Well, ARE YOU?

Shantell Martin


With a meditative process defined by an uninhibited flow, Shantell Martin’s work is a unique language of its own, built on creatures, characters, and collaboration with her audience and surroundings. Originally from the UK and now residing in Jersey City, New Jersey, Shantell Martin is a visual artist whose black marker has taken her around the world with a stream of consciousness that doesn’t make time for judgement or censorship. Often working in front of live audiences or collaborating with brands, artists, and institutions, from Kendrick Lamar to Tiffany & Co., to the MIT Media Lab, Shantell draws on everything: walls, clothes, buildings, even people. Increasingly Shantell’s work has led her into education, teaching both in a formal setting and beyond as an advocate for transforming the way art is both made and consumed. The common thread among these diverse projects is an exploration of identity, and a challenging inquiry to herself and her audience: ARE YOU YOU?

Shantell initially began her career in Tokyo, Japan where she lived for five years fresh out of art school working as a VJ, or visual jockey, creating mixed media visual experiences for audiences in real time. After her stint in Japan, she relocated to New York City where her career would take an abrupt turn. In a city where standing out is your only option for success, she rebuilt her identity from the ground up, committing to a lifeline adage: “make and share, make and share.” Making and sharing has become not only an avenue for her own self-evaluation, but for reminding us all to do the same. 

How did living in Japan influence your direction as an artist?

It gave me space and time to be present with myself and also I learned about the discipline of craftsmanship, which helped remove a lot of the self-imposed pressure artists tend to have after leaving art school.

How did moving to NYC impact you as an artist?

I had to start over. I had this career in Japan that essentially didn’t matter here in New York City, where everyone is an artist and nobody cares about you unless they know you. But I didn’t let that discourage me. Well I did at first, but after awhile I decided that I would create my work, and my work would help me create my own opportunities. That decision to do things despite the system, that’s a big component of my work and why I think people truly respond to it so positively. 

In addition to performance/live drawing and collaborations with other artists, you spend a great deal of your time teaching. What do you enjoy about teaching, and what are some of the values you try to teach your students as they pursue their own path?

I really enjoy the creativity that you find in teaching, both within yourself and your students. I also love that it gives me a moment to be in one space for a long period of time. I travel so much but when I teach, I’m able to say no to work that would take me away.

A huge thing that I teach my students is to stay true to themselves and their work. To be honest. To do what feels right and avoid doing projects that don’t. There’s only so much work an artist can and will make in their lifetime. Be faithful to that, and to your own work. 

What is the true point of making art?

Freedom of expression! I think there are many points to my work, but in general I think it’s important to create spaces and works that encourage society to be more aware, more compassionate and more connected. Art is a reflection of culture, or a way into awareness. From awareness, you can find truth AND self.

What have been some of the more significant hurdles or setbacks you’ve faced as an artist?

There are so many! But I think the most important hurdles to get past are the ones we place on ourselves, the ones that are more personal.  

What is it that you’re asking us all to consider when you pen the question “ARE YOU YOU”? How do you know for yourself that you are truly being yourself?

It’s a question that I’ve asked myself continuously. It helps me on a daily basis, but I’m really asking if I’m being true. Being who I really am at the core, and if my actions on a daily basis reflect that person. I think you know when you’re being honest, when you’re being authentic, because you can feel it in your core. 

You say that 99% of your work is done live. Why is this aspect so important to creating the work that you do?

It forces me to be completely present. I have no time to doubt myself or my work/my pen. I only have to be honest and allow for the work to work through me. 

There is such an element of performance to your drawing, including poetry or music on occasion. You willfully expose yourself in this process to improvisation, even mistakes. Why is that valuable? What do you hope your audience takes away from a performance?

Exposing the process is a part of my process. I also think that it’s very important for people to see the work of artists to truly respect and honor it. A huge number of artists don’t actually make their own work, and that’s okay, but I don’t know if the public is aware of the fact. I’m all for transparency. 

I also want people to see that we’re not magicians just making things appear out of thin air. There are countless hours that artists dedicate toward creating their work. I do believe that bringing my audience into my work endears them to it in a way that is important both to me and to them. There’s nothing quite like being in a room with people while I’m working and being inspired by them. Sometimes they give me words and those words end up in the work. I love that. I love that there’s a connection to present human beings that imbues what I do, and how that can then reach another human being, and so on. Connection. That’s what it’s all about, right?!



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