HAM the Illustrator’s unconventional path through digital art, architecture and music production
Led by his curiosity and numerous passions, HAM the Illustrator exemplifies the phrase, “jack of all trades”. From moving to the UK to study architecture to pursuing a career in music production in Los Angeles, today, HAM continues to flex his multidisciplinary muscles as a digital artist. Inspired by hip-hop, anime and Afrofuturism, HAM has worked for the likes of Nike, Adidas and Warner Music, all the while developing Munkination, a trap-opera in partnership with the Royal Opera House on the side. Most recently, he’s also created a set of NFTs for music festival, Strawberries & Creem, featuring digital trading cards inspired by their 2021 headline acts. Here, we speak to HAM about staying humble, networking and the benefits of a social media cleanse.
HAM the Illustrator
Creative Director, Illustrator and Music Producer; Co-Founder of Munkination
Nike, Adidas, Warner Music, Atlantic Records, MTV, Royal Opera House, Highsnobiety, JOAT Records, Alacan Music Group
Place of Study
BA Architecture, Newcastle University (2012–2015)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
You know that saying, “A jack of all trades but a master of none”? Well, I’d say that’s me in a nutshell – except that saying isn’t the entire truth. The full phrase is actually, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” That’s exactly my approach to life. I’ve always been a very curious person and tend to go wherever those curiosities lead me, which, oftentimes, comes as both a huge blessing and a curse.
At 18 years old, I started off my career as a simple creative hustler doing anything from graphic design, photography, personal assisting and whatever else I could learn on YouTube for any business or family friend willing to pay me. A year after graduating from an architecture course, I won a scholarship to train as music producer in LA where I accidentally fell into the world of cover art. As I began establishing myself as an MC and producer, my network in the music industry grew and I used that network to sell myself as a professional digital artist, producing cover art and album covers for a variety of musicians and record labels around the world.
“I’ve always been a very curious person and tend to go wherever those curiosities lead me.”
Although I still do may other things, today I’d probably say I spend the majority of my time working as a freelance commercial illustrator for many notable clients including Nike, Adidas, Strawberries & Creem Festival, Warner Music, Atlantic Records, MTV, Highsnobiety, JOAT Music Group, and others. I’m now focused on larger scale projects and campaigns where I’m able to lead as a creative director or have a more consistent income so I spend the rest of my time either developing [immersive trap-opera experience] Munkination or making music.
I have to admit though, while I’ve been really fortunate to support myself financially doing anything I’ve ever dreamt of, it’s also come at the cost of a lot of sleepless nights, job security and mental health. As a multidisciplinary professional you often spread yourself far too thin which prevents you from fully maturing any one of those passions to their fullest potential. I feel that, eventually, I’ll need to figure out how to assimilate all the things I love, be that art or music, into just one.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Climate change, humanitarianism, Africa, hip-hop, youth culture, anime and cartoons. In terms of artists I’d say my biggest influences would be Jamie Hewlett, McBess, Koteri Ink and a huge selection of really inspiring music artists.
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year and why?
That’s a hard question, because I’ve had a lot of really incredible projects come up this year. I’d have to say the NFT collaboration I’ve just released with Strawberries & Creem Festival. I got the opportunity to create limited edition digital collectible trading cards of some of their headline acts including Burna Boy, Pa Salieu, PartyNextDoor, Koffee, Bugzy Malone and many others; turning them into really cool superheroes and characters. That was a lot of fun!
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
This is a tough one because it’s a sort of yes and no. Do I think it’s essential to go to school to have a career in the creative field? Absolutely not. However, it is essential to get training and mentoring wherever possible.
Beyond honing your creative practice, the most underrated but by far the most important skill that any creative needs to really succeed in what they do, is networking and marketing themselves. You could be the best artist in the world, but if nobody knows you exist, then you aren’t going to go anywhere.
I always suggest young creatives build their confidence by going to events with business cards and introducing themselves to as many people as possible. Try to get better at delivering your elevator pitch.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
The short answer to this would be, “Hell no”. I moved to the UK when I was 18 with no qualifications or connections, so I had to build everything by myself completely from the ground up. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I did every job you could imagine from waitering and bartending to handing out flyers – all while trying to keep my passion for art alive by doing the occasional logo.
That was until many years later, after I had graduated my degree in architecture, that I was awarded a scholarship to move out to Los Angeles to train as a music producer. There, I accidentally met an artist who asked me to create cover art for his next release. This set me on a completely new trajectory as a digital artist.
There were tons of hurdles and obstacles along the way but determination, resilience and tenacity are a must if you want to get anywhere in this world.
“I moved to the UK when I was 18 with no qualifications or connections, so I had to build everything by myself.”
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would it be and why?
First, you may hate reading, but you need to read books. Although, in this fast paced world, we’re more inclined to watch a five-minute youtube video than a 200-page book, more often than not that’s a huge mistake. You’re probably missing out on a load of really valuable knowledge.
I’ve always made the excuse that, because I’m a visual creative, my brain just doesn’t respond well to text. But as I grew older, I learnt that books are like having personal mentors, filled with really concise and curated information that you just cannot get anywhere else. In 2020, I challenged myself to finish 20 books in one year, and made it to 17 books in the end – however, a few did end up being audiobooks!
Secondly, I cannot stress enough how important it is that anybody, especially a freelancer, needs a great support structure around them – whether friends, family or just colleagues. If you lose momentum or take a hit to your mental health, it helps to have people to fall back on or who push you to persevere when you feel like giving up. On the flip side, one must also be cautious of surrounding themselves with “Yes-Men” as they often lead to far more bad than good. You need to surround yourself with people whose opinions you trust and who will offer honest, constructive criticism. Feedback is essential to personal growth, self-development and quality control.
Finally, from a very young age, I learnt that knowledge is power. I distinctly remember that scene from The Matrix when Neo first gets assimilated into the system. Within moments, Neo wakes up from his programming and says he now knows kung fu. Since that moment I’ve always seen knowledge and learning new skills like adding new weapons to your arsenal. I try to listen to everything and everyone, even if just for a moment. Whether that be a 70-year-old grandma talking about her vintage button collection from the second world war, or a multi-millionaire entrepreneur teaching business success hacks, I believe everyone has something valuable to share.
“From a very young age, I learnt that knowledge is power.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
This may come as no surprise as I’m sure it’s the same for most, but my biggest challenge has 100% been regarding money. After graduating from uni, all my friends went into pretty secure jobs with good payouts, whereas I went straight into being freelance – and the thing about being a freelancer is, you only eat as much as you can catch. I didn’t have the luxury of living at home, rent free and drawing all day; it was always a huge issue to cover my expenses. No matter what, I had to keep grinding to make it work, month after month.
As many freelancers already know, jobs come and go. Sometimes you have tons come in at once, and other times there are months when it’s a complete ghost town, so getting really good at financial literacy and managing your money is an absolute must. If you really want to survive as a freelance artist you need to be able to save enough money to help you get through the hard times.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
It’s a funny one, because I actually hate social media, but I can’t lie and pretend it doesn’t have a huge role to play in today’s world. It’s super-important but it is not the be-all or end-all. While it helps to have a large and engaged audience, don’t forget that there are plenty of top creatives in the world that don’t have social media or barely even 200 followers. But they might work in large and reputable corporations where they network and grow outside of socials.
I’d say that if you’re planning on doing this alone, then definitely stay on top of your socials. I cannot emphasise enough how many brands and opportunities came directly from people finding me through social media. However, the trick is to not get lost in the sauce. Do not let it take over your life and don’t become a slave to the algorithm. Follow trends and engage with the community but don’t lose your mental health in the process.
“Just like our diets, we are what we consume and we often aren’t selective enough about the content we consume online.”
Some of the best advice I got during my career was actually to cleanse my social media. Just like our diets, we are what we consume, and we often aren’t selective enough about the content we consume online.
So I separated my accounts. I’ve got one that’s personal, one for my art and another for my music. On my art and music accounts I unfollowed or muted anyone whose work does not inspire me, so that when I’m scrolling through social media I’m only seeing work from incredible artists or creators that keep pushing me to get better.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
To stay humble. As I mentioned earlier, success is largely based not on what you know but who you know, so this entire thing is really a game of personal relationships. If you want to make it in this industry you need to be memorable, likeable and humble. Never treat anybody as lesser than yourself but also don’t be so eager that you become annoying. Always ask what you can give; before you ask what you can get from somebody. If you do that, I promise you’ll go far.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
I do a lot of different things, so it’s hard to answer that in a brief interview – but to anyone reading this, feel free to reach out to me directly on social media or by email if you have any specific questions.
In short, I’d say that the key thing you need to do is invest your time and money into developing your brand and portfolio, and then networking and marketing yourself as much as you can. Build a community and make friends. You need to let the world know you exist so that when they do, you have something special about your brand or work that makes them want to work with you.
If you take time to properly develop and market your brand effectively, you won’t need to go applying to companies for work, they’ll come to you.
Mention HAM the Illustrator
Interview by Lyla Johnston