Born for display screens but over time his design has become one of the world's most celebrated iconography graphics, we meet the artist exploring masculinity within sexuality
His work has become an intrinsic part of our lives on social media, which has now filtered out into the real world in the form of celebratory posters, floats, and artworks-Josh McKenna is the illustrator behind the iconic Instagram Pride stickers, but his influence stretches beyond 'sass and big butts.'
The Instagram sticker of a broad-shouldered, red-heeled dancer has become iconic to Instagram and is recognized globally. Josh says this particular character was inspired by Londoners and that the English capital continues to inspire him to this day. Living and working from east London, Josh has transitioned from a university graduate to an established artist during his time in the city. In our Mr Hudson Explores book, Josh discusses how London helped shape him artistically and the current climate for the city's art-based community. Addressing some topical issues in the book, we took this opportunity to find out more about his work, life as a freelance illustrator, and what's next for him.
Raised in Newquay, Cornwall, what he calls a "chavvy town," Josh tells us his teenage-self was spent being "a confused fella." He goes on to say, "I knew I was a bit different to everybody else and wasn’t sure where I belonged in a place like Newquay. I was quite experimental with how I looked and how I wanted to be perceived by the rest of the world. Too much focus on this in hindsight but it kept me creative and always striving for the next best thing."
Josh left Newquay to explore London as a young man, spending much of his time in Shoreditch's 'nu-rave' scene with likeminded creatives. But Josh returned to Cornwall later to study at Falmouth University.
He began exploring a career in car design, he enrolled in a course but it came at a "tricky time in his life." His heart was somewhere else and he wanted to be more experimental and creative, which pushed him toward illustration. He found illustration to be competitive while studying, but that sharped-edge mentality of opposition didn't exist outside of university. After completing his degree and relocating to London, Josh found that being an illustrator in London was more like being part of "a family network, a place to be proud of your peers."
Despite having an illustration degree and intensive Adobe course, Josh had to graft in London to find genuine career opportunities. Career development comes at a price, especially as an illustrator in London, which he refers to as a "very overpopulated sector." Josh had to work part-time for years while finding his feet as an established illustrator. Working seven days a week while networking relentlessly is just part of being a young artist in the city.
Doors started to open for Josh three years ago when the founder of Hello Mr, an indie lifestyle magazine for gay men came across his vibrant and playful work. He asked Josh to illustrate a story about David Hockney for their May 2016 issue. This went on to be seen by Jeffrey Gerson, global stickers lead at Instagram, who was immediately drawn to his work. Jeffrey previously said he admires the way Josh "celebrates queer iconography, diversity, and body positivity.”
From talking to Josh briefly, his humorous personality packed with energy comes across instantly. This is also something he carries into his work. Alongside his skill, he is able to represent 'fun and sassy' characteristics in his work with what looks like ease. He covers sensitive topics in an engaging and elegant fashion-which is a real craft. He picks up on life around him and conveys it through his work.
His aesthetic is reflective of his personality-lively and full of color. The shapes and style he uses are similar to the graphic identity of the 1980s. We ask him if there is something about that era which appeals to him, he replies, "I really enjoy the life and soul that went into the design in the 1980s. Some of it is really mad, the Memphis movement, the cars, girls, posters, packaging was outrageous and I’ve always been drawn to that."
He often gets asked about how best to describe his work to others but doesn't always know how to answer that question. "I would describe it visually as bold, bright, and simply designed. The content or characters usually have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about them," he explains.
Josh tries to give his work a sunny or at least warm setting to it, colors which invite the audience into his illustrations. Although it works with his style, he doesn't want it to become part of his signature style. "Simple yet well-designed with diverse and interesting characters is how I want my style to come across." His work carries a message of diversity and representation through exploring multiple interruptions of masculinity within sexuality.
Now an established part of London's creative community, Josh's clients include GQ, Apple, Refinery 29, and the V&A Museum to name a few. The London creative community is surprisingly small to him, but Josh says it is "nice to find out what everybody's up to." Other creatives meet at openings, exhibitions, and other events. It is here where they bump into other illustrators, art directors, commissioners, publishers. You discuss, talk, network, and sometimes collaborate-it feels like a separate 'culture' within a city.
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Loud. Proud. Now. I’ve transformed the front of @wbtclondon on @carnabylondon as part of Creative Pride. I am so proud to be part of the queer community showcasing and selling work in the basement show until July 7th with 10% proceeds going to @openingdoorslondon , make sure you pop in and take a look. Feeling blessed 🌈🍆😘
Stretching beyond his shareable Instagram sticker, Josh has also created illustrations for London Pride, SXSW, and Syndey Mardi Gras in recent years. This year he has taken over the shop windows of Carnaby Street, in London's Soho neighborhood. Giving them the "Josh McKenna treatment" ahead of Pride on Saturday 6 July. The start of summer tends to be the busiest period of the year for Josh, he never knows when another Pride job might be coming his way. But currently, he is also working on some exciting projects with other clients that he'll be able to announce soon.