Illustrations  Crossing borders: Mattias Adolfsson and his creations
19/01/201800:00 TV5MONDE
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Night flight by Mattias Adolfsson

Enter the Twilight Zone (okay not really) of Mattias Adolfsson, who, as an illustrator with global acclaim, frequently crosses borders around the world to promote his work or to engage with his fans and fellow artists. Mattias was in Hong Kong in December 2017, for an event in Comix Home Base, Hong Kong's hub for all things related to the illustrative arts. As France is known for its passion and dedication to the illustration and comics, Mattias has an ever-growing fanbase in the land of the Gauls and is a regular visitor at the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival, whose 2018 edition will take place between 25-28 January, 2018. We had the privilege to speak to him over coffee here in Cyberport, where TV5MONDE's Asia-Pacific Headquarters are located. From the life of an artist to the concept of creativity, from Asian cities to the idea of "Made in France", here's an excerpt from a very engaging conversation.

Copyright of all images belong to Mattias Adolfsson.

Before your trip to Asia, you mentioned on your social media that you did not understand why you are so popular in Asia. Did you manage to find out why?
When I was in Singapore I asked this question and was given a succint answer: "it's complicated". My parents told me that when something is complicated, it has to be good. I take that as a compliment, then, haha!
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Sneaker street in Hong Kong

We think viewers like the idea of being able to take things away from your work. At least that's what we think. How do you find Hong Kong, then? How do you perceive the artistic vibe in this financial city?
Other cities in the world might have only a small pocket in the city where there are skyscrapers, but not here in Hong Kong. They are everywhere and space is so tight. In terms of art, there’s almost like a tribe (of people who I pivot to) in every city I go to. Wherever I travel, I meet this “tribe” of mine and we are more closely related. We are more in tune, our professions can have a lot more commonalities, etc. Certainly, in some cities you can really sense that there’s art everywhere, in public spaces, on buildings. I don’t get that sense here, but I feel the enthusiasm and curiosity of the people for the arts.

You had a talk at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. How was the audience and your experience?
It looks like I came here at a bad time, actually, as a lot of students appeared to have finished their term, so most of the people in attendance were from all walks of life. I had some very interesting quesitons though and I enjoyed it.

 
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At the Comix Home Base in Hong Kong on 24 December, 2017.

What about Comix Base Hong Kong and your subsequent trip to Shenzhen?
Comix Base was great. I had a one hour live drawing session followed by some book signing, and then a great jam session with six local comic creators. We really loved our short stay in Hong Kong. The only hiccup was a rather hectic passage through the Chinese custom side when crossing over to and from Shenzhen, as we were rather short on time.

 
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The creative process, according to the artist

Could you tell us a bit about how you wind up on this professional path as a full-time illustrator?
Art was not seen as a viable option when I grew up. The Northern part of Europe actually has some similarities with Asian culture when it comes to young people’s careers. I grew up in a more austere time and was persuaded to study as an engineer. In terms of the lack of focus on artistic education in Hong Kong, I can comprehend what goes on here. In Europe now, it’s more “do what you want”, and that is a big change from the times of my youth.

 
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I decided to quit the gaming industry and just left my job on the day. I was freelancing and working in this company which creates war games, and my body was telling me I couldn’t do it anymore. Financially, when I first started out leaving the job, it was really a challenge. In the long run though, I think this is the only thing that would have worked out for me. You have to take a leap of faith. I was lucky, I started growing my following, and looking back this is still the best choice I could have made for myself.

The picture of Sweden you've painted seems to be different than what Asia thinks of your country - IKEA, creativity, liberal, safe, an embracing society...
(Laughs) grass is always greener on the other side, I guess. Fine arts of course is also perceived differently than illustration arts, I think.

You have a very strong following on your social media. Can you tell us more?
My social media is a bit like an incentive to get me to continue my work. Nowadays I don’t really think about how much time I need to put into it, especially now that I don’t have time to draw all day. The love and feedback I get is truly wonderful. The one issue sometimes is that your followers build a rapport with you, but it can’t always be reciprocated as I simply don’t have the means to follow or engage with everyone.

I think I came out on the internet at the right time as I started some 10 years ago. I think you can still make it big on social media these days, and there’s a lot of young people with a huge following. However, they are getting a very young audience, whereas a huge fan of mine I met in Taiwan was 80 years old.

 
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Taiwanese night markets under the artist's hand

You are definitely right about that. Vanity metrics aren't everything, and spending power across age groups can be very different. Could you tell us a bit about your trip(s) in Taiwan then? There is a series of very fun images from your trip there, with interesting depiction of Chinese characters. We've seen news articles featuring your work on Taiwan, saying like "so this is how Westerners perceive our cities and people".
The first time I landed in Taiwan, I was in a very small hotel room. So I turned on the TV and started to draw. Ever so often, I would look up ever at the screen and then continue to draw what I see. I try not to copy; an exact replica, or errors, might really create a literal embarrassment - I wouldn’t want to create a situation like non-Chinese speakers with fatally funny tattoos.

That image in the night market - I think that was my first night out in Taiwan. I was starving and I wandered into a night market. There was food everywhere, but I just couldn’t understand. In the end I got my food but this image really captured my experience and my first bout of culture shock. The food I had in Taiwan, for me it was really just the best. The taste of the seafood is so clean. I’ll go back to Taipei just for the food.

 
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Sketches from trips to the Botanical Garden in Singapore
 
So what about your experience in the rest of Asia?
I’ve visited a few countries in the region. One city that’s on top of my list is Beijing; apparently I have a pretty large following there. There’s an American publication which is in Simplified Chinese, available to the Mainland Chinese audience. Japan is on my list too, but I think it’s one of the more difficult countries to break into somehow. They have their own unique culture I find.

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Just your regular visit at a Cantonese restaurant

We’ve talked a lot about Asia, can you tell us about your connection to France?
I regularly travel to the comic festival in Angoulême and sell a lot of books there; I am happy to say my work has quite a large following in France. I think I’ll be heading to Paris in January. In France, they publish more comics than regular books. In comparison they seem to have a higher appreciation for illustrative arts (in comparison to other European countries). I have always enjoyed my time in Angoulême.

Currently, I collaborate with
Atelier Choux, a French company whose main product offering is baby "carrés", which can be used as a blanket, swaddling, handkerchief, etc. The Atelier has been following me on social media for a long while' they then reached out and told me about making baby blankets. I think this is a specific culture in France, where the baby wrap is sort of an industry on its own. First the firm just took what I’ve already created in my sketchbooks, and now we are expanding into more themes. These printed textiles are to be wholly made in France; I heard that some are going to be used in luxury hotels in France. They are really nice products.
 
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Atelier Choux, whose main offering are organic cotton products with Mattias' prints.

The style looks quite different than what is called "steam punk", which seems to be a keyword fans often associate your work to. Is that true?
I think any name or label people want to put on it, I am OK with it, but I don’t think I am part of that movement at all. Perhaps some of my past work relates to that school. I certainly wouldn’t really label my work to any particular field, and try not to overthink about anything I do.

Earlier in our conversation, you've mentioned you don’t like giving advice, but what would you say to someone breaking into the art industry, or a young person starting off his/her business?
I think you really need to buckle down and put down the hours. Try to really get into the rhythm of work, but you really need to enjoy what you do as well. You have to practice, but you have to enjoy the practice too. People would ask me what I would do if there is an error in my work, to which my response is “all my drawings are packed with errors”. Don’t overthink, practice, keep going, enjoy it!

 
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With special thanks to Mattias for the liberal use of his images within this article. Some images might appear slightly altered for formatting purposes. To see more of Mattias' work or to purchase his images, please visit his Etsy shop, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook page.
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