Why Tokyo is a Dream City for Illustrators: A Chat with Art Director David Robert
It’s no mystery why Tokyo draws in illustrators and creators from far and wide — you can source inspiration from every corner of this city.
There’s an eclectic mix of old and new, with time-honored shrines and temples, buzzing neon-drenched streets, towering skyscrapers, and rivers flanked by lush greenery. Combine the city’s dynamic landscape with the magic of Japan’s changing seasons and unique culture, and you’ve got an ideal amalgamation of creative potential.
To explore Tokyo’s charm through the eyes of creators, we spoke with David Robert, a French art director and long-time Tokyo resident. David is also the co-founder of “The Tokyoiter”, a collaborative project that turns the city’s moments into pieces of art, taking inspiration from The New Yorker magazine’s iconic layout and reimagining it through a Tokyo lens.
As a close friend and collaborator of Y+L, David has worked with us on logo design and brand strategy amongst other projects.
At Y+L, we feel lucky to have our home base here in Tokyo, a cultural and creative epicenter, enabling us to connect with many local and international artists.
For anyone who has drawn inspiration from Tokyo, who calls it home, or who has admired it from afar, there’s excitement in knowing that there’s a community of people who share the love for this city. Read on for our chat with David about what makes Tokyo a special place for illustrators to explore and create.
You can learn more about David and what he’s up to below:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself/ background and how you ended up in Tokyo?
I’m David, a French art director based in Japan for almost ten years. Before coming to Tokyo, I was an art director specializing in branding in Paris. I’ve been into drawing and pictures for as long as I can remember, so naturally, I studied graphic arts and pursued graphic and illustration projects.
In 2013, my professional and personal circumstances allowed me to take the opportunity to move to Japan. At first, I was planning to stay for a year, but like many, I loved Tokyo so much that I ended up staying for good.
What do you think is special about illustration in Japan?
Illustrations are ubiquitous in Japan. At the post office, in the subway, on a signboard at the café, on your credit card, in magazines, everywhere…
An example of an illustration style that you often see in Japan is what’s called Tegaki POP at the famous store called Don Quixote. Most of the illustrated POP panels (with a character and big bubbly lettering) are drawn by hand, often by a staff member in the store. So I guess it’s quite unique to have so many different types of illustrations around you in Japan, and as an art director and illustrator, I always find this inspiring.
Notes on the history of illustration in Japan:
Manga or Japanese comic book illustration has deep-rooted influences from 12th-century picture scrolls such as The Tale of Genji, woodblock prints, and early 20th-century magazines. Modern manga has further been influenced by post-war American comics and cartoons.
Ukiyo-e is a type of wooden block ink printing, originally using only blank ink, first established in the Edo period (1603–1868). These artworks were a form of entertainment and often depicted social life in the present (rather than the past or future).
For those who might be wondering, a note on what makes art an illustration:
According to the Eden Gallery, illustrations aim to explain or depict ideas, which may not necessarily be from the artist’s own perspective. However, there’s an ongoing debate about the difference between fine art, painting and illustration.
Why do you think Tokyo specifically is such a popular hub for illustrators?
The fact that there is so much illustration around makes the city feel like an art gallery. Ride the subway, and you’ll see an animation for a new apartment building, an illustrated poster for a department store, artwork for a computer game, or a public announcement poster, all with a different illustration style.
There are also so many small galleries with shows that run for sometimes only a day but always with so much creativity. As a foreigner, you see so many unusual and unexpected things with a heightened sense of juxtaposition different from your cultural context, which automatically triggers your imagination.
What is Tokyoiter / What led you to start Tokyoiter?
In 2013, after moving to Japan, I worked as a graphic designer and art director for an ad agency. I didn’t know many people in the local creative or illustration community at the time, so I started joining events for international creatives like Pecha Kucha and the now-closed Pause Talk and Pause Draw events.
At these events, I met and became friends with some Japanese and foreign illustrators, which led to sharing work and getting in touch with more illustrators. At the same time, I connected with an illustrator friend, Andrew Joyce, who was also trying to involve more illustrators in a project about Tokyo.
We started approaching close friends and people whose work we admired to contribute. I politely emailed the Parisianer to ask if we could re-create their concept for Tokyo, and they were supportive. While the New Yorker didn’t get back to us, we launched the website and Instagram. Currently, we have close to 100 covers and counting.
What is the selection/ curation process?
Originally the selection process was pretty simple, we would ask people in our network or find artists exhibiting at an illustration gallery (like galerie le monde or HB gallery), or events like the Tokyo Art Book Fair. Occasionally people would just ask if they could contribute.
Nowadays, the following on social media has grown so much that we get many illustrators worldwide wanting to contribute. So we don’t need to ask much more! Other than appreciating the work, we always make sure of two points:
1. The illustrator must have spent time in Tokyo at least once or lived in Japan. We want to avoid “cliché” images of Japan like manga, kawaii, Samurai, Totoro, etc. We are keen to see what inspires the illustrator, and that is our GOLDEN RULE.
2. We make it clear that we do not have any budget to order work from artists, and we are just two regular people running the project aside from our job. It’s a passion project. However, we have an online store, so we always ensure illustrators get a fair share of the sales.
Given the buzz of AI-generated art recently, has this changed how you select covers? For example, would Tokyoiter accept AI-enhanced or AI-generated illustrations?
Great question. I talked about this topic with my co-founder Andrew recently; it’s a fascinating debate and a hot topic in the illustrator community. I’m intrigued by the AI illustrations, and my opinion isn’t fixed. I’m going to give a diplomatic answer.
AI is a tool, like a pen, brush, watercolor, Photoshop, or Apple pencil with Procreate brushes. Like any tool, you can use it to be authentically creative or just copy other work. I wouldn’t say that we would never accept AI-based work on the Tokyoiter, but we must agree that it is good, creative, and sincere.
Tokyoiter has heralded a great following, including on Instagram. How has Tokyoiter helped to connect illustrators and creatives?
Tokyo is such an attractive place for creatives and illustrators that I think the Tokyoiter directly appeals to those interested in Japan. We get so many messages from people liking the project, and we are lucky enough that super-talented people reach out of nowhere to contribute.
Even some artists whose work I have admired for such a long time suddenly end up messaging us, and I feel so amazed that this small side project would interest them.
We’ve also had a few shows in the past, which are always a lot of fun to see people gathering around the covers and talking about the stories behind them.
Another great consequence of The Tokyoiter is that some illustrators get work thanks to the project’s exposure. Seeing artists get work from the result of this project is super rewarding; that was part of the purpose in the first place, to share the work and help bring attention to so much talent.
What advice would you give to a budding illustrator hoping to make it to Tokyo?
Expand your network by attending events and parties and visiting galleries. Show your work around as much as possible to people and illustrator agencies. People always look for new artists, so put your work out here.
You will have new connections, new friends, and hopefully, clients. It is a very competitive environment, so the more you are active in your work and exposure, the more you put all your chances on your side.
What’s happening next? What’s on the horizon for you/ Tokyoiter?
The Tokyoiter started as a fan-art project and we ended up getting emails from people wanting to buy prints. For so long, daily emails asked us to open a store, so after looking into the best solution, we finally opened our online store in November 2022.
We’ve tried different setups over the years and finally settled on a seasonal release of limited covers. We add ten new covers from the collection every season for a limited 150 prints only.
Another thing we’ve started is a newsletter using Pencilbooth, which has a format made for illustrators with four pictures every month. Super simple and has no algorithm like on social media for people who want to see the work directly in their mailbox.
We are sharing new covers and behind-the-scenes of the artwork so subscribers get to know more about the process of each illustrator. We also hope to finally set up an exhibition this year as life is returning to a “new” normal.
Through The Tokyoiter, I realized that I was quite interested in discovering new illustrators and managing and curating great works. Inspired by this project, I decided to launch ilasuto (which literally means illustration in Japanese), an agency for Japanese illustrators to promote their work abroad.
I believe Tokyo and Japan overall has so many great artists and I want to help them get exposure and work on projects overseas. If you’re reading this from abroad and thinking of using illustration for your next project, please have a look at ilasuto!
For more information visit:
- David’s Instagram
- The Tokyoiter website
- The Tokyoiter Instagram
- The Tokyoiter newsletter
- ilasuto — agency for illustrators
Editing by: Emma Araki, Lucy Dayman