Henry Obasi – A New York Interpretation
"Best product in New York? Blatantly boring and biased, but I’d say Hip-Hop!"
An interview with Henry Obasi, the London based graphic artist commissioned to bring to life the PONY trade stand at Bread & Butter, Berlin.
Can you let us know a little bit about the collaboration with PONY and the work at Bread & Butter?
It was quite an involved and complex commission. PONY wanted to do this 3D illustration thing where, viewed from a certain point, the illustration becomes part of the actual scenery. So, if, say, you’re standing by a wall and there is an image on the floor, it could look like a wall in the floor and become an extension of one scene
To get my head around this I hooked up with a photographer and did some tests, projecting illustrations onto multiple surfaces; working out viewing angles, etc. Once we understood the concept I flew out to Holland to have a meeting with PONY. They did ask me, “what does PONY mean to you?” I remembered that back in the day, it was all about breakdancing, popping and stuff. But it wasn’t so much about breaking in PONY’s sneakers, it was more about dropping shapes in their legendary socks; long and white with that distinctive blue band across the top. For me, it was all about PONY socks!!!
Did you break?
Nah nah. Me and my brother did a bit of body popping back in the day, proper Wildstyle days, early 80s. Some of my friends from school did break dance, but I was never serious about it. I couldn’t even spin on my back, I was uselsess!
Do you look back at any of that imagery from PONY’s relationship with sport?
Yeah, I did. And it was good to see it was a proper heritage brand with genuine roots – and also the only sportswear brand to come of New York. The archival imagery knocked me completely for six. I had no idea they’d once sponsored Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, New York Cosmos, Spurs… plus some wicked basketball players like Spudd Webb – he was super short but he could dunk like a mother!
I also heard all these mad little stories about the company’s early days. Like the one when Roberto Mueller, the then owner, coined the brand name with the idea of PONY standing for ‘Product Of New York’ but somebody else also had the name. Turned out it was a New York escort agency, Prostitutes Of New York. This is a proper heritage brand with roots and also the only sportswear brand from New York.
Have you spent much time in New York?
Yeah yeah. I go quite a bit. I’ve got an agent in New York and I go at least a couple of times a year. Just to get a vibe when my batteries need recharging.
When did you first go?
I can’t remember exactly; definitely in the early noughties. I really wish I’d been able to visit in the late Seventies when I was a kid, but it just didn’t happen. If you’re an illustrator or designer coming from that early hip-hop background, then going to New York is a must.
It’s like culturally arty, musical Mecca. The first time I went out there it was bananas. Just walking down all these streets where Malcolm X spoke or Kool Herc rocked a street party, I am thinking, “this is just sick”.
What does New York mean to you?
It definitely seems a place of opportunity – like anything is possible. I’m still pissed because I wish I’d gone in the 80’s or early 90’s when things were still kind of raw. A lot of my friends who lived there in the early days told me before Giuliani, the NYC Mayor at the time, got involved and cleaned it all up, New York was just wicked! You could literally get up in the morning and not know how your day would turn out. One minute you’re having a coffee and bagel in a lower eastside deli, next minute you’re at a party sitting alongside Andy Warhol.
With your work in general, was there anyone that inspired you or who you looked towards?
My first introduction to post graphic arts I suppose would be comics. A bit of Spiderman, Superman, Marvel and DC; then Robert Crumb – and then all the weird English stuff like 2000AD. And of course TV and films, a lot of the stuff I watched when I was young had a heavy American influence.
You went to Central St Martin’s College of Art & Design
I studied graphics and Printmaking at London College of Printing, but I went to St Martin’s to do my Master’s in Graphics and Illustration, which I squeezed in between freelance work. At LCP my teacher gave me a bunch of phone numbers and told me to see if I could get myself a job.
I literally got one from the first person I went to and my design career pretty much started from there. But I still felt the need to go back to college get my graphic head right, so I went to St Martin’s. Unfortunately I was at my busiest ever with freelance work and nearly got kicked off the course.
Do you have any advice for people coming out of St Martin’s now?
Just make sure that you’re good. I’m saying good in terms of your craft and professional practice. We have students coming to our studios for placements and it’s just shocking what they don’t know.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Henry, go back to college!” I was one of those guys that thought he could just do it all. I went for a placement, and this guy who owned the design firm just tore my book to shreds and told me to go back to college. I took his advice and did just that. That kind of harsh reality was good for me then.
So you’re into your kicks?
I have to admit back in the day I used to be but I’ve had to calm my arse down because a sneaker habit is expensive! There was a time when it was just silly; If I wasn’t down Dover Street I was calling somebody to see what’s coming in next.
I’m not as bad as some people, but after a while, you’re like “how many of these bad boys can you wear at once?”
What do you look for in a shoe?
I used to go through phases. For a while it was all hi-tops; then it was about the various design collaborations. I was not one of those brand darlings who only wore one make. If I like the shoe, I bought it!
You’ve been working with Snoop Dogg on some t-shirts, LA’s very different to New York.
The aesthetics are different, but the mindsets are the same I think and that‘s what I like about America. Over here I think we’re quite particular when it comes to design aesthetics. In America they seem to be more open to fresh ideas, sometimes the louder the better. The Snoop Dogg I am working on right now had an open brief so I can go visually bonkers, which suits me.
Whereabouts in New York is your favourite place?
I suppose I’d have to say Brooklyn. I like the East side – Downtown East, whatever you want to call it, but I love Brooklyn. All my best food experiences have been in Brooklyn. To get a decent meal I always go there. Food is important to me… haha
What for you is the best product of New York, from a cultural perspective?
Best product in New York? Blatantly boring and biased, but I’d say Hip-Hop! That’s the most obvious answer for me but then I think of all the artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Mapplethorpe, Futura and Eric Haze. New York was a mad place, full of mad people doing crazy things. It wasn’t a settled city and I think the work they produced was so radical, so fucked up, that the rest of the world just had to embrace it.