Interview with Luis Mendo

Happy New Year!
This month’s interview comes to us from our friend Luis Mendo, an Illustrator and Designer who came to Tokyo from Spain by way of Amsterdam! Luis shares with us his great story about going from editorial and branding design to illustration in Tokyo. Enjoy!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Luis Mendo. Well, actually it’s a much longer name because as a Spaniard you often get several names and a couple of surnames, so you don’t forget you have both a mother and a father.

I’m the sole proprietor of Luis Mendo Inc, which is me making design and illustration in Tokyo since 2013. Before this I lived in Spain and in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I worked for many years as an art director and editorial design consultant, developing mainly magazine and newspaper titles, but also graphic design in all forms (identities, websites, books…).

You’ve had quite an international career working both in Spain and The Netherlands, before moving to Japan. What have you found to be some key differences between working in Europe and Japan?

Of course there are differences but they are not so much country related as they are client related. Some Japanese clients will be educated abroad and have taken foreign customs and ticks, while foreign clients working in Japan for a long time, follow Japanese business practices more often than not. We live in a global world and you can see the line blurring more and more.

A common denominator I’ve found all over the world is respect. I think Japanese clients and business relationships are more based on respect and trust than for instance in Amsterdam, where I’ve seen how they were based on trying to profit from one another as much as possible.

It’s refreshing to see Japanese clients won’t work with you unless they’ve known you for a while or you’ve come well recommended to them. In Holland I saw newness and change (as in “exciting to have a new designer”) being more important than who you were introduced by. I found this to be quite depressing and am happy to see here relations being more sustainable and long term.

What were the main reasons that made you want to live and work in Tokyo/Japan?

I came here on a sabbatical treat 6 years ago and the day I landed, I knew this was the place I wanted to be. I’ve never felt as relaxed as here, as much home as being a “foreigner” and so inspired as by the vivid, image-packed Japanese visual culture. Add great Japanese food and hospitality, and the fantastic price-quality life standard and I was totally sold.
Sure there are things I don’t like so much but you won’t get 100% perfection anywhere. I’m happy here. Also, not knowing the language is actually a great thing. I live in a bubble where most unnecessary information stays away: You don’t understand what all the ads say, what people are talking about in the cafe and what the sports results are. I am happy without all that noise.

Did you have any expectations of what it would be like to work as a creative here in Tokyo? Have there been any key differences between what you thought and what it is like?

Not really. I never thought too much about it and just jumped in the pool. I was pretty much open to anything, working in a company, working freelance… I just knew I wanted to be here. Anyway, I try to avoid expectations since they will eventually disappoint you, nothing ever goes as you want it to, sometimes it goes better, sometimes worse. So why expect things?

I pretty much take things as they come, trying to be open to new experiences and knowledge, trying to be humble, and learning from everyone and everything.

How did you find starting out again in a new city, especially one so different like Tokyo? What were some of the key challenges you faced?

I had moved cities several times before so other than the personal adjustment, the change wasn’t too hard. Actually getting the necessities for life in Japan (finding a house, creating a bank account or getting a internet connection) wasn’t hard at all. Although, I was very surprised to see how many forms you have to fill and to use carbon paper again! But everybody is very helpful and there always seems to be someone who speaks English in the offices and shops.

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You mention that since arriving in Tokyo your work has switched from mainly editorial design to Illustration. Was this a decision you made or is there some other reason for this reverse?

The decision came after it happened. Truth is, I was pretty bored with design after 20 years. I Really needed a change in my work and moving to another country makes it so much easier to reconsider everything. I had said goodbye to most of my clients in Holland so I had to find new ones anyway.

While I was thinking about what to do, I started drawing more and more for myself and as a way to enjoy my newly discovered freedom. My good friend, Grace Lee, has worked as an illustrator for years and she told me I should go visit her agent, called Building, and show my illustration portfolio – which I didn’t even have at the time. Before I knew it, I had an appointment. I put together a Keynote with some things I had and some drawings from my sketchbook and went there without expecting anything more than an interesting chat and walked out with an agent for my illustrations. A week or two later I was already drawing on commissions.

Then I thought it would be better to call myself a “drawer” from now onwards. I don’t really like the word “illustrator” as to me it means I would illustrate other people’s ideas (it’s much more than that, I know, but this is what people think you do), but I aim to do more than that. When I design, it’s also drawing. When I make calligraphy, it’s also drawing. When I paint, it’s also drawing. So this is why my business card reads: “Luis Mendo, DRAWER.”

Your drawing work focuses a lot on cities and lifestyle, is this a favorite subject of yours or something that is in high demand?

It only seems like that. I draw cities every week on the travel pages of Volkskrant Magazine (Saturday insert of the big Dutch newspaper) and that’s why my portfolio is full of urban scenes. Again, this happened as an accident: an art director friend asked me to draw a mini city guide for Paris when he saw my first Tokyo diary I drew while on sabbatical. Paris was a success and soon New York, Barcelona, and Amsterdam followed. This eventually became my alter ego, The City Reporter, which is a character I use when covering cities. With it I worked on the Tokyo City guide for British publisher Herb Lester and now have some plans to expand that. But again, it is all by chance, it happens organically. If tomorrow someone discovers me drawing in a restaurant and wants to publish my food drawings, I would become a food drawer.

I love the serendipity of things and how love for something will inevitably develop into something important in your work life. Some young people come to me for advice and I always tell them to find what they love, whether it’s Star Wars or miniature trains, and mix it with whatever job they want to do (illustration, photography, graphic design…), one day someone will spot how much love you put into it and you’ll get a job offer. Or better.

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I really like the strong, minimalist but expressive style you have developed using water colours. Do you find that having a personal style like this helps you to get work? Do you ever get commissions for work that has a different visual tone?

Luckily not often, I am not good at other styles. Since I got the Cintiq and started to draw digital, I added a new style to my repertoire, but watercolors and a rough, uncontrollable line are still my thing. They are pretty much what I am. I like tools you can’t really tame and that make accidents happen. So I use mainly Parallel Pens from Pilot for the lines, which is in fact a calligraphy pen, but I love that it gives me thick and thin lines without having to change tools. But it also sometimes splashes and makes unexpected lines, which creates a drawing I’d never be able to plan. I Love that!

Watercolors are pretty much the same. It’s really hard to control the right amount of water, pigment and speed with them and that’s why they always look good if you accept that. I’ve seen many people struggling with watercolors because they want perfect shapes and shades. Well, you had better use the computer for that. Watercolor is wild and you should let it tell you where the drawing is going. The paint is in charge, not you.

How do you find working for Japanese clients compared to those you had overseas? Do their commissions and sense of esthetics influence the work you create?

Everything I see, read and hear will influence my work. I am not a real artist who does his thing no matter what. Quite the opposite, I let things around me affect and feed what I do. It’s not a bad thing (well, sometimes it is) but I consider the world my audience and my personal feelings aren’t very interesting for that audience, really. That’s why I just see the world and express it through what I do, hopefully creating a better world through it.

So definitely YES, of course I do get influenced by Japanese art and aesthetics, but I try not to emulate them. First because that would be embarrassing; they will always do it better than me. And second because there are zillions of illustrators already doing that manga thing. My value resides precisely in that style which they call here “europa-poi” (European-esq)… as if Europe had just one visual style (laughs).

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What kind of inspiration do you draw from living and working in Tokyo?

Look around you. Every little thing is drawn! There are drawings everywhere, they inspire me. But of course kanji are drawings, also a great inspiration on how to make strokes and expressive type. Smiles from cute Japanese babies on the street inspire me. A woman cleaning the escalator on the train platform, wearing that cute pink hat inspires me. Paul Smith said once: “There’s inspiration everywhere. If you don’t see it, look again”. Well here it’s pretty much impossible not to see it. No need to look twice.

Along with your friend Adrian Hogan you run the monthly event “PauseDraw” in which you get together like minded illustrators and creatives in Tokyo and spend an afternoon sketching and drawing. This is a really cool and different style of event to those that usually happen in Tokyo – tell us about how PauseDraw started?

Well, our friend Jean Snow had the now legendary Tokyo creative meetup PauseTalk in Ikebukuro, which was a great place to meet people and talk about projects etc. I was just a little tired of the talking so asked him if he minded if I organised the same idea but, with drawing instead.

PauseDraw is a public, free event we do every first sunday of the month, where we invite people of all ages to come and draw. We do it because we love drawing and drawing has given me so much sanity and happiness, it seems egoistic to not share it with as many people as possible. Something like what Sir Quentin Blake tries with Big Draw but we do it more regularly and with the emphasis of being a place to meet other creatives. You are all welcome to come and join, check our events on Pausedraw.org.

How do you run the events, is there a particular focus month to month?

Nah, just get together and Adrian and I (sometimes someone we invite) just give “exercises” like “draw each other” or “draw something big” so that people get started, but it’s pretty free and we improvise a lot. What we ultimately want is when people go home, have the inspiration to start drawing on their own, and since I don’t believe in rules or discipline, I guess freedom is the only recipe I can cook.

What kind of reception have you had so far with the event? Is the attendance growing every month?

We are now at an average of 40 people per event, although it changes from edition to edition and that’s ok. We have no aspirations or big plans or whatever. I love to hear from people who told me they bought a sketchbook and now take it with them everywhere. PauseDraw was a HUGE success for those people and that’s what matters.

Do you find you get much interest from non-illustrators who want to practice or try something new?

Yes! Many are afraid to come because they say they can’t draw. We especially welcome them! Most of our attendees aren’t drawers at all. They just come because they like art or meeting people. That’s fine.

Thanks so much for taking the time to interview with us Luis! I’d like to finish with one final question for our international readers who may be considering working in Japan:

If there was one thing you wish you knew about working in Tokyo, that you know now, what is it?

Maybe that the pay here is lower than in other countries. I didn’t expect people charge so little here for coding, designing, illustrating… and they all work so hard. I have loads of respect for the whole Japanese creative (and working) class.

Thanks to you all for reading.
If you’re interested in learning more about PauseDraw or attending the event check out their webpage. Our contributor Yo is a PauseDraw regular and looks forward to it every month. We hope to see some of you there.
Tim O'Hanlon

Tim is an Australian born Communication Designer with passion for applying design and strategic thinking to all of his work. Tim moved to Tokyo in 2014 and has been working as a freelance designer since. In his spare time Tim loves to travel around Japan hiking, cycling, eating and snowboarding.

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