Tag Archives: ALBUM ART

2&6 Talks with: Willkay – The designer behind some of the UK’s most legendary mixtape covers


Interview conducted & written by: Lachlan Hayes / A.K.A Album Art Blog

Edited By: Chris Kelly

15/07/2020


A few weeks back, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with East London creative, Willkay. When I asked how Willkay would describe his occupation, he simply said he is “An artist, a graphic designer and an art director” though he is more than comfortable pushing himself beyond these boundaries.

Around the age of 10, he won his first art competition at primary school. “The teacher said everyone just draw what you want your city to look like”. Taking inspiration from Blade Runner, the younger version of himself produced a futuristic sci-fi cityscape. Despite this natural talent for creative expression, his mother would remind him of the safety of a 9-5 job. “I always wanted to be an artist, and I made it happen, regardless of what people told me to do.” 

It was this attitude that landed him an unconditional offer for Central Saint Martins which he attended but eventually left due to the different expectations he faced because of his race. Reflecting on a time he handed in one of his typical gothic pieces, he said “ I remember [one of my tutors] asked me if I’d tried doing graffiti and the whole class was saying yeah yeah” but he ignored that for the whole time he was there which affected his grades. “My mother always said to me, I don’t listen, I never listen. She’s got a good point though”. Willkay would then end up attending London College of Communication which he claims was like heaven. It was here he really started to make his own work. 

Adidas design by Willkay

While at Central St Martins, the East Londoner was part of two creative groups called Mobbed Out & Kamikaze who “worked with a lot of East London up and coming rappers”. “I used to do a few of their videos and CD covers” which he would take to Uni and print off there. Sometime later, he met with guys from Ruthless Records, a dope lable who had a stall at Wembley markets where they would sell Grime, UK Hip-Hop, Rap mixtapes and albums. “I ended up doing some album artwork for them too…Lucky I used to carry my work on a CD, don’t forget we didn’t have social media back then.” Ruthless put him in touch with Giggs in the early 2000s and the two of them have collaborated a few times since.

In the late 2000s, DJ Tabs, who was a mutual friend to DJ Maximum from the Boy Better Know Crew connected the two together. “We had a lot of fun, we had so many adventures, I got to know them quite well. They were all very humble people.” Through these connections, he also ended up doing works for Wiley. 

When doing commission work, the Willkay ensures he has a clear objective to work towards and when presenting the end product to clients, he’ll also take them on the journey of his creative process. He’ll provide previous sketches and notes to help them understand the purpose and meaning behind his final design. On the contrary, when creating his own work he “likes to be in the right mood, and take one take” resulting in work that is the truest expression of him at that moment in time.

Growing up in east London and hanging around with friends who were involved in the music industry, it was only natural that Will also listened to the music. Whilst he still listens to grime, drill and even American rap, he’s open to “music of all types”. Dark musical scores from such composers as Hans Zimmer or even classical music, which he says help distract his mind from the hustle-bustle of London, are always on rotation. He mentions that such ambient and melodic music will “let me open my mind to a different place or a different realm such as in a brutalist house atop a cliff, isolated in serenity. This pretend change of scenery helps me to work from a different mental angle”.

“I work with music, I can’t work without music, it doesn’t make sense”.

I asked Willkay what his proudest piece of work was, but he surprisingly replied “I don’t think I’ve done one yet you know?”. It’s this personal craving for self-improvement though, that enables him to constantly look for new opportunities and come up with new projects. “It’s wonderful being an artist”

Through his pursuits, Willkay strives to help others through creative outlets and create a more equal and just world for future generations. He wants to help artists so that they can take control of their own work and not be subject to the expectations of major galleries. “I will not move forward in my career until I’ve done something [about racial inequality]”. As part of this vision, he offers himself as a mentor to younger artists who remind him of himself at their age “All these kids need is someone who looks at them and is doing it big…They just need people who are like them, who look like them, and are doing it really big, and they’ll be motivated”. 

He also wants to be able to help people through various forms of art. “I think it’s so important to use art to help you get through life. Any problem, any issue, anything that you find difficult, I’m pretty sure you can find art to help you in any way…Art is a great language, it’s a universal language for all”.

Willkay takes inspiration from all over the place, looking to people from different eras, and different creative channels. “I have this collection of these artists and if I shut my eyes and I want to talk to all of them, they’re all sitting on the same table”. Just some of the many notable figures that sit at this imaginary table are; Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, H. R. Giger, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Pablo Picasso, Frank Bowling, Frank Ocean and Frank Sinatra – so he’s amongst good company.

We managed to discuss some of these icons. H. R. Giger was an early role model for Willkay who notes “the person who influenced me to do monochrome and black on white was H. R Giger” while he was at Central Saint Martins. Frank Bowling was another notable role model, “he’s an artist that I’ve met in real life, I know his journey. He’s my favorite artist from the UK”. Bowling inspired Will as he saw him as someone who helped pave the way for other black artists.

With so many significant creatives to look up to though, Willkay still says “Andy Warhol will always be my favorite.” And, hopes to one day take on a project with Banksy. “I like Banksy¸ I like the way that he does things, and I hope in the future I get to work with him.”

So what’s next for London creative? As well as being an artist, graphic designer and art director, Willkay is delving into being an author, as well as getting into film and TV. He’s currently got a few scripts in his back pocket, as well as 4 books on the underway. The books themselves cover topics from emotion and mental health, racism, art, fatherhood and his own artistic take on the history of grime, with the purpose of helping others – “I’m battling against racism in art, how the industry treats black artists.” With the scripts, he wants to undertake a project with Giggs with a focus on UK culture “It’s gonna be very arty, it’s gonna be very poetic.”