Shantell Martin’s career began as a “visual jockey” in Japan, where she created awe-inspiring live drawings at dance clubs. In 2010, MoMA invited her to draw/perform at an event in New York City—and she began her rise from beloved VJ to international art sensation.
To say she’s prolific is an understatement. From walls and floors to bicycles, shoes, circuit boards and the human body, Martin has drawn on all of them. She’s even entered the digital world, partnering with Google to capture her drawings’ X, Y, Z coordinates. Reading the data, you can see where the lines and shapes and textures happen, and also the speed at which she draws.
Idea, process, documentation—it’s all important to her. Martin is highly analytical of her own work, how and where it’s made, and also the world at large. Looking over her output, it doesn’t take long to find the big questions she poses—WHO ARE YOU and ARE YOU YOU—alongside statements such as YOU ARE YOU. The provocations greet you and challenge you.
How do brands factor into that definition of YOU? Does one matter more than another? And as Martin suggests, do you ever really know if a brand
cares about something bigger than the sum of its sales?
“There’s a lot of facade now,” she says. “We need to be careful. A lot of brands can be misleading—some brand themselves to look environmentally friendly but they’re not. Brands need to acknowledge that there’s a responsibility there. And consumers need to be a little bit more responsible too.”
Martin admits that she’s not necessarily loyal to given brands, but instead favors different items because of aesthetics, quality or performance. And she researches what she’s going to buy—extensively.
Active Art, Activewear
These days, Martin spends endless hours creating art all over the world. In her Design Matters interview, Martin spoke about her younger years and how she wanted to either be a runner or a cartoonist. In some ways, she wound up as both because while drawing, she moves and moves and moves—and her art has a cartoon-like quality, elegant lines dancing across space.
The fun and expansive doodles are playful, but making them is hard work. “Because of the scale of the projects I make and work on, and in the time I do them, if you’re not fit you’ll be injured or out of breath.” It also requires the proper gear. “In Denver I did a privately funded public art piece. It was 8,000 square feet. I turned up day one in jeans. You wouldn’t run a race in jeans, so very quickly I put sweatpants on, knee pads—every day I tried to get more and more comfortable. I should’ve showed up in what I’d go to the gym in.”
Activewear, be it joggers or sweatpants, make up the bulk of her workwear, and sneakers are equally important. “I love a good pair of Converse. I recently worked with Puma, so I have a bunch of Puma I wear. Crosty sneakers with insoles, they’re pretty comfortable.”
Who Are You
As equally important as comfortable shoes: having the right drawing tools. Martin has used a range of notebooks, including Moleskine, but isn’t afraid to branch out. “I recently started—probably for the last year or so—using Baron Fig, which I really like, and I have a bunch of different sizes of them.”
While Martin doesn’t consider herself a notebook loyalist, in the last 10 years she has developed favorite pens and markers. “Staedtler and Krink. Those I will buy in bulk. Staedtler’s been kind enough to make my own branded pen that I can give away to people. Krink has helped me out with projects.” Looking back on her time in Japan, she fondly recalls using Posca markers by Uni too.
Drawing as frequently as she does, one might assume Martin regularly finds herself covered in ink. But, “It’s very rare that I make a big mess,” she says. While she doesn’t keep a jug of LAVA handy, skin care is important to her, and she likes Malin+Goetz. “I have their soap, their hand moisturizer, face moisturizer, their body moisturizer.” For her, the brand and its story (Malin+Goetz has a focus on natural ingredients, manufactures with family-run businesses, and so on) resonate, and moreover, “they make really good, quality products.”
The quality products and reliable services that brands deliver—whether we like it or not—can be used to categorize us. Team Nike. Team JetBlue. Team Nest. But what if you really want to own something—to be a part of that brand and its story—but can’t? “When I was a kid my mom could only afford to buy us Hi-Tec shoes,” Martin says. “They weren’t cool and nobody in school wanted them. I wanted Nike. She said, ‘If you want those, you have to get a job and pay the extra money for them. You’re the oldest of six kids and I can’t afford the expensive brand.’ We didn’t have any money—but if you had a nice pair of shoes, it said something about yourself.”
Are You You
Then, as now, a brand can say something about you—brands can make you you maybe now more than ever. “I think now we’re living in a world where all of that is amplified. The shoes, the phone in your pocket, your bag or wallet—everyone is trying to sell us something and everyone is trying to brand everything. That’s fine, but I think it has to be used in a good way. Brands have that power, and that potential responsibility to educate people and get them to consume in a good way.”
Still, Martin’s art reminds: We’re more than the brands we believe in. WHO ARE YOU, ARE YOU YOU … the writing is on the wall: YOU ARE YOU.
Edited from a series of telephone and email interviews.