If you’re currently trying to find your creative calling, then Araki Koman is someone we’d love you to meet. Originally from Paris, she has spent the last 12 years travelling the world, has lived in eight different countries and is currently based in Tokyo, a city she’s dreamed about experiencing since childhood.
A freelance illustrator by trade, Araki’s minimalist style features raw lines, organic shapes and a limited colour palette, influenced by slow living, visual anthropology and her multicultural experiences. But it wasn’t always this way. She started out in digital marketing – something she quickly realised wasn’t for her. We spoke to Araki about this and more.
Tell us more about your journey so far – did you always want to be an illustrator?
I’ve been doing illustration as a profession since 2016. I was a creative child, constantly drawing and imagining myself as a graphic designer, illustrator, architect or fashion designer. However, when I reached my teenage years with all the insecurities and self-doubt that comes with it, I lost touch with my creative side and stopped drawing altogether for 10 years.
During this creative block, I enrolled in international business schools to follow my other dream of travelling the world and learning different languages. It fulfilled me for a while but once I got my Master’s degree in International Marketing and started working in the corporate world, I quickly realised I wasn’t in the right place and something was missing.
Luckily, although I wasn’t creating anything myself, I was somehow surrounded by many creative friends, some of whom were making a living from their work. It woke me up, realising the possibilities of creative careers, which I had no tangible idea about, and so I decided to quit my job in online marketing and move to London to study Graphic Design at Shillington College.
At the time, it felt like the safest move as it was still close to marketing and I could still back up in case of failure. From there, it occurred to me that graphic design was an opening. I could explore other disciplines thanks to the invaluable skills I gained from design theory to mastering the main graphic design software.
After graduating, I ended up finding a freelance graphic design job in a London studio, then moving to Iceland for a textile design internship, enrolling into a fashion design course in Denmark to finally realise my drawing potential during a fashion illustration course.
What’s been the biggest lesson so far?
Being a creative entrepreneur is an ongoing process. When I started freelancing, I thought there would be a point where I would feel creatively and financially secure. The truth is, it’s incredibly bumpy with unpredictable highs and lows and you have to learn how to navigate the different seasons with grace and an open mind.
I’ve never self-reflected as much since the past two years as the relationship between my creative work and myself are quite intertwined. I am constantly oscillating between periods of learning/unlearning and growth/lessons. It’s exciting! I’ve never felt so alive and optimistic as the lows are usually moments of wait and rejection but the highs are so magical! The sensation you get when receiving an email from a dream client or job is worth all the struggle.
You love to celebrate women and your portraits feel authentic. Do you take inspiration from real characters?
Drawing women is natural for me as this is the subject I know best. I also love drawing men, places and objects but I am most known for my women, so this is what I get the most commissioned for. All my drawings are inspired by things and people I’ve seen and sometimes imagined. I love using Pinterest, photos I take or images I find online and in magazines as references.
You’ve travelled around a lot. Where have been some favourite spots?
Yes, I’m a modern nomad. I take any opportunity to move around whenever I can and get a closer look at what being human means from different perspectives. I’ve travelled in 17 countries and lived in eight of them over the past 12 years for internships, exchange programmes, work, studies and personal life. It’s addictive!
All places were special in their own way. But if I have to pick favourites, I would choose Reykjavik, Barcelona, London and Nagano in Japan.
What made them special to me is a mix of unique experiences I enjoyed when I was there, the intensity of crushes for places and neighbourhoods, how much it positively impacted my life’s perspective, the number of visual inspirations around, and the meaningful conversations I’ve had with people I connected with.
It doesn’t mean I will still have the same connection with those places if I ever go back, as what I experienced was unique to the moment and who I was at the time. I may not be sensitive to the same things again and that’s the beauty of travel.
You’re based in Tokyo now. How did that come about?
I’ve been interested in Asia since childhood. My strong interest in Japan specifically, came about when I started using the Internet in my early teens. I used to have a blog about my passion for Asia on a popular French blogging platform where people of my generation used to gather.
I started bumping onto blogs written by French people living in Tokyo and their unique perspective about the place. I was hooked. At that time, I was also listening to Japanese music (R&B and underground Hip Hop) and reading Japanese magazines I couldn’t read (laughs).
Through this passion, I quickly found a community of people in Paris and it kept going for years. Wherever I would live and travel, I was drawn to Japanese things and places but never really got a chance to actually visit the country.
When I started studying Graphic Design and discovered more about the Japanese art and design scene, I finally decided to make it happen. I first came for 10 days as a tourist in 2012, then again in 2016 for three months, this time with the perspective of potentially moving there for longer. I loved my experience so much that I decided to apply for a one year Working Holiday Visa right before turning 31, the age deadline to benefit from this programme.
I got my visa in January 2018, moved to Tokyo in October 2018 after living in London for two years. I had no specific plan other than to keep freelancing and soak up as much as I could from the experience.
I’ve now been here four months, and have had the chance to do a one-month artist residency in Sapporo Tenjinyama Art Studio where I produced a new body of work for a solo exhibition and then presented the series during a talk to local residents.
Have you found some favourite spots in Tokyo yet? What is it about this city that you love?
It’s now my third time in Tokyo. I have an ambivalent relationship with this city. I wouldn’t say I love it as it’s very crowded and I find the general atmosphere pretty tense compared to other smaller (but still massive) cities in Japan.
To me, it doesn’t have the charm of Kyoto or Nagano but it has the convenience of most capital cities like an abundance of nice museums, galleries, coffee shops, events… My favourite part about Tokyo is exploring suburban areas, like the area where I live, Suginami.
Koenji, Asagaya, Nishi Ogikubo and Kichijoji are fun to explore. You still have nice and unique coffee shops and restaurants, antique and vintage store but it’s quieter and you get to have a closer look at how locals live daily.
My two favourite spots at the moment include Åre, a bright, cosy café and restaurant at the bottom of a creative office building in Shibuya. I love the atmosphere of the place; it’s laidback, with gentle prices and has a tasteful and simple Scandinavian interior design.
Then there’s Daikanyama T-Site, the best bookstore I’ve ever been to with three buildings of pure delight. It’s an ideal place to spend a solo day browsing through thousands of books, magazines, and music from around the world while sipping a warm cup of soy matcha latte.
It’s clear that Japan influences your work?
Definitely. By living here and being surrounded by the work of popular Japanese and international artists – especially illustrators who are celebrated for the simplicity of their work, in technique and colour palette – I feel inspired and encouraged to embrace my own aesthetic even more.
You have a beautiful minimalist style. Is minimalism important to you?
Thank you very much. Minimalism and simplicity are at the core of how I choose to live my life and therefore transpire into my work. Moving a lot led me to minimalism. Whenever I had to move across countries with one or two suitcases, I had to decide what was worth bringing along.
I then became more conscious of the belongings that were the most important to me and bringing the most happiness. For the little story, the pen that I was using the most when I started my graphic design studies and technically still creatively blocked was a Muji Pen 0.38 BLACK. I loved writing with it so much, that I also started sketching my design briefs with it, too. It made me so comfortable that I also started to draw with it and find my style along the way.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you?
My childhood dreams. Everything I am doing now, including writing this interview in English, living in Japan, being an Illustrator, embracing simplicity is coming from there.
Since I started following this compass, my life finally started to make sense. To be honest, apart from drawing, I’ve never really felt like I was really good at anything. As a child, showing my drawings was my only time to shine.
I guess it’s pretty much the same now. When I tried to make a career in marketing, there were way too many struggles at all levels and nothing I was doing was valued. Things got way better when I became a graphic designer, but compared to now, it’s like day and night.
I am so grateful! On a daily basis, I’m blessed to always have something to motivate me. Whether it’s doing research, producing work, sharing it, connecting with people or doing commissions.
At the heart of it, I’m simply fulfilling my calling. No one else can do what I do and share the experiences that I’ve had, so I’m trying not to miss an opportunity to share them with whoever can resonate with it.
Is there anything that sets you back? Any challenges you’re trying to overcome… personally and/or professionally?
Oh yes, a lot! My ongoing challenge is still trying to have healthier work/life balance, finances and less anxious/negative thoughts linked to imposter syndrome.
What advice would you give to others hoping to follow a similar path?
Nurture your uniqueness. Your obsessions and imperfections, as well as your own journey, are your force. Feel free to relentlessly tap into these personal qualities to create your own body of work, before seeking any external inspiration.
What’s next for you?
In terms of illustration, I am currently working on my next two art publications and an upcoming group show in Tokyo. On the side, I am also preparing the launch of a website for simplicity lovers I’ve had in mind for a while. Overall, I want to do more analogue work and connect with people more.