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'The visual of Tokyo — this busy, cramped, full-of-buildings place — is what inspires me.'

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Feature by Mikaela Aitken

So enamored with their adopted city of Tokyo, French art director David Robert and British illustrator Andrew Joyce founded The Tōkyōiter. In this visual love letter to Japan’s capital, the duo riff off The New Yorker and commission an international community of artists and illustrators to draw their unique take on Tokyo.

Since publishing the first cover in 2015, with the help of Tatsushi Eto, The Tōkyōiter has amassed a global following of creatives and keen travelers. For David and Andrew, The Tōkyōiter has unlocked the door to global collaboration. Drawing on artists from all pockets of the world, the pair are giving free reign to creativity, with the result being an outpouring of positivity for Tokyo. We chat to David and Andrew about seeing Tokyo afresh with each new cover, the city’s cinematic beauty, and their favorite Travel Gems to discover around the capital.


On ‘The Tōkyōiter’

DR: The Tōkyōiter is all about sharing the work of creatives, artists and illustrators that we like. At the core of Tōkyōiter is our passion for illustration and our passion for Japan. I was driven by wanting to discover new artists. It also inspires me to relook at my home city, reassess it and see it through a new set of eyes.

On Tokyo through the lens of illustrators

AJ: The best part of this project is downloading the covers and seeing the image pop up on your screen. It’s like opening a present every time. One of the big successes is that we don’t have covers of anime, sushi or other stereotypical images of Tokyo. It’s always a surprise. It’s such a joy to be able to see what Tokyo looks like to another person.

On how the covers are created

AJ: There’s no brief. The only thing we ask is that it’s connected to Tokyo or inspired by Tokyo in some way. There’s also no deadline. We want it to be fun for them, an opportunity to try a new direction and experiment. We started out asking our friends, then thought ‘let’s be cheeky and ask people we really admire’. Now it’s at the point where we receive emails everyday with people asking how they can collaborate. 

DR: I think the only thing we always ask is: ‘Have you ever been to Tokyo?’ What we want to avoid is clichés of Japan. So having visited or lived in Tokyo is our only limit. After that, we give the artists the freedom, and hope they have fun.

British illustrator Andrew Joyce and French art director David Robert both found their way to Japan while seeking a new challenge and a push for their work. Arriving in Tokyo around a similar time, the pair met at a community creative event. A little down the track David proposed the idea of The Tōkyōiter — a global community dedicated to celebrating the visual energy of the Japanese capital. Japanese license images courtesy of David Robert and Andrew Joyce.

On the positivity of the project

AJ: Through social media or emails we hear how covers remind people of their first time to Japan, or a memory of a great time they had there. And people always want to buy covers that may be of this little place around the corner from their apartment, or so on. Recently we had one cover from the Park Hyatt Tokyo — you know, the scene from Lost in Translation, with the famous bar overlooking the city. Molly Maine, the artist, had illustrated this one particular window scene, which happened to be the exact table where I proposed to my wife more than 10 years ago. When I saw it, I became one of the fans — I emailed Molly straight away and said I wanted to buy it and frame it.

‘At the core of Tōkyōiter is our passion for illustration and our passion for Japan. It inspires me to look at my home city, reassess it and see it through a new set of eyes.’

On how travel inspires you

DR: To be honest, I was not much of a traveler. But traveling to Japan opened me up. I don’t think I could have met Andy or so many people if I didn’t travel. Traveling has inspired me to do more. 

AJ: In terms of work, travel inspires you. Illustration, from my perspective, is sitting at a desk, trying to be creative. It may seem like a freelance illustrator can go off to the woods, or up to a mountain to draw and gain inspiration, but deadlines don’t give you that opportunity. So travel gives creatives the opportunity to take their sketchbook, sit in a café, go to the mountain or sit in a lodge with no internet for a week, and find what they love about drawing again. Travel provides a little top-up, a recharge, and a way to enjoy creativity again.

Since the first cover in 2015, The Tōkyōiter has shared the works of wide-reaching global artists and illustrators, all with one thing in common: a visit to Tokyo. Having been to Tokyo is the only criteria David and Andrew place on the commissions, giving the artists full creative license. In order of appearance, these covers are by Elora, Miwa Goto, Dao Nguyen, Louis-Étienne Vallée and James Daw. Artwork courtesy of The Tōkyōiter.

On Tokyo: the social shortcut

AJ: One of the great things about Tokyo is that a lot of creatives visit. In this age of social media, even if they’re a big name, you can reach out. Tokyo is this weird social shortcut: people you might normally be too nervous to message, you just connect and say ‘I see you’re in Tokyo, I’ve been based here for several years, would you be interested in a coffee and I can show you around’. More often than not, they're friendly people, you get talking about the project, and they agree to make covers. People like James Curran, who is well-known for his GIFs, made a cover for us. It would happen quite naturally, and The Tōkyōiter was just born through meeting people in Tokyo.

‘Going up somewhere high to see the city from above has always been inspiring. You can go up to the Tokyo Teleport in Odaiba, close to the airport, and see a classic cityscape.’

On finding your community in Tokyo

DR: Maybe in your own country, you socialize differently. In Japan, people are either much more at ease, or immediately more challenged. There’s a lightness and people are more open to new discoveries. It’s a privilege to be a foreigner in a foreign country — you have to push yourself, but you are also more at ease to discover. 


AJ: There is definitely an expat community that is very open, very friendly and very helpful. People are welcoming if you’re new on the scene. In terms of the local community, it’s just as open and friendly, but I think it depends on language ability — how confident you are to go in there and just start talking to people. It’s definitely lively, vibrant and welcoming, but it depends on different factors.

On Tokyo from above

AJ: In my early career, I was drawing a lot of maps and buildings. I was really into architecture. I remember first arriving in Tokyo, being on the train, and seeing how busy, tight and cramped the buildings are. For me, going up somewhere high to see the city from above has always been inspiring. You can go up to the Telecom Center in Odaiba, close to the airport, and see a classic cityscape. You’ve also got the Tokyo Tower, Skytree and Rainbow Bridge, where you can see from one end of the city to the other. There are cafés at the top of Tokyu Hands in Shibuya that also give really good views from within the city. I would come back with all these sketches and drawings full of all the details of buildings. The visual of the city — this busy, cramped, full-of-buildings place — was the thing that inspired me. You don’t even have to be high up. There are bars down the side streets of Shibuya that give you that view of the Yamanote train going past and all the skyscrapers in the background, and you can look down and see people walking in the street. You get these different level views from almost anywhere.


In the early days of The Tōkyōiter, David and Andrew were also joined by Japanese illustrator and creative director Tatsushi Eto. Through print sales and community events, the team built a dedicated following — both within Tokyo and internationally. Today, the platform has become an unlikely window into the cultural intricacies and charming oddities of the modern metropolis. Images courtesy of The Tōkyōiter.

On the in-built cinematography of Japan’s landscapes

DR: Every day you discover or rediscover something. Earlier today, I was coming down the escalator in a store, and there was this aerial perspective of the street with the railroad, and a big avenue with a building behind, and then a small temple with a torii (red gate) on top of the building. I looked at that frame and I was like ‘wow’. First of all, it looks like a drawing from Andy, and also this perspective is amazing — you have everything in this frame and you see the cinematography of the visual Japan. I like this cinematic feeling of Japan. Wherever you lay your eyes, you can take a screenshot in your mind and it’s a frame from a movie. That’s always been what I liked about Japan from the moment I first visited.

On getting out of the city

DR: I’m a big fan of taking the train and going out of the city. I like when you see the landscape of Tokyo slowly disappearing, and nature coming in with rice fields, and then you hit the shore and the architecture is different — the houses are bigger and more traditional. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of surfing so I take the train to Onjuku in Chiba because you can be on the beach in just two hours.


‘I like the cinematic feeling of Japan. Wherever you lay your eyes, you can take a screenshot in your mind and it’s a frame from a movie.’

On showing a friend around Tokyo for the day

DR: For obvious and simple, I really like Asakusa, which is a more traditional area on the east side, with an old-school Tokyo vibe. For something unusual, I would go to Shitamachi, in downtown Tokyo, almost Chiba prefecture. There is also an area called Katsushika, which has a very old temple and a small street with old restaurants and old confectionery shops. It’s famous for a series of movies called Tora-San, which are Japanese comedies from the 70s. The area feels like you’re in a small movie — it’s where I took my wife on our first date actually. 

AJ: I’d probably take them to my favorite exhibition space in Roppongi called 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. They have the most amazing exhibitions and displays. It can be a bit hidden away so I’d try and take someone there. We would always take people out to izakayas [Japanese pubs] and get food and drinks. Then there’s Shibuya Yokocho, a drinking street in Shibuya. It’s very cinematic. You’ve got these lanterns and these tiny bars, which are actually two floors. Each bar can hold maybe six people and has their own owner with their own personality. We would take people there and just go for drinks. There’s one called TIGHT, it’s on the second floor of Yokocho. I believe it’s been there for a long time. It’s really, really good. Then of course, coffee is the best shortcut, so over the years, you learn all the different cafés. I think we would try and take them to the less obvious places and grab coffee, sit down, draw with them, chat.


For illustrators, Tokyo is a visual feast. Although no longer based in the city, Andrew shares his tips on where he used to frequent to put pen to paper. Drawn to sweeping views and the bigger picture, Andrew’s illustrations celebrate the cramped charm of Tokyo. Artwork courtesy of Andrew Joyce.

On where to get coffee in Tokyo

AJ: There's a really great place just outside of the main city, called Slope. It's in Kamiigusa where I used to live, and it's where they make a lot of anime and animated movies. There’s a really nice café there. It’s very comfortable to draw and drink.


On where to connect with the creative community

DR: PechaKucha is a good place for creatives to meet and see new people. Online there’s something called Canvas, which was started by Mark McFarlane, and he created this online community where people can post their own work and discuss all sorts of topics. Luis Mendo is running a hotel for creatives in Tokyo and has always had some very cool people around him. He really embraced the illustration career when he arrived, and now he’s moving and getting more and more famous. 

AJ: Following illustrators in Tokyo is really useful. There are always events or exhibitions going on and it’s a great way to meet up and socialize. There are a couple of galleries, like HB Gallery and Le Monde, which are great for illustrators.


‘There's a really great place just outside of the main city, called Slope, that’s very comfortable to draw and drink. It's in Kamiigusa where they make a lot of anime and animated movies.’

On inspiring creatives in Tokyo

AJ: It’s worth checking out Bakumae. He does a lot of work in Tokyo but he’s actually based in Hokkaido. His work changes, and not just subtly — he will go into a whole new medium one year, and then the next year, he’s working in a completely different space. His work is amazing and he seems to be very good at many different things. I’m really into Grace Lee, an illustrator that is a friend of ours. She’s been there for a long time as well. Her work is always super inspiring and fun, and she’s open and friendly, whether you’re meeting her in person at one of our exhibitions or online. She always has time for people.

Tokyo has been David’s homebase since 2013. He says the cinematic potential of every streetscape or the beauty of the most minute detail is what helps keep him inspired. Top photo by Clay Banks, bottom photos by David Robert.

On a window or an aisle seat

AJ: An aisle. I used to be terrified of flying, so I’d ensure I was by the window. Then something clicked — I think having children. Now, I'm almost not afraid of flying. When you go for the aisle, you learn to let go and think ‘Okay, we're on board. Nothing can be done’. 

DR: I'm going to be very practical. I'm pretty tall, so definitely the aisle, because I want to spread my legs and I don't want to feel like I'm trapped. If I'm on the train, I would definitely take the window.

‘I found a lot of comfort being surrounded and knowing that everyone is busy doing their own thing, and you’re just this person traveling through that. Tokyo is very comforting.’

On Tokyo in one word

AJ: Comforting.

I grew up in the countryside. So whenever I left Tokyo and came back, I loved that feeling of being surrounded by the city. Even sitting in these bars or restaurants and looking out, you can see that you’re surrounded. For me, I found a lot of comfort being surrounded and knowing that everyone is busy doing their own thing, and you’re just this person traveling through that. So for me, Tokyo was very comforting. 

DR: Electric.

It’s pretty obvious if you’ve been to Tokyo because there’s so much life around. But I also think, literally, it’s an electric city. There’s so much electricity everywhere — the trains, the lights, the food, the restaurants — and you feel the electricity in the vibe of the city and the people. Even though people are polite here, there’s always something electric, especially when night comes.


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