Adam J. Kurtz, aka. ADAMJK, creates “dumb little stuff that is cute and nice” and we absolutely love it! Tattly visited Adam at his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to chat about work, his book 1 Page At A Time being translated into 15 languages, and why he calls his online store a Gift Shop.
Katherine: Let’s start with a little bit about you.
Adam J. Kurtz: I’m from Toronto originally. I moved to the Baltimore area when I was 15 and then I moved up to New York when I was 22. So, I’ve been above and below, and then sort of settled in the middle. It was a very easy choice to move here. It wasn’t that I really wanted to move to New York, but I had a couple of friends who were moving and they were like “Do you want to come?” and I thought “Okay.” The whole thing came together really quickly. It was one of those things where I woke up in July or August and I was like “I live in New York, and I’ve been living here for 6 months.” Very Weird.
K: Tell us a little about your work?
AJK: I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s very simple, text and image.
I make dumb little stuff that is cute and nice. That truly is the best way to describe it. In my mind the whole thing is art, but other people just find it cute or see these ubiquitous images. I guess the juxtaposition of text and images is very meme like, and more recently I’ve done more of that on Instagram, where it’s a solid color with words on it. In my mind that’s like a meme, a shareable graphic that’s meant to be a self-contained thing that doesn’t require any knowledge beyond it.
K: Can we talk about your book, 1 Page At A Time, being translated into many different languages?
AJK: Yeah let’s talk about that… We’re up to 15 now. And it’s still happening.
K: A lot of them look the same, but some of them, like the Chinese version, look SO different.
AJK: The Chinese one is SO different.
K: So how does that work?
AJK: (Adam grabs a pile of books from the other room)
They send me 5 copies of each one and I can’t throw them out because it’s my own book, but I don’t really need them. I had a font made, and in some cases I hand-wrote specifically for them. I’ve offered for almost all of the editions, and sometimes they’re just like “No, we got this.” The German one is actually really nice. I did hand-letter that one and you can see my pen tip was messed up, which I really like.
K: So you’re not hand-lettering them all?
AJK: No I think that would be insane. At first I really wanted to control every part because I’m very aggressive and protective, but I’ve sort of let go of that. I’ve learnt my lesson.
The other thing is that my work is so simple that organic hand-writing makes the whole difference, which is why I don’t use a hand-writing font and I generally draw fresh every time I do anything. I feel like I get away with saying these blunt positive sort of things only because it’s dressed up as this 2-year old girl talking to you. It’s definitely a mechanism to be able to say some of that. The new book [Pick Me Up] really hits that idea home. Those are penciled. They’re super shitty and they’re wonderful.
K: How did you become involved with Tattly?
AJK: I wanted to do a Tattly for a really long time. Everyone cool was doing one! I was at a Creative Mornings event and I was talking to Tina, and I was wearing a t-shirt. She saw my tattoos and she was like “You should do a Tattly!” and I was like “Yes, I know!”
And so I literally did a Tattly of this tattoo that I have (points to Ladder) and literally a Tattly of this tattoo (points to I Feel Great). I pitched her all these tattoos I already have and she picked a couple. That’s how that happened.
K: People have had your “I Feel Great” tattooed on them for real. Have you seen it?
AJK: Yeah, Tina sent me that photo. When I got “I Feel Great”, it was intended as sarcasm. It’s a best friend tattoo. My friend Sarah Jean has a tattoo of a heart that says “Sad-Things” and mine is “I Feel Great”. The joke is that it’s sort of like that defense mask, but intentionally layered in that it could be one or the other. Everything I make is sort of that, where it can say what you need it to say at the time. So it was nice when Tina sent me the picture of the person who got it tattooed for real and she meant it very genuinely. It’s like a pure message and I was like “That’s really cool!” It’s so neat.
It’s really neat that people see me as this very optimistic person, because I am, but I’m also extremely realistic and negative. I’m both. I think you can’t have one without the other. I try to put both in everything.
K: That’s what I think makes your work so appealing.
AJK: I hope so. It sort of like if a 8-year old had lived a really long life and approached life with their very limited skill set.
K: Your work reminds me of David Shrigley’s work. You both have this charming darkness but there’s also something quite cheery about it.
AJK: That’s a tremendous compliment. I think his work is brilliant. Simple is why it works, and I’m much more commercial than that. Sometimes I think of myself as a fine artist in my head, but it’s all about the context.
Ace: Do you have a favorite Tattly that’s not your own?
AJK: I actually really like the Flora and Fauna set by Tea [Leigh] because it was such an obvious “she’s a tattoo artist so why not,” but when I think of old school Tattly, anything Jen Mussari has ever done. Jen Mussari is one of my favorite creative professionals. Very inspiring. She’s also a Baltimore girl and that’s my adopted home. Alyssa Nassner. She did some really early on. I’ve known her since we were teenagers. We both did work for this band that we were both friends with.
K: Now that you don’t have a day job, do you have routines and rituals to help you get down to work?
AJK: Yeah, I wake up in the morning. I can’t sleep in. Sleeping ‘til 10 is a victory for me. I’m usually up around 9. Generally I’ll have mail already packed and if not, I’ll be on my computer packing the morning’s orders. The post office is one block down the street, and coffee is two blocks, so I stop at the post office and go get coffee, and then come home, sit down, cycle through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and figure out the day’s posts.
Then it’s getting work done as needed, whether that is boring stuff with the shop like managing wholesale, or more shop orders, emails… I do a monthly column for Design*Sponge which I was thinking about today. And then, just meeting deadlines for all these ongoing projects. Soon I’m going to hit a stretch where there’s no defined projects except for little stuff that comes up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that.
K: Do you think that you’ll do small things just for yourself again?
AJK: I’m almost wrapped up with a few things so last week I designed a couple of pins because I had to reorder a bunch of stuff so I just threw some of my ones in. I’ll probably start thinking about some new ones for fall. I’m not really a fall/spring person, but all my friends who have brands are, so I’m like “oh she’s doing it so I guess I should do a fall release…”
Everything I make, the whole concept of my Gift Shop, and why I call it that is that I intentionally try to create items that are meant to be gifted. So, it’s sort of like this conceptual idea that this is a very simple and inexpensive thing, but when you’re gifted it by someone you love, it becomes something you really love and you save it for 10 years for no reason. As a result, I make things that 1. Have layered meanings that you could translate, and 2. Don’t have me in it.
For the most part they don’t have my name or artist brand on them. Because, it shouldn’t be about me at all, it should be the person who was an asshole to you, or the person who is in the shit with you, young, dumb, full of existential dread, and the person who recognized you trying… you know what I mean? And that’s part of it, it’s like I’m not actually there.
(Music switches from Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill to the new Tegan and Sara album)
I feel a lot of parallels with Tegan and Sara, and musicians like that who have been doing their thing for a long time but have to be commercial. If I did painting and I sold 3 paintings, that’s not a life. But if I want to communicate my message I can bury it in my equivalent of a pop song which would be a pin or a balloon. I want you to feel this feeling and I’m going to sneak it in there.
I think people in our roles are maybe too precious about their art. I would love to be respected, but I also want 80 thousand people to have my stupid book, and pick a page of it that they really love. This book is definitely a recover journal. It’s not subtle. The new book is really not subtle. It’s called Pick Me Up. It’s literally called “hang in there, it’s going to be fine.”
I just want to make a nice thing that people who are looking for something can find something in. That’s it.
You can check out more of Adam’s work on his website, his blog, and give him a follow on Instagram.