Every morning, Jean Jullien wakes up, drinks coffee, grabs his brush-pen, draws, and within minutes, is sharing his moods and opinions of the day with nearly half a million Instagram fans. After the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, it took a shaken Jean few seconds to draw in his sketchbook one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of peace in recent decades.
Jullien draws very fast. Fast doesn’t mean rushed; the rush happens in his head. He never stops thinking about how he is going to communicate his next visual challenge. It’s no wonder why it took a recorded, sit-down interview in Brooklyn a year ago, and twelve rounds of emails over the course of six months to finish this conversation.
Kimou “Grotesk” Meyer: You seem more busy than ever. I have been trying to get in touch with you for more than a week!
Jean Jullien: I've been in France for back-to-back meetings! We're doing a short film and music video with my brother. I'm also doing a series of illustrations for a hotel in Austria that is employing refugees (a really nice project), another series for a furniture company, a book with Phaidon, my first monograph with teNeues, a great new project for a huge clothing company, something for Uniqlo on Oxford Street in London, a series with Only NY, a big project with the Aéroport de Paris, and a cool object with Case Studyo. That's for this week, but I'm also hoping to start my weekly column for SZ Magazine...
Whoa! I guess that’s what you call a busy man. I am amazed by the variety of projects and clients that you have and can handle at the same time. It looks like your universal language reached a point where brands, non-profits, newspapers, and just overall clientele want your point of view, more than you executing their brief. Would you agree with that?
Yes, in a way. Which is very exciting, since my work's always been about communication and exchange. I've always used drawing to express myself as a visual language. That's why I post so many topical things, alongside more trivial drawings of cats and dogs, of course, to start a conversation with people, to see what they think, and to discuss. I'm a firm believer in conversation and communication as a means to improve our world. Social media is a great opportunity to debate and share opinions, and drawing adds a universal legibility that goes beyond written or spoken language. I think that is maybe why people are, as you said, are interested in my visual language. Not because it's good, but because it's timidly clear. I don't have a convinced opinion to hammer on people, that's what politics do. I just have ideas and questions, like we all do, and I want to share them visually on these online platforms to start a conversation, and maybe wise up, thanks to people's reactions.
It’s very interesting what you are saying. I feel that, as an artist and communicator, you have developed a universal language that most of the planet will get. You don’t need comic bubbles, huge set design, nor justification; it’s just pure and straight to the guts. Speaking of guts, I am amazed at how positive you are through your drawings. I am a passive aggressive illustrator, and sometimes I can’t put filters on my work. How do you you always find a positive outcome in your drawing?
Oddly enough, my drawings are a positive catharsis for me. I am a total curmudgeon in real life. Everything makes me feel ticked off and complain. But, instead of translating that feeling onto paper, I try to turn it into comedy and find the irony. In general, I look more at comedy than I do at illustration. Seinfeld is closer to my working process, at least based on social observation. Nobody likes a downer, especially me. I'd much rather have a positive outlook, so I'm using my work to turn things around and see the funny side. Of course, it's very challenging sometimes. But it's also a good way to "read" the world, so to speak. I also find myself doing things that I sometimes find too cute or tame, and following them up with something a bit more caustic. It's important for me to have a good balance. I don't want to be a curmudgeon, but I don't want to be a Teletubby either.
Your work is very thematic with few very recurrent topics, such as social media, smartphone addiction, and “TGIF,” to name a few. Is it a form of personal challenge to reinvent the similar ideas that always do well, or is it based on an audience that expects a certain Jean Jullien moment? The reason I ask is that I feel you really care about how people react to your drawings. Like a Seinfeld joke, you are probably concerned about whether it will be an crowdpleaser, right?
That's an interesting matter, actually. I often feel a strange sense of guilt when I do the same kind of image, such as those I do on Mondays and Fridays, because my work is normally based on finding new ideas. But, at the same time, I find it challenging to find new ideas for a similar subject. It's like a weekly question that is being asked, and I try to come up with a different answer each time. It's interesting, from a creative point of view, is like a creative gymnastics routine—in a good way.
It is also proof that my work is a natural way of expressing myself. I draw how I feel on Mondays and Fridays, then share it. It starts as a personal thing. But, after doing it for a while, I've realized that it's the images based on daily life that are the most popular because they're so relatable. They're a shared experience; hence, we all have something to say about it. My drawings are just a vehicle to say it. In that sense, social media makes illustration very practical. It turns images into speech bubbles that are being borrowed by everybody when they share, regram or retweet them.
You are going to be a dad soon. For me, it was a huge game changer, creatively. Knowing your sense of humor, I am sure that we are going to see some new Jean specials on Instagram and maybe a children's book. Are you excited about this new world and lifestyle that will come like a slap in your face?
Well, this is, indeed, a terrifying prospect as much as it is exciting! I do worry a bit about my content changing, but then again, I'm looking forward to being surprised by what these life changes will inspire and trigger. These days, as I've been lucky to get a growing number of followers on social media, I think a lot about content. My main interest is to use these platforms to communicate with people, so it's important to keep a critical mind and not be too generic, but maybe not get too personal either, as it is less relatable to some. There is a fine line between doing this and becoming a crowd pleaser, which is boring for everyone, I think. With that in mind, I double up my efforts in trying to find subjects that make me react and are universal at the same time, as if to find unifying subjects to define modern life and what we can all feel connected to. I find that fascinating, and a real driving force.
You grew up in France, you live in London now, and you might move to the U.S. soon. Is it part of your process to push things forward by being nomadic?
Yeah, it wasn't planned as such, but since I started moving away from home, I've really fallen in love with being on the move, seeing places and meeting people. I know it sounds a bit corny, but it's true. I also get bored very easily and have been in London for ten years now. I really feel the need to get out and experience living in a different place and culture. And it agrees well with my way of working, too. I can work at a desk but really don't need to. I've gotten used to doing commercial jobs on the go, with just a sketchbook and a laptop, and it's worked well for me. The extras would be a luxury. The more you move, the more you have to adapt and improvise, which I find very stimulating, creatively.
Speaking of a multidisciplinary approach, your artworks function on pretty much any medium: sculpture, books, watercolor, chocolate, music videos, glass, newspaper, and many others. You seem to have a natural sense for product design, art direction and merchandising. I feel that your iconographic world became a brand, but without the stigma of being one. I don't know many artists who have that skill. You remind me a bit of Dick Bruna and all the merchandising he did with Miffy; it was always right and never bad.
Thank you. That's very humbling. I love Dick Bruna's work! I have thought about this notion of becoming a brand, but I think that I see this coherence more like an alphabet. It's always used by the same mind to express ideas, but it can be articulated in many different languages, using the same alphabet. When I think of a chair character, for instance, I draw it. It exists as such, and works. But then you think, "Why not actually try to make it a chair?" So you reshuffle your "letters" and use them to create a different word expressing the same idea, like a translation. It's a very refreshing way of working for me, trying to translate the same idea in different creative languages: furniture, clothing, sculpture, illustration...
But it's also down to my very limited craft. In all honesty, I am not a very skilled illustrator, and understanding that very early on has always been a blessing. I am focusing on the ideas and how to express and play with them, rather that trying to paint the perfect picture. I'm not very good at making things look beautiful, which is also why I look more at, again, Seinfeld or Peep Show for inspiration, rather than the work of great artists. Don't get me wrong—I love people who make beautiful things, and I buy tons of art books, but this is not what I'm good at. I try to make people laugh and react, to connect and play, and that is facilitated by this lack of a "perfection seeking" burden.
When clients want to get the "Jean Jullien Style," is there any moment where you present something different and the client is like. "It's great! But that's not you..." How do you deal with that? How do you break out of the mold when you think it's time to move on?
That's something that social media is really great for. I produce new things every day, as part of this sort of creative workout that I do for myself, so people and clients who would commission me see this production and the spectrum of what I could potentially do. If I always do the same thing, then, of course, people are going to assume that's all I can do, and that's what they're going to ask me to do. So, it's really up to me to show them what I can do!
I also think that a long career is made of many phases that you identify as posterior, but that notion isn’t very clear at the time. Some transitions are slow and discreet, and you evolve out of the mold progressively, rather than break out of it. Looking back at my earlier work, I think it looked very different. It was all cut-out papers photographed in complex sets, almost like theater design. And that was all clients asked me to do until I showed more and more illustrative work that had similar lines and character design. It was then that clients started imagining that it could work too, that it was the same idea, but expressed in slightly different ways.
We both grew up in very political households where we would constantly speak about inequality in the world, tolerance, socialism and idealism, but with a lot of humor as well. I feel growing up in this environment gives you an edge and helps you naturally grow a thought process for great satirical and visual weaponry, right?
Most definitely. I feel lucky in that sense. Like you, I was also exposed to a lot of great counter-culture, bande-dessinée (the European equivalent to comic books) and satirical magazines.
That helped forge the idea that you could use graphics to protest, to express your disapproval of things, that there was a real practical use to image making. My graphic education truly began with Evan Hecox and May 68 posters, where I saw the power of "damaged" imagery, be it printed on wood and broken, or on paper and ripped. A great image transcends damage and even gains in strength by the stigma of its context. There's nothing more furious and touching than a strong image that has lived and shows it. The use of an image shows its power. We can quantify it easily these days with social medias and this system based on likes and shares. A good image will be used and will travel, same as a good poster would have been printed and reprinted and put on many walls.
We share a funny dilemma. Your dad and my mom were both elected as left-wing mayors in their cities. And now we are working for some of the biggest capitalist companies! Did your dad ever give you shit for being a co-conspirator of the socialist ideal?
Ha ha! No. My dad is a very open-minded and a wise man. We talk about it at great length. We have the same political ideas, more or less. He knows that I get involved with socially motivated projects and charities, and that I have boundaries for those I work with. But it is a very tricky situation we find ourselves in. It is important to have principles and to follow your heart, but the world works in such a way that the only way to be completely 100% irreproachable in that regard would be to completely ostracize ourselves from society. And, let's be honest, we could pride ourselves in being better than everyone else and in harmony with our beliefs, but would it really change anything? I'd rather make some compromises and try to do my best, like a lot of people.
It's the simple things: be tolerant, recycle, vote, get involved with the community. It doesn't take a revolutionary leader to start to change things; it takes a group of like-minded people trying to work together to make things a bit better. Sometimes I wonder whether I'd be happier just being an artist, and living this glamorous bohemian lifestyle that makes Picasso, Matisse and others so iconic. But I like the challenge, complexity and duality of working in the real world and having to compromise
Read the full interview with Jean Jullian in the March 2016 issue of Juxtapoz.