Entering into Hattie Stewart’s East London studio, you’re made instantly aware of all the eclectic influences that inspire her work. From the iconic French film Betty Blue, to Michael Fassbender, to the piles of pop magazines strewn across her work place.
Her world is a cheeky, fun and uplifting place full of splashes of colour. With almost no formal art training, Stewart has steered her way right into the thick of pop culture, working with everyone from House of Holland to Apple and is a favourite of Kylie Minogue, Marc Jacobs and Ariana Grande. The basis of her work is satire, but is never weighed down in cynicism, its a playful remark on our fixation with identity, celebrities and media, and we can’t get enough of it. We meet London’s very own poster child, Hattie stewart.
Your latest project was working with Ariana Grande at the MTV awards. Were you happy with the results?
That one came out of the blue. They put my name forward to Ariana Grande and she selected me to work with. That was the Tuesday call and by Friday we’d set up to do this stop-motion film, where I do what I do, taking an image of Ariana Grande and doing my thing over the top of it. That was one of the fastest jobs, and biggest platforms, I’ve done for a long time. I usually take a lot of time to think things through. My mum said that I didn’t speak until I was four, they thought I was deaf, but then I just started coming out with fully formed sentences. So she always said, “take your time but when you’re ready just do it.” With my work it’s the same thing. I’m not someone who sits down and draws every day, but I’ll be thinking and thinking, and then all of a sudden I’ll be like — right, I’m ready to go. I fit in very well with the fast paced nature of social media.
Was Ariana happy with how it turned out?
Yeah she was really pleased with it. She’s requested to keep the piece herself, and hopefully we’ll work together a bit more.
Your work seems to have entered into the mainstream lately.
I think so. My work has always been based in pop culture and consumerism by the pure nature of illustrating covers of magazines. So it’s fun that now I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to directly engage with those artists and they’re willing to be involved. After that project it was only a few days later when Apple Music invited me on board for the iTunes festival to do my own gallery. It was phenomenal to be able to work with those kinds of artists. It seems like people are really connecting with what I’m doing. There are so many incredible photographers out there, but as an illustrator there aren’t as many platforms for someone who loves pop culture, and loves photography, and loves these magazines. There’s not so many places for me as an illustrator within those spaces except as a fashion illustrator. So this is kind of a way for me to have my indulgence but also do exactly what I love.
“I just wanted to sit and create my own worlds.”
What did Apple ask you to do?
Basically they gave me a selection of photographs taken from past performances. There was a whole plethora of artists that we could have potentially used for the project, but there was a lot of signing off, making sure they were ok with me doing it. There obviously had to be no drawing over the faces or anything like that. Also I was editing the pictures, turning them from colour to black and white, and that had to be signed off too. It was a long process, especially when you’ve got so many different artists with different visions, and ideas, and have their own identities. It was cool for the artists who were up for it. Pharrell was the nicest guy, the most funny, and really excited for me to do it. He selected his own picture. Him, Ellie Goulding, Ed Sheeran, and Katie Perry all requested to have copies of the illustrations. But all this stuff has happened literally in the last three weeks.
The influence of pop art in your work is clear, elements of Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein, and a dash of 60s sunshine psychedelia, almost toon town. Would you agree?
I would say so. For me it was less Lichtenstein and Haring, and more Martin Sharp, Keiichi Tanaami. Like the cover of Disraeli Gears by Cream.
Are your parents artistic?
They’re very creatively minded, but I don’t know if they’re artistic.
Do they understand what you do?
Yeah totally. It was my mum that really pushed me to do it. My sister is extremely creative. She’s a senior designer at Loewe. My uncles on both sides of the family are very creative. One would always draw these stupid cartoons, like from the Dandy and stuff like that, and my other uncle is just really naturally talented. He can just draw a car from memory, which I can’t do. He would go around the primary schools in Sheffield and paint cartoon characters, and I would go and help him because I love to draw.
So my uncle on that side taught me technique. My uncle on the other side, I remember when I was like 9 or 10 and I was trying to draw an alien for school. I was busy trying to draw the standard alien and my uncle was like, “what is this? What are you doing? Do you know what an alien looks like?” I said, “well, no not really.” And he said “no one has a fucking clue what aliens look like, that means you can draw whatever the fuck you want.” I think the swearing was omitted. But for me it was like my word had opened up. He taught me how to think and how to play.
So you don’t have formal art training?
I’ve done a fair bit but I was one of those annoying students. I was a bit combative. I didn’t really like life drawing, I didn’t really like location drawing, I just wanted to sit and create my own worlds, which caused a certain amount of tension at times. But we all love each other now!
You use satire in a lot in your covers and something you’ve said is, “satire is more about magazine culture as a whole rather than the celebrities” so what are you poking fun at?
For me that was always the idea when I started doing this. The thing is, I love these magazines, and I hate them at the same time. It’s that love-hate relationship we all have with consumerism and pop culture. I love the glamour, the ridiculousness . . . it’s so hard to define exactly what I love. I know what I hate about it. I hate how it effects people’s own identities, I hate when there’s a certain group of new young things on every single page, I hate the lack of diversity. . . there are so many problems. But I like the fun and the freedom and frivolity of it.
I think with magazines there’s a huge sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), which they capitalise on.
Yeah, it’s that constant feeling of inadequacy that everyone feels when they are inundated with that kind of thing. That they’re not doing enough, being enough, or achieving enough.
So your drawings are a ‘fuck you’ to that?
In a way yeah, but a playful one. It’s that mix of the two. The interesting thing is that people who hate the people on these covers love it when I draw over them, but other people who love the people on the covers also love it when I draw over them. So it has this double layer. That completely reflects me because as soon as I say I that I hate something, my mind will be like, “no no no, actually you kind of love it.” My opinion always fluctuates.
“It’s that love-hate relationship we all have with consumerism and pop culture.”
Do you think your work is more an ignition for discussion?
Yeah I’m not one of those artists who wants to shove something in your face. It’s more about planting a seed in the back of your mind than it is about throwing a plant pot at your head. So you look at one of my images and you’ll just see it subverted slightly differently. It’s an alternative reality, it’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, that bending between what’s real and what isn’t.
Actually when I first saw your work I immediately thought of the toon town part of Who framed Roger Rabbit.
Oh really? I love that!
I was having a conversation with someone on the train, and they were reading Grazia or Hello. We started talking and I said, “one of the words that’s used most with trash magazines these days is heartbreak.” And when she turned over the front it said ‘heartbreak’. And then she turned over the next magazine and it said ‘heartbreak’ again. Bizarre.
That’s so depressing. But they are selling heartbreak. They’re selling a bad lifestyle that no one can sustain. I have this conversation all the time with a lot of my friends who are all extremely talented. A lot of us came of age during the birth of social media, and so for many young artists, it’s so incredible the way you can connect with people in a way that would have taken years before. But also within our own work people move at a different pace. So if you’re someone who works quickly then great, but if you’re someone who works much more slowly, you kind of get left behind a little bit.
I think it depends what realm they’re working in though.
I guess I’m thinking of illustration. A lot of my friends feel the pressure to change their work according to the platform they’re working on. But Instagram is not something that’s going to be around forever. I’d be surprised if it was. I see it as something like Myspace or even Facebook.
But you have 55,000 followers?
Yeah, which is nice.
But are you saying that it’s not important to you or that you don’t really buy into it?
I buy into it. Of course I do. It’s a part of my career and I’d be a fool to say I don’t like the platform. I think it’s incredible, but I don’t know if it’s sustainable. If I sometimes catch myself thinking, maybe I should draw that in a square format so that it fits a fucking Instagram post, then I’m forgetting about all the other god damn formats I can work in. That’s what I wanted to do with the show, because when you were talking about Andy Warhol, I wanted to say, I did a show with him.
How did you bring him back from the dead?
[laughing] Oh dear god, I don’t mean like that!
I just read that Jared Leto’s going to do the new Andy Warhol biopic.
Oh no, he’s not is he? I really don’t like him.
Anyway let’s get back on course. What were you saying about Andy Warhol?
Right, so basically they did this thing, taking his work around different galleries in the UK. It actually ended up being in Colchester which is my home town, and then to coincide with the opening of that exhibition they invited me on board to do one myself. Camille Walala also painted the auditorium. It was absolutely incredible what she did.
Anyway I wanted to create something that was more interactive, that wasn’t necessarily something you could share online but actually had to see in person. With that I created these huge A0 pieces, where basically you’d have the original covers and then as you move you see my illustrated versions. So it’s like this flip, this instantaneous movement. Then I filled the rest of the room, which was massive, with the rest of the covers. So it was flooded with all of this imagery. It was one of those exhibitions you needed to actually go and witness.
“Instagram is not something that’s going to be around forever.”
We have this obsession with images in culture and it’s something your work speaks very presciently about. We just featured the founder of Pinterest and he talked about how we’re losing our intellectual culture, so we make all of our decisions visually now.
Yeah, I even notice with myself. I was literally thinking about this on the way here, how I’m finding it harder to actually retain information. I’ve never been the best at names and places. I’ve always been a visual person. If you asked me how to get somewhere, I’d be like, “I have no idea.” But if you come with me I would be able to show you. And I never get lost, but if you asked me the name of a street I can’t remember it. And the thing is that I used to be better. I used to pause every now and again, and indulge myself in the information I was reading, whereas now I’ll be watching something and then all of a sudden I’ll be on my phone. One time I was reading a book and realised all of a sudden that I had my phone in my hand. I have to constantly remind myself to not engage too much with it and I’ve never had to do that before. I’ve never had to remind myself not to engage with a book, but I have to actively tell myself not engage with the internet. That’s something that’s so hard. Especially when it’s such an integral part of my work. The fastness of that information is helpful but I think it’s also making it harder for me.
Talk to us about doodle-bombing. This is a term you coined right?
Yeah it was just a fun thing. I started doing it a few years ago. I’ve always drawn over things but this time I was doing it with intent. I was asked about it in an interview and I just said, “It’s kind of like photo-bombing but doodle-bombing.”
Knit-bombing is the other one that comes to my mind.
Yeah or there’s that amazing artist who does all the camouflage graffiti. So it was just a giggle, just a bit of fun, but it kind of took on a life on its own. I was also calling myself a professional doodler because I found it hard to take myself so seriously when I was just doing something that I loved and that felt so natural to me. So that was my way of blurring the lines between the work and play. I allowed myself that little level of fun.
So the work that you do is now being used by a lot of big names, Pepsi, Marc Jacobs, House of Holland, Azealia Banks, One Direction and many more. These are all people you’ve worked with. It’s nice to know you’re embraced by those people.
Well for each brand and individual it is different for example with Loewe it goes back to my sister. She first started working with Loewe when she graduated from Westminster and was working with them as a designer. She then brought me on board to do a collection of illustrations. This was when I was in my first year of uni and I was literally the most unprofessional person ever. I didn’t have a scanner. I didn’t really know how to use a computer.
What did you do for Pepsi?
That was really fun. It was for the world cup in Brazil. They basically got six graffiti artists, and me, to come in and represent a country. We were all paired with a footballer and I was with Jack Wilshere. It was an art exhibition but also to be used as part of the campaign. It was a really amazing project. The canvasses were huge, like two meters by two meters, of a print out of the footballer. And we just did our thing colouring around them and we had a day to do it.
Your work is so varied and obviously takes you to some interesting places.
Exactly. It was like with the Old Navy campaign I did a few years ago in New York. I went over there for a month and met some incredible people, and then went to LA because we were doing advertising, making live action with animation. That was working with Roman Coppola, so that was insane. He was the nicest guy I’ve ever met, but workwise I think it was one of my biggest regrets. Just not working with him enough. I was so nervous and so intimidated that I went inwards a bit. I was still learning a lot about the industry, about fashion, about production, about how these big companies work with each other. I was kind of finding my footing. But if I could have spent more time with him in LA that one week. . . I just wish I had done.
I heard that you have a special interest in WW2 history, especially the role women played. Why are you so fascinated by this period of history?
I think because it’s that time of human civilisation where everything really was in such upheaval. Obviously nowadays there’s still a lot of wars happening in the world but it’s the longest time in history that there’s been no war between Western countries.
[Laughing] Right, Brexit! Some people are actually saying that it’s a precursor to WW3 and I’m like, “oh my god, please stop.” But then again things have started from less. So basically it’s just that fascination with the fact that the world I know was in such upheaval and I think what my place would have been within that time, and how I as a person would have reacted and also it’s a level of realising how privileged I am in this very moment.