A pen and a pair: Jean Jullien
A peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower at its centre: an illustration that spread like wildfire on social media in the wake of November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. In its silence, simplicity, and ubiquity, the hand drawn image expressed more sadness and solidarity than any of the bombastic articles that ensued. The impactful icon’s progenitor? Artist and native Frenchman Jean Jullien. Though less well known than his Eiffel-centric image, Jullien’s extensive body of work is no less impactful. With a signature style that features clean lines, playful characters, and elements of satire, his illustrations are reaching the four corners of the globe—online and off.
We caught up with in Paris to talk social media, society and steak haché.
Where are you from and where having you lived?
From Nantes, and I’ve lived in Quimper (in northwestern France), London, and New York.
What formal (and informal) training do you have? I did a BTS in Visual communication at Le Paraclet in Quimper, then a BA in Graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London, followed by a Masters in Communication Art & Design at the Royal College of Art. And I have been drawing for 30 years.
Your Paris peace sign recently went viral. Did that have an impact on your visibility or the public’s awareness of you? How did it feel to have your work become such a powerful symbol online? Unfortunately, because of the nature of social media, it did have an impact on the public’s awareness of my work. That’s why I agreed to do so much press, to explain myself so that people wouldn’t associate this drawing—the result of an instinctive reaction—with the rest of my work. It is all accidental for me. I don’t regret drawing it because it seemed to have had a positive impact on people, but I can’t feel pride for it, as it wasn’t planned. I didn’t want to gain anything, it was just individual communication of a feeling which, I guess, resonated with people, hence its efficiency and global appeal. But it stemmed from existing icons, the CND logo and the familiar Eiffel Tower. Anyone could have thought of it I think, the raw treatment is what makes it my distinctive drawing.
Has Instagram (and social media in general) affected your work in any way? Aside from the aforementioned drawing? Oh yes, absolutely. I started my “career” thanks to social media, and it’s never stopped being a formidable help to my work. It’s a very democratic way of allowing people to share their creations. It’s like an online megalopolis in which we’re all allowed to set up a shop or a gallery. It’s free and anyone who likes what they see can tell others about their findings. Through this and serendipity, most can find the right fit for their craft. I started by sharing the work I was doing at Central Saint Martins, and the posters I was doing for Manystuff and for my friend Ruben’s club night. Thanks to blogs and other social media, people started seeing it and asking me to do more jobs. I never stopped sharing, and never had to reach out to anyone for work. When you think that before all that, most young creatives would have to painstakingly put together a portfolio, try to get someone to give them an appointment to show said portfolio, then maybe, oh maybe, get a junior position somewhere. We’ve completely fast tracked all that. We’re very lucky.
"[social media] is like an online megalopolis in which we’re all allowed to set up a shop or a gallery."
You lived in London until recently. What would you take a friend from out of town to do/see—and especially—eat if they were there for just one day? Well, unfortunately, my favourite restaurant (LIFE, a formidable sushi restaurant in Old Street, with an underground Japanese cocktail bar in its basement) is closing down imminently, but there are plenty of other lovely places to visit.
I like L’Atelier, in Dalston, because they have good food and a really nice staff, rare enough to notice. I’d recommend walking around the Barbican Center, which is the British equivalent to le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, an oddly charming brutalist enclave that functions like an autarkic society, with its own schools, museums, gardens, restaurants, cinema, etc… I shot a movie there for my graduation piece at Central Saint Martins.
I’d also recommend visiting Kew Gardens for its incredible green houses. Similarly to the Barbican Centre, I’m quite obsessed with self contained spaces recreating a certain environment. I see these two places as parallel. They’re like a capricious dream.
Orbital is a great independent comic book store, and so is Gosh, both in central London. And Goodhood stocks Popeye, my favourite magazine. There is also Sir John Soane's museum in Holborn, the fantastically sculpted Princess Louise Pub nearby, the grubby but authentic Shacklewell arms that puts on great gigs, and the Spurstowe and Dove pubs in its vicinity. I’d also strongly recommend going to Hoi Polloi, the restaurant of the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. And, finally the gorgeous gallery at Sketch, with a great installation by David Shrigley. There is plenty more to do but that’s a good start!
How did you like living in New York? I absolutely loved New York. I feel very passionate about the city, its pop culture history, the way it managed to turn its grime into a sort of narrative process, from Taxi Driver to TMNT or Spider Man, and countless movies and comic books. Its influence on music, television, literature, food culture, fashion, etc… It is the beating heart of a certain creative culture for me.
Do the cities you live in inspire your work in different ways? Absolutely. My main source of inspiration is things that make me tick around me, things I observe on a daily base. What people wear, what they’re into, cultural differences, handheld technologies, Sunday brunches, museums, toilet queues, etc… So the more I travel, the more I see, the better for me.
Your works manage to be incredibly appealing and playful while—at times—making stark cultural, social and political observations. Has social commentary always been something you’ve set out to explore in your work or is it something that has developed over time? I have a curmudgeonly nature to be honest. I rant and complain about pretty much everything, so commenting visually about what I observe is a very therapeutic process for me, a way to try to find humour in most situations. I want to create pieces of dialogues, to share and see if people relate to them (or if it’s just me being incredibly cranky…). To do so, I need a certain dose of seduction, so that I don’t put people off with negativity. People get annoyed, we all do, but the last thing we want in our down time is to be reminded of it. I think we’d all much rather try to put a positive spin on it to laugh about it and de-dramatise it all. That’s what I try to do with my work.
Tell us about some of your non-illustrative projects? Most of them have had some form of illustrative value to them, but drawing is a sort of dough that I like to play with, stretching it as much as possible to see how many shapes I can create without it losing its essence. So that ranges from creating a table for Gourmand magazine, a chair and wooden sculpture with Abois, a series of chocolates with À La Mère de Famille, a whodunnit installation in a castle in Nantes or a 41m long bird with Metalobil. But I have this urge to try more, to draw in volume. My experimentations are definitely on the horizon, not behind me.
What are you most inspired by? Stuff I observe everyday around me, random stuff on the internet and comedy. These days I’m more influenced by Seinfeld than by illustrators.
Other artists you admire or who influenced you? I love the work of Yann Le Bec and Yu Nagaba. But also Vuillard, Hockney, Monet, Matisse drawings, Cocteau, Picasso, Nathalie du Pasquier’s still life and many more.
Any pieces of yours that you’re particularly fond of? Why? I like the pieces I've shared with you here because they’re quite simple and humorous and show a certain coherence throughout a change of mediums. This is my practice in a nutshell, I think.
Your favourite childhood meal? One of my favourite meals was Wednesday lunches when my mom would prepare a Greek salad (diced with feta, cucumber, tomatoes but NO ONIONS!) followed by a steak haché with roasted potatoes, and a yoghurt for dessert. There were variations but that was always quite a winner. But I was also very fond of her other classics: gratin Dauphinois, hachis parmentier, lasagnes and tomates farcies. I realise they weren’t the fanciest, but they were very hearty and when we visit and she asks what we want to eat, I alway answer with these.
Comfort food of choice? Sushis!
Someone gives you a plane ticket for anywhere in the world. Where do you go? Tokyo or New York of course! My favourite cities.
I’ve also always been curious to see Tahiti and Hawaii. I’d love to spend a month drawing there.
Ever designed a tattoo? Or has anyone ever gotten one of your illustrations tattooed? Yeah, more and more actually, which I find incredibly exciting. That people would want to have my drawings on their skin “forever” is quite a humbling thing in my opinion. It’s the ultimate kudos by an audience.
Do you have any tattoos? What are they? I have an anchor on my left wrist. I had it done when I first arrived in London, ten years ago. It was the symbol of a project that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It was called OCTOPUS and was a multi platform narrative that I would continuously keep building in my head and sporadically during projects such as a t-shirt collection, a website, etc…
I’m now considering getting an egg shape on my other arm, or somewhere else.
Any upcoming shows? Yes! A sculpture show in Ghent in June, a performance at the Tate Modern in June too, a show in Los Angeles in June again, a show in Tokyo this month, one in San Francisco and Tokyo and Seoul next year. That’s it for now!