David Oku

We talk to the always-colourful, future-conscious, music-loving, family-valuing, London-based illustrator David Oku…

David Oku is quite possibly the most culture-rich human we’ve ever met. Born in Dortmund, Germany, Oku is a combination of Nigerian and Italian descent. Having lived in the vibrant streets of Lagos and the baroque setting of Milan, he’s now settled in the business capital of the world, London, with his growing family.

Oku’s real-world inspiration, positive values, and passion for life shines through in both his conversation and his work. As does his affinity for the future of technology, cultural influences, and human expression. 

From digital screens and animations, to modest canvases and walls of graffiti, there are zero limitations to this man’s creativity - something Oku tells us he has to channel in some form on a daily basis: “Drawing is something I love as much as any other part of my life, I have to do it every single day.” Oku’s talent is self-taught, something he describes as a gift; blessed with a unique vision that feels like second-nature.

He tells us that he’s not had the easiest life, but that he’s a big believer in good energy: “I’ve lost a lot, but I’ve learned a lot.” And he feels a certain kinship when he recognises this same energy and dedication in others. Our conversation was wonderfully deep in multiple places, we cannot wait for you to dive in..

“When you give them creative freedom, that person will surprise you with fantastic outcomes, rather than being restricted by too many guidelines.”

Thank you for creating *Shout for joy* for us, David, could you tell us a little more about this piece?

‘Shout for joy’ is about letting go of all the negative energy in your life and making room for the good. It’s getting ready to scream it all out and feel the weight being lifted off your shoulders. I believe that learning to let go of the bad vibes is the key to finding true happiness.

References to robots and technology feature a lot in your recent work. What are your thoughts on the rise of AI and the rise of technology in the future?

I’m really deep into new technology. A lot of people think I’m getting into conspiracy theories, but I just know it’s something bigger than us. I think technology starts out with good intent, but when people with the wrong kind of power take over, I’m worried it will harm the next generation.

It’s not something I’m personally worried about for myself but, when I think about my boy, I don’t want his confidence to suffer or for him to hide behind a screen. I know technology can protect them, but I don’t want the next generation to lose grip on reality. No AI girlfriend!

Do you think we could be replaced by robots?

Every move on our phone is currently tracked. Everything is recorded. Everything is stored somewhere. And that's what scares me with the future of robotics or something else, you know? Back in the day, they used to say “We are creating robots so that humans can live life to the full potential. And the hard work will be done by robots.” But the way I see it now is: robots will be the new market, it's something that people will make money with and so the people will be replaced. They won't have enough money to actually live their life. So, I don't know, it's a 50/50 situation to me.

We’ve already seen it start to happen! Did you always want to be an artist? Was there a specific moment that sparked this role for you?

I’ve drawn my whole life. I feel like it was literally the first thing I was able to do. I know it's weird to say that because as a kid you don't really draw well, but if I had a crayon or a pencil in my hand I’d sketch. It was something that just grew and grew, I used to do it every day. If I didn't do it one day, even today, I feel like I wasted my day.

“Every mistake will lead you to something good.”

At school there was a teacher that really believed in me. He saw that I was talented in illustration and he said to me: “Look, if you want, in the future, you can work on my projects if you really like them.” And so that was my first job as a designer, to make posters and flyers for clubs, etc. After college I figured I’d illustrate some books, but it was all editorial drawings which wasn’t really my vibe. Then I tried a comic school back in Italy, where I did an entry test for comics, but that also wasn’t my thing. From there I started doing a little bit of everything, but my most dominant area was illustration. So I led with that. I spent my time doing one illustration every day. And that brings me to where I am today; being freelance for myself and working with my own style for my clients.

Do you have a future goal right now, or an ultimate end goal for what you’d like to be doing?

For me there really is no ‘end’ goal. I always want to evolve and be better. So I always have a new goal, I’m always embracing new technology and methods such as animation and 3D. Moving from traditional to digital illustration was my first goal, and I just keep evolving and following the next steps so I’m not left out. 

I suppose, in general, I’d love a collective studio which could bring together some of the best artists. But I would give each of them the control in what they are strongest in. I would love to create ‘a studio without guidelines’. One without a CEO or anything like that. I think if you allow people to express themselves to their full potential, that's what will make the studio really special. 

Do you ever get creative blocks? How do you try to inspire yourself?

I don’t really get creative blocks because I freestyle my work. But when I’m tired of looking at screens I like to switch to canvas or walls. When you’re doing graffiti you can have your music loud and you can have a beer, it’s freeing and you can let your mind go. There is no limit.

Every mistake will lead you to something good. That’s what I believe.

I’m also a big believer in having a window in your studio! Have you ever noticed that most creators, once they go for a holiday, they come back full of juice for creating. I think being stuck in your daily standard space is not good for your brain, looking outside at the sky really inspires you, even without you knowing it. Space is important. And changing location is important.

Do you have any exciting collaborations, events or exhibitions coming up that we should know about?

I get involved in all sorts of great projects somehow. I just finished doing Adobe Live at Adobe Max in The Beams London. I’m always reaching out to artists that I’d love to collaborate with, I probably have 6 or 7 on the go all at once! I’m inspired by a lot of people and it always feels surreal to work with people you’ve been a fan of for years.

I collaborate with a lot of artists because they do what they are strong in and I do what I'm strong in. Being different pushes you to a new limit. A lot of people would be very nervous like, “Oh my god, what should I do? This guy is better than me.” But I don't see it like that. I see it more like, “Whoa, he's very different to me. What can I do to make it pop.”

I have a very exciting project coming up in the very near future but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet. You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for that one!