For Cape Town based illustrator and custom letterer Keith Vlahakis, the sky is truly the limit. Whilst slowing chipping away and carving out his niche in the local design industry, Keith has his sights firmly set on international domination, culminating in a collaboration with Kanye West. A self-proclaimed work-a-holic who’s in it for the love of lettering, we chat to Keith to find out more about earning your typographic stripes, learning from heroes and pop-culture saturation.
You describe yourself as “perversely optimistic”. How does this wonderful description show in your work?
The idea of being perversely optimistic firstly is inspired by the late great American art director and graphic designer, Tibor Kalman. I first encountered his work and writings in university through a lecture on his book “Perverse optimist”. It inspired me to revolutionise my work ethic. So I’d say being a ‘perverse optimist’ is all about keeping a raw sense of passion towards your work, more specifically the process and showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that seems almost unreasonable or unacceptable – work all night, work on weekends, wake up early and first thing you do is start sketching; not because you have to, or to get recognition, but because you love to.
What or who do you look to for creative inspiration?
I get my inspiration from everywhere around me, but mostly popular culture; its power, place and influence on us. My work is a reflection, re-interpretation and distortion of the imagery, music, films, art, and news that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. e.g. an article on WW2, a speech from Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, an 1980s Wrestlemania poster, cartoons, video game artwork, a speech I watched from a politician on TV, or a verse in a song I hear. We are constantly bombarded by visual media and we almost live from screen to screen. Cellphone to computer to TV. So I’d say my content is very much influenced by the mash-up of culture we are exposed to on a daily basis and how we all react to it. I often laugh to my friends saying that I’m “hopelessly Americanised” and brainwashed by pop culture and that by me admitting that, it is the first step to creating something honest without boxing my creativity because of being where I’m from.
My personal experience of everyday life has a huge role, we always draw from our past or current experiences, I spent some time living in Latin America before moving to Cape Town and the culture there had a big influence on my work, from the language, to the music, gang culture, politics and everything in between.
Please tell us about your Save Our Indigenous Forests project
This was a project I worked on for Castle Lager while working at Thirtyfour Degrees last year. My art director Hester Bergh who I was working with at the time came up with the idea to physically brand Kameeldoring, Black Wattle and Rooikrans which are 3 of the most invasive alien tree species in our country; but they also make great braai wood. It was time to throw them in the fire for a good cause. We used individual pieces as canvases to create a uniquely crafted conservation message, engraved directly onto the offending braai logs.
I was the illustrator/designer who worked on the typographic piece that was engraved onto the wood. The project was a success and I was fortunate enough to win a craft certificate Loerie Award for the typography piece at last year’s awards.
Which artists/illustrators’ work do you admire?
I have loads but my all time favourites would be Shepard Fairey, what he’s done with Obey propaganda will always inspire and impress me. Local letterer and typographer Ben Johnston who is currently abroad in Canada. Others are James Jean, Tristan Eaton, Kronk, Alex Trochut, amongst many others. Zimbabwean illustrator Sindiso Nyoni’s political commentary through his work really impresses and inspires me as well.
In what ways does the city of Cape Town influence your creativity?
Living in Cape Town inspires me because there’s so much good talent around. The creative industry is highly competitive as well, and that keeps me in check to keep on creating good work and sharpening my craft.
Please take us through your creative process.
My process begins with tons of research, mostly reading and immersing myself in the topic of the brief. I’ll watch interviews on the topic and just indulge as deeply as possible. Next I will sketch, I never touch a computer before I sketch and plan out my designs or illustrations, specifically with my typography, it’s practically close to a finished product in pen, ink and fine-liner before I go onto making anything digital. Music is a big catalyst to my work process, I pick a good album, and play it from start to finish, mostly until the project is finished. I sometimes work through the night so I don’t lose momentum and inspiration.
How do you aspire to differentiate your typographic style?
The process of differentiating my typographic style will come with experimentation, time and hard work. I don’t yet have an exact defined style of lettering, a style where you can spot it was instantly done by me, but I’m building towards that. At this point I have a direction I know I’m heading in, and I’m experimenting on this journey. One of my favourite illustrators, Kronk, said at a workshop that “it takes almost ten years to become an overnight success”, and sometimes you have to let your style evolve as you evolve. My lettering style is definitely influenced by many different typographic and lettering styles, some being old English, gothic, gang tattoo lettering, sign-writing, nineties graffiti, fifties inspired cursive text – it’s very eclectic.
What are some of the themes that recur in your work?
Themes that recur in my work have two main sides I would say, there’s a recurring theme on music through out my work which is a lighter side. Posters for bands or just self-initiated typographic pieces based on songs and albums I love etc. Then there’s also a more vocal social commentary side which touches on topics of politics, revolution, social injustice, conservation etc.
What are you looking at on the Internet right now and what are you listening to?
Right now I’m binging on pop culture online. I really like complex.com. I mostly look at sites NOT related to design and illustration to get inspiration for my illustrations and designs. So I binge on music/pop culture related sites. I’m always listening to Kanye West and Drake. I listen to Kanye a lot when I’m working. He’s a genius, despite his sometimes abrasive image in the media. His work ethic and creative presence in pop culture as a whole is undeniable. Also a lot of Coldplay and Hanz Zimmer. I have an eclectic taste in music.
Also there’s a great motivational podcast I follow called TGIM. Thank God it’s Monday, which is all about finding passion and maintaining drive for your career and life in general. You should check it out.
Jump forwards 5, then 10 years – where are you at each point and what are you doing?
In 5 years I have to be in New York, London or Tokyo working as an illustrator/letterer. Preferably New York. If you want to be great at what you do you’ve got to go to the place where the best in the world are. I believe with enough time, passion and energy anything is possible.
In ten years I have to be co-owning and running an illustration studio in New York, London or Tokyo. Or if it hasn’t happened in ten years I’ll be doing everything in my power to try and do so.
Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
I would really love to work with Ben Johnston, a letterer and typographer from South Africa working in Canada at the moment. I’ve never met him but his work inspires me a lot, also the fact that he’s from South Africa but making a name for himself in Canada, America and the rest of the world is so inspiring.
My dream collaboration would be to design a Kanye West album cover, almost like what Takashi Murakami did with him on the graduation album. That’s dreaming big but hey, you have to. If I could do a collaboration with Shepard Fairey and Kanye, I could say I’ve made it! Apparently there’s a Grammy for best album cover design. I bet not many people knew that!