Shantell Martin recounts her journey from underground performance artist in Japan to New York’s cool-girl art darling.
One of my favourite photographs was taken when I was nine years old. I’m standing with my siblings in our apartment in Thamesmead estate, a public-housing complex in Southeast London. I have a little Afro and brown skin, and I’m wearing Michael Jackson-style shorts. Beside me are my very blond and blue-eyed brother and four sisters. I’m drawn to this photo because it reminds me of how often I’ve felt like an outsider—both as a child and later as an adult. As a kid, I didn’t realize that being an outsider gave me a passport to be different.
I also didn’t realize that I was dyslexic. When I was finally tested for dyslexia in art school, my heart sank as I thought back to the number of breaks I spent sitting in the gym because of failed spelling tests. Teachers thought I wasn’t trying when, in fact, my brain just wasn’t processing words like other kids’. At the time, I didn’t know how to channel my frustration and creative energy, so I turned to drawing. Someone could tell me that I had spelled a word wrong, but no one could say that about the lines I drew.
I started drawing stick-man figures, which I called “Hangman,” under my bed and on the inside of my curtains in my bedroom. In my mind, Hangman was a former businessman who decided to cut the noose and break away from his environment, the class system, prejudice and people’s low expectations. By the time I was 19, my signature Hangman character could be found all over London.
This early form of expression was an important outlet for my frustrations. It also prepared me for my training at Central Saint Martins. It was there that I discovered that I, like most of my teachers and peers, am dyslexic. That’s when I realized it was a gift to be able to think differently.
But knowing that I had a gift didn’t mean I wouldn’t feel like an outsider again. After I graduated in 2003, I didn’t feel like I belonged in traditional galleries. I hadn’t found my artistic voice yet, and I didn’t want to just settle into a mould that someone else would cast for me. At Saint Martins, I had befriended some Japanese students who introduced me to manga and anime. Here’s a place, I thought, where I can experiment anonymously in a highly
visual culture. So, instead of struggling to make it as an artist in London, I moved to Japan to teach English.
It was difficult to be away from my friends, family and peers over my nearly five years there, but during that time I developed an intimate relationship with my art. I was still drawing on any surface I could find—notebooks, clothes, bottles— but I also started drawing in small Moleskine accordion notebooks. I drew with very-fine-tipped pens, so I had to get physically close to the drawings to add tiny details. I noticed how my work was evolving from angry to “creepy cute,” with different characters and words— like “you and me” or “here now”—that were “happier” than my Hangman character. These books became visual diaries of my time in a foreign place and would eventually become the subject of my adult colouring book, which is coming out later this year with Penguin.
After seven months teaching English in Komaki, I moved to Tokyo and got involved in the city’s underground Japanoise scene. A friend, who was an event organizer, asked me to do live visuals to experimental music. At first, I drew underneath a camcorder that was attached to a projector that played the images on or behind the band in real time. I began to connect with other performers, from musicians who made sounds only out of static to visual performers, like Ben Sheppee, who integrated a lot of technology into his performance. Ben became a mentor and produced my first “liveography” DVD under his label, Lightrhythm Visuals. He also encouraged me to explore the role of technology in my art— something that I’m continuing to do during my current residency at the MIT Media Lab.
The sense of freedom that I felt drawing in front of an audience was amazing. The pressure of not being able to think or to fix mistakes pushed me to craft a style and find confidence in my voice as an artist. When you eliminate those steps between you and your mind, you discover who you are. These experiences undeniably made me the artist that I am today.
In 2009, I moved to New York because I felt ready to explore a more traditional art career. I quickly learned that I couldn’t just enter the city’s art world. I’d show them my work and they’d say “We love it; where have you shown?” I’d describe my experiences in Japan and they’d say “Oh, the club scene of Japan.... Thank you but no thank you.” So, early on, I had to take galleries out of the equation. I continued to develop the lines and characters that had given me so much solace in Japan, and by the time I was teaching at NYU, I could tell my students it was possible to make a living without the backing of powerful galleries. Now I support myself creating temporary experiences, lecturing and collaborating with other artists.
When I entered the art world, there was no Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or smartphones. Someone asked me recently if my improvisational style was intrinsically linked to the fact that it was nurtured in the underground scene. I think having the freedom to be truly experimental was really important, and I can understand how some young artists would be less comfortable being public figures when their work can be torn down by social media’s uncensored and unformed commentary. I do think that social media has the tendency to be overly focused on the present, which can make it challenging for an artist to convey a sense of history or evolution.
However, I think social media has done so much for artists, and I can’t help but think how much I would have benefited from realizing earlier on that there was a world outside of our Thamesmead housing estate. I would undoubtedly still be an artist if social media existed back in the day—I just think I would have got here a lot quicker. I also don’t think the democratization of art through social media stifles experimentation. I think it has removed that implied air of exclusivity and allowed trends and new ideas to surface and be adopted more quickly. I use social media to invite my audience into my process so I can draw on everyday objects, from cars to walls to people. I always enjoy bringing my audience inside my creative process.
I think this is an exciting time to be an artist. We can do what we like, and we can use our online presence to showcase what we do. We can do it on our own terms.
Martin created a temporary piece at a Queen Street Saks Fifth Avenue party in
Toronto: “We have impermanence around
us all the time, yet we’re still surprised by it. I create these large drawings, and I enjoy the fact that they get
“There are two types of stick men: ones who push and pull and work together and then there are stick men who play around and are lazy. It’s a reminder that you have to work and you have to have fun.”
“The first three letters are WAY, which is about finding your way in life. I wrote this on my wall when I was a young girl, and I’m still obsessed with this question.”
“Even after you reach YAY, you realize there’s always more to learn. So you’re back to WAY. It’s a cycle.”
“The first letters of You Are You are YAY. We are essentially finding our way to ‘Yay!’”