Illustrator Eri Wakiyama and jewelry designer Yoon Skype about how creativity can’t be taught

Tim Burton better watch out—there’s a new illustrator on the rise. Just as she finished studying fashion design at Parsons School of Design, Eri Wakiyama invented a girl who is a mix of contradictions—cute, yet moody; androgynous, but feminine—a poetic vision from her imagination. Wakiyama would draw the girl in various circumstances: blowing bubble gum while hanging out, smoking flowers while watering a glass filled with cigarettes, with flowers piercing her heart. The girl became the starring character on Wakiyama’s Tumblr, Wakiyama’s Tumblr caught on, attracting many followers.

Raised by Japanese parents in Northern California, Wakiyama moved to New York, where she is based today. After graduation, she found a job at Comme des Garçons in Chelsea, where she would go on to meet many of the creative elites who frequented the shop, like Yoon, the jewelry designer behind the Japanese label Ambush. Linked by a common friend, Wakiyama and Yoon discovered they have a lot in common despite the fact that they live on opposite sides of the world. Both grew up in Asian-American households, leaving the West Coast for school on the East Coast, before finding themselves working in fashion and being snapped by street-style photographers.

Wakiyama’s love for drawing at a young age manifested in her signature character. Yoon also had an interest in illustration, hoping to work for the glossies. After studying graphic design in Boston she was about to head to New York, but instead went to Tokyo to be with her now-husband, the Japanese-Korean hip-hop artist Verbal. Her style advice turned him into the “most fashionable guy in Japan,” and together they would go on to become one of the country’s most stylish couples, with comparisons to Beyoncé and Jay Z. Yoon started designing jewelry with Verbal and turned that into Ambush, a fashion brand which counts Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and Pharrell as fans. Here, Yoon and Wakiyama discuss growing up Asian-American, how they fell into the fashion world, and how it’s best not to follow the books.

Eri Wakiyama—Through the years, I’ve realized you and I have so many mutual friends; you know everyone! I just saw you in Tokyo last year, but we met here in New York.

Yoon—I am from the States, and I am technically Asian-American. I lived everywhere because of my dad, who was in the US Army. It wasn’t a typical upbringing, because I moved around so much and I was exposed to so many different things. I lived in Hawaii, California, moved to Korea, and then came back to Seattle. Then I went to school in Boston.

Eri—West Coast! I grew up in Northern California.

Yoon—I now live in Tokyo, but I am not from here. I don’t feel like I have a home; I feel like an alien in a sense.

Eri—You feel comfortable there?

Yoon—To an extent, but I don’t think or have the same senses like a Japanese person who was born and lived here.

Eri—I felt like that when I visited Tokyo last year. I have never really lived there, so I never had friends there until I started working—now I have tons of friends. But then I felt like a total foreigner. Japan is where my parents are from, and Japanese was my first language, so it should be cool. I felt like maybe it could be my country. But everywhere I went I felt like it was such a different place. And all of a sudden I didn’t feel Japanese anymore; I feel like that fucking American walking down the street.

Yoon—I think it’s like that for a lot of us of the 1.5 or second generation.

Eri—We are a mishmash of things. I don’t feel more powerful in one thing or the other. Everything influences me. When I visit somewhere else, I’m just going to be me. But if I am in America or Japan, I’m going to feel more like one way or the other.

Yoon—If I still lived in the place where I was born, I don’t think I would be doing what I am doing right now. I have a company with my husband, Verbal; there is a music production section, a technology section, and we also do consulting for corporations. And then I do a jewelry line called Ambush—that’s my section.

Eri—You do a lot of work, girl!

Yoon—It became what it is because people started asking us, because they knew we had a different perspective on things. We had different ideas we could offer them from our experiences and  knowledge from being exposed to different things.

“I don’t like talking about stuff so much. When I had my first show two years ago, I couldn’t even go to the opening until two hours after it started. I felt so naked.”

Eri—He wouldn’t be him and you wouldn’t be you if you hadn’t had those experiences. I grew up in Cupertino, California, where Apple is made, so you can imagine what kind of people live there: people who work at Facebook, Google, and Apple. Not that many people leave, because it is so comfortable. I was one of the few people that moved out of that comfort zone when I came to New York. I hated it for two years, but now I cannot imagine not having had to move because I have a thousand times more perspective on everything else. You can see any kind of person walking down the street, and there are so many weirdos out in the world. If someone from back home came to New York, they would be so scared they would have to go home.

Yoon—You know, now we live in a day where we might not physically see each other so often. I’ll see you all the time in other people’s pictures, and I follow you on Instagram, so I know what you’re up to. The internet connects everyone.

Eri—It doesn’t feel so far. We are up-to-date already, so when we do see each other four months later, it’s still relevant. Every time I go to Paris [for fashion week] I see my international friends, whether they’re from Tokyo, New York, Paris, or London. It became like, “Oh, I’ll see you four times a year.” Which is sometimes more than I see certain friends in New York.

Yoon—I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace. But one day about four years ago, people were asking, “What have you been doing?” So I started posting on Twitter and Instagram, just to show that I am actively doing things and meeting people.

Eri—I don’t like to post what I am doing every single second—it ruins reality. I used to have a blog, which was my journal in high school and college. People in the fashion industry would see it, and I didn’t want to show that anymore. It developed, but I shut it down because I was writing such intimate stuff. I moved to Tumblr because I would see my work floating around the [internet] and I wanted to own it. I don’t like talking about myself either. I feel creatively my written voice isn’t strong enough, so I do it through taking photographs or other things like drawings. Were you always into the arts?

Yoon—I was really into reading magazines when I was young. I thought it would be a fun job to get involved in magazines, not necessarily writing or anything like that, but I was always interested in the visual aspect, like the typography. I made up my mind that I wanted to study graphic design.

Eri—I never knew someone did that! When I would read pop magazines, I didn’t know that there was a job for that, which was crazy, but I guess someone had to do it.

Yoon—It’s funny though. I thought, one day I’m going to study this and then hopefully I can work at a magazine just doing layouts. Then I got to college and my professor said, “You know working for magazines pays the least, so you might want to rethink that.” So I started at an ad agency designing logos and little things. One thing led to another and I was supposed to move to New York, but Verbal was here in Tokyo. He asked me to come out and work here, and I hadn’t thought about moving to another country at that time, so I said, “If you find me something to do, I will give it a try.” He found me a few graphic design jobs and I came. Fast-forward and I am now doing jewelry.

Eri—You never expect to land somewhere, but then somehow you end up there. I never wanted to be an artist, but I always drew. Where I grew up was the suburbs, and everyone went to an Ivy League school, Stanford, UCLA, or UC Berkeley. It was all nerded out, all Asian-Americans, and if you got less than 1500 on your SATs you were a failure. I was prepared to go to UCLA for a biology major and not do any art. My parents are super-traditional and Japanese; they said, “Of course you are not going to an arts school, don’t even apply.” Then at the last minute I was like “I’m going to do it.” I wouldn’t have been able to survive a regular college for four years. I went to Parsons for fashion. Up until a few years ago I was making clothes, but then something changed.

Yoon—My parents weren’t as hardcore. My dad wanted to become a writer, but something happened and there wasn’t a choice for him to do journalism anymore. He had to work another job to take care of his siblings. For my parents, you find what you love to do and that will support you. They have been very supportive. They weren’t so caught up in “You have to be this or you have to do that.”

Eri—I feel that once you find what you want to do, they accept it—that’s what my parents did. My dad didn’t give in for a few years, and someone had to say Parsons was the Harvard of art schools. He comes from an age where if you are an artist, you are going to be a starving artist. I was always drawing, but in college they make you do fashion illustrations. So when I first got out of college, there were a lot of side gigs that paid a lot of money, like really traditional fashion drawings—the boring stuff in textbooks. Then I started developing this character, a girl I always like to draw. She is almost androgynous. She is always in a different situation, with a different personality, but it is always the same girl. She caught on, I guess. I never wanted to put my illustrations out there or promote them, but then other people started noticing my work. That is what kept me going to create this character.

Yoon—Your drawings are a bit fragile, but at the same time there is something really poetic about them.

Eri—I don’t know how much thought I put into the fragility of it, but that is the response I always get. One time a very mainstream make up company wanted me to draw these girls for their fragrances. I drew one girl with pink flowers and shit for a fruity smelling perfume, but they came back and said they wanted her smiling; she looked too gloomy. I didn’t mean for them to look so depressing, but I think it comes off like that, almost dark. People always say it is very Edgar Allan Poe, but I never see it like that. It is also supposed to be kind of funny; I always incorporate some things like “girls just like smoking because they are so bored of their lives.” I try to put that in there. I don’t really think about it too much. But a lot of people ask, “What was behind it?” And it was nothing. It was just in the moment and it came out.

Yoon—Ideas just come out for me too. I was never trained as a jeweler, so some of the pieces can come out looking “what the hell” to a lot of people. But to me that’s just my way of expressing.

Eri—I never even studied illustration. So I kind of feel weird when I have friends who focused on illustration in college, and I just do it. I feel rude in a way, but it just feels natural to me.

Yoon—With anything creative, when you study too much your work becomes a little too contrived.

Eri—It gets too technical when it’s all by the books.

Yoon—Sometimes it is not about technique, it could be just about the vibe.

“You never expect to land somewhere, but then somehow you end up there. I never wanted to be an artist, but I always drew.”

Eri—That’s what my parents said. When you apply to art college, you have to make a portfolio. I had never taken an art class. My mom said, “You shouldn’t go to art class. It is such a waste of money. You have it in you so why do you need to take art classes? You shouldn’t be taught how to be creative.”

Yoon—As far as technique, you still can learn. Some people overcompensate for their lack of talent by just putting in different techniques. But it’s not about technique so much.

Eri—When I had my small blog in college, I would post my drawings; it had a small following. When your friends comment, they are like, “It is amazing!” But it’s different when strangers are hitting you up with comments and emails saying, “This is so amazing. I feel it. I am feeling her vibes.” That’s what really kept me going, because this is reaching out to people I don’t know.

Yoon—Your work is speaking to a lot of people.

Eri—I feel weird promoting my own thing, because I feel like a lot of it is so personal. I don’t like talking about stuff so much. When I had my first show two years ago, I couldn’t even go to the opening until two hours after it started. I felt so naked.

Yoon—We may not talk about it really with words, but whatever we capture is what inspires us at that moment and what we are interested in—it is our interpretation of that moment.

Eri—Sometimes I won’t have a specific message. It is not just one answer, and I feel like sometimes my illustrations do not have to have a lesson. Sometimes things have to have a moral, but maybe it is more a feeling. Some things can be stupid to some people and awe-inspiring to others.