justART! Graham Oatman

Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Ryan Goldade and Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au and Graham Oatman

Location: Vancouver




Tell us about yourself.

I’m 23. I moved to Vancouver almost four years ago. I grew up all over the southern mid-west area of the United States, in Texas, Kansas City and Oklahoma. I do graphic design but I started out doing graffiti, and it just naturally progressed into that. I’ve always had an appreciation for fashion and style, so I kind of direct my work towards that.

How did you get into graphic design? Through experimentation or through an institution?

I started doing the graffiti thing and got in a bit of trouble in Dallas when I was 17. I was like, “Is this really what I want to do?” It was really fun and I got good at it but I felt like it was a dead end. I still do it; I still dabble in it but I realized that I need to do something a little more professional and take my skills from graffiti and apply it to something that I could make money on. At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to school for it but I knew that I wanted to try it. I started contacting friends that were throwing parties and started doing hand-drawn posters to which I could apply my knowledge of colours and typography, etc. That’s how I started and I eventually went to school for it.

And you’re here because of Graffiti?

This is quite a story… I’m here because of a girl. I met a girl, through graffiti, who had lived in Vancouver at one point, but then her dad moved to the States. I met her in the States but she didn’t have her work Visa yet so she would come back to Vancouver in the summer to work. So I chased her to Vancouver and we broke up in a week.

(Everyone laughs)

I tried to change my plane ticket but it was too expensive to change so I just made the most out of it. I also break-dance as well, so I went to Robson Square and met some b-boys there. People here are just really chill and really relaxed, and I got connected pretty fast through the city.

Hip-hop is a big part of your past. How is this reflected through your artwork?

I do non-hip-hop related graphic design because there’s a lot of money in that. I always try to have something going on that would tie into more personal things for me. The works may not be directly related to hip-hop but they evoke a hip-hop mentality, like a “do it yourself” or “You don’t need anything” mentality. It is sort of a, “You can make something out of nothing” mentality.

Tell us more about your style.

Graffiti is colours and letters. That’s all that graffiti really comes down to. I started when I was nine or ten and doing that really trained me. I didn’t even know I was being trained but I just concentrated on the importance of the structure of letters and things. For me, font is a huge thing in my work. The picture and the colours could be good, but if the font’s not right I won’t even look at it. That’s of huge importance to me. I definitely lean a little towards fonts that look a little like graffiti to me. Sometimes I get in trouble with that. People would say, “This is too edgy” or, “This is too crazy.” I think there’s always a way you can slip it in.

What are the main tools that you use now to create?

The industry standard is the Adobe Creative Suite, which is amazing these days. When I went to school they really emphasized that you know that but I found that when you really get good at it, you don’t actually use it as much. I find you use outside things, real organic things, and then you scan it and bring it into Adobe and then it really comes together. You can tie in analog and digital. You can put the real world and computers together. I sketch everything in my book and make sure that it is all good, and then I’ll scan it in and sort of build from that. In the end it looks completely digital, but it started out as pen and ink.

What is the largest or most memorable piece that you have created?

I think any time you do an entire line of clothing, it’s very draining. Not only do you design it and conceptualize it, you have to send it to your client and they might not like one little thing. You end up tweaking it a lot. Then they agree to do it and you have to get all the files ready for production. There’s always so much back and forth between the printer and you. By the end of that your head is just throbbing, but when you actually see it come out, it’s one of the best feelings.

That was with Mental Wealth?

Yeah, Mental Wealth. I also do a smaller line called the Woods. It’s another local line. It’s a lot smaller project. We only put five or six shirts out, twice a year. It’s a little bit more of an organic style. Hand-drawn. A little more fine arts.

With Mental Wealth, the product lines might have multiple artists. Are there any projects you’ve worked with that were more consistent in the artwork?

Any time I do corporate based stuff it has to be very consistent. You have to make sure the fonts are always the same size and the colours are the same. You actually pick a pantone colour and if you ever deviate from that, then they’ll get kind of mad. For instance, if McDonald’s changed their red and yellow, even slightly, people would say, “What the hell is this?” Any time you do corporate, it has to be extremely consistent. I try to keep my stuff as consistent as possible with clothing, but my inspirations change from season to season. So I’d say, “Hey guys, is it cool if I switch my game plan a little bit?” They might say, “Naw we want it to stay this way,” or if not then I’ll switch it. I do a lot of catalogue work and book work. That stuff stays the same.

What are your future aspirations?

My ultimate goal would be to become known for my personal style. Like, to be able to do what I want to do 100% and be sought out to do that. I want to be where I wouldn’t have to do the corporate work anymore and then have international clothing companies come to me and say, “Hey, we want your look for our line.” The work would be 100% you and you wouldn’t have to compromise it for anybody.

What style is your personal favourite?

I would definitely like to pay respect to how I came up because I started in hip-hop at a really young age, at a time when one is often confused and does not know what one wants. I was kind of going down a crazy path and I chose to do that stuff. I chose to break dance, I chose to do graffiti, and it sort of gave me a sense of style and direction that I don’t think I would have now. I always think about that. There’s a guy that introduced me to that through skateboarding. He said, “Hey man, you should try this out.” It was cool to me. I’ve never really deviated from that core feeling, from that style that hip-hop has. I definitely want to pay homage to that forever. That changes with time in what we see with hip-hop. Look at Kanye West now as opposed to Kanye West in 2002. It changed so much but it’s still that attitude of, “Do it yourself, make it happen, and you don’t really need anybody else.” You just need to grind, and that’s what I feel is the most important.

At present, where do your priorities lie with regards to the love of the art and the financial aspect of it?

Definitely with the corporate stuff; you got to pay your bills. I have to comb my hair, put my shirt on, button it up, tuck it in, and go into those interviews. There’s a lot of ass kissing involved with that and it is what it is. That to me is okay. That’s part of the grind to pay my bills, but I’ll still take on really big projects that don’t pay well because I know that it’s going to be fulfilling. Projects like the one I did for Mental Wealth do pay, but for the amount of work that goes into them there’s a lot that I’m just doing simply for the love of doing it. When you’re up at 2AM getting stuff right… that’s for the love. It’s important though too because it’s sort of a meditation thing. Get your mind right and when you go back to working with the corporate stuff, you appreciate it more.

Who’s one of your favourite designers?

I’d say my favourite group of designers is a group from Barcelona called Vasava. I think in general, the design from Spain and southern Europe is probably my favourite because they find a way to bring in a sort of wilder approach while still keeping it clean and concise. It’s just really crispy. Maybe it’s next-level, conceptually, but it’s really easy to follow because they make you want to look at it.

In North America, street wear was big a while back and that was something that pulled me into design.

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There are some really cool designers from the west coast…for example, like the ones working on the brands Us vs. Them and Freshjive. Brands like that have always meant something to me because they have been around since I was ten years old and they’re still killing it. That’s inspiring. That’s something I could see myself doing for a long period of time.

What is HYPE?

HYPE is being original and not trying to emulate something.


1 Comment

  • February 15, 2011


    Grimey, good look bro! Your stuff is ill. Keep killin’ it in all directions.

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