Having hitchhiked from Lithuania to Berlin on a whim, Juli Jah – stemming from a background in architecture – has found a home in the capital city. It was by both circumstance and coincidence that her art met her passion for music, but now as one of the go-to designers for record labels in and out of Berlin, one could deduce that the two are inextricably linked. With a number of labels forming part of her repertoire, interior and exterior design too, the opportunities for creativity set against the backdrop of the city seem to be determining a career path for the girl from Vilnius. There are many components to the business of music, this business somewhat synonymous to Berlin itself, each feeding into its energy and raw output. Here’s one of them, Juli Jah: ‘the illustrator’, ‘the artist’, or just ‘the girl who likes to draw’ – you decide.
So for those that don’t know – you’re an ink and watercolour artist. You use isograph pens to create something that’s really quite special, though it’s not a well-known fact that your roots in fact lie in architecture, which in turn feed into your direction today… so does being an architect not appeal to you?
I’ve been drawing since a very young age; that was the reason my parents sent me to art school, I was only 9! Gymnasium in the morning – art in the evening. Then a year before finishing secondary school I started preparing for exams and luckily I got accepted to the Academy of Fine Arts in my hometown Vilnius, back in Lithuania. But I was only 18 and somehow it seemed to me that studying to become an architect would be a ‘safer route’ than trying to make a living outright as a sculptor or painter, for example. During those four years of studies I wasn’t very happy though – I was looking for that something else… illustration worked the best, it always had, and it became the language that I wanted to speak – the perfect way for me to really express myself. So I came back to the fine arts.
But I have no regrets that I did my bachelor in interior architecture, it’s impacted on the way I draw, it’s taught me patience, and as a result I’m more organized too – never a bad thing!
Would you ever change medium?
Watercolour and ink pens help me to reach the best results in what I am doing, but I’m also experimenting a bit with different techniques like pencils, oil paint, markers or spray paint. Creativity is a journey and I’d say that my journey is just starting…
So how would you define your current direction? Let’s start with the base notion of artist…
Who is an artist and who decides the attributes that determine an artist? I really don´t care how people title me, whether it’s ‘the illustrator’, ‘an artist’ or just ‘a girl who likes to draw’. I love what I do, it’s what I do best, and in the end what I’m doing is what I am.
Is this something that you’ve known – you’ve identified with from the very beginning?
Obviously it’s not some kind of dancing in the dark. I know what I want and I know that only hard work will bring me the results that I am seeking for. It’s not all about talent as many people say, of course that matters but that’s not all that helps artists to create mind-blowingly insane stuff.
My friends tell me that I am way too self-critical. But on the contrary, I think that there can never be enough self criticism, because that’s the only way I can progress and force myself to evolve, to then go on to be happy with myself and with what I create. Hard work (and soft drinks haha!) is the key if you ask me.
A lot of people would associate you with label artwork. Tell me about the very first piece…
Old love never dies… I’ve always had a deep love for electronic music: when you’re passionate for the concept that you’re working for, you reach good results. It was always one of my goals to work in the music industry (definitely not as a DJ or producer), and here I have a lot of freedom and the possibility to show my work, which is a reflection of my self, to thousands of people – whether it’s through the form of vinyl artwork, posters or flyers. It’s an amazing opportunity for an artist.
The first commission I got from a friend of a friend, some 5 years ago if my maths is correct. To put it quite simply, I was broke and my friend let me know that there was someone looking for an artist to produce the artwork for his label: ‘Why don’t you draw something for him?’. I put together a first draft but the idea was killed so I had to start again. The finished design worked well – the vinyl was released with my artwork on the label. It’s crazy, just a few months back I had pretty much nothing, and then I started being commissioned for album artworks for different record labels, across Europe.
Do you say yes to every label that approaches you?
Basically I always give a priority to commissions for full cover artwork. Of course there are exceptions, but full cover design gives you a better opportunity to speak to the audience, size really does matter here. And of course I prefer to work for people who don’t just see me as a tool for projects lacking any real excitement – what I’m saying is that I don’t like to be told how to do my work. Some clients, they just don’t want to leave you any freedom at all, in that case I just offer them to draw their things by themselves. It’s also always easier to work for people who are willing to put their trust in me, open to suggestions, able to compromise…
When you’re drawing for a living, art and design becomes a process that is subject to and reactive to client needs. Naturally you must have had to deal with both positive and negative feedback… do you find there often to be a contradiction between your output and the client brief?
Let´s say there are some ´yes sir, no sir´ zones. Especially when it comes to the more serious projects that are run by companies etc. It used to drive me nuts when I would have to make changes, but in the end this is how you learn how and what to do to make your working process as smooth as it can be, and the most important aspect for me – making it joyful, because without joy my works are crap. So sketching, talking, interacting with the client, asking questions and developing a relationship is very important. Of course, I have had ‘interesting’ clients with very ‘unique’ views or those with no clue at all as to what they want. These clients can literally drive you crazy, but that’s the price you pay working on commissioned work – you’re not as ‘free’ as you’d expect an artist to be… It can get pretty challenging. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. But as I’ve mentioned, different people – different requirements – different expectations. There are those who trust you, they don’t tell how to do your job, and then there are monsters, haha! But in the end it’s cool – we work together to create a vision, how can I not love that.
So what motivates you – as in how do you get from the white piece of paper that you start with to the end product?
The biggest motivation is to be interested in the project that you are working on, but I’d be lying if I said that I’m bringing a huge fat piece of motivation each time that I sit in front of my working desk. Sometimes I am lazy to start working, damn it sometimes I am lazy to be alive, pathetic isn’t it! It’s a challenge. I can’t really say what exactly the rich sources are here: music or a few kilos (!!!) of chocolate. Whatever, both.
In the end: the stricter you are the more you do.
You’ve said to me that you don’t see your work as conceptual. But surely any manifestation of creativity involves putting a concept to paper, whether or not that’s your intention…
I am almost allergic to this mega conceptual art – that’s so genius and conceptual that often it’s not even understood by its audience. I just love to draw and I won’t create poems about that or the message that I want to transmit to my audience. I am the creator of something that hopefully evokes some kind of thought or emotion in a person who decides to take a look into my work. That’s the main concept of the concept of my concept. In the end, to display what you have created is like getting naked in front of someone, even more. It’s being honest, at least to yourself.
So when you first arrived in Berlin, you applied to study at Universiteat der Kunst, for which your application was actually rejected, on the basis that neither were you talented enough, nor would you be a right fit for the school. Knowing your work – and loving your work, I still find this hard to believe. Since then you’ve lived this city – night and day – for sure you’ve lived out a chapter of your life experience in Berlin. Perhaps you’ve been moulded into UDK ways, without even knowing it. Would you consider making an application again?
I should admit that at the time I struggled to see that as good news. Applying to the universities like UDK is like swimming in a pool full of sharks: you can only imagine how talented the people are that apply and how cutthroat the professors teaching there must be. But I guess that I wasn’t enough for their big appetites. Actually, what I’d also say is that these universities, they search for people with the potential to be shaped, moulded in some form or other, maybe younger and with less experience. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll apply again. Not because I got rejected, but more so that I have to decide if I really want and need to study again. Of course there are lots of people who think that art doesn’t need a diploma, but I’m sure that studying can always develop something new within yourself.
You’re also working at Hoppetosse and Club Der Visionaire, venues undoubtedly at the core of Berlin’s music scene. I imagine that it adds a different aspect to the everyday… something fun – something light?
Basically I am doing one, maximum two shifts on a weekly basis, but I was spending the same amount of time there before I started working behind the bar. Goofing around on the dance floor or hanging in front of the DJ booth with my head and ears almost glued to the speaker – ‘last person standing’ as my friends say. I’ve joined an amazing CDV crew, and as long as working there is fun, I’ll do that with a big pleasure and smile on my face. With CDV no matter how busy and crowded the club gets, you always have enough space to dance and not have to wait ages for a drink (99% of the time). But the most important is that I am always surrounded by a great crowd, a ton of friends hanging out and brilliant music in the background. Jackpot if you ask me.
So for sure it brings you further stimulation?
It brings some extra colours into my life. Of course it’s my side job, but it’s a family place where I feel safe, happy and I am surrounded by many extraordinary minds. Another thing is that I am working for a person with a true and pure love for the music – those kind of people inspire and keep me moving forward.
It’s hard to find someone in Berlin who doesn’t love music. And you, like others, are contributing to the vitality of the scene.
Music is my crush, without it I wouldn’t be the person that I am, and ultimately my works wouldn’t be, look and exist as they do.
For the moment, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, Berlin is home. Having a base that stimulates you, where you feel truly good inevitably impacts on your daily attitudes and projections. Would you say that since moving here your art has become more positive, dare I say more complete?
No, but art became my full time job here. Not because I became famous or something, there were no red carpets and stuff, but Berlin is the place I call home now and there’s nothing better for me than being at ‘home’.
Do you see the city as a vehicle for your art? More so than Lithuania?
I love my country, Vilnius is my hometown – I grew up there, I studied and lived there for more than half of my life and I am always happy to go back, visit my family and friends, walk on my streets. I wouldn’t say that Berlin is a vehicle for my art, I think I could create anywhere. The question is would I enjoy living in another city as much as I enjoy living here…
Most memorable exhibition that you’ve seen, and why?
Hoffmann Samlung: a private collection of Erika und Rolf Hoffmann. You can see many interesting pieces, and the exhibition is changed yearly. The works are exhibited not in a museum but in the house where Eva Hoffmann is still living. The piece that I liked the most, a short video showing two girls looking up at the birds flying around in circles in the sky. Huge rocks and a very dark and stormy sky as a backdrop. I felt fear – an unexplainable anxiety watching that, something like fight-or-flight response, but it was exciting! – enjoyable! – I couldn’t leave.
If someone were to ask me where I see myself in 5 years’ time, I’d struggle to answer – I don’t think that my present moment defines my future, nor do I want it to. Can I put the question to you?
I am pretty happy here at the moment, cannot imagine moving somewhere else. But I could also not say that Berlin, or even Germany is the last city that I will live. I’ve lived in a few different cities, and these experiences, they only make you emotionally richer. It shapes your view on life. So back to your question, 5 years it’s a very long time, hard to say where exactly we’ll be then. But what I am sure about is that we will see each other from time to time, dancing, smiling and listening to Zip playing that’s for sure.
My hero [smiles]. So finally, tell me about your best moment – whether it be at sunrise, sunset, twilight; morning, afternoon, or night in Berlin! I think I have a story for each ha!
You know this moment when you are on your own, walking down the street for example… and simply start smiling? This is it. Smiling with no reason, with a pure, honest, happiness in your heart, just enjoying the short moment of your life. Right here. Right now.
You just gave me goosebumps girl.