Can you identify a point in your personal history when you were your absolute happiest? Come on. It really wasn’t so terribly long ago if you calculate it in Venus years. Sadly, very few of us can summon an easy-breezy response. London-based freelance illustrator MURUGIAH asked himself this very same question just a few short years ago. He wondered what unbridled joy looked and felt like to the younger version of himself. To identify the answer, the Sri-Lankan/Welsh artist decided to take a mindful stroll down memory lane.
To a certain degree, loss can infect us once we are firmly entrenched in adulthood. The carefree essence of our former selves — hopped up on far too many sugary cereals, plastic toys, and mindlessly delightful pastimes — becomes increasingly elusive. Our subconscious henpecks us to do far more productive things with our time. When we do decide to actively seek out “adult-suitable” forms of fun, our spirits aren’t comparably nourished – at least not on the same plane of innocence that we once reveled in. Ah-ha! That’s when MURUGIAH arrived upon his eureka canvas moment. His portfolio would become a visual representation of our much-treasured youthful yesterdays. The illustrator would summon the vibrational frequency of that happy-go-lucky head rush and splatter it with extra super mega bien gusto upon his canvases!
Really? That’s MURUGIAH’s personal prescription for what ails us? A visual hit of candy-coated artsy whimsy? You’re darn tootin’, it is! Childhood glee, he recognized, really IS everything. It’s a supremely golden quality. It may seem so simple in theory, but that SPIRIT creates buoyancy in the mind, body and soul. With that realization, the award-winning illustrator’s portfolio modus operandi was born. MURUGIAH’s kaleidoscopic, mood-boosting artwork is engineered to help the beholder inch ever closer toward childhood nirvana. As it turns out, we need not indulge in pleasures that artificially alter our blood chemistry. Some of the greatest joys in life trigger endorphins the old fashioned, natural way – through the windows of our soul. Ready for the weighty cares of your adult world to fall away? Your eyeball bliss state awaits…
Let’s coin a unique-to-you art category that nails the MURUGIAH illustrative style that you’ve been cultivating for the past several years. Would “candy-coated Psilocybin particle beam daydreamer” work?
Haha, yeah that sounds about right. I act as a conduit between my Sri Lankan heritage and my life as it is right now. I was born and raised in the U.K., so I’m very British, but I look in the mirror and I’m brown-skinned. My work responds to this in some form or another. I’m not sure why it emerges in such a colourful and fluid way. With time, I’m sure it will manifest itself in other ways, too.
Once I stepped into art and illustration, I wanted to find out who I was before all the architecture stuff. So I went back – way back! – to my childhood. It was filled with COLOUR!
You established a fun, cartoonish-based aesthetic in the earlier Where’s the Dude? book illustration days of your art career. In the past few years, however, you’ve transitioned into an entirely different psychedelic, amusement park thrill ride dimension.
Oh, for sure. It’s all a response to what I was doing before becoming an artist. I trained as an architect. It was wonderful but sooo bland, haha. Our school of thought focused on architecture that blended into its surroundings. Subtle flourishes, clever thought-out planning, natural materials and muted colours were key. I really did love it at the time. Some of my favourite buildings in the world have actually been built with those processes.
Once I stepped into art and illustration, I wanted to find out who I was before all the architecture stuff. So I went back – way back! – to my childhood. It was filled with COLOUR! Vivid Saturday morning cartoons. The simple clean lines of my action figures. The imaginative storytelling of the comic books I read and the movies I watched. Even the bright clothes I would wear as a kid. That’s what led me to explore a fun, character-based style of illustration. Believe it or not, my psychedelic stuff emerged out of my character-based art. It was just another stage in my artistic development.
French artist/cartoonist Jean Henri Gaston Giraud – aka Mœbius – has long been one of your favorite pioneering image-makers. Chilean-French avant-garde/surrealistic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is another. Did exposure to their work forever alter your own artistic approach?
Mœbius and Jordowsky played a large part in the development of my work, particularly toward the end of my Where’s the Dude? character-based art. I had started to explore some of my favourite science fiction films like Aliens and The Fifth Element and many more. I delved deep into who was responsible for some of the concept art of these films. That’s when I learned it was Mœbius and his frequent collaborator Jordorowsky. Around the same time, a friend invited me to a movie double bill of Jordorowsky’s movies, The Holy Mountain followed by El Topo. I came out of the screening room at about 1:00 am and was forever changed. In the weeks that followed, my brain was brimming with psychedelic ideas.
Does creating Studio MURUGIAH’s unique brand of artsy eyeball escapism just tumble out of your brain? Do you manifest your illustrations through any unusual creativity brainstorming practices?
Constant drawing! I normally have the tiniest flicker of an idea and sketch it down real quick as a small thumbnail. But constantly drawing and redrawing ideas — that’s when things start to get really interesting. New elements respond to lines I am making. Different ways of figuring out problems start to infect my brain and then I go to bed thinking about them. I then wake up and add them to the particular piece I’m working on that week. Nothing really comes that easy, but maybe it will someday. If it does start to come that easy, I’ll reject it and move on to a new way of mark-making that gives me that same feeling as before.
The power of film is truly the biggest influence on my work. It’s why I make alternative film posters every now and again, but that doesn’t cut it most of the time. What really gets me going is seeing a film and letting it overpower my mind.
In certain instances, your illustrations seem like they are a snapshot of the labyrinthine subconscious. Others seem to be bacterial in nature, as if they’re spawned from petri dish still-life compositions. Do you use science and medical imagery for visual inspiration?
That labyrinthine subconscious is my own, deep within my brain. Being exposed to three doctors in my life clearly influenced my work, though. Both my father and brother are medical doctors. My family wanted me to be a medic of some kind, but it wasn’t for me. Last year, my partner completed her PhD in the microbiome of the gut.
You’ve spoken many a time about your unabashed love for films in general, and art direction in particular. Your portfolio is sort of like a movie-going experience. It instantly distracts the mind from the weighty issues of the world. Is that your intent?
The power of film is truly the biggest influence on my work. It’s why I make alternative film posters every now and again, but that doesn’t cut it most of the time. What really gets me going is seeing a film and letting it overpower my mind. I use that feeling to influence my artwork. What I create is definitely a freeze-frame thrill ride but from another universe.
The psychedelic surreal art has stuck with me for the last two years, so I feel I’m on the right path now. None of my old illustrations are in my current folio, but I still make the occasional fan film poster.
The seeds of your movie geekdom sprouted way back in your childhood. You took your love of the craft a bit further than the average fan, however. In your spare time, you obsessively researched and dissected the creative vision of various art directors. Do you think this effort helped you to become a far more edgy, risk-taking illustrator?
Doesn’t every film fan do this? I’m constantly searching for that next phase of development. I think playing it safe and doing the same thing over and over can garner you some success, but at what cost? You get stuck in a repetitive state. My version of the same thing over and over again is, perhaps, trying something different over and over again, haha. Or maybe I haven’t found my niche yet. It’s still early doors.
Designing alternative, fan-based movie promos for an art collective called Poster Posse was initially a hobby-based pleasure for you. Did you also stick with that pastime due to the portfolio-building aspect of it?
When I was starting out as an artist, it was such a great group to be a part of. The community of illustrators and artists involved in Poster Posse was very strong, and they all helped each other grow. Yeah, I was building my folio and experimenting with different types of poster designs. Then the group started to receive significant official commissions. I began feeling like I was being left behind due to my own skills and experience at that time. So I left to find myself, as they say.
This coincided with the end of my Where’s the Dude? book illustration project and the Jordorwsky film screening that I attended. So, I was lucky that it all happened at the same time. It felt like a nice leaping off point to discover the next aspect of my journey. The psychedelic surreal art has stuck with me for the last two years, so I feel I’m on the right path now. None of my old illustrations are in my current folio, but I still make the occasional fan film poster.
Have any directors or movie stars given you a virtual high-five for your movie poster designs? Do you have a deep burning desire to be 20th Century Fox’s go-to poster illustrator?
No virtual high fives from industry insiders at the moment. Lots of film fan appreciation, though, so I’m happy about that. In 2019, I created a few film poster art projects and I’m still learning what fits. One of my designs is lined up for a film poster exhibition later in the year, so I’m keen to work on it and re-work it. Rather than be a slave to the subject matter, I want it to really feel and look like something that I would make. That’s the fight I am fighting when taking on an intellectual property project.
Did your Where’s the Dude? illustration responsibilities burn you out on book projects, altogether?
I needed to keep my mind creatively fresh while working on Where’s the Dude?, so I didn’t take on any other art projects. For six months, I worked 16 hours a day on those book illustrations. I burned myself out, for sure, but I would jump at the chance of illustrating another book. It would have to be a project that enables me to create large scale, surreal worlds that are reflective of my current artistic style. After visiting the Mœbius retrospective in Bruhl, Germany at the Max Ernst Museum, I realized that I could easily tackle highly detailed book illustrations in my newer style.
I am carving out my own little niche. I’m making art and surviving — what more could you ask for?
The great success you’ve achieved in illustration, thus far, could easily be attributed to the fact that you are a relentless tree shaker. Your favorite strategies include researching art directors on social media sites, cold-calling them and sending them examples of your work. All of those efforts require…ahem…bolas grandes, sí?
I didn’t know any better! Everyone has to apply themselves in order to find work. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I would say in the early years of my art career, it may have been about demonstrating to my family that there is an alternative and viable career path. After I left the architecture field, I started at the very beginning of my illustration path. I made art that I liked and sent it to art directors and design websites that I thought would publish it. That was a long slog.
I’m still discovering ways of doing that today. Fortunately, my process is far more thought out and not too fever pitched. Now, it’s much more about the work. What kind of work do I want to make? ‘X’?? Then I make ten different versions of ‘X’ as if they were each unique, commissioned pieces. I send those ten illustrations to the specific art director associated with ‘X’. I ask them, “What do you think? I’ve made ten of these pieces and I think I can do even better for you!”
Now, I’m not looking to prove anything to anyone but myself. I’m very happy in my situation. I am carving out my own little niche. I’m making art and surviving — what more could you ask for? The only thing I’m trying to prove to myself is that I can get better at what I do. I see progression in my mark making and decisions every time I make a new piece of work, which is a thrill ride!
You once commented that your Asian upbringing is a partial factor in your self-propelled career success.
Of course, having an intense work ethic is not the be all and end all in life. We are currently going through a global Coronavirus 19 pandemic. That sounds like it’s a line of dialogue from a fucking disaster movie! There are countless news stories about people losing their lives, the economic fallout from this catastrophe, etc.
Growing up in an Asian household, you are constantly bludgeoned with a metaphorical hammer over the head. On the face of said hammer reads the words ‘Study!’ & ‘Work Hard!’ followed by ‘You’ll Never Find a Wife If You’re Fat!’, hahaha. So problematic in so many ways. Fortunately, you can still funnel out some of the crazy. There are some good lessons in there, such as the broad strokes of working hard to get what you want in life
I want others to be able to look at my art and say, “Oh, that is quintessentially a MURUGIAH piece.”
Studio MURUGIAH’s art has received a lot of digital, video and conventional press coverage throughout the years. Did all of those media outlets just so happen to notice you organically…or did you MAKE them notice you ;)
When I first started out, I definitely used that tactic in order to get clients. Regarding press and video coverage, one of my friends is creatively multi-faceted. It’s always advisable to work with the people around you to make website content. I’m always pitching new video and press ideas to him. One of his side hustles is photography, so we recently did a photoshoot together.
Every now and again, however, high profile folks get in touch with you. Recently, Adobe did a video profile on me. They found me because a production company member followed me on Instagram. It sounds clichéd but you never really know who is following you on social media. They could be a fan looking to purchase a print, or a member of a team tasked with looking for a new artist to profile, or an art director looking to commission you.
No one can accuse you of being a wallflower. You’ve described yourself as being a bit of a chatty Kathy, and your affable personality definitely translates on screen.
That’s funny you say that because I am an introvert in most aspects of my life. When I’m talking about something I love like films or making art, however, you can’t shut me up!
You’ve been a long-time proponent of accepting diverse illustration jobs, viewing every opportunity as a learning experience. Is there another key strategy to help insure one’s success in a creative career?
I still haven’t figured out the best strategies! I’m just taking things day by day. Any success that may be apparent is all based upon realizing that there is no plan. Building a unique world that is yours alone is my top recommendation. I want others to be able to look at my art and say, “Oh, that is quintessentially a MURUGIAH piece.” Also, draw as much as you can. Redraw the same piece repeatedly until it is the best it can possibly be. Share it with other. Repeat.
In time, I learned to appreciate myself a lot more and try to be more fully engaged in the present. You are only in charge of what you can control right now! You have to ask yourself what is a fact and what is a feeling.
We look toward those with higher public profiles to help us understand our own struggles. You’ve been quite forthcoming about your personal mental health experiences. At times, isn’t that a burden?
I was definitely in a bad place in the last few years. Being able to talk about it openly is a luxury that my parent’s generation never even had. Our social media persona doesn’t reflect our emotional headspace or our personal, real-life experiences. Centering my social media around my art with the occasional personal message every now and again is important to me. That way, my real-life personal experiences are just that — offline and personal to me.
Years ago, you got caught up in that vicious cycle of working-working-working without earmarking much-needed ‘you time’ away from it all. What mental health preservation tips can you share with other creatives to help them steer clear of this pitfall?
Take regular breaks during the day to exercise, go for a walk – try to use your time productively each day. Sometimes things just don’t work out. If that happens, listen to your body and mind. Just leave the studio and do something else for the day. So many times, I’ve been frustrated with shit in general. When I step away from the studio to go for a walk, things start to clear up and refresh. Forcing yourself to step away from the desk is sometimes hard to do. Every minute as a freelancer seems like it needs to be justified. Yes, you are trying to make a living but taking a break is equally important.
Many creatively hard-wired individuals struggle with the notion that they are less than…or simply not good enough. Is that one of the side effects of living in a social media culture predicated upon LIKES? Is feeling inadequate just part of the whole right-brained package?
Social media is a blessing and a curse. I used to use it very differently in the early years of my art career. Back then, all I saw were artists and illustrators who were better than me. They were further along in their careers and getting better gigs. What that really meant was that I was being too hard on myself. In time, I learned to appreciate myself a lot more and try to be more fully engaged in the present. You are only in charge of what you can control right now! You have to ask yourself what is a fact and what is a feeling. For example: You feel like you’re not good enough. That is based on a feeling. It’s not true. It’s not a fact. Feelings that are not self-soothing can be very damaging.
Please explain what mental health message you’re conveying in the smartphone-themed t-shirt design available in your web shop.
That piece was made during the midst of my low period. I was expressing how social media can be a cage wrapped around your mind and body, strangling you to the point of no return. I’m addicted to my phone and that much screen time is worrisome.
In a large sense, contemporary art agencies like the one you work with (London-based Roar Illustration Agency) are artist advocates. They look out for the best interests of the artist by helping to negotiate mutually beneficial contracts and commissions. Some freelancers may think that they can easily fly solo. What would you say to those who aren’t convinced that allying themselves with an agency can accelerate their career goals?
In today’s social media-centric world, you don’t really need an agent. I know lots of artists who have successful careers with and without agents. You have to ask yourself what you want to be doing all day as an artist. Do you want to spend each day making art? Or do you want to spend a large portion of your day looking for work, dealing with contracts, and promoting your art on social media?
That is why I sought out Roar. I have been able to move forward in my career goals since the large majority of my time, I produce new art. I also found a friend and mentor in Roar’s founder/lead agent Skye Victoria. It’s helpful to bounce ideas off of her and discuss any and all issues I may be having. We work together to pursue our goals.
Your illustrations are a match made in fashion and accessory heaven. In this day and age, is commodifying one’s art a necessary evil? Once an artist’s work is emblazoned on something wearable, does that compromise the art world’s perception of them as an ar-tiste?
I think the commodification of art is necessary but it’s not an evil. Of course, making my art available to customers in lots ways is appealing. I’m just not sure that I want to slap a piece of art on every printable surface available. I’m always excited when I get to partner up with a brand that fuses their ethos with mine. For artists, creating products that feel special, unique and cool is definitely the way forward.
Are illustrators viewed as the chum of the artsy sea?? Why does one type of art make the “fine art” cut and not another?
I’ve begun making paintings where I have written the brief for myself. I am enjoying it a lot. These days, I think the lines are even more blurred. I really enjoy multi-faceted artists who flow between lots of different creative endeavours. Chum? Nah, not at all. There are complete titans in illustration. Despite the individual artistic subcategories that exist, I’ve always considered all creatives to be artists.
Your parents initially hoped that you would pursue a more structured and financially consistent line of work. At this point, surely they’re proud of your self-made success and many artistic accolades. Do they now introduce you to others as “our amazingly creative son who despite not being a doctor or an architect has amassed a sizable fortune in inner happiness”? Because… isn’t that REALLY what it’s all about?
Nah, I still think they are pretty disappointed… haha. My parents were never exposed to art in their youth. They have never really been into it. For them, life was all about working hard in a profession like law or medicine and then moving onto greener pastures. They are quite emotionally repressed, but as they’ve gotten older, they’ve begun opening up. Now, I just don’t think they talk about what I do for a living. They are amazing people and I’m truly grateful that they’re my parents. Who knows. If I had super supportive, free-thinking artsy types for parents, I’d probably be a straight edge medic! I’ve learned over the years that what I do isn’t for them. But you’re right, it is about the inner happiness. I’m just looking to make some fun strange artwork for myself and for those folks who feel some kinship with what I do.