Artists We Love: Keith Vlahakis

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr PHOTOS courtesy of Keith Vlahakis

Multi-faceted creative Keith Vlahakis blends a juxtaposition of his skills – street art, illustration, pop art and graphic design, into a hybrid of work that references popular culture and his cultural history. We chat with him about his journey.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your life.

My name is Keith Vlahakis. I’m an Illustrator, Pop Artist, Letterer, Graphic Designer and Street Artist. I like to identify myself as a creative pluralist, I’m constantly chasing the creative high that I get from working on multi-faceted creative projects. I’m inspired by, and influenced heavily by street culture, pop culture, comic books and urban sports. I collect toys, vintage comic books, old sportswear, streetwear jerseys and any form of pop cultural paraphernalia that’s related to my past or that I find inspiring. I spend most of my time drawing and creating in my studio with my cat Rhubarb.

Keith Vlahakis

How did you get into your line of art?

I’ve been drawing my whole life, but I really started taking my craft seriously in 1995. I was given an official Marvel Comics Calendar in 95, and I tried to copy all the illustrations in that calendar to make my own posters and decorate/ cover the walls of my room, I consider that moment in 1995 as the inception of my artistic career. School holidays were super boring growing up in the 90s, and I had close to nothing as far as entertainment when I was young, besides reading/drawing comics and watching VHS movies on the weekend if I was lucky. I’m a huge introvert and going outside to hang/play with peers my age didn’t really excite me. The choice was either to waste the days away watching Verimark adverts and Dr Phill/ Judge Judy or to dedicate my life to drawing and making art. I chose art.

I constantly drew and painted as I grew up and experimented with all types of mediums. I studied graphic design after high school and went on to work in the advertising industry for a couple of years. Advertising taught me a lot in terms of marketing, public relations, and how media works. My goal was to win a few awards in the advertising industry, and then use that momentum/buzz to kick-start my freelance illustration career. I won two Loerie awards, 1 for packaging design and the other for hand-crafted typography in 2014, I then left advertising, worked in an illustration studio for like 6 months then resigned again and started my own studio. Thankfully, My studio is doing well and I’ve managed to work on many illustrations and pop culture-related jobs both in SA and overseas. I still work a lot with Advertising agencies, both in SA and abroad, and I have had the opportunity to work on and be part of many international campaigns.

Describe your work in three words.

Neon, Nostalgic and Detailed.

Commissions or your own work?

The sweet balance is when I get to work on a commission that feels like I could have briefed myself on, or that feels like a proactive job.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that, whatever work you put out into the world, people will reference it, and ask you to re-create it or something similar. As long as the content of the job is within my interest, I will enjoy it. This Quote by Confucious has always kept me grounded in my artistic career… “Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.

How do all your facets of art (street art/lettering/illustration) influence each other?

Street art and graffiti influence my typographic style and vice versa, the handcrafted, and digital typographic work influence street artwork because it juxtaposes the norm. Studying old typographers, and the history of type and font designers made me better at painting letters onto walls because my eye and observational skills got better. The range of letters I can spray paint is super vast because I don’t adhere to the rules of graffiti, or new york styled bubble lettering. For example, I could paint a mural inspired by Art Deco-styled typography and Batman “the Animated Series”, when the super gaudy/ art deco styled letters are sprayed large on a wall it juxtaposes their initial meaning and the so-called “rules” of Graffiti and thus creates something new. Something new to me the creator and something new to the viewer/consumer of the art.

The abstract colour and rebellious nature of street art help to keep my design work fresh and upbeat.

Street/ urban culture has always been at the forefront of contemporary creative culture, as long as I stay connected to street culture and focus on what I love, I know my work will be relevant and stand out in a sea of mediocrity. My obsession with comic book characters and comic styles is a huge juxtaposition to what’s trendy in graphic design or commercial illustration, so it stands out and is unusual in an interesting and intriguing way. I try to look at each difference as a strength, my mistakes and nuances in one field are my biggest strengths in another.

What’s your superhero alter ego?

In a superhero landscape, my alter ego would definitely be a Batman Villain. Either the Scarecrow, Carmine Falconi, The Riddler or Bane. Tom Hardy’s Version of Bane though, not the Bane from Batman and Robin.

Typical day in the life of Keith?

I usually wake up super early, sometimes 3 am or 4 am in the morning on a good day. I run or lift weights first, pray and thank God for being alive and the talent I’ve been blessed with, and then start drawing at like 5 am or 6 am. I try to work on my sketchpad for at least an hour every day or second day, as long as I can carve out time. After I work on my sketchbook I get onto the commissioned work. I prefer the early morning or late night to create, as it’s quiet and super peaceful. Mid Morning to later afternoon I’m answering emails and dealing with clients/suppliers while simultaneously watching NBA highlights or NFL highlights. I Lived and worked in the USA for a while and still gravitate more to American sports and urban sports. The NBA and NBA Africa are one of the “dream come true” clients I get to work with, so I try to stay locked into what’s going on in the league. Nighttime is purely for indulging in and consuming good cinema, with friends or sometimes just me and my cat Rhubarb. I love a good movie or comic book podcast, a few pints of beer or bottles of wine, while something is cooking slowly in the background. That’s basically a day in the life of Keith.

How do you rework and incorporate your favourite characters and add your own artistic flair and style into your designs?

I’m constantly thinking about my favourite characters and how their stories can have a direct influence on my work. It’s all about perspective and I ask myself often, “Would you buy this artwork/product you are creating? Would you wear this garment you’re designing? Have I added part of myself into this work or part of my story?”

A good recent example is the character of the city of Gotham. I had a huge studio space earlier in the year but the building I was in was getting old and started to become decrepit, some super scary, dodgy characters roamed the hallways during load shedding, but instead of letting it get me down, I used the building as a motivator to start drawing my version of Gotham. Frank Miller, one of my favourite comic book writers and illustrators, would use the city of New York as a character in his comics. He would open his studio windows wide open to let in the sound of traffic and police cars, turbulence in the city etc. He would try and add that essence into his noir comics, which then gave them an amazing sense of urban grit and realism. That story always stuck with me and I try to use all the elements around me to help give my work greater depth.

Do you have any cool illustrators on your radar in SA?

Illustrators to watch/ on my radar in SA are Mpumelelo Bhengu and Andrea Liang.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

I have a huge collaboration with a sportswear giant/brand that I’ve been working on for the last year or so. It’s my Magnum Opus. The biggest collaboration project of my career, blending elements of all my artistic disciplines and interests, that is fashion, illustration, street culture, breakdancing, basketball, typography, storytelling, and underground electronic music. This collaboration will be my main focus and I’m super excited to launch it with the partnering brand.No Spoilers but it’s going to be “Massive”. It’s a dream come true and I’m super excited to share it with the public at large. I will also be working on my comic illustrations, I plan to draw a comic chapter of “Vampirella”, my most recent comic venture, that I hope to share at ComicCon 2024.

Follow Keith on Instagram to check out more of his projects, here.

Looking for more local art? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here.