During this year’s annual street art and mural festival POW! WOW! Hawaii, I had the fortune of spending a good bit of time talking to someone that anyone within the creative art and design realm would be straight jelly over. If you’re familiar with his signature Monsters or Pyramid characters, then you’ll already know who Kevin Lyons is. If you’re unfamiliar, then this is the man that has helped define what it means to be a modern day Graphic Designer, having established himself and his work as a brand in itself, under his agency Natural Born. But all that success doesn’t come without many, many years of arduous work and hours spent on the grind, working his way up through the ranks from an entry level designer to the coveted artist he is today.
Having worked with a slew of streetwear’s imprints, such as SSUR, 555 Soul, Giant Step, Stussy, Girl Skateboards, not to mention his position as the Global Creative Director for Urban Outfitters, as well as further stints of Creative Directing for brands like Nike, Converse, Umbro, Diesel, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, American Express… to make things easier, head here to check out his highly impressive resume. But all these names aside, Kevin is one of the most humble, fun-to-be-around individuals I’ve had the pleasure of meeting–it’s safe to say that he himself is quite the character. A wide-grinning, whimsical bearded man that was more than happy to bestow a good amount of wisdom and education on the art of owning a signature style.
That’s the topic we picked his brains about, and the results are basically a 101 on how to find the right mindset if you yourself are looking to build your own company/brand. Read our exclusive interview below that was conducted under the sun in Oahu’s Honolulu, while a roster of other incredible artists painted public walls live throughout the week of POW! WOW! Hawaii 2017.
To understand the notion of establishing a signature in your artwork, we wanted to start out with understanding your own. What came first: the artwork which turned into your signature? Or the search for a signature which lead to the characters?
Well, I started as a graphic designer and the nature of a graphic designer–a good, solid graphic designer–is to do what is asked of him or her. Graphic designers are basically told what to do. “Make this and this, It needs to look like this. Use these colors. It needs to fit on this”… Graphic design by its very nature is very prescriptive. At first you are just happy to be doing work and making stuff. I think that because I simultaneously grew up in punk and hip hop cultures, I always had this pull to be more independent and fight and rage against the norms. Even as a designer, I yearned to find a way to put my own stamp on the things I did. Like my own tag left behind in the work… My first steps in developing “my own style” as a pure designer was through hand-drawn lettering… I started to find it difficult to do anything new or unique by continuing to use the same fonts everybody else was using, so I started drawing my own letterforms and using my own handwriting in my work. That broke me out of the pack and made me see that there was a way to create a signature style even through design. It was only then that I started to see the real benefits of having such a style. That the requests from clients went from dictative to collaborative. No longer were the conversations purely one-sided. They asked more from me and often defaulted to my “style.” That becomes a real path to freedom, but it does leave you wanting more… and that is where the characters came in.
Prior to the appearance of my characters, everything I did was rooted in some other reference point. Some say “ripped-off,” some say “sampling,” some say “referenced” or “re-contextualized”… Either way, it is not leaning towards the total original side. Nothing springs out of mid-air. Everything I did had some basis in culture. Sometimes that worked out great. Logo rip-offs when cleverly done are the most successful things you can do as a designer. Look at SSUR’s ‘Comme The Fuck Down’ graphic–smart, clever and super popular. But it does become an exhausting, difficult game to play. And sometimes when your clients are big and corporate, they can even sniff around other people’s cultural references. When I started to use these characters–the Monsters–and they themselves began to get popular, again I found a new freedom. Something like the hand-type–original and unmistakably yours. They provided a new form of independence. I could just do me by doing them… They literally did spring out of mid-air! I could just sit down and draw them. It saves a lot of time and effort when you have a signature style or signature character.
“For years I worked in the shadows behind some of the culture’s most iconic brands like SSUR, 555 Soul, Giant Step, Stussy, Girl Skateboards… And at that time I was more than happy doing that.”
Was that the intent from the get-go when conjuring up the Monsters?
It was never a conscious idea to literally set out to design these characters to do that. They just were. Well, before I ever showed them to the world, they existed for a very long time in my own private sketchbooks. Had I known what they would become, I would have brought them out way earlier for sure. I think designers, artists, and creatives go through a long battle of development. Back when I was coming up, there was still a development process in place. You paid your dues. You sat behind others and supported them. You weren’t supposed to just come out of your teens with your own look and a signature style or character. But punk, hip hop, Graffiti, CBGB’s, skate culture, etc., changed all of that. You could form a band without knowing how to play. You could own a company without a business degree. You could make your mark wherever you wanted. For years I worked in the shadows behind some of the culture’s most iconic brands like SSUR, 555 Soul, Giant Step, Stussy, Girl Skateboards… And at that time I was more than happy doing that. However this little nagging independence and need to make my own mark always tugged at me. And I started to realize that the world opens up when you have your own thing to offer it: the Monsters. Twenty years later became that thing organically… Naturally… On their own.
Was there any focus/time spent on refining them, or was it more organic in their evolution, or are you still undergoing refinements? Or were they perfect since day one!?
Yes. The Monsters have changed and one could argue that they got more refined or less refined over the last 10 years. They are only 10 years old, so they are not even teenagers yet. But yes, they at times–especially in the early days–were much more expressively drawn. They were pure gesture drawings done fairly monolithic in line weight. Kind of messy and a little angry. They now appear in several different ways, including some of the more refined sign-painters like brush lines that you see at POW! WOW! Hawaii. And at other times, they are never totally clean. They have a messy energy to both of them, always. It is in their nature–and mine.
What about the downside–the Catch-22’s to owning a branded look/design?
I think the only downside–and I would call it more like a flip side–is that in a way you become sort of stuck in your world… Once you become known for something, that is your thing… It becomes attached to you. It is then difficult to ever vary from that. People want the hits right? Jay-Z has to do “New York” every show, just like a Bruce Springsteen has to perform “Born To Run” for the last 40 years. Love it or hate it, the crowd demands it. Some nights it’s a curse, but most of the time it is a blessing. It made him who he is. There are times when I have another idea for a product or project, but the client only wants to see the Monsters. The only other drawback can be the risk of being overexposed. If I do a Monster for one brand, can I do it for another? Does it become a conflict? But, again, don’t get it twisted… these are not the worse problems to have. But you have to be aware of them at all…
Is it beneficial to having multiple signatures? Or better to stick to the one, or again it depends on what the artist wants?
I think there are benefits to having a couple different looks within a signature style, for sure. Mainly because you can have work for more than one brand at the same time. The early benefits to being a graphic designer was that I could work for 10 competitive brands at the same time with zero conflict. Now I have to be careful of where the Monsters live and when… it is easy to get messed up if it is not managed correctly. I have to make many more decisions and be super smart and more strategic with how I pick and choose what I work on.
You’ve collaborated with a plethora of great brands, many of which have sought you out for your signature style tailored to the project. What’s a life lesson for budding artists for when this rolls around for them that they don’t teach you in school?
In the beginning, when I was younger, I would do a nearly anything to work with certain brands. Luckily, a lot of them were great brands. I think there is a certain amount time and effort spent on making a name for yourself early on. Working with brands–other brands–can be extremely strategic in doing this. They have the budgets and products and media stretch to help a young designer, artist, or illustrator along… but you have to be careful not to undervalue yourself. There are so many paths now for artists to make names for themselves. You have to be patient. It is so easy now to see young kids blowing up on Instagram or Twitter, but careers are made over the long haul.
“Never stop. It is so important to never stop. Work through all of your struggles and be excited about everything.”
What about collaborating with other artists?
To me, my relationships with other artists are keys to my success–to my very developement. The best part of art and design schools were the relationships I formed there. The best part of trade shows and art festivals and mural festivals are the connections and collaborations that can come from them. I love mixing my style with someone else’s… It definitely does something to my style and I learn a lot in the process. A lot of my favorite things/projects I have done over the years are those that were arrived at through collaboration.
What’s the most important thing to maintain as an artist/brand that you’ve learnt after all these years?
Be yourself. Make your own path. Meet other artists. Just continue to make stuff and participate. Never stop. It is so important to never stop. Work through all of your struggles and be excited about everything.
Lastly, where does one go from here for someone in your position, having already established themselves as a brand/signature? What’s next?
I think with my Monsters, it is about seeing where they go organically. And even broadening my audience and reach to include audiences I have not traditionally reached… I have always been so well received within streetwear and sneaker culture, but the Monsters have now invited so many others in. Children, younger audiences, illustration students and parents… the characters themselves appeal to a lot of cultures, some that I have not really made work for as of yet. I believe that there are many places that both the Monsters and myself can go…