Words: Emily Mullen
“I remember when I was like 16 or 17 thinking that an artist was someone who painted something and tried to sell it on the top floor of Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre… I didn’t think there was anything else outside of that.”
Hephee is every brand’s dream. The Dublin-born illustrator (who works 9-5 as a graphic designer and art director) runs Hephee, an Instagram account that churns out witty, topical and funny content on a daily basis. Part meme part illustration, with a swish of an iPad pencil, Hephee succeeds in perfectly describing life in Ireland. No part of the Irish experience is left undrawn, from the beauty of a chicken fillet roll, the heft of Dublin seagulls, to more serious issues like the prominence of vulture funds and the blinkered politics of the era. His witty, current and often simplistic illustrations have helped to highlight what it’s really like to live on this rain-sodden rock. Using illustration as a way to explain and document the world for himself, is perhaps the beauty of the page. Simplistic, personal and extremely compelling, it’s evident that the page is run by someone who isn’t trying painfully hard to be funny and who doesn’t have an eye on the follower count.
Coming into his own during the lockdown, his work was shared far and wide throughout the feeds of locals and ex-pats alike. Standing apart from the sometimes complex and dense work that proliferates the art world, Hephee’s work exists for everyone, in a format that’s easy to digest and quick to comprehend. With a bright and varied colour palette, simple yet clever drawings coupled with a message that’s painfully honest and instantly understandable, Hephee’s work is made to share.
We caught up with him, at an interesting point in his career, as the Dublin-native on the brink of moving to London and swapping his full-time job as an art director to freelance his illustrative work. We chat about how a conversation with a coworker in Tesco as a recent graduate led him to pull the finger out and get hustling, how he actively tried to avoid becoming an illustrator and some of the complexities of running a page as beloved as his:
How did you get started in art?
I’d never studied art in school, I was never really mad on that side of things. I never really knew what a designer was or what the creative or ad industry entailed, my parents worked in the trades so I never really knew anyone in those industries. I remember when I was like 16 or 17 thinking that an artist was someone who painted something and tried to sell it on the top floor of Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, or you were an art teacher in a school, I didn’t think there was anything else outside of that.
How did you get started in the creative world?
I was into graffiti when I was in my teens, through that I got into typography, making type pieces, drawing fonts and trying to make them look really nice. Then I remember seeing that graphic design was a job, and I couldn’t get over how similar it was to graffiti in a way. Taking something that already exists, putting a spin on it.
I’m sure a background in graffiti helps with being a graphic designer?
Graffiti taught me how to match colours and fonts. It’s visual too so there are a lot of similar rules.
Was it hard for you to get into graphic design?
I had to get into it kind of arseways, because I had only found out that you could have a job as a graphic designer when I was like 18 and I had already left school. I never actually studied graphic design, I went into IADT college and studied Multimedia which was kind of like computer programming. When I was in first year we were studying a course on Photoshop, which I loved and I was talking to the lecturer about it afterwards who told me that there was a whole separate aspect of design. So from first year on, everyone would tell me that I was in the wrong course, but I hadn’t realised that the other one existed when I started out. I did finish the course because I was kind of interested in it at the time, and I was also on a grant and you can only get one of them.
So you finish college, how do you get yourself into graphic design?
Finished college then tried to work my way into different industries, through setting up personal projects, trying to do runs of prints and getting on to every shop in town to sell them. I was basically trying to put together a portfolio without any work or experience in it.
Do you think it made you hustle a bit more when you realised you were on the wrong track?
Realising I had an empty portfolio and trying to get a job in a design studio, I realised that I was going to have to do something. I still remember going for job interviews and they kept telling me, “you have to get some work you have to have some experience”. Hearing that was probably a good thing in a way because it gave me such a kick up the hole. After I left college, I was working in Tescos, on shit money and I hated it, I wanted to be a graphic designer but I didn’t know what to do. I was talking to another guy who worked there who was ten years older than me and he was telling me that had graduated with a Business degree ten years ago. That he thought about doing an internship but it was unpaid and he was only supposed to do another year there but the wages were good and he just stayed on and pursued it further. I remember just thinking how easy it would be to stay there forever and saying to myself “I do not want to do that”. The job wasn’t the issue for me, it was that he [his then coworker] stayed in something that he didn’t want to do for so long and that scared the shit out of me. It’s one of those things when you become an adult that you realise that if you don’t make your own decisions, like quitting a job that you hate that no one else will change that for you and you’ll be stuck there. That week after having that conversation with your man I handed in my notice.
How did it go after you handed in your notice?
Doing internships on fuck all money, surviving on like 200€ a week while trying to pay rent, was honestly one of the hardest times in my life, but it paid off. It made me take things really seriously it made me want to get good at something because being shit at it means you have white bread for dinner, it made me want to get good at it and get paid.
How’s work at the moment?
Busy, but like exciting busy, I’m moving to London in a month. So I’m doing a bunch of work before I go because I’m not going to be working for a couple of weeks while I’m doing all the moving stuff. I’m doing that while trying to find an apartment over there and setting up work for when I get over there.
Do you feel a bit of pressure to leave Ireland?
It’s funny anyone I talk to has a different opinion on it. The last creative director I had, he was from Cork, he had done a few years in London and had moved back to London. He used to always say that your trajectory as a creative in Ireland was that you get to a certain level in Ireland, then you do a couple of years abroad in London or New York then when you come home, that’s when you can get a really well-paid job. He said that’s the way it was for him anyway, but I’d say that it’s still pretty much the same now.
Sounds like it’s a decision you haven’t made too lightly
I still really love Dublin, even with all the shite about housing and everything, I still really do love working here. But it’s just one of those things, I want to do a specific thing with my career, and I don’t really feel like I can do that in Ireland at the minute. I remember thinking about leaving for so long, having those chats with friends when you are 10 pints deep talking about the state of the country and what you are going to do about it. I don’t really want to have leave to get better opportunities, but there’s a part of me that thinks how long can you stay being a martyr for, getting less opportunities and having people tell you “you should go here, you should do that”. So how long do you hold out waiting for stuff to happen?
Will you be focusing on your illustrations full-time when you are in London?
I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet. Myself and my partner have been wanting to go for ages, we decided that as soon as we could, we would go. So I had started to look for designer jobs over there and the more I thought about it and spoke to other people, I just said I’d try to do freelancing since a good few freelancing gigs had come up. But I have always had a job, even though I’ve always worked freelance, I’ve always had a solid income which has always allowed me to kind of take the piss with the personal work that I do and do fun freelance stuff. I haven’t needed to worry about turning down a freelance job that I’m not mad on, I’ve always had my other job to fall back on. It feels really mad to do that. For the first month or two, I’m going to work on my freelance work that I have lined up and then see how it goes.
Your work emphasises on Irish social commentary and life in Ireland, are you worried about moving away and losing that?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, about “what if I don’t know what to make work about anymore” when I get over there. I suppose even throughout the last year and a half I haven’t been able to go outside, where I get a lot of my cultural influences about Ireland is probably through the lens of social media. It’s hard to tell, going somewhere new and having new experiences it’s hard to tell how it will change you. I don’t plan on changing up the work that I do, or taking down my Instagram and starting again. I do want to keep going with stuff, and I feel like I will still be very connected to Dublin through Whatsapp groups with mates and pretty much everyone I follow are living in or from Dublin, so I’m still going to be seeing that every day but I’ll just be physically in a different environment.
It sounds like you are conscious of altering yourself through moving
I kind of want to make the point that you don’t have to change absolutely everything about yourself and your work to get a job in the creative industry. I’m not going to get rid of everything that I’m doing to make it in another city, it’s more about staying for a year or two, doing some interesting work and bringing that experience home.
So you aren’t getting a mullet anytime soon then?
Nah, when I started off I found that particularly in creative careers there’s a gatekeeping element to it. When people start off they think unless you are in this cool city, and you dress a certain way and you are doing loads of cool stuff that you aren’t going to make it in the industry or whatever. It’s sad when people get discouraged from doing stuff because they think you need to act and dress a certain way. I just want to make stuff, and I didn’t realise you had to be in the cool club to do it.
Did you ever feel that sort of gatekeeping affected your work?
I work as an illustrator but parallel to that, I work as an art director and a graphic designer it’s an industry that I love but I’ll always remember when I first started in it, I just felt that there was so much I needed to do before I could be accepted into it. You end up wasting so much time on a bunch of shit that just doesn’t matter, as opposed to focusing on yourself, what you want to make, what you want to say with your work or if you want to say anything. That’s all that should be really considered, what you want to put into your work.
A lot of people discovered your work during the lockdown and your page became a place that resonated with people and just became a place that just described what everyone was feeling at that time, was that a weird sensation?
It’s such a funny thing, because it’s that big where it’s at like a celebrity level or whatever but it is mad because people message me all the time and say random stuff like that. It’s so nice, it’s such an incredible thing for someone to message me and say “your work really brightened my day when things were pretty dark during the pandemic”, “you would always put up work and it would make me smile”. It’s so insane because I have people like that who I follow on the internet, real comfort follows so it’s mad to be that for other people.
Has your following and what your work means for your following, made you reconsider any decisions you’ve made?
It does sort of change your opinion on what you do though as well, especially when working with brands sometimes it feels a bit shit because people really like it, which is obviously why brands what to work with it but there is a part of me that’s like I dunno I don’t want to work with too many brands so it doesn’t turn into one of those pages that partners with one brand one day and then another the next. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, you are doing your thing and making sure you get paid.
It does seem like the page makes you just as happy as it makes everyone else too
That’s the thing, it’s completely my hobby, I really love drawing. I didn’t want to be an illustrator for so many years, because I thought that it was something that I really loved to do and I didn’t want to turn it into a job. It’s funny it slowly crept in, like so much of my work now revolves around illustration. Before that I used to just draw all night long, that was just how I relaxed in the evenings and I’ve always just really loved it. With my Instagram I kind of just use it as that, it’s more like a diary for me, I’ll always go through older posts to look at them and be like “ah I remember that day”.
I do need to remember that it is just a profile on social media and I’m trying to not put too much pressure on it either because I’ve heard so many people talking about it before that you get so into trying to build up a following, trying to make sure it’s x, y and z and it ends up consuming your life so I’m trying to not go down that route too much.
Do you normally work with pen and paper or an IPad?
Kind of a mix, before I got my iPad I only used a black pen and paper then I would just scan everything in and colour it in photoshop. When I got an iPad I was like “oh, you can just do this you don’t need all these extra parts”, I find the IPad very similar to using a pen and paper, but I still would pick up a pen too when I’m trying to relax and not make it feel like work.
Tell me about the t-shirts you have done with District?
So there’s two, it’s such a funny thing making clothes with your own work on it, when I first started making t-shirts I made a few with a big enough phrase on them, I remember looking at them online thinking they were class and then when I got them in my hand I was a bit scarlet and I doubted whether I actually liked it. It’s such a personal thing like I prefer t-shirts with a pretty small graphic on them. So with this, I tried to make tees that I actually like, with a simple design.
We have released a clothing collaboration with Hephee, one of Ireland’s best-loved artists to produce a limited edition run of some of his most iconic pieces. Hephee x District’s limited edition t-shirts are available to buy from €28 here.
Elsewhere on District: Artist Spotlight, DECOY