New York-based artist Eri Wakiyama’s strange and sullen girls have decked the walls at Procell in Manhattan, Marc Jacobs’ LA Heaven gallery, Chicago’s Anthony Gallery, and featured in projects by Miu Miu, Supreme, and Billionaire Boys Club. The 35-year-old illustrator has gathered no small cult following online, and is now experimenting in a wider array of media. “I needed to go bigger and do more impressive things,” says Wakiyama of her practice which has recently expanded into painting. “I still don’t think I’m good at it at all,” she effaces, “but then everybody has their own version of good and bad.”
A fanged girl collecting strawberries. Two figures on a pink, insectoid motorcycle speeding through a fluorescent-green alien landscape. Another figure in platform shoes dragging a massive cherries; scrawled above: “Still too stubborn to ask for help.” An orange-maned girl (@mermaidhair on Instagram, Wakiyama herself has flame-colored hair too) who is either crying, or perhaps just getting wet—it’s hard to tell; the whole world is psychedelically dripping. These are just some of the many recent artworks by Wakiyama, whose pieces range from sketchy to vibrantly filled worlds, lone figures in just their underwear and butterfly wings on mostly blank pages, to surreal, peopled landscapes.
Wakiyama references the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, saying the “the title speaks for itself and is kind of how my brain is all the time.” Multiple projects are always underway—like her recent collaborations with Verdy, Cactus Plant Flea Market, Sky High Farm/Converse, and Fucking Awesome—but underneath the general chaos are larger trends: “Maybe I’ll be focusing on using a new color story,” she muses. “My use of color’s definitely evolving.” That evolution though, she says, is unconscious—both growing from the process and also, she admits, from boredom. “If I’m doing the same style for a long time, I get bored of it and then I have to pull in a new element. Maybe it comes from an outside inspiration or maybe it’s a random idea that starts it. Sometimes I’m writing things as well on the side—things I think about or quotes or lyrics—and then that kind of grows into a drawing.”
From a young age, Wakiyama “secretly loved fashion,” devouring images of John Galliano at Dior and Comme des Garçons in magazines and runway recaps. Later, she got her MFA in fashion design at Parsons—studies “which had nothing to do with fine arts or illustration.” Perhaps then it’s not surprising that brands from Ugg to Calvin Klein have sought her out. But turning drawings into fashion projects was never the goal. “There were just no fashion jobs because it was a recession,” she recalls. “I wasn’t able to make clothes because it was expensive to buy materials and everything. But with a drawing, I just needed a pencil and paper, and I continued doing that.”
As her fashion gigs followed, Wakiyama increasingly pushed herself into the art world. “It’s kind of backwards, in a way,” she suggests, thinking of the usual directions of today’s art and fashion crossovers. She notes that, as for many artists, client work requires entering a different headspace than the images she creates for herself. “The more I do my own thing, I really like what’s coming out of it. Whenever I do something different, it scares me, but it feels like I’m growing instead of staying stuck in a place. It’s a reaffirmation of my mental growth.” That growth in turn affects what she creates within fashion and different fields, a generative feedback loop.
In addition to expanding her play with colors and moving into paintings, Wakiyama’s content is under constant evolution. “Lately there’s more narrative within my paintings, and I’m incorporating a lot of nature and the world.” Flowers, trees, dangerous cliffs, and high-velocity pink-feathered birds, plants and animals, both fantastic and realistic, increasingly fill her images, which were once sparse and more reliant on negative space. “Especially living in New York, I think nature’s some sort of escape in my mind that’s always there, but I’m also constantly concerned about it. I really like the reminder of the fact that we live in a place where things are born and then they die. But things can be reborn.” These worlds also become symbols and reminders for care—whether for the world in general, a plant in our apartment, ourselves, or one another.
Though she suggests her IG grid exaggerates her output, Wakiyama is prolific, often with 10 images going at once. “Sometimes they’re just a little doodle. I can’t focus without drawing. It’s a problem I’ve had since I was in high school.” Her own characters might have the vague disaffection of a teenager, and Wakiyama is careful to resist the “anime” influences others have projected onto them. “I drew because I was so unsure of what my character was myself,” she reflects of her days as a youth. “[The drawings] always had a distinct character, personality, an individual thing about them.” While they in some sense are “the same girl,” the girls are also not Wakiyama herself.
That adolescent malaise and distinctive pout wasn’t precisely intentional. “Years ago when I first started to take commission work, I had a fragrance story and I drew this draft. They came back to me with a comment saying, ‘Can you make them happier?’ I didn’t realize that they weren’t happy.” Of course, her stylistic peculiarity has no shortage of appeal to her collectors, clients, and fans. “If I want to explain something to somebody, I’d rather draw it for them. Even if they interpret it differently than what I want it to, I feel like it makes more sense to me,” Wakiyama says. “It’s great to have a connection when people comment back to my drawings and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly how I experienced it. I literally had that lamp and I felt that certain way.’ That’s very cool.”