Where monsters live

07/25/2022 · By Rocío Navarro
Juan Carlos Paz, Bakea
Bakea’s visual universe has turned him into one of the most easily recognisable illustrators. © Image courtesy of Bakea

His bestiary includes more than 130 species, but Bakelanasland is only one part of the visual universe of this Manchegan illustrator. Beyond his work’s naive and fun nature, these characters are Juan Carlos Paz’s therapeutic weapon to navigate reality through a more optimistic lens. Precisely because of this, his monsters, far from being frightening, arouse tenderness.

Juan Carlos Paz (Puertollano, 1984) had the hunch to drop pencil and paper and venture into digital illustration based on thousands of layers. This decision, along with many hours in front of the screen, have turned Bakea into a role model in this field. He uses photographs of natural landscapes to build Bakelanasland, a dreamscape inhabited by other-worldly monsters which, for the illustrator, have the superpower of therapeutic channelling. “It’s about finding a positive view of my own mind, thinking that those monsters that scare you can also amuse you.” Some of his adorable beasts have turned into sculptures while others are stars of commercial campaigns, even Chumi Chuma sings in a band! What’s next? The leap of this particular bestiary into the metaverse.

Where does your talent come from? Have you always loved drawing?
I’m the youngest of three brothers with an age gap of 12 and 16 years, respectively, so I was what you’d call a child with an active inner world. I used to spend my days doodling in a notebook. I did the Arts baccalaureate, but then decided to study Advertising and PR and that led me to working for years as an art director at advertising agencies in Madrid. In 2011 I decided to give myself the chance to see if I could make a living out of illustration.

When did illustrating become a full-time job?
It was quite an organic process: the girl I was dating in 2011 had a job opening in Berlin and I went with her. I left advertising and took that time to pick up illustration again. For six months, I spent eight hours a day on my designs. The relationship didn’t work out and, after that time, I came back to Spain and started a project. From one day to the next, it was shared a lot on social media around the world and I started getting illustration jobs.

“I decided to capture my monsters in this fun way to come to terms with them”

Where do these cute monsters you create come from?
When I got back from Germany, I had a low period, and my immediate circle would say to me: “Look for all the good you have inside of you to get better.” I spent two or three months cooped up inside a room watching series, and there came a point where I asked myself what I was doing with my life. Then, I decided to replace the series with illustration and turned my emotional situation into a kind of metaphor. It became a journey inside my mind where I faced my personal demons. I decided to capture them in this fun way to come to terms with them. This is how my bestiary with already more than 130 species came about.

Do these species have their own story? That is, are there characters that are with you over a period of time?
Everything is part of an ongoing project, Bakelanasland, which I’m not sure if I’ll turn into a script or a book. It’s a metaphor of that period (2012-2017), where the main character encounters these monsters and interacts with them. Some appear repeatedly, especially Cacafrutti, one of the icons of the project. It’s the first monster the protagonist encounters and is with him throughout the story.

What inspires your work?
Pop culture has had a substantial impact. For example: the Asian world. The giant sizes of my monsters are almost like Godzilla or King Kong. Also, Japanese series kaijus like the Power Rangers. Or Matt Groening with The Simpsons or Futurama. That’s what I grew up with and it has inevitably had a direct influence on my work. Wes Anderson is also a visual benchmark from the world of film that I love.

Do you need a special talent to stand out in the world of digital art?
In my case, patience. I could have tried to pursue my career differently, but it wouldn’t have worked the same way. I draw well with a pencil, but my work would be similar to that of many people. However, I started out with a kind of illustration where files have more than a thousand layers, and that gives my work a really personal character; it’s what has made it really recognisable because of texture, lighting, and colour tones. Having perseverance is basic. Also, being quick-witted and realising what it’s all about. Because if you do something that doesn’t work and you carry on doing it, perhaps you need to investigate and pivot between what you like and what works.

Music bands, commercial brands, public institutions... What is it about your monsters that captivates such different worlds?
They have a really naive aesthetic, are really fun, and also take us to nice places because they remind us of our childhood. They transport us to a dreamscape where we all feel comfortable, because we’ve all been kids, but with details that separate them from the world of children.

Do you think the world needs Bakea’s positive vibes?
Of course, even if it’s not through my work. Individualism is increasingly encouraged and this means we forget about others. A more global vision would be great. Sitting on a rock, looking into the distance, and thinking about what truly matters would be good for everyone. I grew up in Ciudad Real, in Puertollano, and went to the countryside a lot; that’s reflected in my illustrations of monsters because there’s nothing human, only nature, partly because they’re places where I feel at peace.

“If you do something that doesn’t work and you carry on doing it, perhaps you need to investigate and pivot between what you like and what works”

What has brought you more satisfaction: seeing Madrid full of your signs or your work at an exhibition?
They were two really different moments. I started illustrating in 2011 and did my first exhibition in 2013 at the Instituto Cervantes in Berlin. It meant going back to a city that I’d left badly, but it was really gratifying seeing all my work together. Years later, seeing Madrid covered with my work, the place where I’ve lived for 15 years, was really exciting. I took photos of each sign I bumped into. It’s a project that’s particularly close to my heart because I had to immerse myself in Chinese culture to be respectful. In the end, you’re a westerner referring to the most important festivity in the East and many of the things that work here might not sit well there; so, you need to understand what works there that could also work well here.

What’s on the horizon for Bakea?
Now’s the turn of the metaverse. I can’t say much more, but new markets are starting to open up and that’s where most illustrators are finding more space. There are many people doing really interesting and powerful things, and it seems that this year will be highly focused on this topic.