This Brazil-based illustrator layers words, symbols, tape, and paper into his primary color palette to build portraits with some serious swagger. The true tools in Zé’s box are symbols of gender and sexuality, which build into a singular and progressive interpretation the street life that surrounds him. You can find more of Zé's work, and read our full interview with him in Paper Darts Volume 4.
What draws you to explore androgyny in your work?
I had a feeling when I was a teenager in my home, a small city, that I couldn’t explain at that time—that at some point we would all look the same. I mean, men and women are going to mix at some point. Like a girl in soldier boots and a man wearing a skirt or a simple earring. Then I grew up and moved to São Paulo and it was pretty clear to me that that’s the future and that’s what’s happening. And I never thought of Patti Smith and David Bowie as women or men; for me they aren’t just two rockstars trying to be sexy. They have something more, something that you can’t define…it seems that they transcend everything, and that is androgyny for me.
How important are the words scattered throughout your drawings to building meaning?
I started to write on my artwork because I really admired a Brazilian writer called Joca Reiners Terron. He wrote Hotel Hell, a book in which each paragraph has an illustration hidden in it. So, I started to write on my drawings and paintings. Later, I discovered the art of experimental calligraphy. I started to study a little bit of it, then I bought some cool pens… At some point this text layering started bringing some concepts for the illustration. Also, when I was child and during my adolescence I used to alter my handwriting all the time. I think this was my first art manifesto; I’ve always seen my handwriting as drawing. When I’d start an essay I used to take a lot care with it, and if I felt a bit angry or depressed or happy these things had a great influence on my handwriting.
Do you have a mini manifesto on illustration you care to share with us?
I know a way to swim all the way downtown.
What artist working today inspires you most?
Nadav Kander is a fantastic photographer. I love his portraits. And I find David Foldvari’s illustration work really impressive.
What is your biggest fear concerning your work?
I fear that one day I might not be up-to-date with what is really happening in the world or on the big city streets.
All rights reserved to Zé Otavio.