Studio Tours: Interview with Birmingham Artist Kuya Carlo

By Lauren Parsons

Exclusive Interview with Birmingham Artist Kuya Carlo


27-year-old Birmingham artist Kuya Carlo – from the Philippines – works primarily with digital illustration and animation.

You only began to pursue art seriously from the age of 23, but was there anything from your childhood that inspired or informed your work today? 

“I was always a chubby kid, and to a degree ridiculed for having a bigger body, sometimes even by well-meaning family members. I always felt a little bit different to everyone else – not only through body image but also being gay.

From a young age Jan was aware of the damaging effects of hegemonic beauty standards, the pressures of always remaining slim, with clear skin and perfect hair.

It was actually a marketing campaign, “True Bodies” by skincare retailer Dove, aimed at body positivity, that pushed Jan to further critique the validity of these standards.

 After seeing the campaign, I just thought ‘why am I not doing that as well?’ I mean, I looked at bigger men and saw how beautiful they were, yet when it came to myself I couldn’t transfer that love over.

Through constantly depicting bigger bodies with affection in my work and seeing parts of myself in them, my work acts as a sort of therapy – a sort of love letter to myself and a way of unlearning the idea that there was only one way to be beautiful.”

Jan Carlo | Cocktails By The Pool (2022)

You spent the first years of your life in the Philippines – how old were you when you moved to England? 

“I was nine years old and in primary school. I felt like a sponge as soon as I stepped foot in England.

But it was an intense period… Settling in, navigating my identity as a gay, chubby and now also foreign, 9-year-old. Not to mention my family are Catholic – so understanding where I fitted into it all was a challenge.”

You have Bachelors in Psychology – So, when did you start pursuing art?

“I’ve painted on and off for as long as I’ve been able to! But starting a Visual Communication Masters in the midst of COVID-19 was the thing that taught me the professionalism of art – things like how to carve out a narrative within my work as well as the different mediums I could move into.

It was actually my tutors who urged me to focus on my identity and do more theory-driven research to inspire my work. 

As a result, my own remedy to current issues within the LGBTQ+ community like racism, fatphobia, and internalised homophobia grew into fruition!”

The Remedy AKA C.B.B – Chubby Brown Boys

The figures that populate Jan-Carlo’s work – whether lazing poolside or floating through clouded vistas – are voluptuous, blissful celebrations of bodies that visually protest traditional standards of beauty.

As you walk into the space where Jan-Carlo’s art is, positivity almost hits you in the face – or rather, it strokes and coos at you gently.

“I’ve spent a long time looking into the ‘theory of cuteness’ and how that translates into reality. When people see cute things they are naturally drawn towards them – so pastel colours, rounded shapes, softness, shiny things – the amalgamation of all that builds the ‘cute look’.”

In his most recent solo show, PoolsideJan brought his figures to life by incorporating elements of augmented reality.

“To achieve this, I created two forms of my work; one still illustration and one animated version. 

For the still illustrations, I used the Procreate app to sketch and Adobe Illustrator to render them out.

Whereas for the animated version, I returned to the procreate app using a frame-by-frame method to animate the eyes blinking – importing that into Adobe After Effects for final touches. 

“After I finished designing, I uploaded both versions to a platform that helped to convert my piece into Augmented reality – adding this simple animation is an effective way to bring my chubby brown boys to life!”

Jan Carlo | Chubby Swimmers (2022)

Do you have any pieces of work that show how your style has changed over the years, so far?

“‘Neapolitan’ is a perfect example of how I used painterly strokes and textures to take my work into a more abstract direction. 

A book, Picasso’s Prints, was the inspiration for the figures’ faces – I really loved how he was able to design faces with just a few lines, back in 2019 minimal human forms were really trendy.”

Whereas, in ‘You Are Deserving Of Love’ (2022) you can see how my research in cuteness moved me away from that and onto a digital medium. 

Firstly for control (I like the precision digital work allows) and secondly, to fully amplify the effect of cuteness by making my work look almost smooth and soft like sweets. 

Making the characters more recognizable and cartoony helps me to build more narrative within my work by accentuating my figures’ personalities.”

How are you looking to develop your work, what is your next step?

“In the future, I am looking to further explore erotic, provocative themes alongside my current visual language. 

I’m still in the early stages but I’m focusing research on Japanese erotic art a.k.a Shunga – a kind of sexy Japanese woodblock print.

“In time, it would be great to see my figures as sculptures – sort of going further to create a whole tactile world.” 

Sometimes art gets too serious, shouting its messages at you like hard-learned lessons.

Kuya Carlo’s art lays testament to the fact playful art can still carry deep meaning, in a way that not only welcomes you in but celebrates you with it too.

Follow him on Instagram or visit his Cosimo page here.

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