Illustrating Life with R. Kikuo Johnson

Raised on Maui, R. Kikuo Johnson is an award-winning illustrator whose work regularly ends up on the cover of the New Yorker. You can typically find him working at @ostudio in Brooklyn or biking around the city in search of new inspiration. We caught up with R. Kikuo while we were in NYC to see what keeps him feeling creatively energized and connected to his home in Hawai‘i. Here’s what he had to say:


What originally drew you to New York City?


I went to school on the east coast. I studied illustration at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design. It’s so close to New York that there was just kind of an exodus of my classmates that came um directly to New York for the publishing industry and the art world. So, I moved here with a bunch of good friends. I always wanted to go back to Hawai‘i, but I just ended up staying here longer and longer. At first, it was super intimidating. Even just riding the subway. But slowly, over time, I found living here kind of liberating.


How does living in NYC inspire you creatively?


Well, since I moved to New York with a bunch artists, I was surrounded by creative people. We were all broke and pursuing some kind of passion, so it was a super creative vibe. I think the most inspiring thing about being in New York is really just an emphasis in a place this big of being yourself. Being completely true to whatever voice you wanna express. You don’t have to be afraid of standing out. This city embraces uniqueness. There’s a type of freedom here that I’ve never felt anywhere else.


Can you describe the creative studio space you work from?


I started working from O Studio a few years ago when my partner and I moved into the same apartment. Since we were both working at home, we were on top of each other, so I wanted to find a workspace. Luckily, there was one right down the street. It’s been awesome to be surrounded by other creative people. There are people dyeing fancy clothes in the basement. There are people painting. There’s a graphic design studio. It’s just great to be part of a bigger creative community.




Your books tend to focus on Hawai‘i. How does your upbringing inspire you?


Yeah, so I draw comic books, which is a long process of sitting alone in a room, imagining cinematic scenes in my head before turning them into drawings. I find that if I’m going to spend a year staging scenes in my mind, Maui's where I want to be. I can imagine every beach. If a scene needs a certain feeling or if it needs to look a certain way I can always think of the right spot. I know the island so well. It's part of me.


What does your creative process like? Any specific tools or methods you use?


For me, since I’m mostly dealing with two-dimensional images and telling stories in two-dimensional images, I always start the process by looking at a lot of images. If I have a project on any theme, I’ll start google searching that theme and looking at images for hours. That tends to be the most creative perio for me. For instance, if I need to draw a certain bridge, I’ll look at pictures of the bridge. Then, maybe the light glinting off the water underneath the bridge will send me off in a completely different direction. I taking in creativity before putting it our is really valuable. It’s the beginning and the heart of of my creative process.


Where can we find you when you’re not working?


A lot of my best ideas for my New York based work or work for The New Yorker comes to me on my bike. The saddle is such a good vantage point to kind of take in the entire city and just see what people are up to. Ideally, when I’m not working, I’m home in Hawai‘i with my family or playing my ukulele.


Do you have any specific places you bike to for inspiration?


Ah man, you know, for the last two years I’ve gotten so local to the point of staying in my neighborhood. The like gem of a neighborhood park we have in Bed-Stuy is kind of a place I’ve spent a lot of time. Just sitting there thinking of ideas, exercising or playing paddle tennis with my partner. That park has become my favorite spot in the city. Herbert Von King, for the record. That’s the name of the park.



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