Yay Abe

The South African billboard star who we’re crowning ‘The King of Colourful Collaboration’. Meet Yay Abe…

Russell ‘Yay Abe’ Abrahams is a Capetonian Illustrator who’s been on our radar for a long time, making big waves with both his brand collabs and personal projects. Over the past few years Russ has worked with huge names such as Heineken, Bombay Sapphire, Adidas, Redbull, H&M and KFC, to name a few.

In 2020, he combined forces with KFC to create a unique collection of limited-edition ‘Birthday Buckets’ and accessories for their 50th anniversary, work that has since been aptly labelled as ‘iconic’. Last year, Russ worked on an entire clothing collection for H&M that celebrates sharing optimism and gratitude with friends. 

Using hand-drawn designs that are then digitally recreated for print, Russ likes to create vibrant illustrations that drip with positivity and good vibes, and works with brands that share his passion for great vision, hoping the audience can feel this positive energy in the final result.

Russ has had quite the year this year, marrying his dream girl, travelling all over the world (including London), and he’s added a second dog – a new labrador puppy called Maybelline – to his family too. 

We’re so thrilled to be able to add this exclusive print from Yay Abe to our collection, and we hope you enjoy learning more about Russ as much as we did…

“I wanted this print to feel like a gift. Like, if someone buys it for someone, it would be like giving them their flowers.”

Thank you so much for creating “The Gift” for us, Russ. Can you tell us a bit more about what inspired it?

I wanted this print to feel like a gift. Like, if someone buys it for someone, it would be like giving them their flowers. You can also buy it for yourself and give yourself flowers! Either way, it was designed with this overarching idea of giving.

This print definitely features my distinct line-heavy style, but I also wanted to offer something new here. The white line that’s weaving through the back of this print is something new that I’ve been trying out, and it’s nice to have this freedom to develop these ideas further. I try to find a sweet spot between what I’m known for and growing my style.

You are so well-known for your own recognisable illustration style! How long have you been doing it and do you get any grief when you move away from it? 

Yeah, I’ve had this style for around 6 years now and I’d hate to lose it, but I do occasionally venture off in a completely new direction. You can see on my Instagram where I’ve tried something new but sometimes people don’t understand this kind of extension of my visual language, so then I try to go back to it a little. 

After the H&M project last year I moved away from my usual style a little bit, but then I noticed some young guns adopting my original style and I was like: “Watch this space, I’m coming back!” The heavy-line style is what comes most naturally to me now. It’s my go-to style, so instead of steering away from it I like to lean into it, it’s the style I really like.

Did you always want to be an illustrator? Did you ever want to be anything else?

I actually decided as young as 15 that I wanted to make art. 15 years ago! Prior to that I really wanted to be a police officer, which is the worst thing I could have chosen. The police force in South Africa is very intense. I just wouldn’t want to be a part of that. I’ve been stopped when trying to get into my own house from as young as 15. Just from trying to open my front door and then I had my brother’s car searched and stuff. So I was like, “Okay, never mind. This kind of job isn’t for me.”

My dad bought me my first Wacom tablet when I was 15 and I remember that I drew a picture of the Joker. I found a picture of it the other day actually. *Shows us the picture on his phone* This was my first illustration on Illustrator ever. I remember sending this to a brand when I was 18 and I was like, “Check out this cool guy.” And they were like, “We’re definitely not working with you.” Haha! It’s interesting going through your old stuff and seeing the start of your journey though, it all led to this point.

*Russ keeps finding and showing us his early sketches* 

Look at this literal take of ‘giving birth to an idea’. Incredible.

“I noticed some young guns adopting my original style and I was like: ‘Watch this space, I’m coming back!"

Other than your previous work clearly being an inspiration, what else inspires you?

My London trip showed me a whole new level of illustrators. In South Africa we feel like maybe we’ve hit the ceiling a little bit with illustration. Travel helps me see what other illustrators are doing and that’s super inspiring. I’m trying to get my name out there a bit more, being a bit more present in London and New York. 

What has been a cannon event in your career so far? Do you have a favourite piece of artwork?

For me it’s the scale of work that I’ve been able to produce. The reason why I got into design was because a friend told me that, if you work in Graphic Design: “You get to do cool art that they put onto massive billboards!” And that was really the only reason I got into it. I wanted every bit of work to be on a massive billboard, that was my goal. Well, within 3 years of working as an illustrator, I was working with an insurance company and my little dream came true. My work was featured on the biggest billboard in Africa, and then on the Adidas Tower. Once my work was shown on a large scale I looked back and gave little childhood Russell a pat on the back.

There’s a funny story with the billboard too. On Twitter there was a post with the title ‘Biggest Billboard in Africa, created by Russell,’ but the picture was so small and pixelated, people couldn’t really see me. So people lost their shit saying, “Why was a white man commissioned for this?” It made people angry until they realised I was a brown kid. Twitter is such a crazy, crazy space.

Do you have any advice for artists just starting out?

You have to stay persistent! When I first started Yay Abe I was sending out like 5 emails a day to South African agencies, and it took around 2 years to start getting replies. Brand collabs took about 8 years to get back to me. 

I remember meeting an older artist when I was 21 and he was calling me a golden retriever with my energy level, saying, “Just wait until you’re 33!” And I was thinking, “Oh God.”  

Other than that, you could always move somewhere where there are fewer people! Haha! You’ll stand right out. On this global stage, you’re up against so many great people in the UK and US, so that’s the fight.

What’s your ultimate career goal, where would you like to be in 10 years?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. My absolute dream would be if my livelihood, my number one source of income, came from just me painting for myself, and if people would love to buy it. That’s my goal. By 40 I really want to be less in front of the camera with other brands and more doing my own exhibitions. 

For my work to be appreciated on its own level, that would be cool. 

Do you have a happy place? A place you escape to or a memory you carry with you when you’re suffering from a creative block or feeling stressed?

So this is the place me and my wife always talk about. When life gets super, super busy, when I’m painting murals and feeling tired and just want to relax, we always sit back and say, “Oh man, I wish we could be back on the couch.” Being on the couch with the TV on, and some snacks and our dogs. It’s what we always crave when things are too busy or too wild. It’s the mundane moments that we actually crave. It’s our happy place, but we can’t stay there for too long either!

And finally, we’ve heard your OG dog Tyson is in high demand and steals the limelight a lot. Can we see a pic of him so that he suitably steals your attention right at the end here, please? We wouldn’t be mad if Maybelline was included…

Thanks Russ!