I first met Jon Burgerman a year ago on March 30, 2013, just a day before Easter Sunday. We met down in East Village where he put on a super fun one day show East Village Pop Up in a tiny apartment. It was technically a ‘meet the artist’ event but of course, you could buy every piece of art you saw, on and off the walls. Jon’s lovely attitude wasn’t exactly what I expected from a New Yorker especially not in the extremely snob art world, but to be legit he lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and is English after all.
Going up to the fifth floor of the small apartment in Alphabet City, I did not only meet the artist himself, but I stepped into the world’s coolest living room, filled with Burgerman’s creations (pictures, installations, stickers and everything possibly imaginable). The catering was five star quality, you could get beer and water if you asked for it and after some drinks you could visit the toilet, where you were facing a Burgerman shower curtain.
Months after the pop up event, I mustered all my courage and started composing a facebook message. Taking my chances, I asked him for an interview and he was willing to do it!
I got the opportunity to take a look into Jon Burgerman’s life as he invited me to his home in Williamsburg. After taking off my shoes, I stepped into his home, instantly receiving a cup of English tea in a super cool doodle mug, and we quickly dove into the conversation.
How much and what have you gained from school? How did you choose this career path after finishing your degree in fine arts?
I did study Fine Art at The Nottingham Trent University, where I graduated from in 2001 with First Class Honours. Starting University was much more exciting than actually finishing it. In Great Britain, after you get accepted to uni, you spend a year with experimenting, meaning that you get the opportunity to see what exactly you can and want to study. In this manner I was studying almost everything from textile, jewelry, fashion and graphic design to applied and fine arts (painting, sculpting). This was one of the most exciting years in my life, but at the same time it was also challenging because I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to choose Fine Arts or Graphic Design as a major. At first, a seemingly brilliant idea came to me: what if I attended Fine Art classes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and Graphic Design classes on Wednesday and Friday? Unfortunately, the University wasn’t flexible enough to appreciate my idea, so I had to choose.
How did you decide? You woke up one day and just knew it?
Not exactly. They told me I had to choose, so I visited a couple of classes to get a better understanding of what I was going to do for the next few years. Graphic design students were all sitting behind their sketch tables, doing their own thing on their own. When I stepped in the Fine Art studio, I saw everyone running around in ecstasy smearing paint on the canvas, listening to loud music. I instantly knew what I had to choose, so I stayed with Fine Arts.
Were you anxious about your career options after finishing a degree in Fine Arts rather than Graphic Design?
I was never concerned about this decision because I felt that I can do anything I wanted after finishing university, regardless of what my major was. All I knew was that I wanted to create, to make things.
What is your opinion about being „educated” or „self-educated” designer? Does it make any difference?
All in all, it doesn’t really matter how qualified you are. Imagine it like a rock band. Even though some didn’t sing in the church choir or didn’t take music classes, they might still be the world’s most amazing bass guitar player. School is only good for laying down the foundations which you can later work with. In every field, including design, you constantly need to keep developing and learning. For example, the computer programs we learnt at the university are now completely useless, as they are out dated. Studying at a university helps you narrow your focus so that you won’t lose yourself in the stream of opportunities. Coming to understand yourself and your own boundaries is the best part of higher education. In the end, it is you who gets to decide, no matter what you studied. It’s your ideas that are going to be created and your imagination is going to fill up the frame that you built in school. These are the most important things, everything else can be learned later.
What do you think when they compare you to other artists?
Sometimes it’s quite flattering, especially when it’s someone whose work I appreciate and admire. Then again, there are times when…(he trails off and smiles) Why are you asking?
There is no specific reason. I was just interested if this sort of question bothers you. To be honest, your work reminds me of two artists, Keith Haring and Picasso. It’s not their figures, but their constant passionate will to create is what makes you similar to them.
For a long time, I couldn’t appreciate Keith Haring’s work properly. Later, during my university years, I realized the importance of what he represented and stood up for. I respect him for that even though he isn’t one of my favorite artists. Picasso is an interesting question. Picasso is like cornflakes among cereals. He is always there, you can’t avoid him, and you have to taste his art to appreciate it.
During university, I would say that Basquiat was the most influential artist for me. Before that I haven’t even heard of him, and then one of my classmates brought a black and white print in horrible quality with some Basquiat pictures in it. All I could say as a first reaction was WOOOOOW. To me Basquiat’s genius partly resided in the fact that he was the first artist whom I felt a close proximity to. His art, his work and everything he did are now all physically close to me. The streets of New York that I walk on every day was his home either. Everything looked exactly the same back than during his active years. Not to mention the extremely cool music, videos and the commercials he did.
How organized your life is? Can you tell us how a typical day of yours looks like?
Well, I wake up. Then I put things into motion; e-mails, phone calls, etc. Then I go to the studio where I try to “work” until 7 pm. By work I mean drawing, painting, and doodling.
Would you say doodling is work for you?
Of course, doodling is not really a work. I have to do numerous other stuff. My daily tasks include dealing with clients, contracting, financials, payments, taxes, etc. These are the things we are not at all prepared for stepping out of school and they eat up a horrible amount of time. Phone calls, appointments, administration, and then the administrative work that follows the creation process, like printing proofs, getting feed backs, make corrections etc..
So yes, as a freelancer, there are parts of my work that can be considered as a job. This ‘job’ often takes away time from my drawing, and I sometimes find myself not paying enough attention to the things I like doing and should be doing the most. The important thing is to find the balance between creative work and administration.
People tend to forget, that work is actually a good thing and not negative. I like to work, as far as drawing goes. Drawing and doodling is the most joyous part in my life. All the other stuff has to be done but I don’t really enjoy doing it. I don’t have assistance, I have the same amount of workload when I work with an agent. But I think it’s going well. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. And most importantly, I am a free.
What is your favorite place in the world and why?
I recently took a trip around Asia, and I loved it. I visited Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, China, and Japan. It is completely different than what I am used to. I’ve been to many places in Europe but everything is similar to what I was used to. Well, you really can’t say that about Asia.
Before moving here, New York was my favorite place, I really liked coming here. I’ve been living here for three years and I still feel like a tourist sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Why did you relocate to New York?
I started spending a lot of time in New York recently because of the exhibitions I had here. Soon, the idea started shaping in my head that I should move from England to experience something else. I thought – why should I live in England, just because I’m British?
That’s how New York came to me. I sometimes joke that I came here to retire.
What’s cool about this city is that it’s unlike any other place in the world; therefore everyone turns up here from time to time – so I actually see more of my friends than I would in England. New York is the place where everyone converges.
How often do you go back home?
A couple of times a year. Although I never go back just for the sake of it. I moved to New York to be here, which is not always easy because of all the traveling, so if I have some free time, I’d rather spend my time here.
If I am traveling, I try to organize things to stop by in England and fuel up with my favorite chocolate bars and tea. You can find everything in New York, but it’s sometimes more economical to bring them in a suitcase.
What are your favorite characters/cartoons/figures?
To this day, one of my big favorites is the Simpsons. That is the only cartoon that I drew the characters of. I never copy figures. My other favorite is Dennis the Menace. I don’t like superhero themes.
What about comics? Do you draw them?
Not really. It never interested me. I have a book which we can probably call a comic, although it is very far from a classic comicbook.
When I was a kid, we used to draw a couple of comics with a my friend, but he had a fight with his brother and he destroyed our work. After that, I only drew one page comic strips of my classmates and my teachers, as a joke.
We can say I do not like drawing comics because of the bad experience but to be frank I have to admit I probably am a little lazy to do it. That’s a lot of hassle. You have to write the story and then draw it meticulously. The good thing about individual pieces is that there is no pressure and nothing limiting your art.
You are engaged in plenty of art forms; mural, doodling, illustration, and commercial works. Is there one you adores the most or the most challenging for you?
Drawing or starting a new work is like when it snows and you are the first person out on the street or in the park and everything is all clean and white. That is how I feel when I see a paper, a wall or a canvas. All clean and white. The first mark is so satisfying but after that it is like a puzzle. You have to complete the puzzle make it fit and find a place for everything. It is such a joy, making the marks.
I think I’m quite old fashioned or let us say boring but I like pen and paper. Any tools that lets you forget that you are using it is great. The best pens are those that you can draw with like a child. They are very easy to use. It is so joyous! This conversation is starting to get a bit nerdy isn’t it? Talking about my favorite pens…. Does this really interest you?
Of course! Our editorial office is a huge fan of stationary!
Well, my favorite is the Japanese POSCA pen. They used to sponsor me for a while. I also like acryl paint and ink. The Amsterdam acryl paints are not bad for example…although they are not very good either. I really like KRINK which was originally car paint, but it looks good on paper too. And of course I really like the basic Sharpie.
Is there anything you specifically don’t like?
Maybe oil paints. I don’t squarely hate them but I like paints that dry instantly, without having to wait weeks for a work be finished.
What else do you like?
Well I don’t like scaffolds so I usually attach the canvas to the wall with duck tape. I have countless sketch books. I don’t go anywhere without one. I left hundreds of them in England when I moved here.
I have a Burgerplex sketchbook too. The company produces a lot of things. My favorite is the coloring wallpaper, that’s pretty cool.
You had some commercial works before starting your own company. How did this start?
In 2001 I had a part time job. It wasn’t exciting or worth mentioning – but there was a studio in the building I worked in and they proposed an opportunity for me to work with one of their clients. I said yes almost instantly.
My first job was a CD cover.
Did you know the band you were designing for?
Actually, I was working for a DJ. I didn’t know I knew his music already. I wasn’t sure about who he was and I didn’t know him in person. However, the album became a big hit, the CD was available in every record store and there were a number of articles in national newspapers. At the end of the day there was a big hype around the CD. It turned out later that the guy lived two houses away from me in Nottingham. This opened a lot of doors for me later.
In conclusion, could you tell us about your current/upcoming projects and plans?
Well, my most exciting project right now is Headshots, in which I interact with street billboards. My creations on the Korean metro are really fun – these were the result of a boring ride in the underground.
Besides this, I’m trying to put my existing characters into context by creating an environment for them. Therefore, my new drawing already includes various buildings, cars, and constructions. Anything can happen in this world because my characters finally have a platform on which they can interact.
As for the future, I’m really interested in animation. I’m working on an animation project with a friend from England. We would like to remove our characters from their safe 2D environment and bring them to life in 3D. This is what’s brilliant about Kidrobot: they were able to give life to the characters. Everything should be look like it’s hand-drawn – as they are-. We don’t want to overdo the computer effects. I draw and scan most of the characters, the rest is just side work. Important things are still happening on paper.