Berlin-based visual artist Rylsee has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for reimagining letters. And his eye for iconic typography is matched by his ear for language. The young Genevan combines letters and images to create satirical catchphrases that zero in on his generation’s disposition (“Too Shy to Rap,” “I want my pre-internet mind back,” to name but a few). He draws these punchlines from conversations he overhears in the subway, books he reads, and signs he sees on the street. Rylsee is a sponge for poignant everyday language, and a master at making it a joy to look at. Accordingly, his following has exploded over the last few years. We sat down with him on skype last week to discuss why typography is so big on the internet, his love/hate affair with technology, and the elements that inspired his signature style.
Typography is booming on the internet these days. Why do you think there’s this sudden burst of enthusiasm for lettering and calligraphy, forms usually associated with a past age?
I’ve thought about this a lot. On the one hand, I think people relate to typography because they feel they can do it too. When they see a drawing or a painting, they think: That’s the work of an artist. I can’t even draw a house. But when they see letters, they might not understand the technical aspect of it, but they have a good feeling, a good balance of the image, and they can compare it to something they do. On the other hand, typography is also becoming a kind of lost art. In some schools, they barely even teach writing to kids, they barely use pens. That also accounts for some of the interest. Back in the day, our grandmas had calligraphy lessons in school. If you didn’t write well, they would hit you! Now it’s becoming increasingly rare.
Your work lightheartedly criticizes the excesses of digital society — the everyday distortions and addictions. In my experience, people’s attitudes towards digital technology are usually closely interlinked to how their own industry has fared. That’s not the case with you. You’re critical of this development while your work has done spectacularly well in this format. How do you reconcile those two things?
I have this love-hate relation with technology and the Internet. It fascinates me, but I also see the downsides. I can easily stay away from it myself. I remember when my friends first got their smart phones and were always checking them. I never liked this idea of having to be permanently reachable. And I think I never lost that feeling; I still find it weird that everyone’s staring at their phones all the time. Yeah, there’s a paradox there. I make fun of it in my work. I take these things that I sometimes feel sad about that I observe around me and I translate it into humor.
Like, “I want my pre-internet mind back.”
That one is from a novelist, Douglas Coupland. I read that and felt it deserved to be illustrated. That’s how I mix everything. I take some thoughts of my own, something I read in a novel, something I overhear in a café or in the metro that makes me giggle. I’m a sponge.
So you keep your senses wide open and the inspiration comes to you?
Yeah. I used to always listen to music in public places. And somehow a few years ago, I stopped doing it as much . There are still some days where I just like to draw on the metro in my bubble, listening to music. Other times I draw while actually listening to people. I look busy, so they don’t consider that I might be listening to every single word that they’re saying.
Once you get into the habit of seeing everything everyone says as either potential dialogue or poetry, or both, it just makes everything so much more interesting. People speak in this poetry whether they know it or not. Even these idioms we use can be wonderfully ironic or weirdly powerful depending on the situation.
Totally. I keep a list in my phone, in the notes section. [Scrolls down sprawling list.] This is two years of drawings right here. There are so many.
Do you have a selection process? Do you have a special place to put something that’s particularly good?
Sometimes I think of something and it comes with an image. And sometimes I have a sentence but I still don’t know how to word it properly or how to illustrate it in a witty way. There’s one I have in mind right now, for example. “Weed allows you to watch a movie twice for the first time.” You know, sometimes I watch a movie and, like 20 minutes in, I’m like, aw man, I’ve seen this before! I still don’t know how to word it properly. You can’t be too wordy in your drawing. It needs to go blaow!
The digital age has been a tough time for writers. On the other hand, maybe the time just calls for a different kind of writing. Maybe this is the time for the short short story. There are brilliant people on twitter who can tell an unforgettable anecdote in 140 characters. That’s a real talent. And it connects to what you’re doing, which are like very short poems.
It’s true. Or even comment writers. Sometimes I post an image, and the comments are like wow! And some people are recurrently great at it. They have a mind that really works for that form.
Exactly, comment artists! And meme artists.
I love memes.
Yeah, I’m not surprised. Your pieces are either short poems or highly artistic memes. And they have an amazing second life on the internet. Lots of people have tattooed your work.
It’s true, there’s a few. That’s one thing I want to learn, tattooing. The more I see people getting my stuff tattooed, the more I’d like to meet them. I’d just love to meet someone who feels connected enough to my work to get it inked. I got a machine for that reason.
This is almost a moot question, as you speak English really well, but how has it been working in your second language?
Everything I liked growing up had English-language roots. The skateboarding, the music, the fashion. I worked in a skate shop in my late teens and that’s how I started learning properly — by reading Thrasher magazine. I moved to Vancouver finally to learn English. I chose to learn it for personal reasons, not just to reach more people, though of course it had that effect. Also, English is short. In German and French, there’s a mini-word here, there’s a mini-word there, so typographically, for composition, it’s much harder. In English you can say something in 4 words that would require 9 words in French.
Another thing I thought about while looking at your work was hip hop. Did you come out of graffiti?
Yeah, that’s a huge of part of my life — skateboard and graffiti.
How did your graffiti career go?
It actually took me a while to go from paper to wall. I was always looking at graffiti, but I didn’t want to be a normal, mediocre tagger. So I was practicing, practicing, until a guy from a graffiti crew in my city saw some of my drawings, and was like, who drew these? They’re so good! He said that my drawings were better than some of his crew members. This gave me the courage to start. And yeah, I was doing some legal walls, but I also did some night-time activities. Some on train lines and highways. You can still see them on Google Earth, because they’re so gigantic. I was never much of a tagger. I was more of a throwies-kind of guy — you know, the bubbly letters. I never felt like I was doing vandalism. I was always looking for the right spot, the right proportion and shape. I was living outside of the city, so when I went downtown at night, I knew exactly what spot I wanted to hit and how I was going to do it: I was going to hit this spot, with this sketch, in these colors, because the bricks are this color.
Looking over your whole instagram feed from the beginning, I noticed that at the beginning you started with characters and with drawings, and this evolved into your current lettering extravaganza. Was your turn toward lettering partially the result of an interaction with your follower base? Like, did you start doing that more because people liked it so much?
Actually, it was the other way around. I always drew letters. Even as a kid, I was drawing mini-logos. But I always thought that to be make it as an illustrator, letters were pretty irrelevant. So for quite a few years, I developed more illustration skills, and I was drawing different things, thinking that if I worked hard this would lead me to a career in drawing. Then one day, an artist I admire and respect flipped through my sketchbooks, saw my drawings but also saw my fonts, and said, “man, these ones are spectacular! Why don’t you ever show these ones?” Sometimes when you do something so naturally, you’re not aware of the value of it. So, I followed this friend’s advice and I tried posting a few. And I realized that the response was really, really good. It felt complete, somehow, because I was true to myself and people seemed to like it. I was like, wow, this is a way of translating everything that happens in my head into drawings, and a lot of people can relate to it. Apparently, I can make some people out in the world happy by doing this. And I think that pushed me to do more and more and more.
Do you get a lot of inspiration from followers, or is it more just a way of trying different things?
I get inspired by people a lot. My brother pointed this out. He said the reason my work is unique is because my main inspiration doesn’t come from other artists. Instead, I get inspired by a stoner discussion with a friend. I get inspired by a poster on the street. My inspiration comes more from what surrounds me, rather than what other people have done. These are inspired by my travels in Chile. [Leafs through notebook, shows me amazing letters.]
How did moving to Berlin change your practice, and change the themes you touch on, the scenes you capture. Is it a particularly rich city for your kind of social observation?
I think so, yeah. There are just a lot of weirdos here. And I can speak four languages, so my interactions are really multi-faceted. My brother just moved here last week to join me. We’ve been working on this project for almost two years now, a clothing line called SNEEER. We teamed up. I do all the visuals and art direction, and he does all the production and business.
So now you’re thinking of ways of projecting your work off the internet into real-life spaces?
The clothing brand is something I’ve always wanted to do. I did an art exhibition two years ago with an artist friend called Ben Thé, in which we made a fake “Späti,” a fake corner store. We built everything in this corner store, fake products etc. That’s something I want to do with SNEEER. Every year, I want to build a collection with a simple idea, and the t-shirts and clothing will be a part of a whole installation that takes the shape of a pop-up store. In the end, you don’t just get a t-shirt, you get an experience. The one we intend to do next is Greetings from Nowhere. The idea is fake holidays, imaginary holidays, tricking your friends that you went on this crazy holiday when you haven’t left the hood. We are going to create a fake holiday resort in the center of Berlin.
I read somewhere that you quit smoking by drawing, that you replaced one with the other. How did that happen?
As a teenager, I only wanted to skate and smoke weed. At some point, I decided I should be more active, so I started smoking more cigarettes instead. I was going to a vocational art school – I never went to university — and every forty-five minutes they would stop us and make us wait in the corridor for 10 minutes. At first, you smoke a cigarette at noon, and then at the 9am break. Soon I found myself smoking on my way to the bus at 7 in the morning. At some point, I thought, why am I doing this? That’s how I started drawing in this book. Every time, I craved a cigarette, I did a drawing instead. At the bus stop; at the café when your friend is late — at all these moments, I replaced the cigarette with a drawing. I’ve been filling notebooks ever since.
To see more of Rylsee’s work, go to his website Rylsee.com or follow him on instagram @Rylsee. To see his clothing line, go www.SNEEER.com or follow it on instagram @Sneeerclothing.