Trusting the Process with TTK
If there’s anything we learned from the John Hughes films and after-school specials of our youth, it’s that the real treasure of any journey is the friends made along the way. So it is with creative careers, evidenced today when Colossal’s creative director John Samels reunites with artist, creative director, and longtime pal, TTK. Like any good professional bond, theirs is strengthened by years of overlapping work experience and a mutual admiration of aesthetics.
In the last few years TTK has been prolific in just about every direction, producing paintings, comics, client-commissioned illustrations, real and parody advertisements, graphic design, t-shirts, and a documentary film, Just Like Me. If that felt like a lot to read, imagine how much it was to make. His solo gallery show, See What I’m Seeing, opens on September 28, 2023 at One Art Space in New York. Meanwhile, volume two of his popular publication, See What I’m Sayin’ is hot off the presses. We interrupt a painting session at his home studio for a preview of both projects.
Pictured (left to right): John Samels, Katie Danforth, and TTK.
Katie Danforth: There’s something almost anthropological about your work. Have you always been into people watching and observational work?
TTK: Yeah, I really don’t paint myself, but you see pieces of myself in the portraits. I purposely tell them to wear certain things that I like. The first volume of See What I’m Sayin’ was about hip hop lyrics, how when you hear something, you see a picture with it. Well, I do, anyway. That’s how I came up with See what I’m Sayin’ — I was doing it for fun and then people started liking it. That was, like, eight years ago — I drew the first one, probably like 2015 or 16. Over time, I started shifting from lyrics to just shit I overheard.
John Samels: Every time I see them, I just think, I have to stop wearing headphones on the train!
TTK: That’s kind of where it all came from. Before I knew I had anxiety, I was just always on the alert. Maybe it’s because I had just come from being in the military on active duty — I was like, I wanna be ready. So I didn’t have any headphones or whatever, and I would overhear shit that’s not really meant for me. I would come home and talk about what I heard, like, I can’t make this stuff up! And then I had the idea to start drawing them out. I purposely drew them very crude and rough, that way you pay more attention to what’s being said versus getting caught up in the technique.
KD: There’s a lot of variety in your creative outlets: you’ve got your comics, photography, parody advertisements, painting, documentaries…. Do you find that variety keeps all of your disciplines fresh, or is it ever challenging to juggle so many interests? How do you negotiate all of that?
TTK: It’s just different mediums for whatever I’m trying to express. It’s all about learning to adapt, you know what I’m saying? I really want to do fine art, but that shit doesn’t move as fast as a comic or collection of comics, and I can do those a lot faster. Painting takes a lot of time and doesn’t pay as fast as that pays. Maybe one day it will.
JS: Do you start with a photoshoot?
TTK: I shoot everybody separately, then take it to Photoshop. For this, I had everyone doing, like, nine different poses. And then I bring it all together to look like an old school photo.
KD: I’m seeing a lot of Star Wars. Why stormtroopers as a motif?
TTK: When I was a kid, I had a stormtrooper action figure and I just thought it looked so cool. like the contrast between the white and with the black highlights. Even before I knew about design, I was always intrigued by it.
Years ago, I did a painting of a Ralph Lauren ad from the 2010 Winter Olympics. It had models wearing the athletes’ winter opening ceremony collection — I repainted that ad, but I put stormtrooper heads on them. People went crazy for it and Just Blaze bought that painting off of me. Ever since then I was like, I think I got something here. Juxtaposing my love for fashion and hip hop with sci-fi and comics.
KD: Another recurring motif in your work is these figures moving between blue sky and bright color blocking. It’s beautiful — how did that style develop, and does it have any specific meaning behind it?
TTK: Thank you. I think there are a few angles on it. I was trained as a fine artist at a young age, but I wasn’t really taught design. So I started using design elements before I understood what I was doing. I never was really big on doing big backgrounds; I always wanted to paint funky sci-fi, comic book type shit. That’s just my way of doing it.
Everybody in these paintings that you guys will see at the opening, are all people that I admire. I wanted to show… an emotion. How do I show that emotion? Because, believe it or not, I make all this colorful shit, but I’m really a recluse. It is hard to get me out. You know what I’m saying?
KD: It’s funny that you say that it’s hard to get you out because in all of these paintings, I see a breaking out of space.
TTK: Yeah, and that’s kind of what it’s about right there. I wanted to show how going into something new can be scary, but sometimes you have to just go with it and see where you land. It’s all breaking out, trusting your instinct, and being confident. You never know what’s on the other side, you know?
KD: Since you mentioned comics as an influence, suddenly I’m seeing references to the comic cell structure. And then the sci-fi — I’m seeing that, too, with the subjects of your paintings almost moving between worlds. It’s so cool.
TTK: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I’m the best painter out there or whatever, but I just thought, How can I come up with something and own it? Own it and produce work that’s recognizably mine.
KD: So, you have a solo exhibition coming up. Are these pieces going to be included in the show?
TTK: Yeah, this is the last one right here. I’m working fast — it usually takes me about a week or two to finish a piece. You can see I’m very meticulous with the details. I’ll go back in to touch up something nobody will notice, nobody would care. But you know, I’d see it.
The whole thing is fifteen pieces, all done over the last three years. A lot of these photos were shot years before the pandemic, but I just never got around to painting them. And then, you know, with the pandemic and me being in Chicago away from everybody, I was missing the people I used to see frequently. Painting was a way for me to reconnect.
I did a few paintings of my mother, and of one of my daughters. I mailed them items to put on, and I would art direct over FaceTime. Like, Yo, do this pose right here. They didn’t understand what the hell I wanted but I’m like, Nah, do this, put this on, wear it this way.
JS: Wow. All that over FaceTime?
TTK: Yeah, the documentary also got directed over FaceTime. I was in Chicago at the time, but almost everyone else was in New York, so we got a studio space there for the shoot. I was calling the shots over FaceTime. And shout out to everybody involved — I tell people all the time, I might be the face of it, but it was a team effort. I did not do that shit by myself. I’m just thankful that people got behind my idea and believed in me and trusted me to do it.
KD: Just Like Me was so beautifully done.
TTK: Thank you, thank you. It was so much work for that project. It was a lot, man. We had an intern at the time, Tobias Tolls — probably 20 or 21 when we worked together. I told him straight up, The only difference between me and you is I’ve been doing this longer. That’s the only thing different. You are here for a reason. If you have a better idea than I do, bring it to the table. If it’s good, we’re gonna go with your idea. Ain’t no ego here.
KD: It’s great hearing that kind of mentorship behind the scenes in making the documentary as well. Have you had people reach out to you since its release about starting their creative careers or seeking advice?
TTK: All the time, man. I spoke on different panels and events. Just recently — are you familiar with Poster House? They did a screening of it at Poster House, which was cool. People always have all these questions. I guess they’re thinking like, I’m a superstar or some shit like that.
KD: Are they wrong?
TTK: [Laughing] I mean, it’s funny because my boy said, Every time we go somewhere, people know you! You are, like, New York famous! But, no, I just tell everybody, especially the youth, Don’t stop. People get caught up on, you know, like having it perfect the first time. It’s not gonna be perfect the first time. It’s just not, you know what I’m saying? You only get better when you keep doing it.
JS: What would you say to someone just starting out and trying to get into illustration or painting?
TTK: I know it sounds simple, but like Nike says: just do it. See where you make mistakes, that way you can build on it. A lot of times people get stuck in their head, I think because people see the end result of what they want, and when it doesn’t happen right away they quit and give up. Trust me, when I start every painting, I’m like, How am I gonna do this? I know that sounds crazy because I’ve done it so many times before, but I have to remind myself that it’s a process. You just gotta start. Start and see where you can improve. And, and, and the universe will work itself out, you know?
You mentioned with your painting, you’ll work basically day and night for a solid week or two to get it done. When you need to recharge after that kind of sprint, what do you do?
TTK: I get on the train, man. I go out and walk around a lot. I troll people, too. [Laughing] As you can see with the book, it’s like I’m trolling people, you know what I’m saying?
I’ll photoshop my friend’s head on other peoples’ bodies or whatever. I make gifs of, I don’t know, like his head falling off an ice cream cone. Dumb shit.
KD: So it’s still artwork?
TTK: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so.
KD: The magazines, like the paintings, are obviously an intense amount of work, but you seem to still be having fun with it. How do you maintain that enjoyment when you’re in the middle of these huge projects?
TTK: I feel like… I’m still kind of a kid, you know what I’m saying? I know I’m an adult, but I’m free and I really don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m just having fun.
KD: I hear that a lot, that the secret to creativity is maintaining a childlike mind. When you talk about trolling your friend, going on subway rides for inspiration, or sending videos back and forth — it’s funny and light, but it’s also part of the work of keeping yourself in it.
TTK: Yeah. And I’m thankful that everybody that answers when I call them up like, Hey, I have this idea right here. They might look at me like, Alright, what the hell is this guy thinking? But I’m just having fun with this shit man. It’s so good having a good community of people like you guys and people I can just call up. And thankfully, a lot of people just like, they believe in my ideas and help me bring them to life, you know?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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