Interview: We Talk To Grime’s Go To Graphic Designer Joe Whelan

The music industry is big, and for such a large industry (the creative industries combined now bring in £84.1 billion to the UK economy) we actually get to see a surprisingly small part of it.

Take Grime for example, sure, you know the artists, but what about all the people behind closed doors. The videographers… the sound engineers…the graphic designers. Do you ever wonder how it all comes together?


Chances are, you won’t know the name Joseph Whelan off the top of your head. If you’re a Grime fan though, then more than likely you’ve already seen his work. Joe has done artwork for WileyCadellMerky AceGrim Sickers and many more. We like democracy, so we contacted Joe to hear about his side of the industry, and his contributions to the current UK music scene. Read on below.

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Hi Joe – tell us a bit about yourself – how old are you and where are you from?

I’m 30 years old and from born and raised in Swindon 

What was your route into graphic design, and how did you end up connecting with the music scene, particularly the Grime side?

Well ever since a young age I have always been an artist. My dad taught me how to draw very early and it’s always something that I had done. I quickly realised I liked drawing cartoons and even won little competitions at school for them. I took art at A-Level and actually fell out of love with it to be honest, too much restriction. I got my full A-Level and declined the opportunity to go further. A few years later I started teaching myself how to use all the software and create illustrations. I gained an interest in the other aspects of graphic design such as logo design, print, branding and such and just took it all in. 

The original plan was to go to university and gain a degree in it but realised a lot of the best graphic designers don’t even have a degree in graphics, just very strong portfolios. So I just dedicated myself to getting better and building up a strong portfolio.

They say it takes 10,000 hours practice to become an expert in anything, so that’s just what I did. Practice, practice, practice.

I kind of just fell into the music scene by chance really. I am good friends with Grim Sickers and I used to do his artwork when he was just a local MC. Once Lord of the Mics came about and he blew up, we came up with the idea of doing ghetto versions of Hey Arnold characters for a track he did with Ghetts, then there was the famous Black Bin Bag Him artwork which is what really made people take notice. Before I knew it I had more and more established names approaching me for artwork and it snowballed from there. I went from doing something I did for a hobby and it turned into a full time business in less than a year. So I owe a lot to Grim for that initial push. 

How would you describe your approach to graphic design?

I really like to collaborate with the client, get a feel for the kind of message that they are trying to put across so I can put out the best product possible. The way I see it, it’s my job to make them look good no matter what line of work they are in, their image is in my hands and I take that very seriously. 

Who are your favourite music artists in the UK at the moment?

I’ll be honest, I’m more of a US hip-hop guy but I do take in a lot of the UK artists as well. I would say Cadell is one of my favourite UK artists right now and not just because I work with him. Not many people in the scene can really hold a candle to him. I’m also a big CasIsDead fan as well, as far as originality goes. 

What’s your absolute favourite piece you’ve produced so far, and why?

Tough question. I did a cartoon piece for Mic Ty at the tail end of last year that I really loved. It didn’t end up getting picked up by the label because they wanted the cover to be a photo of him which I thought was boring and unimaginative but hey that’s record labels for you. I really liked the 100 Bags cover for Grim Sickers too. The cover for Wiley and Cadell‘s single “Shredded Wheat” is another favourite just because it’s Wiley, not many people can say they’ve done artwork for him!



What equipment do you use for your designs (software and hardware), and how long does a design take?

I mostly just use a Mac with Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign with a mouse to be honest with you. That’s all I need. I have been known to use a Wacom tablet from time to time. I’m currently learning how to use Maya as well. That’s very tricky.

Is the graphic design life life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

I suppose it can be at times but I like my own company. Especially when work is piling up and you have deadlines to meet. But at the same time you have to make time for yourself. I like to see different places, go to museums, shows, socialise. I went to LA recently and got a bit of work there too so I fully intend on making that one of my go to places to relax.

Which historic album art would you like to redesign, and why?

That’s a tough one. I’m a big fan of all of the Gorillaz artwork and their projects in general and I think that’s what inspired me to initially want to create album art. But I would never want to touch their work. I wouldn’t mind putting my own twist to Snoop’s Doggystyle cover. That would be a lot of fun.

Professionally, what’s your goal, and how far would you like to take it?

Well I’m going to be a part of some big projects this year which will lead to some even bigger projects so that’s something to look forward to, I’m just looking at the next challenge and seeing where that can take me. I just want to work with people with the same motivation as me and be able to create beautiful visuals which can be seen by the world, and the sky is the limit when it comes to that. I’ve already seen my work reach beyond the UK to the US, Australia, and Asia so it would be nice to be able to work with people from all corners of the world.

Any shoutouts of other graphic designers we should know about?

I’m a big fan of mregfx’s work. He has a great style. Tom Porter, the guy who does the Simpsons characters in streetwear illustrations’ work is crazy too. There’s too many to name. I’m a big fan of the guy who does Gucci Mane‘s artwork, KD Designz I think he goes by, his work is so good. 

What’s your favourite kind of brief, and why?

Briefs come in different shapes and sizes. Some are detailed to the point you have no creative freedom at all and some have just no brief, where you end up playing a guessing game which can be beyond frustrating. The best ones are where a client has their complete trust in me and don’t try to shackle my creativity. Just a brief outline of what they are looking for. I produce my favourite pieces that way. 

 Joe does more than just graphics for Grime – Check out his website here!


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