“All it cost me were pens and time,” says Shantell Martin of her Brooklyn home and studio. From the baseboards to the ceiling, the space crawls with a hand-drawn mural of Martin’s own design. The artist explains that she rents from a couple who support Martin’s scribbling habit so long as it is contained to the top floor. The walls aren’t alone—scanning the space shows shoes, shirts, bottles, toys and canvases coated with expert doodling.
Growing up in London, Martin kept her wall-drawing to a minimum, obscuring it behind curtains and furniture. When the NY Times featured Martin’s room last year, the illustrator sent the clipping to her parents in jest. A well-established figure in the art world, Martin is able to laugh that her first mention in the Times turned up in the Home & Garden section.
We recently caught up with Martin at Pulse Art Fair during Art Basel 2012, where the young artist—armed with a pair of Krink K-51 permanent ink markers—was creating a large-scale mural in the midst of the project space. Lettering the names of attendees on the wall and chatting with fair-goers, it became clear that Martin plays the performer well. “I feel like I’m a performer more than an artist,” she explains. “When I lived in Japan, I was pretty much all digital for five years—working at event spaces and doing visuals for DJs and dancers, but all very much interactive.”
The move to illustration happened later, and stems from Martin’s private notebook work. For years, the artist would carry along accordion-style Moleskine notebooks with contiguous pages, which she would gradually fill with one long, interconnected illustration. Her style is ever-evolving, but features heavily continuous lines, words and a positive message. “I wasn’t a very happy young art student,” Martin admits. “I had this character named Hangman and I tagged him all over London, all over Brick Lane.” As her mood improved, the artist ditched Hangman and his “unhappy little messages” for sunnier illustrations.
The walls are littered with well-lashed eyes, and Martin points out that wakefulness and perception are recurring themes. “I’m very aware of being awake and being conscious and just know what’s going on. I think that everything should have eyes and be able to see. If you’re asleep or if you’re drunk—what’s the first thing to go? It’s your eyes. So be awake!”
Leaving Martin’s bedroom, a number of paper notes are tacked to the door that read “Who are you?” The artist keeps the question in mind throughout the day, along with the words “here” and “now,” which she has tattooed on her leg and scribbled on the rims of her bike. “Every time I leave the room, I ask, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I want to go today? Where do I want to go in my life?'”
2013 is already shaping up to be a busy year for Martin, who is looking forward to a show in Japan, a residency in Washington, a teaching appointment at NYU and a second show in LA this summer. On top of that, she’s also moving into a Manhattan studio space, where you can bet she’ll be doing some redecoration.
Images by James Thorne