Hanson Akatti is a Ghanaian digital artist, graphic designer, and illustrator who resides in Accra, Ghana. Hanson’s work is a combination of all his passions: music, graffiti, film, hip hop culture, and comic books, to name a few.
While crafting cartoonish characters and colourful illustrations, Hanson has developed a great perspective on culture and metropolitan life in the capital.
Hanson might be known for his uniquely distinct airbrush style, but he’s also known for his whimsical caricature work of popular artists and celebrities. The popular teen musician Willow Smith even reposted his illustration of her on her own Instagram account, which gained a lot of online reaction. He’s also done a lot of graphic design work for popular Ghanaian artists like rapper E.L. and singer Efya.
In 2014, Hanson lended his talents to Golden Baobab, a non-profit organization established in 2008 to stimulate the development of world-class African children’s literary work. The result was a beautifully illustrated poster to celebrate the launch of the Golden Baobab Prize for Illustrations, a $7,500 prize awarded annually to an African illustrator who demonstrates the talent and passion for illustrating for children. Contributing to the biggest annual pan-African award for African illustrators? Pretty big deal, if you ask us!
Describe your creative journey. Were you drawing from an early age?
The first time I realised that I could draw was really early, back in kindergarten. One weekend before school, I saw ‘Robocop’ for the first time. In my school, when you finished all your work early they would allow you to draw on these mini-boards and just be creative. So I decided to do a police car in the same style as the Detroit Police cars in the movie.
I drew them with this cube technique my brother Kofi taught me. You know how when you’re learning to draw with basic shapes, you use a rectangle for the body and two circles for wheels? This was the 3-D version of that. So I drew the car with lights and lots and lots of guns. Next thing I know everyone is behind me watching me draw on the board! The teacher thought I was causing too much raucous in the class and wanted me to stop…that was cool (Laughs). That’s when I realised that I could really draw.
Your art takes cues from a lot of different backgrounds, like hip hop and comic books. Which influences came first? Was it musical influences or art influences?
I think it was both. They all happened pretty much around the same time. Art influences have transcendence so whatever you pick up from one platform can be applied to the next. I started listening to music really early because I have brothers who are way older than me and I was listening to the same music that they were listening to at the time. When you’re a kid you look up to these guys and you aspire to be them so you pick up on everything they like. One of my brother’s friends came to our house with an X-Men comic book. I was wowed by the art in it and I had to redraw it. That was the first touchpoint that got me into comic art. I saw the art and it blew my mind how they stretched the limit of what a body can do. It was probably years later before I started actually reading comics and then realised that there was actually a story and a narrative that followed each book and I figured that I probably should follow it.
Do you remember which issue of ‘X-Men’ it was that you first read?
I think the first story arc I read was ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Back before the internet there were crazy continuity issues; you would hardly get an issue of a comic book that followed the previous one. But I got all the issues of the Apocalypse arc and that was exciting.
Yeah, I remember when we were kids, continuity was a huge problem when you bought a comic in Ghana. Anytime you saw ‘To Be Continued’…
(Laughs) Yeah! Man, that shit was...
You had to make the story up after that because there was no way to get the next issue and find out what happened!
The thing is I was very lucky because outside my primary school, St Martin de Porres, there was a newsstand that happened to sell comics. It look liked that New York City newsstand in ‘The Watchmen’, the one that old man used to own? I see. And what other influences did you have growing up? Cartoons. I liked the Hanna-Barbera cartoons the most, like The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and then there was Jonny Quest. I liked The Jetsons especially because it opened my mind to what could be possible in the future: flying cars, a robot cleaning lady..it opened my mind and helped my realise how far you could stretch your imagination.
How has Ghana inspired you creatively?
One of the things I’ve learnt is to make due with what you have. Creativity is about being resourceful with what’s around you and making something great out of it. I always thought that I needed the best equipment and tools to get my work out there. I started obsessing over it and then I realised that it’s no big deal and I could still rub shoulders with anyone out there. Growing up, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t possible for us to make the kind of stuff that was made elsewhere, especially with movies.
One huge influence is urban life in Accra. When I was figuring out my style I realised that Ghana is changing. Change is constant, obviously, but I started noticing the urban-ness of our society: things like hiplife, the people who spoke in pidgin, the trotros, the fashion, that kind of stuff. I was realising that Ghana was more than the ethnic Africa that’s always being shown. Any time Africa was portrayed in the art world it was always on some “ethnic” shit, like some woman carrying a baby, but [the media] was totally disregarding and neglecting our urban growth. I wanted to push that in my work and make Ghana look cool in that regard. Because I was born and raised in Accra, the city is all I know. I know that more than I know about huts and villages. The ‘Chale’ series is a good example of that, where I just drew scenes of urban life in Accra.
One of the characters in that series is The School Boy. That’s probably what I’m known in Ghana for the most. My friend Jeffrey [Manu] had a clothing line and he asked me to do an illustration of a school boy that he could put on his T-shirts. One of the things that I like to do with my illustrations is give them a lot of character; you can see them and you can talk about them and you could know whether they were good or bad. The School Boy illustration was one of them; he looked like someone who didn’t want to be in school. His clothes were dirty, his uniform had patches….I was told that when it was posted on Facebook, people made their own origin stories of where he was from. They spoke about him like they knew him, and that was cool. I’ve heard people say that I pioneered Ghanaian illustrations, and that’s true to some extent. I would say the School Boy illustration made me realise that it was possible to have good illustrations that focused on Ghanaian subject matter that could match the quality of art anywhere else...