shimizu san

If you’ve picked a copy of Time, Rolling Stone, the New York Times or any number of comic books or Penguin paperbacks in the past 10 years, chances are you’ve come across some of Yuko Shimizu’s work somewhere along the way. With big names like Gap, Pepsi, Microsoft, and even Visa listed on her resume, it’s little wonder that the Tokyo-born artist was voted one of Newsweek Japan‘s “100 Japanese People The World Respects”, and has made a name for herself as a highly successful illustrator in a country thousands of miles from the place she once called home.

Even so, Yuko is incredibly friendly and down to earth, and, on a rainy New York day earlier this year, she invited us in for a chat and a cup of tea while giving us a tour of her studio and introducing us to her little chihuahua pal, Bruiser.

  • Big dreams, big decisions

It takes a lot to land the job you’ve always dreamed of. It takes even more to pack up, leave the one you already have and to move to another country to start again from scratch.

Having graduated with a degree in marketing from Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, at the age of 22 Yuko found herself working in PR but knew that something just wasn’t right. She worked hard and climbed the ladder, but after 11 years she decided that it was time to take action. Summoning her courage and gathering the money she had saved, Yuko applied to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, waved goodbye to her steady job and moved to New York City, a place where she had spent part of her childhood and always had a fondness for.

Graduating in 2003, Yuko knew that New York was where she wanted to be, and started work right away. Ten years later, she’s still in the city and working as hard as ever.

Although she has produced covers for a number of multinational publications and books, the work that people are most likely to be familiar with is the collection of t-shirts Yuko designed for world-famous clothing store Gap.

shimizu tshirts

  • Asian Super-girls

Featured here on RocketNews24 last November, Yuko’s Asian Super-girls collection, with its feisty heroine in a variety of action poses and blends of Western and Eastern culture, has stolen the hearts, minds and loins of millions. The t-shirts were produced as part of Gap’s involvement with the Product Red movement in 2009, which aimed to raise both money and awareness to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The main heroine, known to many simply as ‘Panda Girl’ on account of her black eye-mask and twin hair buns, has become something of a cult figure among art and anime enthusiasts, and as a result the bookshelves in Yuko’s studio are home to an ever-expanding collection of stuffed panda toys given to her by friends and fans.

yuko pandas

  • New York style

The second we walked into Yuko’s Garmet District studio we knew we were in the domain of an artist. With red-painted brick walls, thick water pipes bolted to the ceiling, rough wooden floorboards that have probably seem more history than half of Tokyo’s office buildings put together, and enormous windows overlooking the busy street, this is unmistakably Manhattan, and the perfect hangout for someone working in creative media.

Sipping on an English blend that Yuko kindly rustled up for yours truly, I sat with my fellow reporter and took in the atmosphere. Its walls lined with prints, photos and framed images, the studio is at once a gallery showcasing its resident’s past artistic triumphs and a warm centre for creativity that feels bright and unimposing. With fellow artists just down the hall and her genuinely adorable and friendly pet dog for company, Yuko beavers away morning and night creating works for both big name publications and smaller clients, often sharing some of her work in progress via her blog or Facebook page — when she’s not busy teaching up-and-comers at the SVA, that is!

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yuko workspace

yuko office

Halfway through our second cup of tea, we switched on our voice recorder and asked Yuko a handful of questions, eager to know what it feels like to be recognised as one of your country’s most admired people.

RN24: It’s obviously a great honour, but how did you feel when you heard that you’d been voted one of Newsweek Japan‘s 100 most respected figures?

Yuko: To be honest, when [Newsweek] interviewed me I actually had no idea what kind of article it was for. It was only when it came out that I realised, and there was my name, right in the middle of a feature called “100 Japanese People The World Respects”! I was sitting there thinking “What on earth am I doing in a publication like this!?” But my mother back in Japan was really happy when she saw it, so of course I’m glad it happened.

RN24: You’ve become a big name here in the US and managed to break into a very competitive industry, but what was it like at the start?

Yuko: Well at first I came here for the purpose of studying at university, but as I worked to make a little money, I started trying to build up a reputation for myself by doing work for a number of clients and sending them as much of my work as possible. In a way I think the work I’m doing now and the connections I had and work I did back when I first started are all connected. It’s not like I suddenly exploded in popularity online or anything like that (laughs).

RN24: Do you get much work from back in Japan?

Yuko: Honestly, not that much. Although, actually, I’ve just recently started working with [the Japanese band] Kome Kome Club. They apparently saw some of my illustrations that were featured on a website in Japan called Pouch (that’s our sister site :-)) and approached me to do some work for them, which obviously I’m thrilled about!

RN24: Is there anything you’d like to say to the folks back in Japan?

Yuko: Hmm… I think that Japanese society makes it very easy for men to make a living. But for women that’s not always the case. It’s funny – in that feature in Newsweek Japan, the “100 Japanese People The World Respects,” there were so many female figures present on the list. But I think that’s to be expected! Honestly, I think Japanese women have a lot to offer and should get out there and really make their voices heard.

After our chat and one last cup of tea, Yuko gave us free rein to wander about her studio and snap away with our cameras. Of course, this was all done under the watchful eye of her guard dog, but with a ball tossed a couple of times and a few scratches behind the ear he seemed to trust us enough…

▼ Just some of Yuko’s work for the American comic book series The Unwritten

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▼ But she’s certainly no one-trick pony when it comes to art style!

yuko steampunk

yuko genesis

yuko the future

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▼ Even her work in progress left us open mouthed.

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yuko WIP

▼ And, of course, our co-host for the afternoon.

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Huge thanks to Yuko and Bruiser for being such great hosts and for taking the time to talk to us. To find out more about the work of Yuko Shimizu, visit her official website here.

Photos/video: RocketNews24, T-shirt image via Drawger
[ Read in Japanese ]