Mariko Jesse: illustrating Hong Kong

While attending Shopdescreaturs pop-up shop at Kapok a couple of weeks ago, I feel head over heels for a blue and red porcelain series with whimsical illustrations of iconic Hong Kong landmarks and objects. For some reason, the illustrations felt “familiar” and it was not until I spoke with Mariko Jesse – the amazing woman behind the illustrations – that I recalled I had seen her work at Lane Crawford a couple of seasons earlier. While reviewing Mariko’s work, I thought for myself  that finally there is a artist giving the rightful-proper attention to the real Hong Kong I love; the ordinary objects that make up the identity of the city; the mystical alleys and pathways in the low-rise neighboorhoods; the whimsical and colourful patterns combining the city’s DNA of East and West. Smitten by Mariko’s  work, I got one-on-one with the illustrator to get a glimpse into her world of whimsical drawing.

HK teaset

Your name Mariko means “traveling child” in Japanese. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what made you become an illustrator?
I have a Japanese mother and English father. I was born in Japan, spent my childhood in Hong Kong, and was educated in the UK. I graduated with a First Class degree in graphic design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, specialising in illustration and printmaking. I have always wanted to be an artist. I started drawing as soon as I could pick up a crayon! I love making artwork for myself, but it gives me real pleasure to illustrate for clients, so I chose to be an illustrator, rather than a fine artist. I like working to a brief, and knowing that my work will be enjoyed in context.

Your illustrations of Hong Kong iconic landmarks and objects are lovely! Tell me a little bit about your creative process and what inspires you?
As a commercial illustrator, I love to work on projects concerning food and travel, specifically Asia. Being Eurasian, my work tends to explore my ideas about identity, mixed heritage and belonging. Hong Kong has a very special place in my heart. I see Hong Kong as an insider and as an outsider. I find beauty in ordinary things, the humble objects of our everyday lives, so a mahjong tile is just as important as an iconic building to me. I try to find the things that are meaningful around me, and develop my work from there. I love challenging and unusual projects.

Raised and studying in the UK, what are the largest differences working in Hong Kong versus Europe? Are there any particular benefits to you as an artist being based in Hong Kong?
Generally, in Asia, I feel that clients are willing to give unusual projects a chance, which they might not in Europe. “Why not give it a try?” seems to be a good attitude to me. You need to prove yourself more in the UK, it’s harder to get your foot in the door. I feel that London assumes it’s great already, and doesn’t necessarily try as hard as it could, while Hong Kong feels that is hasn’t quite made it yet, and so everyone tries that little bit harder. There’s so much potential in HK, I love the feeling of optimism in the creative industries. It feels like anything is possible.

my hong kong for FA MagazineYou spend your time between Hong Kong, Tokyo or London. Is there any place more then the other that feels like “home” to you?
This is a difficult question! I love all these places. Sometimes I feel that my head is in London, my heart is in Hong Kong, and my soul is in Japan. I need all three to survive! It’s a wonderful feeling to feel at home in so many places, but sometimes it can get a bit unsettling also. I think that to belong to many places gives me an certain insight into them. If you see your own country from the outside, it gives you an understanding of how others see you. I have just recently moved my base to San Francisco, so maybe I’ll start to see this as home soon too. I’ll always visit the places that are important to me, wherever I currently live.

For illustrators and artists out there, what is the most important advice to successfully make a living?
Of course you need to have some skill at what you’re doing, but I think hard work is the most important thing of all. And to really love what you do. Being freelance means you are constantly having to promote yourself, go out and look for new work, do paperwork, etc. It’s not an easy way to live and work, but if you love it, like I do, then it’s all worth it. Life is truly wonderful if you feel you are fulfilling your potential.

All photos by Mariko Jesse

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