How Brazilian Illustrator Gabriel Hislla Went From Drawing in His Room to Times Square

“I barely see it as fan art, it's like I owe the culture my share of effort.”
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Nothing hits home quite like a bedroom-to-the-universe success story. That’s the tale of 24-year-old São Luís, Maranhão, Brazil-based and self-taught illustrator Gabriel Hislla, who grew up a fan of anime and manga before falling all the way in love with hip-hop.

“At some point, something snapped and hip-hop stopped being just entertainment,” he says. “It gave self-esteem, ambition, and hope to a broke kid from a small city in Brazil. It even taught me English. It’s the most significant influence in my work, theme, and business. So much of it is about improving yourself, about aspiring for something greater coming from small beginnings. You wouldn't believe how small my city is, but hip-hop taught me to not see it as my limits.”

With so much of his life indebted to the genre, Hislla sees his artwork as a necessary means of paying it forward. “I barely see it as fan art, it's like I owe the culture my share of effort,” he tells me. 

Hislla began posting his work to Tumblr, where his portraits caught the attention of Oscar-winning actor and well-known hip-hop fan Mahershala Ali and João Lauro Fonte, a London-based art director for Sony Music. Looking at Hislla’s work, the fine attention to detail and subtle nods to each artist’s personality, it’s clear why Fonte tapped Hislla to draw the cover art of the official 2018 World Cup song “Live It Up.”

“I was pretty sure it was spam but took a leap of faith and two days later we were working,” Hislla admits. The cover took about 10 days to realize, with several versions drawn up as expectations and artists involved kept changing. The final product, Hislla beams, is something he’s very proud of.

“The final result was much closer to the type of work I'm used to making rather than to what I thought they expected from me,” he says. “To know that I made this and nobody can take it from me is a powerful feeling.”

DJBooth’s full interview with Gabriel Hislla, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: How did you first get into illustration?

Gabriel Hislla: I have a brother six years older than me and watching cartoons and drawing them was a big part of our childhood. I know for a fact that Dragon Ball sparked the desire to draw for most kids from my generation, even though not everybody kept doing it. I gave up for a while. It was hard to deal with the talent gap between me and my brother, so I just told myself it wasn’t my thing. I would occasionally draw something, but for some time it wasn’t even a hobby, really. Then time goes by and right before applying for college I was working with coding when met Rafo Castro, illustrator, tattoo artist, street artist, and fashion designer from Rio de Janeiro. The relationship he has with work and how multi-disciplinary he is inspired me to reshape my path, and there was illustration still waiting for me.

Are you formally trained, or is this all self-taught?

I’m self-taught almost to a fault. The roots of my art come from drawing as a kid and soaking in tons of references. Me and my brother always collected comics and mangas, and it was important to build a solid taste for drawing so when the time approached, it wasn’t that hard to figure out what I needed to learn to achieve what I wanted. I have nothing against formal training and would’ve loved to learn that way, but I did not have the resources nor the time for it back then.

Who were your biggest influences as you were forming your style?

I like to see pop culture as its own mythology, so when I illustrate somebody I try to make it iconic and encapsulate the personality somehow. I take references for it from various places, like movie poster legend Drew Struzan (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Thing), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Sam Spratt (Logic, Janelle Monáe, Childish Gambino), Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond, Mangaka) and Alex Ross (Marvel).

Why hip-hop fan art and not some other genre?

At some point, something snapped and hip-hop stopped being just entertainment. I barely see it as fan art, it's like I owe the culture my share of effort. It gave self-esteem, ambition, and hope to a broke kid from a small city in Brazil. It even taught me English. It’s the most significant influence in my work, theme, and business. So much of it is about improving yourself, about aspiring for something greater coming from small beginnings. You wouldn't believe how small my city is, but hip-hop taught me to not see it as my limits.

Countless artists inspired me through my life. I remember being attracted to the energy of Gucci Mane and Jeezy early on. I remember listening to The College Dropout, cuts like "Spaceship," and feeling electric as my head unfolded, it was like discovering hustle superpowers. Anderson .Paak's tale of patience and reinvention was crucial for me to break through. The way Frank Ocean exploded my conceptions of being an artist and what it means to live well. Racionais MCs, kings of Brazilian rap, helped me so much to understand the jungle I was living in. Hip-hop woke me not only creatively but also as a person.

If you had to sum up your style in a single sentence…

Taking the inspiration my heroes give me and trying to give it back to the culture.

Now, you’ve done the cover art for the official World Cup song. What’s the backstory there? How did they tap you?

On the effort of being prolific and consistent with the art I post, I started to gain traction and now and then it takes me further than I expect. The first big thing was when Mahershala Ali shared my work on Instagram shortly after winning the Oscar. This time, somehow, I ended up on the timeline of João Lauro Fonte—amazing Brazilian illustrator and art director based in London and working with Sony Music—who liked my style and contacted me directly by email. I was pretty sure it was spam but took a leap of faith and two days later we were working.

What was the timeline for this project?

Back to back, about 10 days. Illustrated cover art was a last minute idea. Wasn’t that linear of a process, either. The style changed many times, the artists involved changed as well. We had to satisfy the expectations of a lot of people in a short amount of time so we were always trying alternative versions.

Did you have a lot of creative control with this project?

I can’t say I necessarily had control but at the same time, I didn’t feel much resistance. Not everything was as I wanted. Diplo, for example, was my favorite result and ended up not making the cut. But I never tripped about it. I guess me and Lauro Fonte clicked right away and we were always on the same page, trying to materialize what we envisioned together in the best way the deadline allowed. To be honest, the final result was much closer to the type of work I'm used to making rather than to what I thought they expected from me. It gave me a lot of confidence, much needed to tackle a project of this scale.

Were you paid for your work?

Yes! Most I’ve made with my art so far. Made a nice little difference in my life. Some things are priceless, too. I learned so much about the process, I would have paid to be a part of it.

Were you also promised some type of promo for your work on the cover?

I knew from the start my name wasn’t important on something of this magnitude, so, no. I’m sure my name is credited somewhere, but not on the media coverage. It’s the most amazing gift I could hope for my portfolio though so I’m in peace with that. It’s still amazing to see something you made in your bedroom out in the world like this.

What does it feel like to see your artwork up in Times Square?

To know that I made this and nobody can take it from me is a powerful feeling. I remember last November when Brazilian singer Anitta was on Times Square with J Balvin, looking at it thinking, “One day my work will get there.” Little did I know how close I was. Makes you despise all the times we think about giving up. It made me think a lot about RAYSCORRUPTEDMIND, who became Travis Scott's photographer and friend. You can really do anything you want.

Where do you go from here?

To get deeper and deeper into music. I have some nice opportunities on the near horizon, but aside from that, I’ll keep digging my way into the culture. Create more with my friends Sfanio, Soulvenir, and Yubari57. My goal is to become part of the movement, work with Zaytoven, Metro Boomin, Emicida, Diomedes Chinaski, MF DOOM, Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Lyrical Lemonade. Who knows? As far as I’m concerned, I’m only getting started.

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