cultures that are very modest. People don’t talk about themselves. It took me a year or two to get comfortable with that spiel.

Your work has changed a lot from Japan to New York too.

In Japan, I was in the technology scene and doing digital visuals and live visuals for DJs and musicians. When I got here it was a little tough. I had this idea that I would do the same thing here but culturally, people don’t expect to see visuals when they go out. So I started to draw on walls, objects, people, cars. It’s funny, if you meet someone who knows me from Japan, they think all my work is digital, colorful, moving, lights in venues. Someone from New York knows my work to be black and white drawing. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives.

This article appears in Mass Appeal Issue 54. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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