Illustrator Jay Cover on Art + Authenticity

Posted on 22.11.2023

Hello and welcome to Ed #2 of ISSUES, a new digital pamphlet by Beak aimed at those whose curiosity transcends the world of hops. It’s pretty simple; on the last Friday of each month we’ll send you a free piece of editorial content covering art, nature, music, literature and food (okay, there might also be a bit of beer). Our second edition is an in-depth interview with the renowned artist – and Beak illustrator – Jay Cover. We discuss everything from growing up on a Manx council estate to opening a stationary shop in Tokyo, as well as the importance, and elusiveness, of authenticity in a post-truth world. Enjoy!

BEAK: Hi Jay; before we get into the nitty gritty of your artistic processes and ethos, can you give us a little flavour of your background?

JC: I grew up on the Isle of Man and lived there until I was 21. The majority of my childhood was spent in a tiny town called Ramsey on the north of the island where I lived above a pub that my mum ran. She was single, busy and couldn’t afford a babysitter so me and my sister were often left alone to use our imagination and find our own fun. My first foray into drawing was recreating characters from video games and cereal packets, like Mario and Tony the Tiger. I’m not entirely sure why but I was fascinated by drawing and it was pretty much the only thing I excelled in at school.


BEAK: There’s a strong sense of community that comes through in your work. Is this rooted in your childhood?

JC: In later childhood, we moved to a council estate. I spent a lot of time mucking around, going in and out of other people’s houses. It was a great opportunity to people watch. In our community, there was so much wit and self-deprecating humour. I think this is why a lot of my work continues to be based around community situations. I can visualise these scenarios very easily and my memories of these situations probably help to keep my work grounded and human. We’re both in the business of creating and selling inanimate objects but our creations would be nothing without community, especially beer, which is so intimately connected to the pub. Pubs are weirdly underrated in the UK. I recently went to Japan and noticed that bars there are generally geared towards people from similar demographics. Pubs on the other hand are melting pots for different sorts of people. I think that’s amazing.

BEAK: People have told me that your work instantly makes them feel happy. There’s a clear sense of vibrancy and positivity. Is this something you actively pursue and do you ever feel a responsibility to tackle the darker sides of life?

JC: Even though I have strong opinions on current affairs and other issues, I don’t feel informed enough to make work that is directly informed or reflective of these opinions so instead I make pictures of how I want to see the world, or how I want people to experience it. The aim is to give people another, perhaps more positive, perspective on life, which is hopefully a good thing as there’s so much fucking misery at the moment.

BEAK: We’ve probably jumped forward a bit too quickly…how did you make the transition from drawing cereal pack characters to becoming a professional artist? It’s a journey lots dream of but people few manage to turn into reality…

JC: Growing up, I never knew that being a professional illustrator was even a thing, as there were so few examples of people doing that and earning a living on the Isle of Man. The first time I felt validated in any kind of way was when I won a children’s drawing competition. The mission was to draw something that depicted Englishness and I drew a fried breakfast with all the trimmings ha. It was the first thing I’d ever won. Then as a teenager I went to college to study media, graphic design photography and fine art. In all seriousness, I think I was the first person ever on the island to study all art subjects. After that, I did an art foundation
course where I was told by my tutor – a very caring family friend – that I had skills and talent but was essentially being a bell end. He was really hard on me but it was good; it was the first time it felt like someone gave a shit about my career, so after that I knuckled down and became more disciplined.

BEAK: You’re an honorary Yorkshireman. How did you end up in Leeds and in what way did this great city shape your career?

JC: I got onto a Visual Communications course at Leeds College of Art. My mum and stepdad drove me there and the first thing we saw was a woman getting mugged in Morrison’s car park and this guy running off with her bag. My mum was like: “we’re going back!”. It was a real shock as I was from a tiny island with a really low crime rate but I grew to love Leeds. I was very involved with the city’s DIY music scene and would make record sleeves and t-shirts for bands like Sky Larkin, Wintermute and Pulled Apart by Horses. I was also involved in a multidisciplinary design studio called Nous Vous. The first commission we got was to design all of the marketing materials for Light Night Leeds. It’s one of the UK's largest arts and light festivals and a lot of people tender for the commission so it was a huge
turning point for us and I ended up staying in the city for close to a decade. I didn’t really start working completely autonomously until I moved to London and released a book called Flat published by Hato Press, which featured a collection of my digital drawings.

BEAK Can you explain how you came to be involved with Beak and what the story is behind our logo?

JC: The logo was inspired by your roots as a nomadic brewer. It depicts a transient brewer on the move with an imaginary book of recipes. A lot of people won’t know this but in the first draft he was wearing a hobo’s hat and there was a bird perched on the corner of the book. We realised we were probably being a little too literal with the references to birds and nomadic brewing and so decided to remove these bits. Although you’re no longer nomadic and have found a home, I think the metaphor still works because as a small business you’re constantly progressing. On a separate note, it’s interesting how logos take on a life of their own after a while as people stop investigating the reasons why they are how they are. No one asks why the Apple logo is an apple anymore. After a period of time, the symbol just
becomes a second language that is instantly and intimately connected with the brand and the brand’s ethos and ideas. A lot of brands don’t understand this and so insist on going with something more literal, like a stylised hop or something like that. But I’m more interested in depicting the soul of the business, where it comes from, what its story is – these are the things I think are important to convey. Of course, the product needs to hold up, too, so it has to work on both fronts.

BEAK One of the things I like most about your Beak Man logo is how symmetrical and well balanced it is. The man forms a ‘X’ shape that is very satisfying to look at…

JC: There’s also a lightness to it. It’s fragile and fleet of foot, which I think stands in contrast to a lot of other beer logos that can be quite weighty with demons etc ha. Saying that, I just drew you a demon for one of our latest labels. I was thinking to myself “I don’t know if Danny’s gonna have this but I’ll give it a try anyway!”.

BEAK: You’ve been quite outspoken on social media about the importance of
authenticity, especially in relation to plagiarism. Is this a big problem in the world of illustration?
A while ago, I was approached by a very high profile recruitment agency to help with a rebrand. I put them in touch with my agent and never heard back from them. Several months later, their new brand emerged and it featured illustrations that were very similar to my work. In fact, some of the images looked like exact replicas. It turned out they’d employed an art director from a big design agency who had come to my attention a few years earlier after people in the industry had alerted me about the similarity of his work. I understand that work can look similar but this felt like a rip off. I’ve had a huge amount of support from people in my own industry but this particular rebrand was highly praised in the design world, which was pretty sickening. I guess the design community has a slightly different perspective as
designers are generally responsible for assembling components that already exist as opposed to making things from scratch.

BEAK: Would you say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish authentic from inauthentic work in the design world?

JC: I take influence from other people, there’s no doubt about it. But there’s an important line between taking influence and just taking. I think the problem is that there’s quite a lot of people out there who want to take shortcuts or who maybe can’t think for themselves. I live in a bubble, surrounded by people who are inventive and creative, so it’s weird when that bubble gets burst. Like I say, I’m not against being influenced or inspired by other people. In fact, this is really important. For example, I recently saw that the illustrator for Mikkeller has opened his own bar and I thought wow that’s cool but I wouldn’t do that myself.

BEAK: No, you totally should do that, or maybe a traditional Manx-style pub instead! Your life story would then be a complete circle.

JC: Ha yes that would actually be pretty great.


BEAK: You already have an interesting side projects in the pipeline, can you tell us more?

I’m the creative director and partner in a new kid’s stationary company called Woset based in Tokyo. We’ve built this entire world of characters that are depicted across and a really wide range of super high quality products aimed at children, including sketchbooks, clothing, toys and furniture. Japanese culture is quite conservative in many ways, so what we’re trying to do is inspire more freedom and creative play in young people. And one of the ways we are doing this is by using my characters as a device for breaking down barriers. We’re building a really beautiful physical shop in Tokyo as well as an incredible website with animations and episodic stories. Through this, we’ll also be able to tackle subjects like mental health issues whilst encouraging creativity. We should be fully launched by April 2024 so watch this space.  

Interview conducted by Danny Tapper. 

Photo credit: Hamada Hideaki

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