Illustrator John Holcroft – a true master of satire.
His sardonic take on 21st century addictions and contemporary politics are both flippant and funny. But under the surface of his work there’s a ripple of anger and a biting social commentary. We caught up with Holcroft to find out more about his fascination with what he calls “the absurdity of modern life.”
I know it’s been a rocky road professionally to the place you’ve made it to now. You must feel a lot more stable these days?
One of the drawbacks of my trade is that it’s never stable. A lot of illustrators will tell you that. It’s a fickle industry. You might be doing well for a while but if you don’t keep your eye on the ball you can find yourself with very little work very easily. 2011 was a turning point for me, but prior to that I was struggling. Around 2008 to 2009 I had a whole year without work. But back then I was working in a different style altogether. Since I started out I’ve worked in half a dozen different styles.
When did you decide that this was what you were going to do with your life?
I went to Art College when I was sixteen and then went on to study graphic design. I left in 1992 and during that time the country was plunged into a huge recession, so there was no work for anyone for several years. Thatcher had just stepped down and John Major was prime minister. By the time there was work I was long separated from it. So I focused on illustration. I didn’t have a lot of money to put into anything else. All I had was some paints.
I get a real sense of Britishness, both in your work and listening to you speak.
Well I do try to inject a little bit of myself into my work, but I also try to consider other nationalities and whether they would actually get the concepts. I get emails from people, sometimes congratulating me on great work but sometimes also from people who have been a bit offended because the concept hasn’t travelled well.
I did this one commission for an online magazine about bribery and corruption of customs officials at airports. They wanted a picture of an airport security guard taking a bribe. So I just did a generic uniform and a little badge, but the colours I used for the badge were coincidentally also the colours of a particular country’s flag, Portugal I think, and someone got very offended by it. Then there was the piece I did of the piggy-bank with the bankers suckling from it. Most people understand that visual pun. But one German woman was offended because of some famous statue with people suckling from a pig. So yeah, there are some misunderstandings, but I don’t get too worried about it because I’m never out to offend anybody.
Edward Hopper famously said, “if you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” I know he’s been a big influence on your work. Does your work say more about your view of the world than you could necessarily eloquently describe?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the only platform I’m able to use. I could stand on a box in the middle of the street but no one’s going to listen to me. But I can create this great illustration that speaks volumes without using any words at all. That’s my medium. For some people its music or poetry, or literature, but my medium is illustration. I can speak louder and clearer that way.
Let’s talk about your philosophy and some of the recurring themes of your work, job security, modern vices, stress about money. You’ve said, “there are so many things that bother me and I do the only thing that I can to protest, make people aware or just get them thinking.” I know people come to you with a specific vision but you always seem to add that John Holcroft twist to it and stay true to your morals. How do you manage that?
First and foremost I’m an illustrator who has to make a living. I take commissions because that’s how I put food on the table. They usually say, “Here’s the text, read it.” And I read it and illustrate it. There’s nothing profound about it. It’s just a paid job. But in order for me to attract work I have to think of concepts that will interest people. I try to attract editors and people in the publishing industry. So I have to make my work look interesting. That’s the catalyst. That’s what drives me. If I didn’t have that then I wouldn’t have the incentive to create work. Anyway I think about the things that I think would interest people. So why not illustrate the things that bother me. And try to get people thinking. If you get people thinking then you stay in people’s minds.
One image in particular, the Facebook icons pouring into the ‘ego’ dish, kind of went viral last year. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
Yeah I think of all my illustrations that’s the one that has resonated most with people. It was never intended to be so widespread, it was just another self-promotional image like anything else. I was trying to think of something that would resonate with people and it just went crazy.
Sometimes I get a bee in my bonnet about certain things. I like to point my finger and make fun of things like Facebook. I mean, I use Facebook but a lot of it is crap, people taking photographs of their food and stuff. My feed is full of crap after crap after crap. And I began to notice that I was doing the same thing. I was wondering about how many likes I had, and obsessing over it. It’s like a drug, feeding your ego. Once that seed was planted I couldn’t stop noticing it. And I suppose everyone else was having the same feeling.
My ‘twitter drip’ was a follow up to the Facebook one. It’s an image of a women holding a medical drip in the shape of the twitter logo. I noticed how obsessed people were with twitter, like it was their life-support system.
No, I am optimistic. But I’m also realistic and maybe a bit cynical. I like to find the good in people but I also look for the flaws as well.
The work that you do can be very provoking. What’s your response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting? What did that mean for you in terms of expressing yourself as an illustrator about topics that offend people?
Well I wouldn’t do a piece on anything that would deliberately offend anyone, especially Muslim extremists. I don’t want to be killed. [Laughs]
So you do feel that if you did something like that then you would be inviting a violent response?
My view of the Charlie Hebdo thing was that, for a start, the cartoons weren’t that funny. Not funny enough to be killed for. That’s my opinion. But obviously it doesn’t matter how offended these people were. You don’t go shooting people that offend you. That’s both ridiculous and evil.
Which pieces of work are you most proud of? And what’s the best validation you’ve had?
I’ve never won any awards or competitions or anything like that. I was shortlisted for a competition that was run by the British transport museum. I went to the awards night and when I got there it was full of people drinking wine, talking amongst themselves. They announced the winners and that was it. I should have mingled but I couldn’t be bothered. I just went home.
I suppose I’m most proud of these posters I did for a theatre company in Massachusetts. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who just does satirical stuff, because I enjoy doing all kinds of other things as well.
Where would you like your work to go from here? Do you have plans for the next few years?
One day i’d like to publish a book with all my work in it, but for now I plan to just keep working on my style and getting the colours right. I always have problems with the colours.