Sophia Halamoda is a Berlin-based illustrator who’s been living in the city for four years. Earlier this year, she drew a tongue-in-cheek illustrated guide on how to get into Berghain that went viral – with I Heart Berlin, ID, the Ministry of Sound, Interview Magazine, Berliner Zeitung, Mit Vergnügen and Jetzt all publishing it. I was intrigued to discover how much viral success in the online world could change things for a young artist like her.
How did this runaway illustration success come about?
Me and my friends hadn’t been to Berghain for ages – at least over a year – and it was the third Sunday in a row when we wanted to go and someone got sick or had to work. So instead of going to Berghain, I wrote down this idea in half an hour. I didn’t put much more effort into it. The next day I started to illustrate it and after two days it was done. I created it as a joke for these same friends; most of the stuff I wrote was stuff I’d taken from them, because they’re so obsessed with Berghain.
That makes sense, because the whole guide just feels like a conversation with your friends, like that one page where you get to the door and you have to do the last-minute math when you talk to the bouncer – how many are there in your group? One? Two? Three? None?
Yeah, the last one’s a joke obviously!
So, given that it was basically just an inside joke between you and your friends, how did it feel when it went viral?
I couldn’t believe it when it took off. I still think it’s crazy how fast something can go viral but also how it feels like it’s not in your hands anymore. It’s a cool feeling but it’s also pretty strange. I never experienced this sensation of losing control over my work before. Some magazines took my images and they photoshopped them into a new format and that’s all fine but I had no influence anymore over what was happening with my work.
Even though you didn’t create it with an eye to it going viral, maybe you’ve learnt enough to be able to tell me: what’s the secret to viral content?
Ha! I don’t think there’s a recipe for virality. It’s so unpredictable; I think it’s more about starting from an honest place. Usually something goes viral if people can connect to it somehow, so honesty’s important. I always think having these great ideas is hard because you can’t make them come. It’s a bit like when you want a boyfriend and you’re like “I need to find someone tonight!” and maybe you meet someone but they’re not right. The right person always shows up when you’re not expecting it at all. I think it’s a little bit similar with ideas. You just have to recognize them when they come along and that’s the main thing.
Don’t be afraid of being too vulnerable. And think about what nobody’s talked about yet. The Berghain thing: there were loads of guides on how to get in, but they were all so serious, which is ridiculous: how people take it so seriously. And there’s even an app for how to get in, which gives you live updates on the crowd. Everyone has been making fun of the app, so I guess that’s also why this one did so well: because it’s something everyone thinks about but nobody had done.
And now that you can tick going viral off your to-do list, what are your creative goals for the future?
I have so many ideas for comic books. My dream would be to have my own book-publishing label with other people. It’s tricky because I’m not a very logical person – I’m just an artist. I can’t be bothered looking into business plans and numbers; I just want to produce art.
So if you’re not interested in the admin side, why is that your dream? I’ve worked in publishing and it’s like, 80% admin.
Yeah, maybe it would be better if I just found a publisher that does it all for me. I want to make more Berlin guides, sell two or three of them together as a Welcome Pack. It could be the same character going through all of them. I’m still figuring out how to fine-tune it and make an ongoing thing out of these guides.
I was re-reading the Berghain guide and the Bürgeramt guide and one thing stuck with me: I couldn’t really figure out whether the emphasis was more on the characters and their experiences or the location. What are you more inspired by, people or place?
I think it goes hand in hand – place affects the way people operate and vice versa. It’s all interlinked somehow. I’ve never lived in such an entertaining city as Berlin before.
What do you find entertaining about it?
The hype and the different kinds of people you get and how they behave and this whole hipster trend is super fascinating to me, how everyone’s trying to become so individual but in the end, they’re all exactly the same. Berlin is just a weird place.
Maybe it’s interesting as someone who watches people. I feel like the whole hipster thing is all about self-consciousness, so it’s you watching people, watching themselves.
It’s true, I observe a lot of people. Sometimes I sit on the Ringbahn and on a boring day I’ll just go round and round and round and make sketches of people or write funny stuff down.
No way, how have I never seen you on the Ringbahn? I’m a Bahn addict.
Well, maybe I’ve drawn you.
Oh god, I hope not. I’m always half asleep on the bahn. So is sitting on the S-Bahn just an average day for you?
It’s very different when I do a graphic recording. It’s a very “normal routine” – I get up in the morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work, workshop, whatever, draw the whole day, come back in the evening, make a digital version of the drawing I just did and send it to the client. And then sometimes I have to prepare a lot for workshops, draw templates or just get into the right mindset for the workshop topic.
And if I’m not working for a client that day, I get up super late, I water my plants, do some cleaning and start drawing around 3 or 4pm. I usually don’t create art in the first half of the day – only if I have to. If I really get into something, I often find myself still working at 3 or 4am, in the middle of the night and then I have to really force myself to go to sleep and stop it.
Wow, that sounds intense. But just to clarify: your client work is doing graphic recording?
Yes, exactly, I do that as a freelancer. It’s basically what I do most of my time up until now, when it’s slowly changing.
And what does graphic recording actually entail?
Well, I go to a conference or a workshop or any kind of talk and I listen and draw an image of what they say, so it’s like a creative mind map in a way, but with comic elements. And there’s also text, so it’s informative but also visually attractive. Then people use it afterwards for documentation or they post it on their website to show the outcome of the event. I do it for a lot of government stuff, a lot of ministries, a lot of NGOs, a lot of working organisations and corporate clients like Coca Cola or Mercedes. It’s very mixed, so I get a lot of insights into places I would never normally go to, so that’s fun.
We’ve covered your offline inspiration – Berlin and how graphic recording broadens your horizons, creatively. But what about your aesthetic inspiration? Are there illustrators you’re really into?
I’m not so into illustrators as I am artists and musicians – I like the musician Amanda Palmer and the way she does her art is by crowd-funding all the time; I just love the way she interacts with her fans. Her fans donate money to her and she donates songs to them – it’s very interactive. I find that super inspiring. I like Allison Schulnik – she does these amazing sculptures. Of course I also like to go to illustration markets or bookshops to get inspiration. I always go to the Berlin graphic days, I just went to the Comic Invasion Berlin festival, which happens twice a year. Besides that, my favourite bookshop is Motto in Kreuzberg. There’s also a magic shop called Zauberkönig on Hermannstr that I love to visit for inspiration – they have all these little cards and beautiful illustrated stuff.
And in terms of your online life, how has the internet helped your career?
That’s a big question. I don’t think I could work without the internet at all. It’s helped me by giving me promotion from my website. It means so much less work – pre Internet you had to go meet people, show them your portfolio in person and it’s still nice to do that, of course, but it’s great how much wider an audience you can reach. I never would have made so many contacts and reached so many magazines with my guide without the internet.
That said, the most helpful connections I’ve made, I’ve made through meeting people in person and giving them my business card. People appreciate meeting the artist and the internet can be very anonymous. So I still kind of believe in doing it in the old school way first, or at least saying: don’t forget about that step, it’s such an essential one. You need both steps, offline and online, especially for an artist.
That sounds like smart advice. Do you have any other tips for emerging illustrators or artists on how to promote their work online?
It sounds pretty basic but send it to as many people as you can via Facebook – Facebook’s better than email because then you can see that they’ve seen it, so people are more motivated to reply. Join networks of other artists – there are Facebook groups like Comic Invasion Berlin.
What are you up to immediately after this interview?
I’m hitting the opticians to buy a new pair of glasses – I lost my old pair on holiday in Cuba.