Antonia Mak is an anomaly that is, thankfully, becoming more and more possible in this day and age: a full-time artist. She is the Shanghai-based creator of the Flabjacks, a universe of friendly, tubby, and at-times familiar creatures inspired by her fondness for “elephant seals, fat, moles and root vegetables.”
With an upbringing and education split between Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the UK, she has an inevitable knack for cultural observation. Though this initially led to a more pragmatic career choice in advertising, she soon took people-watching to more illustrative heights. Keep reading to find out more about her thoughts on China’s growing creative culture and how she handles the joys and challenges of transitioning her creativity from the desk to the gallery.
Can you walk me through your trajectory to illustrating full-time?
[Before the Flabjacks] I worked in strategic planning, which is understanding the culture of a place, and trying to coordinate the traditions and trends with brand. My time in TBWA Shanghai was very intense, so I started a Doodle a Day project to get my mind off the stress. They were very simple—just ten-minute drawings—but it was my passion, and I had always wanted to do art. But before doing that full-time, I wanted to get more experience in production, because I want to be doing installation pieces eventually. So I worked freelance at a production house called Fame Glory productions for about half a year.
That was a very good stepping stone for me. Working in a production house makes you realize that advertising’s all about thinking—whereas production is about putting those ideas to reality. When you’re just sitting at a desk, on your own, it’s easy to forget about putting ideas to action as just a “thinker.” Now, for me, it’s not just about drawing; it’s also about printing it, getting it to the factory. The production house really pushed me to put myself out there. I saw how people [used] two weeks as an entire timeframe to get things done. Without momentum, it’s easy to let the thought sit. So I told the founder that I was going to pursue my dream, and got my business license first in Hong Kong, and got started. I started out with greeting cards and prints first. Now I’m trying to bring tangibility to my work, such as plush toys and soft vinyl plastic toys. That’s what I’m working on at the moment.
“Without momentum, it’s easy to let the thought sit.”
How does the work culture in China differ from other places?
In China, it’s interesting to see how people are starting to see and learn about things we used to take for granted. It’s so exciting. [Hong Kong] was really mature as a consumer market. You can just throw the ad up there and they’ll get it; it’s not as interesting. It’s kind of sad. [laughs] And the markets there also a lot more competitive.
China is a lot more open to change. For Flabjacks, for example, they may not understand illustration as a career, but they’re open to it. In Hong Kong, it’d be so much harder to start off because the thinking there is so much more money-focused. I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford doing what I’m doing if I had started in Hong Kong. In China, I can make it out so that it’s easier to expand as well.
Do you think you’d ever work in North America?
I would like to, but realistically in terms of the business and expansion, I definitely need at least a few more years. What I really want to get into is installation art—making something more physical in a space, like a shopping mall for example, and having a more interactive element to it. To build that, China is much better with its factories and manufacturing side.
Is it also partly because the creative culture is so much more established, and hence less room to experiment?
For sure. Abroad, the illustration market is already so much more mature. It’s good in some ways, like the community events that are happening in the UK, and mediums like greeting cards being a thing. In China, you can’t ever find greeting cards; even a birthday card in Shanghai was difficult. It’s not in the culture. You have things like red pockets, but sending greeting cards is not so much. That’s why a lot of my pieces aren’t localized yet—a lot of it is targeted towards expats living in China and Hong Kong.
Yeah—I was going to ask if the references to Western pop culture, like your Tinder series, has ever been a problem in terms of relevance to an Asian audience.
For sure. There are teenagers in China buying my “Nice Jugs” cards and I’m pretty sure they don’t know what it means. Visually, they get it, but the core message may be lost. [laughs] My goal is definitely to localize it a little bit more. The good thing is that they’re open to things that they may not understand. As long as it looks cool, they’re into it.
You’ve worked with various brands, such as the Celebrate Sportswear campaign with Adidas. It’s difficult for a lot of freelance creatives to stay true to their style while trying to maintain as many client relationships as they can, especially when they first start out. Has it been hard to translate your style and comedic sensibility when collaborating with others?
Before brands ask me if I want to collaborate, they’ve already seen my work. Every client I’ve had has been understanding of the fact that this is the only thing I want to draw, really. [laughs] So when I get logo design projects, I make sure it’s something I’m comfortable drawing before taking it on. I have been admittedly taking a few short cuts in that greeting cards are meant for sharing. I know they make people happy, and people share it. That’s good for the Flabjacks, and for people as well.
I do receive requests for projects that are purely graphic design, which I don’t take because I don’t have the skill. I’m not a graphic designer; I’m an illustrator who likes to draw chubby creatures. I’m very specific, which means I don’t have to face the difficulties. There’s never been a situation where I’m like, “you’re killing my fats.” [laughs] Touch wood.
Other than that, I also do custom portraits every now and then, and in those cases they have asked me, “why’d you make me so fat?” That’s only happened twice. In Cantonese, the Flapjacks literally translates to “little fat buddies.” So if you’re signing up for something with a name like that..
How does your education in anthropology figure into your work, especially considering how different cultures interact with art and its various forms?
I’m very grateful. Anthropology taught me a really important lesson: Art isn’t always about aesthetics. It’s about experience. As much fun as art is, I really like the backbone of understanding and experiencing different things. That really gives it a different perspective, rather than just trying to create something that looks nice. It doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty. For me, the point is the story, content, and context behind it. That’s my passion. I’d say my work is 50% anthropological, 50% artistic.
“Anthropology taught me a really important lesson: Art isn’t always about aesthetics. It’s about experience.”
Caption: Pensive Kanye art print by the Flabjacks.
With the advent of social media and the globalization of the creative community, what measures have you taken to protect your art?
My learning curve right now is trying to understand everything to do with licensing, trademarks, copyright. A year ago, those words would’ve represented just one big bubble. [laughs] And because I am based in China, things get copied very quickly here. One way to wrap my head around it is seeing other people doing illustrations in similar ways to me—the eyes, the lips. And I used to be like, “oh god.” But now I realize it’s not imitation. I like to think they’re just inspired.
With your anthropology background being so prevalent in your work, how does your inspiration process differ depending on where you are?
My thinking process doesn’t really happen like step A, step B—it’s more organic than that. Ideas just happen. There are definitely days where I’ll sit down and draw. Lately I’ve wanted do a series, but it doesn’t always unveil naturally. It becomes a constipated process.
Caption: New York Hipsters poster print by the Flabjacks.
Right—like, the more you think about it, the smaller and harder the outcome is.
[laughs] Yeah. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll just write down something that doesn’t make sense, like “mice face” or a question, like “what’s that smell?” Something random. And if I stick to that, and draw it, something happens.
I’ve realized people actually really like that weird, honest, verbal diarrhea. Instead of doing something really serious, I try to be more natural with it.
What’s coming up for the Flabjacks?
The year ahead is going to be really exciting. In a month’s time I’m going to be in Taiwan for the Creative Expo. Preparing for that includes toys, and meeting the deadline for all that production. Then in May I’ll be in Tokyo for the Art Fair.
What I’m doing now can be considered character design, which—in Asia—it’s big business to trademark and license that kind of stuff. All you have to do is draw a smiley face, trademark it, mass-produce it, and trying to leverage it to clients. That’s actually something I’m trying to not do so much, because I want to create new doodles. For example, the Tokyo Art Fair: It’s all about exhibiting original art pieces; whereas the Taiwan Creative Expo is all about character design. I’m trying to juggle between these two things so I don’t become a business machine. I find myself trying to still do lighthearted doodles, even if I have other projects ongoing.
For more of the Flabjacks, check out: