Robin Nishio: “Living the dream”
by David Fujino
Robin Nishio represents a new breed of visual artist. He’s grown up with computers, cell phones, digital cameras, websites, video games, and the internet, but it’s his old-fashioned ability to draw, quickly, that got him a paying job as a storyboard artist for a busy Toronto TV commercial production house. (Storyboards are cartoon-like layouts of all the camera shots planned for a TV commercial or film. The director refers to the storyboard during principal photography.) A host of freelance jobs followed where Robin provided artwork for skateboards, t-shirts, and an artist edition MP3 player. This is art that gets used and shown and played. Robin’s also written and directed two short films, and in 2011 a drawing was published in Root Rot by Koyama Press, a forest-themed anthology co-edited by Michael DeForge and Anne Koyama. And he has a photography book from Koyama Press coming out in 2015. This Toronto-born guy surely knows his worth as a versatile artist, I’ve assumed, but what I appreciated was his direct and sensible response to my request to interview him. You’ll notice that Robin said “Yes,” and then he suggested we conduct the following interview over email instead of face-to-face, if that was all right with me. I could send him the questions, and a deadline, and he’d deliver an interview. What did I think? Now, that’s being ‘professional’—smooth and cooperative, and productive.
You’ve been described as “an artist growing up in the digital age?” Does that mean anything to you? That’s an interesting description, for sure, and I believe it to be true to a certain extent. I’ve been around long enough to remember the inception of the internet. I still very much remember what it was like when my modem’s dial tone would sound throughout the house at 1 am notifying my parents to the fact that their son was surely scouring the then-fledgling Internet for whatever lewd images he could feast his eyes upon. For someone growing up in the digital age, I sure didn’t know how to erase my browser history when I was young.
I didn’t entirely grow up in the digital age, though, and I count myself as fortunate to have been around to witness and take advantage of its growth while still retaining a solid background in traditional media.
What role has your family, let’s say your parents, or siblings, played in the art—and the kind of art—you seem to be drawn to? Pun intended. Haha! My mother, Helen Koyama, raised me on a healthy dose of alternative comics growing up. I was mostly just stoked that it said “for mature readers” on the covers and was probably too young to understand the complexities of books like Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Bros., or The Bradleys by Peter Bagge. However, what I took away from it was that I liked slick looking things inked in black line and I’ve been drawn to them ever since. I’m also very much into fine art and I have my Aunt Anne Koyama to thank for that. She was making space on her bookshelf and tossed me old Whitney Biennials, along with a great deal of material on everything from Pop Art to the Feminist Art Movement to books on Contemporary Canadian artists. I have yet to read most of them, but sitting on my bookshelf, they do make me appear to have great taste. I’ve gotten quite good at changing the subject when people engage me in discourse regarding the books’ subject matter.
Where did you go in terms of art college and what did you learn? I majored in Illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON. I learned a ton there both from my teachers and my peers; it was a great experience. I learned a great deal about the creative process and problem-solving techniques and the faculty really drove home the importance of the idea within the image. I also learned how to stretch Sapporo Ichiban Ramen, Diana’s BBQ sauce, and M&M’s meatballs into meals worthy of a Michelin Star. Meatballs coated in MSG from the Ramen flavour pack. You’re welcome, everybody!
Do you see your drawings as ‘commercial’ art? I suppose the term could be applied to it, as broad a term as it is. Depends on which drawings of mine and what they were used for. With concept art, although it is sometimes product-based, it’s ultimately not for mass exposure. For me, it’s almost like early animation cells in the Anime industry. I just throw it out after it’s done and never look at it again. Some of the more product-based stuff like skateboards or MP3 players that I’ve designed, where the image was used to sell the product, could be classified as commercial art, for sure.
Do you think you’re Japanese? All I wanted to do today was watch Hannibal and eat Ketchup chips, but now you’ve gone and asked me a serious, heavy question, that requires thought and introspection. After much thought and introspection, I have come to the conclusion that I consider myself of 100% Japanese ethnicity, 50% Canadian in culture and 50% Japanese in Culture. I hope that I passed this cultural litmus test.
Can you give me some names of magazines that have published your work? I’ve been lucky enough to have been published in Arkitip, LoDown Magazine, and Color Magazine, to name a few.
Just wondering if you feel it’s important that artists get paid, that they don’t work for free? I used to be, and still am, in a lot of ways, a total mercenary about getting paid. I don’t work for free, for the most part, and generally refuse jobs that don’t pay. Ultimately, I’m not one to say how another artist handles his or her business, but I feel like if you’re going to work for free, it should be for a really good reason. I will, however, break my back for free for a friend in need in whatever way I can. I’ve had a ton of people help me, asking nothing in return, and I owe it to them to do the same thing for others.
You were published in Root Rot by Koyama Press, weren’t you? Do you see this as alternative publishing? Yes! I was fortunate enough to be published in Root Rot by Koyama Press. I feel that, content-wise, it has a home in Alternative comics, but the actual publishing aspect of it is still very traditional. They are still working very much within the print medium and haven’t gone off into something like E-Books or Open Access publishing.
Do you have any plans to have an art gallery show of drawings and paintings? I have a photography book coming out with Koyama Press in late 2015, so there will most likely be some sort of release for it. Nothing planned for an exhibition of drawings and paintings — which is not to say that I wouldn’t weep tears of joy if anything I’ve done, or will do, ends up on a gallery wall.
Do you know much about manga? ... do you care? I don’t know as much as my brother Daniel, who actually works in the Manga department at the Beguiling Books and Art in Toronto, but I know what I like. As far as older Manga Ka go, I have an unhealthy obsession with Katsuhiro Otomo. I have literally almost every book he has ever published. The man is a god and also shares my other unhealthy obsession for Italian road bikes. I also like Masamune Shirow, Yukito Kishiro, Taiyo Matsumoto, Osamu Tezuka, Shintaro Kago, and Hajime Isayama. I’m super into horror manga from guys like Junji Ito, Kazuo Umezu, and Hideshi Hino. Also, any and all food manga, including Yakitate Japan, Oishinbo, and Kami No Shizuku. I hire movers now because I’m pretty sure I’ve got a femoral hernia trying to lift boxes of Manga out of my apartment. Also, I am lazy.
Do you feel impatient with life at times? No, but what does that say about me? Should I? Is it bad that I don’t?
What is art to you? I’m not sure yet. In my head I’m either exploiting it or fighting for it; either way, I’ll let you know how it ends up.
What music would you like to have at your funeral? I’m not sure about the music yet, but in lieu of flowers I’d like people to bring fireworks.
Final words from Robin: I’ve been working as a freelancer for the good people at www.psyop.tv for the past 4 years, mostly as a storyboard artist and occasional concept artist. I’ve just been signed for representation as a Commercial Director at www.commongood.tv. I’ve never had a personal website and don’t really know of any websites that feature my art. I am the worst at self-promotion.