Anna Wanda Gogusey‘s work probably looks familiar, because it is everywhere. Her colorful illustrations and the white eyes that makes them so unique adorn everything from advertising campaigns and magazine covers to festival posters and feminist podcasts. Aside from being one of the most successful French illustrators today, working with national and international newspapers such asLe Monde or The New York Times, Anna is also a tattoo artist, the co-founder of Retard Magazine, and one of the organizers of the feminist festival Comme Nous Brûlons [As We Burn].
Anna welcomed us into the studio she shares with several other artists in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Her workspace is extremely organized, and decorated with intriguing objects such as a wreath she made for her magazine’s funeral, and a red “NOT TODAY SATAN” sign right above her desk. After she refilled her cup of tea for the eighth time that day, we talked about her career, the political impact of representation, and the importance of talking your time.
Who are you? How did you start your career as an illustrator?
I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, and when everyone stops, in elementary or middle school, I just continued. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, despite some people trying to discourage me from it by telling me that it’s not a real job. After graduating high school, I studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Design and Visual Communications at ENSAAMA Olivier de Serres, an applied arts school in Paris, to become a graphic designer, although I never actually did any graphic design. I didn’t like working on typography or on layouts, and I always tried to incorporate my own drawings instead of images I could find elsewhere. After I graduated, I was a graphic design intern, and this is how I understood that it was not what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to get into illustration, and I started with concert posters.
I interned in the United States, and instead of staying for 6 months as intended, I stayed for 3 years! I lived in Austin, Texas, where the music scene was thriving (at least back then, I don’t know about now), so there was a constant need for posters. I started designing posters for just one place at first, but then I did more and more of them, up to 5 posters a week. The pay wasn’t good, but I could go to gigs for free, and life was cheap. It allowed me to built my portfolio, and when I went back to Paris, I started illustrating posters for cultural events, gigs, exhibitions, magazines … I worked a lot and I gained in visibility. That’s how I got started.
Do you have any advice to give to those who’d like to work in art and/or illustration?
The main issue is that illustration is not very well paid, or even sometimes not paid at all. Some people don’t even think it should be paid, because it’s “just a drawing”, because it’s “a hobby.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not work! So you need to work a lot to earn a living. But be careful not to agree to too much free work, even though it’s sometimes necessary to get started and build a portfolio, because you can’t get hired for any paid work if you can’t show what you can do. You can also build your portfolio by drawing for yourself or by working with other people. When I came back to Paris after living in the US, I had already been working for a few years on an online magazine which I co-founded, Retard Magazine. The other illustrators who collaborated on it and I were all volunteers, but we liked what we were doing, it was our project. Each week, we illustrated on a different theme, which allowed us to show what we could do, to show that we knew how to illustrate a piece.
How would you describe your aesthetic? What makes it so distinctive?
The empty eyes! I often describe my aesthetic as surrealistic. I’m inspired by surrealism, and I love metaphorical illustrations. When I’m illustrating a piece, I try to find a metaphor, a symbol, something that can represent what is written. The pieces I illustrate are not always very interesting, so I like to add a touch of poetry. This is how I would describe my aesthetic, it’s a bit surrealistic, a bit poetic, and I tone down the “cuteness” by leaving my characters’ eyes empty. It’s a purely aesthetic decision.
How did you find it? How has it evolved over time?
I didn’t find it intentionally, it defined itself over time as I drew. I’ve been drawing like this since I was in high school. I got better with time, but my style, my influences, my themes, have remained the same.
What inspires you? Which artists have influenced your work the most?
It’s hard to choose, I’m influenced by a lot of things and a lot of artists! I like appropriations of famous artworks, for example Walton Ford’s appropriations of Audubon’s drawings. Audubon made traditional drawings of birds and animals. He did one of the first ever drawings of a pink flamingo, and Ford remade it into something completely different. In his recreation, the flamingo is falling, it’s being shot by a hunter. I like quirky things like this, work that takes something you know and makes it into something different. I’m also influenced by female artists such as Frida Kahlo, even though she is so famous now that I’m almost afraid of saying her name, it sounds so cliché! I love the way she depicts nature, animals, other people, and herself.
I feel like your work creates the same effect as those appropriations because of the empty eyes. The audience expects something, but you make it into something else.
Exactly! It’s unexpected, it gives the work more depth. Some people don’t even notice that I always leave the eyes empty. It’s already happened that a client was surprised when they received the illustration they ordered, because they hadn’t noticed it before. Some people try to interpret it. Someone once told me they thought that because the eyes are said to be windows to the soul, I leave them blank so that everyone can identify with the character. Some people go even further and think I do it to create some kind of evil or satanic aesthetic… which is not at all the mood of my illustrations! It’s funny, it happened several times. But really, the only explanation to these empty eyes is that I like to draw that way.
How do you work? What are the different steps in the making of an illustration?
First, I need an idea, and that’s what usually takes me the most time. I spend a lot of time searching for ideas. I don’t like to illustrate in a very literal manner, I like to explore new ways of interpreting a subject or an image. In order to do that, I’ll leaf through some books, I’ll do some research, I’ll take a walk, I’ll do something completely unrelated,… Once I have an idea, I’ll draw a few sketches (which are usually awful, but it’s like taking notes!). When I’ve found a composition that I think could work, I’ll immediately get started on the illustration itself. I don’t do a lot of sketches, there isn’t really a step in my illustrating process where you can see the outlines of what I’ll do.
What does a workday look like for you?
I’m usually working on several projects at once, so I have about 5 or 6 illustrations to do in a week. I’ll send a first sketch for a first illustration, then I’ll get started on a second illustration as I wait for the client’s reply, then I’ll send a first sketch for that second illustration, then the reply for the first one will have come, so I’ll get back to working on that one. I like to work on different projects in the same day. For example, today I worked on illustrations for a podcast and for a book, and tomorrow I’ll work on the layout for a planner. I arrive at the studio in the morning, I drink my coffee, I answer my emails, then I get to work. And when I’ve had enough, when my brain feels like mush, I go home. I try to get there early in the morning because that’s when I work best, but I leave as soon as I’ve had enough. It’s useless trying to create something when you’re not focused, when you’re tired, it doesn’t work. I work fast so I have time. I have time to take my time, to do something else if I feel the need to.
You’re also a tattoo artist. Can you tell me more about that? How did you start tattooing? What interests you the most about it?
I think it was a logical continuation of my work as an illustrator. Some of my friends got my drawings tattooed on them by other tattoo artists, so I thought it would be fun to try doing it myself. I started by tattooing myself (you need to use both hands, so just on my legs and feet, otherwise it’s kind of complicated!) then I tattooed my friends, then my friends’ friends,… It happened naturally, and it has been a part of my work for 5 or 6 years now. The interesting thing with tattooing compared to illustration is that while my illustrations are detailed and colorful, my tattoos are all black, so I have to design the tattoos so that they will look good in black ink and on someone’s skin. To me, tattooing is just like illustration, it’s just a different medium. Some tattoo artists don’t like it when I say that, but that’s how I see it.
What exactly bothers them when you say that?
Some tattoo artists have an issue with illustrators who become tattoo artists. It’s been more and more frequent in the last decade, and tattoo artists don’t like it because they consider tattooing to be a vocation and they think we don’t take it seriously. They believe that to be a true tattoo artist, you have learn all the different techniques of tattooing. I only know how to tattoo one thing : my own work. And I don’t want to learn how to do anything else, because this is what I want to do, I only want to tattoo my own work. And this can be annoying to some. But after all, because I only tattoo my own work, I’m not stealing their customers!
You’re already working on (or have worked on) so many different projects : tattooing, the magazine, the festival … Would you like to do anything else?
I’d love to learn ceramics! Just like everyone else at the moment I think. I think it’s fun, I like the feel of it. I’m very active, I need to be busy at all times. We can’t organize the festival this year because of the pandemic, and we let the magazine die last year after eight years of working on it (we actually organized a funeral, hence the wreath), so I need new hobbies, otherwise what am I going to do with myself?
What was your favorite experience in your career and why?
I don’t know. I love to draw, so I love all the projects I work on, even the least interesting ones. I liked some interesting stages in my career, for example when I began illustrating for newspapers. It felt like an important step. I told myself : “This is it, now I really am an illustrator!”. I worked for Le Monde, for Libération, and more recently for The New York Times. It was amazing! There’s a project that could have been my favorite one this year : I did the poster for Rock en Seine [a music festival organized in Paris], but the festival was cancelled… I would have loved to see the poster in the festival, to see my work everywhere. Other than that, I did the programs for my hometown’s concert hall last year and the year before. It was nice to work for my hometown, it gave me a little recognition from home!
I discovered your work thanks to Un podcast à soi [A Podcast of One’s Own, a French feminist podcast] by Arte Radio, and you are a feminist yourself. How does feminism influence your work?
I am a feminist, which means that I fight for equality between genders. I try to focus my work on women, who are under represented in illustration, and everywhere else for that matter. In my personal work, I mostly try to make women the core of my illustrations, and to represent lots of different body types. This is really important to me. Not all women look alike, but sometimes illustrators have a very specific manner of drawing people, which end up all looking the same. I think it’s too bad, so I try to do things differently in my own work. I always make a point of representing lots of different skin colors and lots of different body types, because this is what the real world looks like. Even so, I think I have accomplished more by organizing a feminist festival and by co-founding a feminist magazine than I have with my illustrations, because at the end of the day, they’re just drawings. I work with two feminist podcasts, Un podcast à soi [A Podcast of One’s Own] and Vénus s’épilait-elle la chatte? [Did Venus shave her pussy?, a French podcast about art history and feminism]. It’s always so much more stimulating to work on subjects that matter to me! It makes me want to do everything I can to create the best possible illustration.
How do you think art can make a difference in the current political climate?
I feel like the difference art or illustration (because I do not see myself as an artist but as an illustrator) can make can be insidious. I hope that by representing what we want to see in the world, it will become normal, and that people will accept it as the norm. This is a political act, to normalize what should be normal. I believe that representation is political. I’m not sure I can make a difference, but I try to do whatever I can. More and more illustrators, especially women, are trying to change things, to focus on representation and inclusivity. Gradually, our little army might actually make a difference, even if it’s just through illustrations. We can’t change the world, but… If we keep seeing things that are different from us, we will accept that difference. For example, I worked on a children’s book entitled Ma maman est bizarre [My mom is weird] with my friend Camille Victorine which will be out in October. Camille has a daughter and she could never find any books that featured moms who looked like her. In children’s books, it’s always : “mom and dad”, “mom stays home while dad goes to work”,… She wanted to see a representation of herself, meaning : “mom has tattoos”, “mom goes out”, “mom takes her daughter to protests”, “mom goes to concerts”,… Just because a woman has children does not mean she’s not a person anymore! So we worked on this book which she wrote and I illustrated, and I can’t wait for it to come out! The problem begins when children can’t find representations of their parents, of what they want do do, or of themselves anywhere. For example, almost all of the representations that we have of careers for little girls are of what are considered to be “traditionally female careers”… Everything should be represented in literature and illustration. We need to see female astrophysicists and male midwives. We can create that change gradually, through words and pictures.
What would you like to accomplish through your work?
I’m not sure, because I do not see myself as an artist, but as an illustrator. I make pictures that illustrate words, and I have trouble imagining that my illustrations might have any kind of impact. Sometimes people recognize themselves in my work, when I draw moments from daily life. Not that long ago, I published an illustration of three completely fictive girls, and a girl sent me a picture of her and two of her friends recreating my illustration because they looked just like the girls I drew! I like to see that, people being happy, people recognizing themselves in my illustrations, that’s enough for me. I like to make people feel seen and represented. I can’t think of another ambition, this is already a lot.
What have you been reading, watching, and listening to lately?
It’s hard to choose, I watch a lot of things and I read a lot of books! I’ve been fascinated by Maggie Nelson’s work for the past two years, especially with her book Bluets. I keep it on my nightstand, and I read a few fragments from it once in a while. I’ve just finished The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was beautiful, well written, sad and melancholic. I’ve also read Normal People by Sally Rooney and I’ve watched the TV adaptation. It was beautiful, and sad too, I like sad stories. The only thing I had trouble with was that it felt so real it was sometimes difficult to read. During lockdown, I read all of Annie Ernaux’s work. I read everything and anything during lockdown, including a biography of Queen Victoria that was a thousand pages long! I’ve also really liked How to Fail by Elizabeth Day, a book in which she explains why failing and making mistakes is great. I like to tell young people, people who are getting started in life, that it’s good to make mistakes, to go in the wrong direction, to go back, to start over. This is when you learn the most. I feel like young people want to go too fast. They feel like they’ve failed if they don’t have an agent or if they haven’t had work published in every magazine by the time they’re out of school, when in reality, that’s okay!
During the three years I spent in the US, I didn’t really do anything. I designed posters, but that wasn’t what you can call a real job. I didn’t do much during that time. I think it was good for me not to do anything. Well, not to do much. Now, I work a lot, and it’s sometimes difficult. I never stop, I never take any time off. I’m glad I got to enjoy those three years of not doing anything, of travelling, of meeting new people, of taking my time. If you don’t take the time to think, you might end up making wrong decisions and realizing that once it’s too late, and that’s just too bad. This is also why I read a lot. I think it’s important to read, to watch movies, to go out, to do things aside from working, because work isn’t all there is to life. I watched a conference by artist Chantal Martin in which she asked the audience to define themselves outside of their relationships to other people (as a mother, a wife, a girlfriend,…) and outside of their job.
How would you define yourself according to these instructions?
The problem is precisely that I define myself through my work. I’m an illustrator, I’m always drawing, this is my life. It’s difficult for me to separate myself from that, to be someone, to be someone else who isn’t that. When I meet someone new, our first chats will revolve around work. But it’s difficult, if I remove all my labels, illustrator, feminist,…. what am I? I don’t know.
What is next for you?
The children’s book I mentioned, Ma maman est bizarre [My mom is weird], which is my first children’s book. It was supposed to come out in May, but with everything that happened, the release was postponed to October. I can’t wait for it to come out and to find out what people think of it! It will be published by La Ville Brûle [The City is Burning], a feminist publishing company. I have worked on another book with them about the history of feminism from a pop culture perspective, which will be released next year. And after that, I don’t know. I’m working on a lot of things, so we’ll see what happens. I just want to work more and to work better.
Is there a question you wish I had asked you?
No, no, not really. No, I don’t think I have anything more to say.
Anna Wanda Gogusey is a French illustrator and tattoo artist based in Paris, and the co-founder of Retard Magazine. She is a badass feminist artist, impertinent and joyful. She balances her rock’n roll essence with her use of an absolutely enchanting color palette. Her aesthetic is figurative, decorative, with a tint of absurd.
You can find more of Anna’s work on her website or her Instagram.
(Portrait by Ella Hermë)