With only a blue ballpoint pen Dadu Shin creates illustrations dripping in eeriness
After spending ten years working in editorial illustration, the New York-based creative is now looking to “make work that originates with me and me alone,” exploring themes of culture, social life and his Asian-American heritage.
- Olivia Hingley
- 16 May 2022
The most impressive and utterly intriguing element of illustrator Dadu Shin’s recent work is how it builds such a palpable sense of eeriness with such understated imagery. A single rain-spotted window, a pair of eyes peering over a bowl of noodles, and a head from behind, a smoking cigarette clasped between their fingers. Dadu explains this crafting of an atmosphere of unease to be very purposeful. “The simple answer is that I just like work that kind of has an eerie, melancholic aesthetic… it fits in with my self view”. And the longer answer, the illustrator shares, “is that it’s both an aesthetic choice and a representation of how I’ve been thinking of things lately. The world can be pretty, beautiful, and wholesome, but the world is also most definitely unsettling and weird.”
After attending the Rhode Island School of Design and majoring in illustration, Dadu originally felt illustration to be a field with a lot of scope and accessibility. However, upon graduating, Dadu felt as though editorial illustration provided the only “viable” path available to him. Now having worked in editorial for over ten years – and feeling as though he has been “illustrating someone else’s idea, someone else’s feelings and someone else’s perspective” – the illustrator has been inspired by “making work that originates with me and me alone”. Now focusing on themes much closer to himself and his identity, Dadu’s work of late has explored things as diverse and complicated as his culture, his upbringing, his age, social life and, significantly, his Asian-American heritage.
These questions of identity and heritage are brilliantly explored in his piece Motherland. The close-up depiction of a face covered in sweat has a disquieting energy, subtly translating feelings of unease and discomfort through both its composition and imagery. Intended to encapsulate Dadu’s own personal feelings of uncertainty, the piece is representative of Dadu’s “anxiety surrounding my inability to speak Korean fluently”. “When I was younger I remember going to Korea and feeling the confusion of feeling like an outsider in a place filled with ‘my people’,” Dadu shares. “Like many other children of immigrants, I feel a little embarrassed that I am one of the first in my family tree to be not fluent in the language of the ‘motherland’.”
It was this significant shift in attention that also instigated a shift in Dadu’s illustrative style. “I found monochromatic drawings to be the best vehicle to achieve my new focus,” says the illustrator. “I also like the simplicity of the execution. It’s a somewhat stripped-down way to work.” And, what’s more, the style offered more time to focus on the subject matter and the feelings he wanted to convey. “I didn’t have to think about colour, brushes, or textures. I could just think about what I wanted to draw and draw it," Dadu says pointedly.
The very distinct, slightly fuzzy impression created throughout his work, Dadu explains to be rooted in his sketchbook doodles. “Though building layers of pen marks, I found that I could still control the softness of edges,” he says, “and I discovered if I just draw a bunch of squiggles, it kind of let me loosen up a bit and not hold my pen so tightly, while also achieving a more rendered look when desired.” And, much the same, Dadu’s landing on a blue pen happened “organically”. “I was using blue ballpoints in my sketchbook and I ended up liking how the colour looked on the paper I was using,” he details, “The blue also worked well with the softness I was originally trying to achieve a lot of the earlier drawings. Black was too strong.”
If there is one final thing that Dadu is keen to impress upon, however, it is that he has no desire to restrict his style. “Don’t get me wrong, I still very much make work that is painterly and colourful,” the illustrator finishes. “I’ve always been someone who likes trying new things and I never want to feel trapped by an aesthetic of my own making.”
Dadu Shin: Motherland (Copyright © Dadu Shin, 2021)
About the Author
Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.