Remember when I said February was bad? Well, March is worse. Montreal got caught up in one of the coldest winters in the city’s history this year. Us French Canadian lads we tend to stay indoors when it is -40 degrees out. We get super emotional and dark. My co-workers sensed my negativity and started telling me to stay positive and stop being a little bitch. I tried. April should be a lot better. Smiles and Kool Aid every day. I needed the weather on my side, so I ccould start sharing my endless roster of cool people of Montreal to you again on TheHundreds.com. I got plenty on the way. My list is long and I got a lot of catching up to do.
I recently caught up with my friend, French illustrator and artist MEKA.
MEKA has done a lot in the so-called world of Streetwear, designing for many brands like Stussy, Nike, BeStreet, etc. He had his own brand, did videos, photos - you name it he has done it. All of that variety also got him to make a decision on focusing his energy into one medium, which is drawing and painting.
I met MEKA a few years back. Since our first meet up, he has not stopped progressing and evolving. He held his first solo exhibit at Montreal’s Off The Hook‘s gallery space, ESPACE OTH, which is one block away from our actual brick & mortar, titled “KEEP PUSHING.” MEKA explored his painting skills and showcased a variety of pieces inspired by the same composition of character - in this case, the character is always skating and pushing, and blended with pop culture. His work and style can be described or influenced by French cartoons, but I like the fact that he uses bold lines to create simple characters - a style that he takes from the more retro type of logo design from the ’60s to the ’80s.
JOHNNY F. KIM: You are the third French guy I’ve interviewed. I still want to know how the hell you ended up in Montreal?
MEKA: Ever since I was a kid, I’ved always wanted to live in North America. I grew up watching NBA, skateboarding, listening to many hardcore punk bands such as Pennywise, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Religion, just to name a few... I was born in France, but I’ve definitely been raised by the US’s ’80s culture. I randomly ended up on a family trip to Montreal as a young adult, which was my first time being in North America, and I fell in love with the city. So in 2007, the video game company I worked for asked me if I was interested in relocating in Montreal. My answer is pretty easy to figure out.
How did you get into the world of illustration?
My dad was a great illustrator, and he probably would have followed this path if he wasn’t such a great school teacher. As a result, I grew up in a house filled with french comics, and with a family who always encouraged me to be and stay creative. I have very fond memories of spending time just drawing with my dad, when I was a toddler. But in high school, I wasn’t a great student. All I was interested in was drawing. I was that kid who spent his time reproducing the logos of all the bands and skateboards brands he liked on his lesson sheets (or on your backpack if you were lucky), and creating black & white fanzines with zombies in it. So it was no surprise that I went on to study graphic design in College and never stopped drawing on the side.
Why the name MEKA?
It’s really simple. Since I was a kid I’ved always been a big fan of << Mechas >>, like Gundam, Goldorak, Evangelion, Robotech, Transformers... Which gave birth to MEKA.
We can see a lot of inspiration from the punk, DIY-esque scene. What was the attraction that got you into illustrative work?
I grew up listening to bands like Descendents, Black Flag, NoFx… I was fascinated by all this alternative culture of the flyer and the gig poster and all the crazy trashy graphics with only one color. It became a big source of inspiration for me.
This might be a question you’ve been asked before. How would you describe in your own words, the art of MEKA?
It’s a mix of my pop culture influences with some bold black lines, infused in a positive spirit. I’m trying to inspire people while also giving my point of view, pushing people to question themselves about our society.
We know the same people pretty much here in Montreal, and we know that a lot of your friends are either graphic designers or some sort of artist. But why do all the French people love to draw god damn bold lines? Why?
[Laughs] We’ve probably watched too many cartoons when we were kids! Many artists from my generation grew up watching Tex Avery and Hanna Barbara cartoons, and reading the latest Marvel comics. I’m 100% convinced that my passion for the bold black line traces back to that. But as far as I am concerned, old school tattoo made it grow even bigger.
I talk a lot about the importance of branding in my other interviews. But how do you decide on what you design for your customer? Does it need to be the MEKA style all the time or you can explore different styles?
It depends. With the years, I’ve grew into my own style, but aside from my own artistry I’m still a creative director. When I work for a company like Nike or DC Shoes and we need to develop a collection, my own personal style tends to be irrelevant. It’s all about understanding the essence of the brand and being respectful of it. But when I’m approached by a client who really wants to collaborate, that’s when I get to stay in my own universe and merge it with the client’s idea. Those are two entirely different ways to work, and I enjoy both of them.
I do sense a bit of influence from the tattoo world within your drawings. Is it true that you do dip a bit with a tattoo style for your work? Tattooing a person and drawing an illustration on a piece of paper is two different things. But it seems that your work can [easily be translated] onto someone’s skin.
Absolutely, the tattoo world is a huge influence for me. The history of the tattoo culture really passionate me, with these different styles, codes and meanings... But the thing I like the most about tattoos is the symbolic of claiming ownership of your own skin. And now people send me pictures of my art tattooed on themselves, it’s great. It goes full circle.
You recently just had your first solo exhibit at the Espace OTH. How was the build up to finally do a solo show? We know you been working on it for quite a while now.
Yes! And I am really thankful to OTH for giving me this opportunity. It was a really great occasion to challenge myself, I’ve had painted before, but never had I really focused on painting as opposed to other mediums. The idea of having a deadline was appealing to me, because it held me accountable. And with building a whole show, it was about reflecting on how I can provoke emotions and interrogations with a series of creations. So a lot of challenges at hand.For the 8 months between the moment I booked the show with OTH and the day of the opening, I painted every week, sometimes only sporadically and sometimes for full days (depending both on my workload and inspiration), and it integrated naturally into my existing routine: for all this time I feared that I would realize the week before that I had not enough pieces for this huge space, and that I would have to paint like a machine for days on end, the same way you cram your exams the night before... But lucky for me, that didn’t happen! That show really taught me a lot about the power of organization. [laughs]
How did you decide on the paintings you did?
The process was very organic: for some time, I painted what I felt like painting, and stored the pieces away. After a couple months, I took them all out and displayed them all next to each other, in order to see how they interacted with each other, what messages jumped to mind, if they were cohesive, and whether they were what I wanted to convey. From there, I built on the themes I liked the most (icons, the loss of illusions, bettering oneself), edited out the rest, and went back to the drawing board. Overall, they all revolve around the theme of pushing yourself, partly because working on this artshow definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone - for the better. That’s the feeling I’ve tried to inject in all my paintings.
Yeah that constant motion of moving forward was very [prevalent]. Tell us about the Keep Pushing concept.
Keep Pushing is a series I started about 9 months ago. It consists in pop culture characters (celebrities, cartoon characters, politicians, tyrants...) that I illustrate in the same skating posture base, because in life, everyone’s pushing to get to where they want - whether they have good or bad reasons to do so. Everyone’s got their own agenda. You can see it as a collection of baseball trading cards where the players happen to be icons and symbols of our society.
How was the turnout? Happy about the outcome?
It went great! Thanks to all the people who came, I’m really grateful for the outpouring support. It’s a really rewarding experience overall, and it’s pushing me to continue for sure. I have many good things coming in the next months in terms of exhibitions abroad, with exciting collaborations.
There are many illustrators on this planet. Nowadays it seems a lot of artists want to go the extra mile. You had done your own brand, collaborations,worked with big companies. How do you stay relevant within your own art skills to keep working and getting more legit contracts?
I think the most important trait as an artist is authenticity. Whether you choose to chase trends or to build your personal style makes a huge difference. It took me years to build my style and my universe, because contrary to what many people may think, illustration is not a matter of talent, but of passion and of the amount of work you put in daily. So I believe in constantly learning new things, getting out of my comfort zone and staying true to my own vision are the key to my success.
If you we’re not drawing what would you do?
I’d probably be a teacher, maybe special ed. I was raised by two parents who dedicated their life to help and educate kids, and that’s something I’m drawn to.
Or perhaps I’d still be a shepherd in the south of France... But that is a whole other story!