“Stop the Machines,” “The Time Has Come,” “City-Wide Stickball Champs” — browse through Jon Contino’s portfolio and these are the sayings that jump out of his award-winning art. He pairs these bold words with gritty hand-lettering and genius illustration to create a graphic style that’s straight out of his New York City roots. And the big guns have taken note: Clothing, corporate logos, movie posters, book covers, and branding now all bear his signature look. We caught up with the artist on the eve of his upcoming book release Brand by Hand (Abrams Books, October 2018).
Q: You were obsessed with drawing and lettering from a young age. Who gave you the most support to develop as an artist?
My mother. When she noticed I was leaning into art pretty heavy as a kid, she really helped me just let it go. Any time I wanted to draw or paint or do something creative, she was there to facilitate that. And my grandmother, too. They were both very into letting me flourish as an artist.
Q: You work a LOT! In fact, you once said: “I never go to anything—I like to just work.” Is that still true now that you’re a husband and father?
It’s probably worse now, because I feel like I have more responsibilities. Before I was just trying to achieve a goal. But now I’m trying to achieve a goal and support a family and pay a mortgage and hopefully build a future where my daughter and whoever else comes after will have something to help them. The only person I can rely on is myself. I’m constantly moving, I’m up before everyone else, I go to bed after everyone else, and I’m doing ten times more than everyone else is in the meantime.
Q: That must be why I’ve heard your wife and five-year-old daughter join you in the studio a lot and work alongside you. What’s that like?
The three of us are in this studio all day, which is great because even though I’m working, I’m with my family. My daughter loves to draw. One of the things I’ve done is try and help her understand the business of art. We play “art studio.” I’ll tell her “I’m the creative director, and you’re the illustrator.” I give her an assignment and she needs to complete it. When she’s drawn it, she has to explain what she drew and the reasons she likes it. Then, I have to approve it (which I always do). It’s fun for her, but little does she know I’m training a replacement!
Q: What feeds your imagination the most?
People. Definitely people. As a kid growing up in an Italian neighborhood, there was a lot going on. Everyone’s yelling across the street at everybody. There’s always something happening. Someone’s in a fight. Someone’s having a baby. Someone’s graduating. Someone’s having a birthday. Those are characters in a story; that’s like a narrative of your life that is continually expanding and growing organically into a rich aesthetic. I used to soak that up to inspire the energy in my work. I still do.
Q: There’s a definite spirit and point of view in the style of your work. How would you describe it?
Raw! On our new studio website that we have coming out, there’s a title screen that says, “LOUD! FAST! RAW! That says it all.
Q: Do you ever get stumped when you’re working on a new creative project?
Of course. When you do this for a long time, you get used to the fact that’s going to happen. If I’m in some kind of creative block, it’s because things are slow and my brain is elsewhere. If there’s a lot of time for something, that’s when I feel I can experiment. But that’s also when things generally go nowhere.
Q: What’s your go-to strategy for breaking out of that creative block?
The easiest way is to just do what I know, do the thing that comes most naturally — even if it bores me. I just have to do something, start something. Resigning myself to the fact that I’m not going to break new ground is often enough to get me going. Then, all of a sudden, my brain lets loose and ideas start to come.
Jon Contino's responses are condensed and edited for length.