The delectable lettering of Leandro Assis is a vibrant reflection of his own journey
With projects for RuPaul’s Drag Race, YouTube, Nike, Netflix and Google already under his belt, it seems the world is slowly but surely being given the Leandro golden touch.
Lettering artist and illustrator Leandro Assis knew he was gay from a very young age, an experience he strongly believes brought him to his specific niche of the creative sphere in more ways than one. Growing up in a “giant family” in Rio de Janeiro, when he was around nine years old, he remembers feeling different yet wanting to blend in, and attempting to do so through his handwriting. “I understood I was trying to simulate different types of writing considered less feminine, to escape being mocked,” he explains. In doing so, Leandro feels he “was forced to reinvent the way I write,” and, unknowingly at the time, picked up invaluable skills in creative observation and portrayal.
“I see now that this exercise made me open up a world of possibilities,” Leandro tells us. “I ended up watching the way my friends write and that made me understand more about the connection between the person and their personality in handwriting. I believe it has a lot to do with what I do today. I always try to understand what kind of feeling I want to awaken in people through the typographic style of my letterings.”
Later, in his teens, his continued search for identity led him to magazines, where more creative foundations were laid within Leandro, influenced by both the content and design of these formative publications. “I was looking for an explanation for all the feels in teen magazines,” he says. He began collaging and assembling his own zines from cut-out articles and imagery, along the way building an understanding of himself and his own taste. “By then, I was already hooked by design and I knew it was going to become my profession.”
Fast-forward a few years and Leandro’s career has so far seen him work in an advertising agency, small and large design studios, even run his own design studio for four years. But it was only three years ago that he chose to focus on lettering, realising that throughout all these roles he had “always looked for places where I could be a lettering artist” and enjoyed that process the most. This is evident simply glimpsing through his vibrant portfolio, his projects for world-leading brands fizzing with energy and fun. Despite his journey, however, all of what Leandro creates remains infused with elements of his formative years. “I basically use all my graphic references from when I was a teenager in my work,” he says. “It is the time that I was discovering myself as a Black queer person and that is where most of my art inspirations come from. The pop songs and album covers I listened to, the movies, TV shows, the books.” He also cites artists and designers such as Parra, Erik Marinovich, Nina Chanel Abney, Inji Seo, Karabo Poppy, Jade Purple Brown, Steven Harrington and Genie Espinosa as personal inspirations, as “people who mixed art and design with typography,” and brings in elements of psychedelia, tropicalia, pop art and art nouveau for added flair.
Among his portfolio is a mega project for Netflix, wherein he was asked to make 100 stickers for the streamer’s Tudum festival, collated into an almanac that is reminiscent of Leandro’s collaging days. There’s also a recent dream-come-true project for Nike. For this, Leandro was asked to create a series of illustrations and typographic artworks for a Nike Remix Pack, a collection of six classic sneakers adorned with a special-edition design. His final artwork was inspired by 90s street style, featuring patterns, iconography and colours drawn from his teenage era. It was also a project close to his heart as a self-confessed sneakerhead, something he also attributes to his grapplings with self-image growing up. “I’ve always been a big person and getting dressed has always been an issue, because it is difficult to find clothes of my size in the stores I wanted,” he explains. “So sneakers were always the piece of clothing that I knew could express my personality. It was always something very important to building my self-esteem.” Bringing an intricate knowledge of sneaker design to the project, particularly historical collections that used experimental typography and graphics, the open brief allowed Leandro to put much of himself into the final result, something he’s extremely proud of. “Did I cry a little? Hell yeah,” he writes on his site.
Another of his recent projects for RuPaul’s Drag Race also felt personally important to Leandro, as he describes that, above all, he wants to use design as a tool “to talk about things I care about” such as Black culture, gender topics and LGBTQ+ rights. And there can be no more mainstream celebration of queer culture than RuPaul’s globally beloved show. Leandro was brought into the project by Aries Moross, whose studio created the visual campaign for season 13, and looked to Leandro to create lettering designs for each queen based on their individual personas. The artist says the process helped develop his practice, with a team “who dealt with typography in a different way,” and that the results were “one of the projects my friends (and RuPaul fans) liked the most!”.
Leandro cites Aries as a personal inspiration and “trailblazer designer” whom he’s loved from the beginning of his career, so this was another bucket list project. At the start of his career, Leandro says he was scared to reveal to people he worked with that he was gay, but this project represented the other end of that spectrum in the most wonderful way. “It's inspiring to see people from the LGBTQIA + community influencing each other in a way that says that it's okay to be the way we are,” he says.
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Leandro Assis: Hellow Festival (Copyright © CDMX, 2020)
The artist also feels that being Black also set him apart in the creative world, as starting out he says “didn't see many people who looked like me” especially in typography, which he says is mostly composed of white, straight men. As such, there was “a lack of reference from successful Black people in design to inspire me and prove it is possible,” he says. “Today I know important Black designers who came before that were not even mentioned in my design course. It's sad.” To add insult to injury, design education is expensive, he says, and so it seems “everything is done to hinder the entry of people who do not follow the same pattern”.
“When you go looking for a job in a cool studio or company, you hardly ever see Black people in decision making or even a part of that team. At design events, when you have money to go you get comments like ‘you don't even look like a designer’ or are mistaken for a staff member. I have lost count of how many times this has happened to me. It sends you a message that you don't belong in there. I studied on a design course where I was the only Black person, you know? It is a very elitist space.”
Hence Leandro sets out to not only be true to himself, but evoke that individualism through his work. “I’ve tried hard to fit into what was expected of a designer. But I don't identify with most things. And I only managed to find myself professionally when I got rid of that burden. When I was able to understand that my lettering was not perfect or that my reference did not always come directly from cultural movements. And it's ok. There's no rules. I missed hearing more people saying this to me during my journey. It would certainly be easier.
“I embrace my story today and what got me here through my work, my style and the projects I choose to be part of. And there are people who identify with that. I get a lot of messages from other Black creatives talking about how good it is sometimes to see other examples of Black people occupying some spaces that I occupy today. And I believe this is so important. Show the diversity of our work and that there is room for our excellence.”