As illustrator Adrian Hogan walks to his Nakameguro art studio, Midori So, he strolls past the coffee shop that helped make his Instagram posts go viral. Just don’t call him an “Instagrammer.”
On a rainy June afternoon, the Melbourne-native is in a T-shirt, khaki pants and black Velcro sandals as he makes some drip coffee after hand grinding the beans. Don’t call him a coffee snob, either.
“Sometimes, I pick coffee based on how big the cup is,” says the 30-year-old with a smile.
That’s because it affects his style of creating coffee-cup illustrations that explore everyday life in in Japan. He regularly sits down at a coffee shop, gets to sketching and 20 to 30 minutes later, posts a video like this one:
While other times he draws more iconic spots, like this one of Tokyo Tower:
The videos are addicting yet strangely therapeutic. In 2015, his distinct videos of water-soluble pencils and gouache sketches became popular through social media.
Soon after, numerous international news outlets, such as NHK, CNN Travel and The Daily Mail to name a few, took notice. He still posts new engaging video-and-sketch combos to his Instagram followers. It’s partly to share Japan — an endlessly fascinating place — in a less obvious medium than photography, he says.
He enjoys that his style — offering a view of the sketch first and then unveiling the real life scene — brings attention to how an artist distorts and supplements reality. Considering distortion of reality is practically becoming a recipe for success across the social media spectrum, his work is an eye-catching contrast to the fully rehearsed “casual” selfies and marketed hashtag campaigns seen frequently online.
That being said, you might be thinking: “Haven’t I seen something like this before?”
These types of illustrations — Hogan agrees — aren’t a totally new concept, especially among his illustrator friends. There are even Instagram accounts dedicated to it, but his signature panoramic-style videos have sparked enthusiasm around the world, even from countries in the Middle East.
The result? Well, besides having to turn off his phone for a while from messages piling up, he also gained more than 22,000 Instagram followers in the process. (Instagram didn’t really catch on in Japan until three or four years ago, so that’s a pretty big stat.) That provided an easily accessible audience for Hogan to throw out ideas on his online sketchbook.
Making it in Japan
Though he’d love to be commissioned to design some cup illustrations for a commercial project, his well-rounded career goes beyond the curve of a paper drinking vessel. He’s worked with clients like Fuji Film, Nissan and RedBull, and has done exhibitions including a recent pop-up project at Loft Shibuya.
He first moved to Japan courtesy of the JET Programme, teaching English in Aomori Prefecture for a year. Upon finishing, he returned home to pursue his passion and strengthen his illustration skills. During that time, he worked part-time at a local Japanese restaurant to keep up his Japanese.
In 2013, he moved to Tokyo on an 18-month working holiday visa with one thing in mind: to make it in Tokyo as an illustrator. Why Tokyo? Besides the obvious advantages of the location, one reason he chose it is because of the appreciation for 2D-style illustration popularized by anime and manga. As he attempted to build credibility, Hogan survived on freelance work for clients back in Australia.
He also noticed that in Tokyo, clients and creatives alike place a high value on an illustrator’s personal style — even more so than what he had experienced in Australia.
“It’s easier to leave your signature in your work here,” he says.
Social media vs. social art
Hogan’s ability to make connections helped accelerate his career. One is his friend and roommate Mariya Suzuki, a fellow illustrator. She did an exhibition where she asked several designers to create pieces involving coffee cups. And, thus, a cool, compact way to exhibit Japan’s capital city — and a great way to recycle, Hogan points out — was born.
As Hogan says, “artwork can be quite a private endeavor.” So viewing it as a “social” thing is an important component to his style and continues to escalate his career. Hogan’s decision (and he warns he’s no professional filmmaker) to display it as a quick Insta-vid brought those 2D pieces to life. Nowadays, Hogan looks to connect all sorts of artists with “PauseDraw,” a free Tokyo art event he co-curates monthly.
He says that hearing insta-feedback on his work is a plus to having an online audience but at the end of the day, it’s not really about trends or what’s trending. For Hogan, it’s about presenting the quirky beauty of Tokyo’s everyday life — a salary man slumped over on the train or the peculiar posture of the local tonkatsu (pork cutlet) chef who’s been at it for his whole life.
“I like seeing interactions between people,” he says of his work that often captures just that. “Whether they’re cultural interactions or gestures that you don’t see anywhere else.”
Look out for him sketching on the streets of Shibuya or Shinjuku, if you’re in the area. And if you’ve read this far, and haven’t followed him on Instagram yet, here you go.
Know of someone “making it in Japan,” by doing something other than an English-teaching job? We want to hear about it. Email email@example.com with subject “Article idea for making it in Japan.”