Abbey Watkins for VOLCOM

photos by Britta Burger

Chances are quite a few of you already follow @tobaccoandleather, Abbey Watkins’ Instagram. And if you don’t we highly recommend you do, 36k fans of her darkly beautiful art can’t be wrong. The people at Volcom loved Abbey’s punk rock vibe so much they asked her to draw illustrations for their Volcomunity line.

We ventured to a hidden warehouse in North London’s Seven Sisters to shoot her in her super inspiring live-workspace, surrounded by strange ruins and a semi-abandoned skate park, wearing Fall Volcomunity… And we had a little chat about reported images, freedom of expression and growing up in the countryside.

You normally create images on your own, how does it feel working as an illustrator and model with Volcom?
I love working with other people, it’s always an opportunity to expand or follow a new direction you wouldn’t have found otherwise. When you spend most of your time working for yourself and being your own motivation, it’s good to get a new reason to work hard every now and then, it keeps a good flow going.

You said you’re nervous about having your picture taken, how was the shoot?
I’m always a bit nervous about having my photograph taken but I felt totally comfortable. It was a very laid back shoot at home and walking to the park where I go most days so it almost just felt like a friendly chat with a camera.

Social media censor your images sometimes, how important is freedom of expression for you as an artist?
Freedom of expression is incredibly important, I think censorship has its place, but not where art is concerned. When I’m drawing something or thinking through ideas I don’t give any thought to it being offensive, or containing nudity or violence, I think that’s a dangerous path that leads to our thoughts being limited or associated with guilt in some way. It’s a shame that we can’t post the naked body on a forum such as Instagram, where all kinds of other questionable things are being posted. It’s especially frustrating when that kind of prejudice against the body in its most natural state leaks onto people like myself who merely recreate that image with graphite. It’s a real shame!

How far would you go to defend your artistic freedom?
I would fight very hard for my freedoms, but within the confines of social media, I understand it. They have rules and we have to operate within them otherwise we get booted off and lose contact with the incredible community it brings people like myself. So it’s frustrating when people report a drawing containing nudity but I understand the need to mediate. I probably wouldn’t want my (imaginary) children encountering an uncensored social media site until a certain age.

Some of your work has been described as ‘dark’, are you a bit of a goth in your everyday life too or is it more about a fantasy world you explore in your art?
I have been hearing the word ‘dark’ a lot recently! I think I just have a very wild imagination. The darkness in my art is influenced by my personal tastes, I do just love the colour black, and I listen to a lot of stoner rock, heavy metal and ambient music that could perhaps encourage that kind of creative mood. This sounds terribly morbid and depressing but I spend a lot of time thinking, and often about death. But more in an accepting and positive way, so my work is perhaps dark, but it’s all an exploration of my imagination, thoughts and feelings rather than a simple expression of a ‘goth’ kind of person. I wouldn’t really say I was gothic, I like black and I like leather, boots, heavy music etc. but there is a much softer and lighter side to me that not everyone gets to see.

Has growing up in the countryside influenced your work?
Most definitely. I love nature, I love to walk and I really love birds and all wildlife. I still have some work to do on accepting bugs but I’m getting there! I used to go on the back of my granddad’s motorcycle through the Welsh hills and all over the country and he would point out all the birds we saw. Things like that definitely stay with you. I’m very grateful of it.

You are super popular on Instagram. Any tips on how young artists can get a loyal social media fan base?
I’ve been incredibly lucky that so many people have chosen to tune in to my little art journey on Instagram. People are so supportive and lovely, it’s incredible. Some people like to discredit it because it’s ‘just social media’ but there are some real people behind the likes and the numbers. My general approach is to be honest, be nice, be yourself and work hard. Give when you can and communicate! I don’t think I really went after followers as such, I think that’s probably an unhealthy way to go about it. If you’re being true to your thing, people will come along for the ride.

All images shot analogue with film from lomography.

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