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Have you ever been told: “You should get a more sensible career"? I’m Timi, and each week we interview a storyteller, artist or creative entrepreneur in Asia who ignored this advice to pursue a creative career. They show us how they paved their own path and dealt with unmitigated failures on their way to building a unique and singular foolish career.
The goal with each story: zero generic fluff.
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Passion or Talent?
In your creative work or career, which matters more: passion or talent?
Personally, I hate the overuse of the word passion (with a passion). But the more interviews we do, the more I hear different perspectives, and it’s pretty much a tie.
So I’m asking you, Foolish readers: Passion over talent, or vice versa? Post your thoughts here. We’ll publish responses next week along with those from our interviewees.
INTERVIEW: Why every creator needs their scene
By age 30, Shaz Hassan had several significant projects under his belt. His London-based production firm Studio Rarekind, cofounded with Ryo Sanada, had produced and sold three independent films, “Scratching The Surface” about Japanese hip hop culture, “Rackgaki” on Japanese graffiti art, and “Soka Afrika” documenting human trafficking in football.
They also authored two books on graffiti art in Asia which led to a new project, Stickerbomb, a series of sticker books curating street art from around the world.
These projects established Studio Rarekind’s reputation as a creative studio plugged into contemporary culture and attracted projects in sports, music and art.
Not bad for someone who started out as video paparazzi doorstepping Justin Timberlake as he came out of a club.
The day after he submitted the hard drive containing Soka Africa, Shaz got on a plane to Southeast Asia “and basically never left.” He lived and worked in Siem Reap, Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore for the next decade.
Shaz had come up as part of the street art and DJ scenes in Brighton and then London’s East End, which nourished Studio Rarekind creatively. Coming to Southeast Asia, he sought new creative scenes and found pockets of it in Jakarta, Bangkok and around the region.
Moving to Singapore to “get serious,” Shaz struggled to find a scene that synced with Studio Rarekind’s edgy vibe. While they won great projects with advertising clients like Nike and Netflix, it pulled them away from making the films they loved. (It maps to the 5-year gap in Shaz’s IMDB page.)
“I was out drinking one evening with another agency and I realized that what we were creating was essentially what they have. It set off a trigger in my head: Wow, I don't want what they have. I never wanted that in my life. What am I doing?”
In this interview, Shaz talks about how Studio Rarekind built a culturally-relevant body of work, the decision to close down the studio in Singapore, and why every creator has a “therapy piece.”
🎧 Shaz is an opinionated, entertaining guy — listen to our conversation.
Here are the things that stood out for me:
1. Be your own first commission
It’s hard to get seen when you’re new on the scene. Making work and showing it is the best way in. Shaz and Ryo did this by making their first film, “Scratching The Surface,” a self-funded documentary about hip hop in Japan.
The original plan was to do a film on hip hop in London, but Ryo (who is half Japanese), ran the numbers and worked out it was cheaper to fly to Japan and make a film there than it was to hire the equipment and do it in London.
They went a step further by selling it to a respectable French TV program. That’s how they learned there was money in this kind of work. Then people started contacting them about projects, so setting up a studio was a natural step: “Hold on. We just do what we want to do, and people ask us to do jobs. Why stay in a job?”
Creative production is a crowded marketplace, and this project gave Studio Rarekind their differentiation early on, for format (documentary style) and topic (contemporary culture).
2. The value of being part of a scene
There’s a long-accepted stereotype of the creator or artist as a lone genius. In reality, creativity needs to feed off people and environments.
Music producer and artist Brian Eno created a word for this: scenius. “It's not individuals who create things, it's scenes – a community of like-minded peers. Genius is individual, scenius is communal."
If you want to geek out on this, watch this lecture by Brian Eno where he illustrates the difference. Forward to the 23-minute mark.
When a creator finds their scene, whatever its size, they can be inspired to produce their best work. Think about craft communities, Silicon Valley, writing workshops.
Immersed in the world of graffiti art, Shaz and Ryo wanted to get their next project funded. “We spoke to a lot of production companies, broadcasters. We're in our mid-twenties, so they're like, whatever, whatever.”
Meanwhile, they were inspired by a book + film product released by an art book publisher, and decided to change tack. “We could do the film and just do a book with it. Really easy. So we reeled off 10 emails to every single publisher in London. Three, four of them got back to me.”
They signed with Laurence King, then a fledgling book publisher focused on the creative arts, and produced two books and films on graffiti art: Rackgaki about street art in Japan, followed by Grafitti Asia.
This led to a new idea, Stickerbomb, a book series featuring street art as peel-off stickers, which is now on its 12th title. This ability to curate is only possible because they stay engaged in that community.
3. Sometimes, the audience just ain’t buying what you’re selling
Once Stickerbomb worked, they tried to expand it in various ways: fashion, stock imagery, art, events.
“It's quite a weird one, Stickerbomb, because every time we tried to monetize it in other ways, it didn’t work. It works well as a collection of images presented in a book format for people to buy in a shop. That's it. The audience likes this. This is what they've always bought. And you can try X, Y, and Z, but this is what they want.”
Regardless, it's a creative asset that pays its way.
“Every now and then, when we've had a shit few months, it's okay because we might get a royalty check through, that's pretty cool. That just keeps us going.”
Relevant work opens all sorts of doors
Their film Soka Afrika told the story of human trafficking in professional football. They immersed in the world of sport and kicked off work with brands like Adidas and Nike who liked their knowledge of football culture. “I realized, wow, we can make a good living doing what we love, hanging around with football players.”
It also led to a second film, Foul Play, about match-fixing in professional football, which follows the story of an English football coach parachuted in to save an Indonesian football team and discovers that the best team doesn’t necessarily win.
“Foul Play did a lot better than I thought it would. It got bought by Amazon in the US, iFlix in Asia and a few local broadcasters across Europe. The sheer fact that I managed to prove I can come up with an idea, make it and get it sold and distributed the whole way through pretty much by myself was great.”
Make sure you can articulate why you’re doing what you’re doing
While they shot projects all over the region — Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Seoul — the work was frequently commissioned out of Singapore. Shaz visited the city frequently to meet with clients.
After three years in Jakarta and Bangkok, Shaz “felt the need to go serious,” so he set up shop in Singapore. SRK was unique in town for its vibe and links to various creative scenes. They won projects based on this and they were growing.
There was only one problem: Working in the advertising world — making things for other people rather than for themselves — was never what Shaz wanted.
“Even if I push and play it out, even with the most massive success, I was just not going to be happy at all with where I was going. At all.”
Shaz found that the daily stress of jobs, payroll, taxes (which was fine when it was for his films) just wasn’t worth it. Plus he didn’t like some of the people he had hired. “We had a new generation of staff coming to the office. They're not bad at their jobs. Just didn't like them as humans and didn't like them as workers. When you start hiring people you don't like, something's up. I might have fucked up here. And that is when you realize, sometimes a business is faster than you.”
So he made the decision to close down a creative business that had a promising commercial future. To do this, Shaz revisited his mission and vision.
“When you were younger, putting together your mission documents and your vision documents and what the business should be like, you never really realized why it's important — until shit hits the fan and it's too late and you realize, Oh, that's why I have a mission. And that's why I have a vision.”
Your mission and vision don’t have to be complicated. “Right now, our mission is just to make relevant pieces of work again. The work we were making previously, whether it be politicized work about human rights, like Soka Africa, or about music scenes, like bassweight or street art and graffiti, it was very relevant. And I think that's why they did well and sold well.”
But scenes can’t be manufactured
During this time, Shaz was also working on a passion project, Soi Music TV, a platform documenting urban music scenes emerging throughout Southeast Asia. They released two music videos every week for two years and brought a community together, but bumped up against the hyperlocal nature of music scenes in the region.
“I love that project. I look back on my time in Singapore, that's what I should have pushed for additional funding to explode. We needed help. If I was in the UK or the US, or maybe other parts of Asia, I would have got the help. Whereas in Singapore, there just isn't a scene to tap into, to take energy from.”
Some of the artists featured in Soi Music are now signed to labels.
Every creator has a therapy piece
It was an unplanned move to Seattle — a literal change of scene — that rekindled Shaz’s love for film and art and creativity.
Walking through the city, Shaz easily worked out who the graffiti artists were, and came up with a concept for another film, Sodo Express. And he was able to meet people who were up for collaboration.
“I’d just fresh come into Seattle. I'm just this one dude. And I just start meeting people and then bang, on Instagram, someone contacts me. ‘You did this, you live in Seattle. What are you doing here? Do you want to have a coffee?’ And he became the lead actor on my film. And then suddenly I'm making a film in some crazy parts of Seattle.”
He calls Sodo Express his “therapy piece.”
“I think a lot of creatives, artists, writers have therapy pieces, because they'll finish one phase of their life and then they'll get out a lot of emotion, a lot of energy, in one piece.”
Sodo Express is now in post-production and the plan is to distribute to film festivals and online. Shaz’s ambitions for it are very focused: “My only desire for it is for the right so-called people to see it. The commissioners, other production houses. So I don't care if a thousand people see it but those thousand people are good people who give a damn.”
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I’m glad you enjoyed last week’s story about chef Rachel Elman O’Shea and the Laos Buffalo Dairy. It turns out we may have a Venn diagram overlap of Like-Minded Creatives X Cheese Obsessives.
Like Ben, who has a background in Ancient Greek and Mechanical Engineering, and (more relevant to this post) makes his own ricotta and was worried about cheese when he moved from Italy to Asia:
I discovered Laos Buffalo Dairy about 3 years ago when moving to Macau. I was terrified that I was going from Italy to the middle of nowhere (cheese-wise). I already made my own pasta, bread, ravioli, pizza... but the foreboding of not having access to cheese made me terrified. I was trying to find ways to make it at home effectively in this climate; they were the only ones close. One of these days I look forward to visiting these awesome ladies and tasting their products!
That’s it for this week. Don’t forget to respond to the question: Passion or Talent? Post your thoughts here.
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