Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Bráulio Amado

Bráulio Amado didn’t have a plan, exactly.

The Portuguese graphic designer was 13 when his family got their first computer — an intoxicating, electric marvel he quickly found himself making fan sites for “really embarrassing bands” on. Between making posters for local bands and “screaming” in his own, Amado started to discover a real love for the the craft, with eyes tepidly set on coming to the states to pursue it full-time.

Here, the now notorious designer & illustrator chats with longtime Ace pal and legendary New York City DJ Justin Strauss for this edition of Just/Talk about bridging punk and electronic aesthetics, his mutant art space SSHH, experimental weirdness at Bloomberg Businessweek and what he would do with one trillion dollars tomorrow.

Justin Strauss:
Hi Braulio!

Bráulio Amado:
I’m really bad at this. Just letting you know.

JS:
I’m good at it now, so I think we will be okay.

When did you know that you’d want to do graphics and art for a living? Was that something you thought about early on in your life?

BA:
Yeah. Probably at 13, I got my first computer, I mean, not my first computer, but first computer at my parent’s house. And there was this website back then called GeoCities. You could make your own websites. So I started using that to make fan sites for bands I liked, really embarrassing bands…

JS:
What bands for instance?

BA:
I would rather not answer that, (laughs).

JS:
Ha. Okay.

BA:
Back then, it was Nu metal and stuff like that. I was 13 years old.

JS:
Was that your first musical influence?

BA:
Definitely Nu metal, but it quickly moved to punk rock music.

With GeoCities, you could design your own websites. After a while, it was kind of limited, so I just decided to learn for myself how to design websites with the proper software and code. That’s kind of the first time I started doing design or graphics. 

JS:
Were you always drawing things as a kid?

BA:
I was always really bad at drawing, so it was kind of frustrating. With the computer I was like, “Ooh, I can make weird stuff that I can’t on a piece of paper.”

JS:
So music was a big part of the inspiration, as well as the art. They kind of went hand in hand for you.

BA:
Completely. Yeah. And until I was like 19 or something, all the design work, all the stuff I did was always for bands.

JS:
And the bands, you would just do it on your own? Or the bands would contact you?

BA:
In the beginning, it was just doing fan sites for bands that I liked. But then when I started getting more into punk music, I started meeting all these people and meeting the bands.

JS:
You were going out to shows?

BA:
Went to shows, yes.

JS:
You were living in Lisbon?

BA:
Actually I lived in Almada, which is like the New Jersey of Lisbon. But, yeah, I met all these people, and I started asking them to let me design their covers or make their websites, or make posters for shows. And then after a few years, I started playing in bands. So then I was doing my own record covers, and then also setting up shows.

JS:
What instrument did you play?

BA:
I played bass and I sang. More like screamed.

And then people started reaching out to me to do artwork for them. So it kind of just happened naturally.

JS:
And what was your first paid job? Do you remember?

BA:
Yeah. I mean, the first one was this band from the post hardcore scene. They were from the US. We were emailing, and me being like, “I really like your music. I’ve done these websites.” I went after them. And they were  like, “Yeah, we love your work. We need a website.” And then they paid me. I forget how much it was. It was definitely not a lot, but for me in Portugal it was like, “Wow, I can make money by doing this?”

JS:
What year was this?

BA:
Around 2002 or 2003.

JS:
And how did you go from doing that in Lisbon to coming to New York?

BA:
I didn’t really have a plan to come to New York City. But I was in college. And on my last year of studies, I got a scholarship to do a semester abroad, my last semester of study abroad. And I applied to a few different schools, in Canada, Germany and New York. And New York, I put it there because it’s the location everyone wants to go. So I was thinking that’s probably not going to happen.

They paid me. I forget how much it was. It was definitely not a lot, but for me in Portugal it was like, ‘Wow, I can make money by doing this?’

JS:
Had you visited here before?

BA:
No, never been here before. But I got the scholarship. And then I came to New York, to do my semester of studies. That was 2010. Exactly almost 10 years ago.

JS:
Did you feel you’d found your place and would stay here?

BA:
It took a while. I mean, I loved it. But  compared to Portugal, everything was so expensive. Everything was so different.  Lisbon is a super small city. I loved New York and definitely wanted to spend more time here, but I never thought I would be living here now. It’s been 10 years. It was definitely not the plan. But when I finished that semester, I was talking to my teachers, trying to get an internship or a way to stay here and it worked out.

JS:
How did you go from being a student here, to working and starting to make a living here? Because that seems like the hardest thing for anybody to do.

BA:
When I was in Portugal during college, I was already working in a design studio. And also, besides that, I was designing a monthly architecture magazine. So, I had two jobs outside of school and only going to classes just to deliver assignments mostly. I liked my school, but it got to a point where it was like, “Well, I need to make money to pay for school. And also I’m learning more in these agencies and studios than in school, why would I go there?” I was kind of a brat. But also, yes, college is free/cheap in Portugal, definitely wouldn’t do that if I was paying what people pay for education in the states.

So when I came here, I continued to work on the architecture magazine and some other freelancing stuff so I could afford NYC. So even during the time I was here studying, and actually going to classes, then at night I would go home and do work. It was kind of this weird intense experience. I was trying to do all this and then party and enjoy the city.

JS:
Going to check out bands in New York?

BA:
Oh, yeah. Definitely going to as many shows and parties as possible. But I went back to Portugal to graduate. And in September of 2010, I came back here for an internship. And that was the first time I was like, “All right, I’m getting paid for this internship. I’m going to only do one thing and focus on this.”

JS:
And where was that?

BA:
At Pentagram, a design studio. And that was the first time I thought, “All right, I want to live in New York City. I love it here.”

JS:
Were you still doing your own design work at this time?

BA:
Not for the first years. Like I said, I wanted to just do one thing and focus on it. And I loved Pentagram, learned a lot and worked with really amazing people that taught me a lot. But they are also a very serious design company, everything is beautiful and perfect, which is the opposite of what I do.

So after a while there, I decided to do something on the side. I missed doing the stuff I was doing in Portugal, mostly the posters and covers for bands.

I randomly reached out to this guy in LA who was putting shows on. I asked if I could design stuff for him, he said yes and that’s how I started doing posters for events that were happening in the U.S.

JS:
Well the first time I became aware of you and your work was through the posters you were designing for the club Good Room in Brooklyn, where I have a DJ residency. I guess where most people here became aware of your work.

BA:
Yes definitely. Once I started doing work for Good Room, that’s when everything changed. Not because of the quality of the work, but maybe because of the quantity.

JS:
There were four or five shows a week.

BA:
Yeah. Exactly.

Everything is beautiful and perfect, which is the opposite of what I do.

JS:
And did you find that very demanding?

BA:
I mean, it was. But, at that point, which I think was 2015 or 2014, I was already working at a different place. I used to work at this magazine called Bloomberg Businessweek. And, although it’s a business magazine, it was weird and somewhat experimental. They gave us a lot of freedom. It was crazy, and fast-paced. It was a lot of fun. 

We pretty much did everything in three days, and then we would send it to print. And there were two days that there was nothing to do. I would be at the office and bored or looking at stupid stuff online. So that’s when Ana Fernandes asked me if I wanted to do posters for the Good Room.

JS:
I think it worked well for you and worked well for the club, because it gave them an identity, a visual image and how they presented themselves to the world. And also everyone wanted to know who did the posters because they are so good.

BA:
Thank you!

JS:
And your work is very unique. It really stood out. What were you thinking of when you are designing the posters?

BA:
When Ana asked me to do posters I actually told her right away, “I’m not that much of a club person.” I mean, I like going out and dance, but I don’t know much about electronic music or the sort of designs people do for the parties.

So what I agreed with Ana was,  “I’ll do this but you have to let me do whatever the fuck I want.” And she was down. Slowly became a more regular thing — I think they had someone else do some of the posters. But after a few months they asked me if I would like to be in charge of the identity of the club. And again, I said yes, and warned them I wasn’t even that much into techno, house or electronic music.

JS:
Which is kind of cool, in a way, that you’re somewhat disassociated with it, right? How you manage to translate the feeling into your art.

BA:
Right, exactly. I mean, I do like and listen to electronic music. But it was just never the thing I liked the most— I grew up in the punk/hardcore music scene, and that was the scene I was making posters for. And it was always kind of hard because I liked the music too much. It was almost like I knew too much about it and was frustrating to try to design something that could be as good as some of the designs I was fan of in that scene.

JS:
Well, I think it’s cool to bring the punk aesthetic to the electronic. Because, in a way, a lot of early electronic music was very punk influenced. So there is a connection.

BA:
Yes, definitely. I grew up listening to a lot of small weird punk hardcore bands from the USA. And when I moved to New York, some of these people that were in those bands had moved on to electronic music or weirder things. So I always feel like there’s a transition in there, too.

JS:
Yeah, a lot of the industrial bands, like Skinny Puppy felt influenced by punk. But, artistically, were there artists and stuff that you were inspired by? Who is your inspiration?

BA:
I like a lot of different things. In the design world, the M/M studios, Chris Ware, Saul Bass, Paula Cher, Corita Kent, etc. And then, artists: the classics in New York, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring and all those people.

JS:
When you were growing up as a kid in Lisbon, you were aware of Keith and Jean-Michel, and the graffiti and the movement going on.

BA:
Definitely, very much. I mean, all those guys were always a huge inspiration for me. Still are.

JS:
People have ripped your style off a lot. How do you feel when that happens? Are you flattered or are you pissed off?

BA:
I mean, I’m flattered. Sometimes, if it’s a complete rip off, I get angry about it. There were a few times when that happened,  a band I was already working for hired someone else to do something that looked very similar to what I do. And I was like, “Why are you going to pay someone else to do what I do? I’m trying to make a living by doing this!”

JS:
Right. You’re thinking, “Why didn’t they just call you?”

BA:
Right, exactly. When I had a full-time job at the magazine I didn’t really care, because I would just be doing the posters for fun. But once I started my own studio, I worked really hard to find my own style and I wanted to make enough money to live by doing work for bands/DJs/music, which is definitely a world that doesn’t pay that much. So it makes me a bit angry when someone just copies what I do.

JS:
But it keeps you one step ahead. Your work always looks different and fresh. You don’t seem to like to repeat a lot of things. You’re always trying to move forward.

BA:
Definitely. I mean, the reason is that I just get easily bored with everything. Even when I’m stuck with my own tricks and style, I feel like I’m just like ripping myself off. So I try to push myself as much as possible.

And, since I had to always do so many posters in a week, it would be impossible for me to be doing the same thing over and over again. I try and change the style as much as possible, just to keep it fun for myself.

JS:
So you left your day job and you started doing freelance work.

BA:
The Businessweek magazine was actually the best job I ever had. I really, really liked it. I was there for four years. But also, I kind of liked it too much. And I knew that, if I didn’t leave, I would just stay there forever.

JS:
It was too comfortable.

BA:
Totally. I left and tried working at an ad agency. I realized, “Ah, this is a real job again. Definitely don’t have two days off at the office to do my posters.” And also I don’t want to spend my days working for Sprite or something. And after a few months I decided “I’m just going to do my own thing.”

JS:
Do you turn down a lot of work?

BA:
I didn’t use to! I was so excited to be working with bands and people I always admired, so I would always be working in way too many things at the same time. It got a bit too insane last year so in 2020 I’m trying to calm down and say no even if it’s for a band I love.

JS:
Well, I’m glad I asked you before you changed your mind. I have a new project with Joe from Hot Chip and Marcus Marr called Extra Credit. And I really wanted you to do the cover for it, which you did, and it’s great.

BA:
Thank you! I couldn’t say no to you! (laughs)

JS:
So you’re doing stuff, and now you kind of have this place which sort of reminds me of tKeith Haring’s Pop Shop. He built this store to sell his art too, so it could be accessible for anybody. Because, at that point, he’d become huge, and his stuff was priced out of most people’s budgets. But he wanted to still make his work accessible for all.

And so he had this idea to start a store and sell his stuff. And basically, for very cheap, you can get a nice Keith Haring poster, T-shirt, stuff he would give away on the street all the time. And he sold other artists’ works as well like Kenny Scharf and Andy Warhol and La2. Now you have this place, the gallery, you call it SSHH?

BA:
Yes, it stands for Sixth Street Haunted House. But, for a while, we would just go as SSHH because we opened on Halloween and we didn’t want people to think it was an actual haunted house that would be gone after Halloween.

JS:
And what was the concept behind SSHH?

BA:
I mean, I’m definitely not as big as Keith Haring. I opened this place with my boyfriend Nick, who’s also an artist, but he’s more into video and video art. He was part of a collective called CHERYL. This is kind of a club night/party mixed with performance and video art. They did it for 10 years.

JS:
And he’s from New York?

BA:
He’s from Boston but has been living in New York for more than 10 years. CHERYL was him and two more girls. Slowly, the girls moved out of New York City and that made them not active anymore.

Meanwhile, me and Nick were complaining about the lack of weird art spaces in NYC so we decided to start our own. We looked at some storefronts and everything was super expensive.

JS:
Now you know why there are not more of them.

BA:
Exactly. But eventually we found this place. Rent wasn’t crazy. I needed a place to work from, and Nick wanted to have a place to do things again. And here we are.

It changed a bit during the first year, but now during the week we do language classes, workshops, music stuff, therapy, etc. During the weekend it works as a normal store where we sell stuff I design, some stuff Nick does and other stuff from people that live in NYC.

JS:
Have you done any teaching here yourself, of art?

BA:
Yes. I try to do a design workshop weekly.

Even when I’m stuck with my own tricks and style, I feel like I’m just like ripping myself off. So I try to push myself as much as possible.

JS:
Neighborhood kids?

BA:
I wouldn’t say kids. It’s mostly graphic designers. But, yeah, we’re trying to get more young people coming here. We try to get people that are not graphic designers. And, in March, we’re going to start having a — I didn’t know about this — but apparently in the US, they don’t offer classes to make your portfolio for college applications in high school. You have to go somewhere else for these portfolio art classes, to build your portfolio to submit to colleges. And a friend of ours was saying that all of these places are super expensive. She suggested we start doing that here, and we just found someone to lead that class. Hopefully that will bring the kids from the school at the end of the block. Quite often they walk by and peak outside the window but I can never manage to make them come in. Maybe they are scared of the big print-out drag queen face on the curtain, (laughs).

JS:
That’s great. I think it’s amazing when people who come here and do what we do and give back to the community instead of just talking about it. It’s something that I felt has been missing from New York for a long time. It’s really wonderful that you opened up this spot. And, basically, it’s not really a money-making venture.

BA:
Definitely not.

JS:
It’s more of an educational, more of a community gathering place, and teaching language, teaching art, teaching, in your way, bringing people together. And that’s fantastic.

BA:
I mean, thank you. I cannot take the full credit for this. It’s definitely me and Nick, we do everything together.

We’re not trying to be a cute design place, with people just coming here to buy things and cool t-shirts. We’re trying to make this a community space. But, of course, NYC is an expensive city and we need to do and sell all the other stuff on the side in order to make this work. We do pay everyone fairly, from teachers to whoever puts their art for sale there.

But, honestly, it’s been working. We are super small and it’s going well.

JS:
You’ve been doing a lot of record covers lately. And how much do you get into the music before you work on the design? How does that process work for you?

BA:
I listen to the music and love to research what they have done before and what they are trying to do. My process is pretty much like solving a puzzle — there’s all these references, ideas, pieces, songs, sounds, etc, and I have to make some sense out of it. I normally send sketches with badly drawn ideas of what I have, and once someone picks a direction, I work on that concept till I get to something everyone is happy with.

JS:
And what’s coming up for you in 2020, as far as any projects you’re excited about?

BA:
Been doing artwork for this artist named Westerman. He only has a few singles and EPs out, but his first LP will be out in a few months. Its honestly one of the best records I’ve heard recently. I really like his music.

JS:
What kind of music is it?

BA:
Sort of sounds like something from the 80s, but also sounds modern and fresh. He has a really beautiful voice.

JS:
So is there something you haven’t done that you would like to do?

BA:
I feel like, at this point, I don’t really have a plan anymore. Growing up in Portugal, my dream was to make record covers and posters as a job. And I’m doing it now! I feel very lucky and happy.

But if you gave me $1 trillion and full freedom? I’ll be like, “I want to design a theme park.”

JS:
I could see it happening.

BA:
I would love that. That is definitely my dream. Do you have $1 trillion to spare?