Perspective: Interview with Kris Andrew Small

We spoke with the vivacious graphic artist Kris about his childhood, his evolution as an artist, and making it on a global scale.

2023.11.02 - Arts & Culture - Bonnie MacTavish
Kris Andrew Smalls on stage with his art behind him presenting. Photo by Lachie Golledge.

Kris Andrew Small is the ex-Brissie darling of Sydney, and more recently, the world - with collabs for Gucci Vault, adidas and TimeOut magazine in London.

Nightjar worked with Kris on an inspiring project for the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation last year, and wanted to dig a bit deeper to see how this beautiful mind works.

I met with Kris one crisp Spring day as he came into the Nightjar studio to suss out our studio space. We cosied up in the Room Booth, and talked about his influence, his entrepreneurial spirit, and what fuels him to keep making cool shit, while Graeme (the Brussels Griffon) listened intently (and sometimes gave his opinion.)

Kris Andrew Small holding a black and white artwork of his
Kris Andrew Small standing next to many of his colourful art piecesImages courtesy of the artist

“It's not a very welcoming place for someone queer who wanted to be a creative.”

Bonnie: Alright. Before we popped into this luxurious room booth, what were we just talking about earlier, you were saying something about Sydney, and that it’s easy to complain about your city?

Kris: I grew up in Brisbane. I think I used to come to Sydney coz Brisbane is a shithole for lack of a better word. <Laugh> I know it's getting better. But it's not a very welcoming place for someone queer who wanted to be a creative. It just didn't fly. So when I would come to Sydney, it felt like this crazy place where lots was going on and it felt like all the brands and bands and things that I followed were based in Sydney. So I still have this affection for that kind of thing. And then I think I also love big cities. I love London. I love New York, but they kind of stress me out. I think I'm not built for them long term. And then I also love being in the middle of nowhere. I'm super happy there. But I don't like living there. So I feel like Sydney's a middle ground between a massive city, and the middle of nowhere. It's the meeting point between the two. There's enough nature that it feels somewhat natural. Cuz I go back to London as much as I love it. I'm like, ‘there's no trees’.

I mean, it's also just a different culture, isn't it? It’s not really a nightlife city. It never has been because it's sunny. Because it's warm. It's a day city. You do something.

Bonnie: It's that whole thing about Sydney versus Melbourne - Sydney, there's nothing to do, everything to see (in terms of nature), but in Melbourne, there’s nothing to see, but everything to do!

Kris: But you make your own fun. And I think it's easier to complain about your city as opposed to trying to make it nice for yourself. And I think Sydney is an amazing city. I wish it was a bit cheaper property wise.

Kris Andrew Small chatting with Bonnie MacTavish (and Graeme)
Kris Andrew Smalls outside the Nightjar officesKris Andrew Small chatting with Bonnie MacTavish (and Graeme)

Bonnie: …so you could live in that building next door! (points to the lovely apartment building at 350 Bourke Street which Kris adores)

Kris: Exactly! <laughs> I was just in New York and when you compare it to that, and I know that it's New York, but it's not like Sydney's a backwater you know. But the fact that I was, as an artist, able to buy an apartment in the middle of this city is pretty mad. I wouldn't be buying an apartment in the West Village, that's for sure. I don't come from money. So everything I’ve got I earned. And that's not really possible in London or New York. Unless you are silly money. And you do have to earn well, but it's still somewhat possible for someone who's not from money, who's worked really hard and earned money to build a life in Sydney.

Bonnie: And you do work really hard. What's the new mantra you were telling me about earlier? Hustle and….

Kris: “Evolve and hustle.”

Bonnie: “Evolve and hustle”. Yeah. I love it.

Kris: I'll just get bored if I don't do that. So it's good productivity wise and business wise, but it's also just for my own sanity.

A room entirely covered with brightly coloured artwork by Kris Andrew SmallImages courtesy of the artist
A room entirely covered with brightly coloured artwork by Kris Andrew Small

Bonnie: And what's your version of hustle?

Kris: That's a good question. I've always liked people a lot and I think it's fun to me. (Graeme the Griffon paws at Kris’s leg) Oh and dogs. I love dogs more than people, to be honest.

Bonnie: Graeme’s very happy to hear that

Kris: We're friends quite quickly. (Graeme looks chuffed)

But I don't know. I just think I think it's fun to meet people. I’ve always liked that and I think that's my way of hustling. Rarely do people just give you anything, you have to show people what you can do. So thus they can hire you. So that's my version of hustling. Because I travel a lot, often I’m alone, and I don't like being alone. So if I'm in a city I'm like, okay, who have I met? Who can I meet? How can I make this place somewhat more of a place that I feel comfortable in? So maybe it comes naturally.

And also I used to be so shy, disturbingly shy, when I was a kid. So I feel like I had to work to be able to talk to people. So I'm quite weirdly proud of being able to talk to anyone.

Bonnie: So that's the ‘Evolve’

Kris: Yeah, exactly. You just always have to be open to things and any opportunity that comes along. Sometimes there's more fun in taking on a particularly crappy project and flipping it to be something a bit more interesting.

Bonnie: That was one of my questions. We worked together on the ALNF project which was incredible, and a very good cause. And I wondered what your criteria is for taking on a piece of work? Because you do have such a broad range of industries and clients. So what's the criteria, or do you take on anything?

Kris: No, no, I definitely don't. I think in the beginning of my career, I pretty much took on anything, that was the strategy.

Bonnie: And you gotta earn your stripes first. How has Brisbane played a role, in your work and in your upbringing? You said Brisbane was not a particularly friendly city for you?

Kris: I grew up in the suburbs, but I didn't feel safe in the suburbs. That's why queer people move to the city because we feel safe. Cause we find people like us.

Brisbane is a very conservative place. It's very geared towards getting a good job, buying a house, having kids. I would never say that's a bad thing. It's just like, if you are young and you're queer, you go, (and this was when I was young, I know now it’s a bit different), okay, well I can't get married. I can't have children. I wanna be creative and everyone tells me I'm probably never gonna earn any money. So how am I supposed to exist in this place, where to be validated, I have to get married, have children, two things I already can't do? And then get a good job to earn money to buy a house. So three things I can’t do! And then obviously, I'm being disruptive in school. They're like, Kris, what's wrong with him? And you're like, what do you fucking think's wrong with me? It's so obvious, but clearly then it was different times. Now there's a lot more representation. I think it's easier for people to see out of it. Whereas then, I don’t think that I could.

An outdoor basketball court with a painted mural by Kris Andrew SmallImages courtesy of the artist

Bonnie: So when did you move to London?

Kris: When I was 20. Once I got to London, I felt fine. And then I moved to Barcelona for a while. Then I moved to Amsterdam for a while and then I moved back to Sydney after that. I feel like Sydney's a great place for queer people.

My other point is I feel like I still had it easy if that makes sense. At the end of the day, despite everything that I went through, it wasn't that bad. And I also had a family that still loved me. Most of my friends were fine with me. If you add something like being a person of colour to that and then being, say, from a religious family - there's so many worse situations, I'm on the top end of it. So I'm always very focused on the other end of the queer spectrum - it's still illegal to be gay in like a million different places. So I think I'm always going to put that in my work because it's important to continue to discuss it. And I think I have the privilege in that I can talk about it. So I'm going to use that privilege that I've got, to see who is still being marginalised.

Bonnie: So do you think that's the genesis of your work? It’s very bold, we were obviously attracted to you for that reason for the ALNF project, which was all about making literacy important, helping people to understand that this is an issue that needs support and needs recognition. We loved your big, bold kind of protest style. Do you think that’s the genesis of that style of work?

Kris: Probably. I don't think I sat down one day and thought, “oh, I'm gonna make these really activisty-type posters”. It's just what I wanted to make. And then all of a sudden people were like, “oh, you're an activist and an artist”. And that wasn't the goal, it just kind of happened, maybe because I'm quite opinionated. All of a sudden I'm making art works and I have to say something. So it's very easy to say something in words, in words. So I think it probably was somewhat of a rebellious thing.

A people filled room entirely covered with brightly coloured artwork projections by Kris Andrew Small
A room with projections covering the walls with brightly coloured artwork by Kris Andrew Small
A room with projects covering the walls with brightly coloured artwork by Kris Andrew Small
Bright coloured text artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for ALNF
Bright coloured text artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for ALNFKris Andrew Small x ALNF Installation by Nightjar at Semi Permanent festival

Bonnie: But do you see yourself as an activist?

Kris: Now for sure, although I don't think that was the goal. When I did the adidas project, it was really intimidating because they’re a giant fucking company. And then I'm supposed to be the voice of queer people for this campaign. That's a big responsibility.

Bonnie: How do you represent a group of so many diverse people?

Kris: I obviously know my story and I know the people around me and I've always like been interested in queer culture.

All I can do is tell my story and try to remind people that I'm also very aware of the privileges I have now, and obviously that's because of people [who went] before. So I'm always aware of that, and then I’m also aware of who's still repressed. I'm a human with emotions and I hated how I was repressed. So I'm always gonna have sympathy for people being repressed so until that no longer exists, I will always want to talk about something.

Bonnie: That's so interesting that you talk about repression and that experience, which was obviously horrible, but your work is so bright - it’s the opposite of repressed, it’s so optimistic.

Kris: That's it. That's really how you feel when you look at your work and it's obviously a conscious choice. Like, how do you still find that joy and energy every day to do this? When there's so much bad shit going on in the world?
You just have to, I guess there's no other option. I grew up in a tropical place where it was really colourful. I watched TV in the nineties, I think visually I'm also just really drawn to a very colourful time in history. And we used to go to the Gold Coast on holidays. And I remember that it was so kitsch and so colourful.

Bright coloured text artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for TimeOut London
Bright coloured text artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for AbsolutImages courtesy of the artist

Bonnie: Talk to me about your working style. Are you organised, or in a mad rush to the deadline?

Kris: I'm not really a leave it to the last minute person. I've never been like that. I like to be somewhat on top of it. I like to have days in between, I like to make something sit for a day, come back to it, turn for a day. So that doesn't really work when you are leaving things to the last minute. Cause you don't have that perspective on it after the fact. But I do think I need to be busy and to feel like there's a lot of things going on. That's when I'm happiest. So that’s probably why I travel a lot or I always take on lots of things because I think I know deep down that's when I'm the happiest.

Bonnie: Tell me about that stop and reflect moment.

Kris: It's like they say, love is blind. Design is blind, kind of thing. You get so excited about it and you look at it and then you come in the morning and you can see four things wrong with it. You just quickly go and fix them. And then it probably is perfect. So for me, I think the best thing to do is make something and then just sleep on it because it'll be better tomorrow. I can almost guarantee it.

So for example, I did the cover of Timeout in London, the last ever printed. Which is already big enough. And then they hired four artists, me being one of them, and the other three artists were people like Lakwena who I love, Hassan Hajjaj, who I've idolised forever and Hackney Dave.

Bonnie: How did you feel to be in such company?

Kris: I knew that was a great legacy piece. It was a really important thing in the culture of at least London to be included. So then you're like, okay, I need to take this seriously. I can't just do this the night before. That's stupid. So I worked a lot more on that than I normally would work. And I think I'm really proud of it because of that.

Bonnie: We’re jumping all over the place but this is great stuff! I had some questions about fashion because you've done the Gucci vault piece, which I guess was more of a brand piece, but then obviously all your adidas collabs for Pride 2022 as well. What are the parallels with what you do in the fashion world, what's the crossover? How is it different from what you normally do?

Two models wearing the Kris Andrew Smalls bonds underwear
Two models wearing the Kris Andrew Smalls bonds underwear
Two models wearing the Kris Andrew Smalls bonds underwearImages courtesy of the artist

Kris: I think it's funny because fashion baffles me in a sense, the fashion world I find so odd. It's not my place at all.

Bonnie: What do you mean by that? It baffles you?

Kris: I'm recently new to TikTok, and I've never really watched fashion shows, but they seem to be such a thing on TikTok. And I watch them and I think, this is so surreal. You break down the actual thing and it's so odd.

Bonnie: As in a cat walk show?

Kris: Yeah. I just watch it and I think ‘humans are so weird.’ And I'm sure that someone could say exactly the same thing about what we do. But anyway, I don't really feel like I fit in, in the fashion thing. That was never the goal. I've always liked dressing and I like clothes, and I love designing clothes, but I would in no way call myself, by any stretch of the sense, someone who is a fashion designer. It's just that luckily my work lends itself to being put into clothing. I did have a clothing label when I was 18. In Brisbane, bless our cotton socks. We did well, we were just young and couldn't run a business.

Bonnie: What were you called?

Kris: We were called Okay. And we were sold around Australia. We were sold in Japan, which was very cool. Me and my best friend, we started it - he ran the business and I did the design.

And we almost got into General Pants! We had a meeting with them back in the day, this is a decade ago, which was the pinnacle back then. And I think, honestly, I don't think that we weren't good enough. I think they just thought, ‘they are literally 18’. We must have looked like children <laughs> . Grant them that, they were really kind and friendly and supportive. I think they just thought we were too young. I just liked clothes and I wanted my own ones! At the end of the day, it's just, just another thing you're designing.

Bonnie: So the medium doesn't really matter.

Kris: Yeah. Designing the sneakers for adidas is about my favourite thing I've ever done ever in my life. It was so fun. There were so many times I was sitting in my studio and you get these vector drawings of a sneaker. Especially with the Superstar, because although it's not my favourite trainer, so many people on the planet know this silhouette. It's very intimidating and very surreal to be doing that. So I really, really enjoyed that.

Bright coloured text artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for Adidas
Two bright coloured sneakers artwork created by Kris Andrew Small for AdidasImages courtesy of the artist

Bonnie: What sort of input did you have? It wasn't just putting your graphics onto the shoe.

Kris: It was everything. They basically gave me free run of the whole collection, which is ridiculous. I did all the Originals sneakers, so that was six pairs of shoes. So you have calls with the Original sneakers team and they go, ‘okay, well for the Superstar you can use this type of rubber and you can do this and that. And these are some of the crazier things we've done in the past.’

It's a shame that was in COVID, cause I went after COVID to the office in Portland. And we went to the fabric room where they showed me all the fabrics we can use. I think the collection would've been a lot different, probably better, because I could have seen things.

It's a really fun process, it's a long process. It was two and a half years, start to finish, and I'm the most impatient person on the planet. Two weeks is long for me. So two and a half years to have sneakers that I designed sitting in my living room was forever. Honestly designing sneakers is my favourite, if it will kill me if I never get to do it again.

Bonnie: We work with House of Heat, we could get you in on a sneaker collab with them!

Kris: Yeah. I would love that.

Bonnie: When you were just talking about the involvement of the process and that's when a product will end up being the better for it. Because you actually get more of that creative control. And just more of an understanding, like you said, rather than just sticking colours on it.

Kris: I have always liked to understand how things work. So if you're gonna get me to design a sneaker, I wanna design the sneaker. I don't wanna just send you some work.

Bonnie: You want to be fully immersed. What was your biggest learning from that? What do you think was the biggest challenge in that two and a half year process?

Kris: I felt responsibility because effectively it was the Pride collection. So there was a lot of anxiety around how to represent that, a) from a giant brand's perspective, b) from me as an artist. So that was a challenge for sure. The other thing that happened, was that when it came out, while it's incredibly satisfying, it's also incredibly odd to see your work, so everywhere.

So overall it was a wildly positive experience, and the best project of my career so far. Working with the team over such a long time, and seeing it out in the world on people I didn’t know, and in shop windows in different countries, and on Instagram, even now people tag me on Insta, it's so wild! On the other hand though, when it came out, I was getting loads of positive on the one hand, and hate mail on the other, so I was freaking out. I was thinking, oh my God, I am going to get hacked and this is really wild, but you learn to channel that out and focus on the positive, because you can’t always please everyone.

A colourfully painted floor artwork for Adidas
A colourfully painted artwork for AdidasImages courtesy of the artist

“I'd just like to be a big artist. I'd like to be able to have shows at huge institutions. That's the goal. I know it's a bit crazy.”

Bonnie: And so you just block that out, and you just focus on the positive. That's what I was saying before, that I am just always so inspired that your work is so joyful and there's so much brightness and optimism in it. But it’s interesting, that struggle and that really shitty underside of it. We don't know, we don't see that. As people seeing the art, we just get all the benefits from it.

Kris: And there are a lot of benefits. But I did learn, I now can cope with that. I don't really care, as long as I'm safe, which I think realistically I'm safe. I'm not Madonna, you know, <laugh> no one really knows who I am when I'm walking down the street or anything. My work isn't that big, but, but it is distressing to see.

Bonnie: What about the future? You obviously have such an inimitable style, but do you see yourself evolving from that? What's next for you?

Kris: I don't think it's gonna massively dramatically change. I think it's always gonna be the same thing. I think the fame person inside me just wants to get bigger, if that makes sense. That's always been the goal to get as many people to see the work. Which is funny, coz then that gave me anxiety <laughs>

Bonnie: But you're learning to cope! As you get bigger, you’re learning to cope.

Kris: And I know it's probably not something you're supposed to say about yourself, but I do want to get to a stage where I’m a very big artist. I'm proud of where I've got to so far, but in my head, I'm at 10%. I've had a very commercial career so far, which is fine, I'm not knocking that. And I have enjoyed it, but eventually I would like to be a general artist. I would like to be having shows at the Art Gallery of New south Wales.

Bonnie: So you see yourself more as an artist, less a designer?

Kris: A hundred percent. I just studied graphic design, so yes. I think now my work's been applied to so many different things. I'm an artist at the end of the day that can just go in between. But yeah, I'd just like to be a big artist. I'd like to be able to have shows at huge institutions. That's the goal. I know it's a bit crazy.

Bonnie: Not at all, why would it be crazy?

Kris: You can never know, but that is the goal. And I think I will work towards that as much as I can.

Bonnie: And continue to balance your commercial work with your personal projects?

Kris: Yes, I love commercial work. You get a lot of opportunity. People can rag on it, but you do get a lot of opportunities. So I will always do it. But yeah, I would like to be like Jeff Koons, Felipe Pantone, Keith Haring…

A colourfully painted artwork for M.I.A London by Kris Andrew Small
A colourfully painted artwork by Kris Andrew SmallImages courtesy of the artist

“And perhaps that’s why I'm now on this mission to make up for lost time. By the time I'm 40, I have to make a fuck ton of work that I like. ”

Bonnie: Yeah, who are your heroes?

Kris: Keith Haring for sure. I love the spectacle of Andy Warhol, but not a huge fan. Who else do I love? I love Jean-Paul Goude - he did all of Grace Jones's album covers. In the eighties, like when they were amazing. He's Parisian, they even have a kid together. You would have seen so much of his work. He's in his seventies, probably eighties now. And he’s still doing work for Kenzo, still making crazy work. I love Ken Done a lot. I think he's a badass. I like Barbara Kruger. I think she's had an amazing career. And then there's friends like Craig and Karl, Hattie Stewart, Kelly Anna, who are big artists, like I think they should be, but I think we should be the next generation.

Bonnie: What do you see in terms of any overseas trends?

Kris: I don’t think it matters where you are anymore. So if you're somewhere that you feel content to be, I think that's fine. I think you can get massively famous living in the middle of nowhere. What you want in your personal life, is where you should live.

Bonnie: And when you're content, is that when you are creating the best work?

Kris: For sure. Content or feeling alive, which sounds a bit cheesy. When I'm traveling, I feel very alive. So I make very energetic work. I think Australia's behind, but I don't think it's behind. I think it's fine. I think you just have to look at the world as one place. That's why I purposely have agents outside of Australia so that I am connected to the world.

Bonnie: There are no borders anymore. As you said, you can really be creating anywhere and be sharing with the world. Alright. One last question. What's the best piece of advice that you were given when embarking on your career or during your career?

Kris: I don't think I was given any good advice early on to be completely honest with you. I think I was incredibly ill-advised by so many fucking people, because no one could see that I actually wanted to do something slightly different, is it even so crazy to want to be a commercial artist?

A colourful poster for musician Sam Smith by Kris Andrew Small
A colourful poster for Boston Pride parade by Kris Andrew SmallImages courtesy of the artist

Bonnie: And you're talking about growing up in Brisbane?

Kris: Pretty much until I moved to London, and even then I was working in advertising agencies, which have a bad culture of “you'll never amount to anything.” I became a freelancer and then I just never stopped freelancing because I was living in Europe and I wanted to travel. I would work for a month and then go traveling. So I worked literally everywhere. And I wasn't that focused about the work, which I somewhat regret because I feel like for good six years, I never really made any work I like, which isn't great.

And perhaps that’s why I'm now on this mission to make up for lost time. By the time I'm 40, I have to make like a fuck ton of work that I like.

I didn't have the confidence. I was already insecure about being gay. And then I'd been told over and over again, like you probably won't amount to anything. I was always just trying to make it the advertising world, which realistically I was in no way suited for. So then it took me a really long time to, and this is the whole thing with queer people, delayed adolescence. But it took me a lot longer to develop enough self-confidence to go out on my own than other people. And I think that's a combination of going up somewhere conservative and being queer.

Bonnie: So basically a shitload of bad advice!

Kris: <laughs> So I was late to the party, but yeah

Bonnie: But that says to me that you made it your own

Kris: Advice-wise, I dunno if there's like one, I think the thing we said earlier, evolve and hustle, that's pretty important. You just have to keep going. Basically. That's all you can do.

Bonnie: And as a creative person there is that drive within you to keep creating, to keep building things, to keep designing things

Kris: I know Instagram's getting a lot of shit because they've changed the algorithm and a lot of people are freaking out and blah blah. But nothing's really changed at the end of the day. It's just that for a very long time, which is kind of stupid, we've all relied on one platform and one way of putting work out and it's just becoming less relevant and then we have to evolve now. The work isn't any different, we're still designing a pair of sneakers or designing a website. All of these things are still gonna exist. It's just how you're presenting it has slightly changed and maybe the platform has changed. There was a time before Instagram and there was famous artists and design studios and blah, blah, blah. And there will be a time after Instagram and after TikTok.

Bonnie: So you said you're new to TikTok. Are you sharing work on there?

Kris: Yeah! I mean, it's definitely different. You're not sharing the perfectly curated photo. You’re maybe talking to camera, which is a little weird. And you're explaining yourself, but, and we were talking about this before, I think often you do these massive projects and you post five images about it and that's it. You move on to the next. And I do think there's something cool about TikTok that it gives you that extra place to show, ‘this is a bit of the process’, because it can be more lo-fi and it can be bit shit. But I think in the future, Instagram will be more like a website where you're only again putting premium work andt TikTok is where you're maybe sharing just your process a bit more behind the scenes. And I don't see that as a necessarily bad thing. You’ve just gotta adapt, that is the hard thing.

Bonnie: That's interesting, I think we have a bit of a fear sometimes of sharing stuff that's not perfectly polished and putting that out in the world and yes, Instagram is heavily curated. And as an artist, as a design studio, you want only the best quality work, to be showing you in your best light out there.

Kris Andrew Small at the Nightjar Studio patting Graeme the Brusells Griffon dogKris and Graeme enjoying a moment

Kris: But you don't even really have to share the work, realistically, you guys have a banging space. Like I would kill for a studio this light. <Laugh> so show that! It's not always showing the work. It's also showing as Nightjar, this is what we do.

I mean, I'm no TikTok guru. I'm very new to it. But I think there is a space for artists on there. It's just figuring out what that is, how, and it's kind of humbling to go, okay, I've built up this on Instagram and now I’m going to do it all again. But it's not really starting from scratch because you've got all the work, you've got a following, and it's just slowly moving it and building it.

Bonnie: Cool. Thank you. We chatted so much! Oh my God.

Kris: It's gonna be a nightmare to edit.

Bonnie: <laughs> Thank you so much for this Kris, always a pleasure.

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