Soldier Boyfriend, Visual Artist & Designer, London

Soldier Boyfriend, Visual Artist & Designer, London





TJ Sawyerr


TJ Sawyerr

Great to be here with you in the studio. How have you been, how’s life treating you?


Life has been pretty up and down. I just finished uni, which had been stifling me and my workflow for a while. I had to study as a requirement for my UK visa, but now I have the time to be in the studio everyday from 9am, so I’m grateful for that. They say sleep is the cousin of death, so that’s something I intend to do when I die. Until then, there’s plenty more to be done!


Who is SoldierBoyfriend?


At first it was just a joke. When I was younger, my friends would call me ‘Soldier’, so when it came to me picking a name for Instagram, I just went with that. Soldier is who I am. The ‘Boyfriend’ part was supposed to be a paradox, because a soldier is very tough and disciplined, while a boyfriend just chills with his girlfriend all day. That’s the sort of juxtaposition I wanted to achieve in my work… the more militant side, with the signature camo, and then the deeper, more dreamy themes that I like to communicate. 


So what came first? The name or the art?


When I first got to London, the nickname became the source of inspiration for my paintings. Normally the work or style inspires the name but, for me, the name Soldier led to me using camo as a core theme. I see it like how graffiti artists have a name or tag which then develops into their visual identity.

"They were trying to force me to be someone who I wasn’t, so I literally left the house and never came back."

At what point did you decide that you wanted to take a creative path? 


I grew up in the church. My parents were super religious, I’m talking 24/7, so I used to hear all these things about angels and demons and spirits. As a young kid I would always try to imagine how that shit could actually look. I think that mentally scarred me a lot, to the point where I started to spend my time trying to draw what I thought it may look like. My dad drew, so I would take paper from his office and just scribble and sketch, making posters and whole magazines. Creativity has been a natural part of me from a young age. I was the only person in my year in secondary school who took Visual Arts and the first of my family to go down that path of education, leaving with top grades, so, coming out of school, I was already pretty confident that this would be something I would always do.


Being from an Afro-Christian background, was there any pushback from your family when you decided upon a ‘less-conventional’ career path?


My parents had a strong idea of what they wanted me to be so there was a lot of pushback from them. They wanted me to study mass communication, or something for a regular job, and that pressure caused me to run away from home at fifteen once I had finished secondary school. They were trying to force me to be someone who I wasn’t, so I literally left the house and never came back. 


Was that a bit of a coming-of-age moment for you?


Well, the moment I left home was my first exposure to the real world and the start of something new for me. It was then that I started working at the skate shop where I met Jomi, Slawn, Onyedi, all people who are very integral to my life. I was crashing at their houses, selling my art and doing graphic work to get by. It was then that I learnt how to hustle and formed my inner circle of people who are still by my side today. 

"I haven’t come this far to wing it. I control what I can control and that’s how I work best."

From your earliest days doing art up to today, who has inspired your work and your drive?


I am most inspired by looking back at people who have come and gone before me. I’m a big fan of Basquiat, Picasso, I fuck with Damien Hirst, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan. I like to look at artists from the past whose work is still resonating today as my main source of technical inspiration. It’s then my homies around me that keep me hungry. Seeing people around me, including yourself, striving for greatness and doing their best work, I can’t help but think, who am I to not be making the best art of my life? 


How would you describe yourself and your craft? What makes you an artist? 


I think a lot of ‘artists’ take a much more passive approach to art. I would describe myself as more of a scientist. We’re in here doing trials and tests and research months before anything even gets put onto paper. My practice is calculated. I want to understand as much as there is to understand about the elements and people that surround me. In a way it’s quite heavily inspired by the military system, in that I believe in order and a disciplined approach. A lot of artists like to be free and wing it, but I haven’t come this far to wing it. I control what I can control and that’s how I work best.


I imagine that the creator you are today is a natural evolution of the innovative hustler mentality that you found in Lagos all those years ago. How have you found yourself so involved in such a plethora of mediums?


It has always been all about people, about friends. Since I left home, I’ve been surrounded by so many peers doing stuff that interests and inspires me. I’d see my friends designing and it just clicked, ‘I wanna do that,’ and just like that I got into designing and quickly fell in love with it. All of my career ventures have come from being curious and asking questions. 


Some would say you beat the odds making it from Lagos to London. How was the initial transition between such different worlds?


When I came to London, I honestly felt like a kid who was given the world. It was like being granted the truest, most beautiful freedom, a feeling that I had never imagined I could have. Everything immediately felt much more accessible and I was quickly able to flourish as a result. 


As much as it was liberating, was there an element of the move that was overwhelming? 


Luckily for me, because of the work that me and my homies were doing in Lagos, opening the city’s first skate shop and building the scene out there, there were already a lot of people who knew about Motherlan and were interested in us before we even landed. Especially because Skep[ta] had come out to Nigeria with Grace [Ladoja] and Alex [Sossah] and showed love while we were still living out there, so when we came to London there were a lot of opportunities waiting for us. It did take me a couple years to navigate and understand that it’s not every shoot that you want to be in and it’s not everyone you want to give your time to, but that’s just a natural, ongoing process of self-reflection that we all eventually embark on.

What has been your ‘I am him’ moment in your career, if you can pick one?


The first time that I felt I was destined for greatness was the day I was born. I have always had the sense that I have something special, regardless of social media or the money or material validation. I’ve always known the sort of person I am. To this day, there has been no job, no collab, no brand partnership that has brought me near that level of joy or personal satisfaction other than working on my own art. Nothing compares to seeing an idea in my head and bringing it to life myself. I’m hoping for a collaboration one day that will make me feel fully fulfilled, if it’s done by me and my people organically, from beginning to end, without any corporate or commercial politics… that’s what would excite me more than anything. 


One of the first projects that does come to mind for me is your True Religion collaboration. How did that come about and how do you feel about it looking back?


The True Religion thing was a real eye-opener for me. It made me realise, more than ever, that I prefer doing my own thing. It was an amazing opportunity that I got through an intro from a friend, and I was initially super excited to work with such a big brand, but there was a whole load of politics that definitely made it a less enjoyable process. Having to filter and censor myself thirty to forty times to fall into the framework of this big corporate entity left me feeling, in the end, like I could’ve just done it alone and made it ten times better. As a young artist I’d say it’s best to avoid that shit until you’ve reached the stage where you can work with these big players on your own terms. 


Social media is naturally a huge tool. How do you think socials have influenced your growth trajectory? 


Social media is everything right now. That’s how people stay in tune. It’s like the news, but we write it. I see it as real estate. The more you put yourself out there and the more traction you gain online, the more real estate you own, and who wouldn’t like to have a huge fucking house? It’s a tool. My thought process is that if I post my work more people will see my work, and I will get more work and more money to make more things. It’s as simple as that honestly. I’m not gonna cry about who’s following me or not, I’m never going to check my stats or anything like that, it’s just the best way of gaining visibility, staying updated, and supporting the homies. 


Has there ever been a point, even a split second, where you’ve doubted yourself in this field?


There’s always doubt. Sometimes I find myself in moments of deep reflection where I ask myself, is this really it? Folks are dying outside, people are struggling, and I’m here working towards nothing more than a piece of canvas, to put it bluntly. My mind often goes towards more immediately gratifying or tangible fields of work but I remind myself that I am blessed to be able to tell stories and give value to things I care about for a living. Doubt is normal though. At the end of the day, if there’s no doubt then you aren’t thinking enough. 


What’s next for you? What can we expect?


All I’m concerned with is making the best art I can. I’m a very self-critical guy and so oftentimes tell myself the stuff that I’m making is shit, even if I know it’s not. I guess that’s also why I can’t pinpoint that “I’m him” moment, because I genuinely don’t think that of myself yet. I want to be creating work that excites me for more than a week, that makes me feel proud, and I can say that that process is underway. As I said, my journey of concept to reality is months, years even, in the making, so I’ve been doing a lot of research and mock ups and tests to be able to upscale my output, with a full team around me working everyday. Now I’m done with uni I’m ready to do it all. Larger paintings, collectibles, immersive exhibitions across mediums.


Finally, what’s one change that you want to see or make in the art space?


I’m keen to find a way to make art as accessible as music. I love art but in many ways it’s very elitist and I hate that shit. With music, you can literally listen to a song from any time period, by any musician, any time, while if you want to see a certain artwork, you have to this one gallery and pay however much money, which is cool because it gives the art value but there should be a way that to bridge that gap and make art more universal and consumable for all. That’s what I’m working towards.

“At the end of the day, if there’s no doubt then you aren’t thinking enough.”



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