Q&A with Jean Jullien

French illustrator on living in global cities, how people of the world inspire his work, and how to deal with social media
Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in Bangkok
By Top Koaysomboon and Gail Piyanan |

Humor is universal. It connects people from all over the world—we can smile at gags that are also laughable to people from New York or Tokyo. The ability to make people smile or laugh is the secret to the success of many cartoonists and illustrators. And Jean Jullien is one of the more successful ones. The power of Internet and social media may have springboarded the French-born, British-educated cartoonist and illustrator into fame, but it’s his ability to look at things from a different angle—things that disturb him—and reinterpret them through his unique sense of humor that’s made him one of the most successful such artists in his generation.

Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in BangkokJean Jullien, The People

Among all the cities you’ve lived in, which one is your favorite?

Definitely New York. It’s quite similar to London. It’s a big city. There are a lot of people from all over the world. There are a lot of cultures but I also have a sort of emotional affect with New York culture because I grew up—like a lot of kids in France, and I think all over the world as well— consuming American pop culture, from comic books to TV series, Marvel toys, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All of that was about the city of New York. There’s the culture, the museums and stuff. There’s also a certain pride or intelligence in the way New York has always managed to take what could be the bad aspect like crime or dirt and stuff and make it into something cool. 

There’s a mythology of the city that I found fascinating, and living there was amazing. I could walk around and then remember all of the time I’ve seen the city in the movies, and in the comic books and stuff. But also there is a set of multicolor, pop-culture filtered glasses, for wherever I see dirt and the rat, it’s was like, cool!—it looks like in the comic books. So even the worst aspect are nice! So I did enjoy that a lot. 

So are you a big-city guy?

Yeah, I’ve always lived in a city. I’m now considering maybe at some point in the semi-distant
future trying somewhere a bit more chill but—yeah—I like the city for sure. 

You’ve lived in so many cities around the world, How has that influenced your work and made your work unique?

The people, I think. The way people live. The way they behave in specific cities is quite different, from Los Angeles to New York—same country but a completely different way
to navigate the city.

The history of the city is very different as well. When I draw, usually I draw inspired by situations that I see. My process when I create work is to take something that annoys me, and to try to find the positive in it. So this [Time Out New York] cover is the perfect example because it’s the fact, and then maybe trying to find a positive, playful angle. But you also get to look at the way people dress and big cities tend to have that gentrification. The east of the city is always sort of like a trendy, gentrified area. So you have Hackney in London, Brooklyn in New York and then LA you have like Silverlake, Highland Park, Echo Park all of these places. It’s kind of funny to see the pattern. Because when you travel from one city to another you could draw something about hipster cafes and stuff but have a slightly different thing according to the city. But then again it would be irony with the fact that still it’s the same idea. You would find the same sort of like cafes with nice plants and the craft coffee and the wooden tables in every big city.

Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in BangkokTime Out New York cover by Jean Jullien

Are you now still based in New York?

No, we came back from Los Angeles in March and now I’m back in London for the time being. I think we gonna do two years and then try to move to France. But I don’t know where. That’s when there’s moment like ‘Is it gonna be Paris?’ I’ve never lived in Paris so I’m quite curious, or “is it gonna be Nantes?” where I’m from, which is also great city—a little bit smaller but a great city with good culture. But I need to move around because my work is so influenced by it. Beyond the work, my way of being happy is to create drawing that’s so inspired by the things that I see in the city or in different environments. So, I kind of need to move around a bit. 

Do you have particular criteria for a city you would like to live in?

I think I do actually. I do have a few. Culture is important. A city with nice culture.A city where you can also have, I mean what I describe in those three cities: pockets of slowness. 

If you are in the city center or downtown, or places where you have all the museums and shops, it is quite intense. It’s fast paced you’re gonna see crazy stuff, but it’s nice to be able to go to Brooklyn or Hackney and to have streets that are maybe a bit more suburban. Or places where people live. There’s the city center where people make and do, and there’s activity and the place where people live and that’s a bit more relaxed. So I would look into a city that offers that. 

And obviously, a counterculture is also extremely important. You can find that usually in pockets of living space. So Hackney in London is historically changing gentrification. It used to be a place that was cheap. So artists would move there and create interesting work. Obviously, gentrification has caught up with it but it’s important to take time to discover, or getting tips from people. There're cool things happening here which is also playful as well. 

And somewhere international in general. Because I’ve been living 12 years in London and I’ve found the benefits from the culturally mixed city. It’s great because people retain their own culture but when people open to discover the culture that exists. It’s the best.


How did you get into art and drawing?

I’ve always drawn like a lot of kids. When I was a child, my dad was really into music and comic books—French comic books and my mom is an architect and curator. So she introduced us to architecture, design, and artists and painters—like [Antoine] Villard, [Henri] Matisse, [Emile] Bernard. My brother and I were really into cartoons and toys so there’s a very healthy mix of different angles of art. I’ve never lost the passion for it. So, I’ve just carried on. 

I was really bad at school. In France, if you’re bad at school, you’re going to struggle to get into school. I wanted to do animation but I couldn’t get into it because I was too bad. I applied for fine arts and animation in a few schools but got rejected by all of them. So, I ended up in a very practical course in a small place in Brittany, which was a typical graphic designer sort of thing, but in a smaller city where I was fortunate to have good teachers and to meet good people. I got introduced to the work of Saul Bass, or Paul Rand—those people used to bring creativity, culture, and art into practical commercial work. And that blew my mind because I realized don’t have to be an artist or have a real job. You know you can do both. You can work for clients and you perform a service like a normal job. But you can also have a creative input. And that’s what the art is.

After that, I moved to London and applied to Central Saint Martins and I absolutely loved it. The big city was super interesting and the school in itself was the opposite of the practical course I completed. It’s more playful. You meet people from all over the world. You try photography, textile, print, drawing, all of that. I really got a kick out of it. 

I started working properly in 2007. When I was showing my work that I was doing for school and my doodles online—My Space at the time—because of the nature of social media, it sort of traveled for a bit, and I started getting commissions. I was working actively by the time I got out of Central Saint Martins. Then I went to The Royal College, carried on doing commercial work and my own work.

The course that you have done in Brittany, was that a degree as well?

It was a degree. It’s something we call BTS (Brevet de Technicien Supérieur) which is very practical and normally when you get out of that you can apply for a job as a graphic designer. 

Congratulations! You said you were not very good at school but you managed to earn double degrees from Central St. Martins and The Royal College of Arts?

Well. That’s true. I feel very fortunate but I guess it's kinda ironic that I got into the school I wanted but not in my country.

Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in BangkokJean Jullien, The People

While you were developing your own style, were there any artists who have great influence on your work?

Yes, there are people who I looked up to. I would say, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, French artists like [Raymond] Savignac, a poster artist from the ‘60s, Tomi Ungerer, the really amazing cartoonist, [Jean-Jacques] Sempé, the French illustrator whose work I still to this day absolutely love. He does a very simple, naive, funny drawings of life. 

Those are people I look up to because the way their work looked and also because of their approach to work. Sempé has such a tender look on people and the way people live, Saul Bass and Paul Rand because they put practical into commercial, and Tomi Ungerer for the diversity of everything he does, from doing books for children and posters against war to advertising and exhibitions—very diverse. That’s something I find very interesting. 

Your characters usually involve humor.  Are you a funny guy?

I don’t know. I think maybe my drawings are funnier than I am. I’d like to say “Yeah, I’m hilarious!” But I don’t know, you have to ask my friends and close ones. But I definitely use drawing as my mean to express. And It’s funny because I don't think actively of it. I often compare making an image to creating a theater play. You have a few characters that are very archetypal and then you have elements of décor and then your set. It’s so simple that you always try to focus on the story. 

That comes from studying graphic design, where graphic design essentially constrains illustration. What you do is problem-solving, and trying to be efficient in communication and playful. So first I approach my work with ‘what do I want to say?’ and ‘how can I say it simply enough that it’s very direct and efficient?’ 

Among the characters you have drawn, which one is the closest to your character?

Most of the time they have a long nose, so a lot of them would be me. People say that I sometimes look like my drawing: skinny with the long nose. But it’s very difficult because I also want to draw people from all backgrounds and stuff. Sometimes I’d be like get rid of that nose, and each time is different. I don’t know. I think there is always an element of me when I draw a human character. 

In The People, I’m pretty sure that I’ve drawn in the mural there’s one character that’s meant to be me somewhere. 

Can you tell us briefly about The People? Why the people?

Because of the context—first and foremost—we are in a [shopping complex] where people work, eat, drink, shop and walk. And so for me I always try to have a theme in my exhibitions whether it’s something obvious or not. In this case, it’s pretty obvious. But also it’s very allowing because the people can be the real people, can be the idea of physicality but can also be the cast of characters that I usually create. You know, in the mural we have a mix of real people and imaginative people. The idea was to play around with the idea of “what makes the people.” It’s first in form of the mass. The diversity as well that’s inherent to a crowd. In order to play with that, I decided to make sculptural work that you have 2D works upstairs but you are so passive when you look at the flat work, you’re like okay...but when you create three-dimensional work it’s necessarily playful. You can see the front, or go around, you could see the side, you could look at the back. You are really engaged in this sort of dance as a person with the object and the work. It’s always something I wanted to do like I was saying when I started I was doing three-dimensional work, photographs, and for me it’s a nice way to go back to this beyond the drawing is always something very important for me: How do you challenge the drawing and how do you challenge the viewers by presenting something unexpected. 

Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in BangkokJean Jullien

You have been active on social media, do you think social media is a benefit or a threat to an artist?

Definitely a benefit. No doubt. I always use social media everytime I do a show to communicate. It’s also a nice way for me to just share jokes or ideas. And it also allows people, in Thailand or in France, to see my work.  

You’ve been saying that you were trying to be less active on social media, have you succeeded?

Yeah, actually I have. It’s strange that I mock with affection usually the people’s social behavior on telephone but I always say that I’m the first one, the victim of that, because I was so hooked to it. But recently, yes, I’ve managed to cut down social media. I still use it. I still enjoy it. I don't think it’s bad. I was comparing it earlier to sort of trying to ride a wild animal because when you really new to it, you don’t really know how to use it. You move around and over the time you’re sort of trying to know how to tame it or master it and you can choose at which pace you wanna ride that animal. And so for me social media is now something that I use, but I try not to be on it all the time. It also allows me more time to create work.

Jean Jullien at The People exhibition in BangkokTime Out Bangkok issue 026 (1-15 June 2017)

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