Behind the artist: Hedy Tjin from Superfriends studio on addressing social themes through art

Member story #4: Hedy Tjin
Photo: Marc Haers


Name: Hedy Tjin

Member since: 2019

Find her: Lab S16 #inalab 

Written by: David Wouters


You may have frequently seen illustrator Hedy Tjin's (35) artwork on the cover of your newspaper, on a book in your local bookstore or spotted one of her murals spread across AmsterdamGroningenDeventer or Nijmegen. Her colourful and powerful artworks are often a visual translation of a social topic - they leave you thinking but allow you to wander off at the same time. Located in the ‘Superfriends studio’ in A Lab, Hedy works together with three other inspiring artists; illustrator and activist Brian Elstak, visual artist Butterfingaz (Dewy Elsinga) and podcast owner, presenter and director Salma Chafouk Idrissi


For member story #4 Hedy and I sit together in her always colourful studio to talk about how Surinam impacted her art – where part of her roots lie. We talk about her sources of inspiration, her aspirations and on the social themes her work addresses.


Groningen: Mural of Aletta Jacobs – the first woman to go to university in the Netherlands


Hi Hedy, as kids we always have a dream job. Did you ever dream of becoming a visual artist?

As a little kid I was always drawing, painting and creating. I was not 100% sure if I wanted to become an illustrator but I wanted to do something creative for sure.


How would you describe your art?

I find it accessible, it’s figurative but I also make more abstract works. I usually call myself an illustrative designer.


Surinam: Personal project


Your art is very specific; you work with markers only, your illustrations are colourful and mostly figurative. What got you into this form of art?

My work hasn’t always been colourful. After I graduated from art school my work was actually all in black and white. That changed once I travelled to Surinam in 2009 to visit family. I flew to Paramaribo and I’ve spent almost every winter there since. Most of the time I spent drawing and I quickly got in touch with the creative scene. The community is so warm and open and soon enough I found myself surrounded by a group of creative friends. In general, artists use a lot of colour in Surinam – which I found a bit cliché at that time. However after spending longer periods of time in Paramaribo, my works became colourful as well.


Surinam: Mural


So you would say that your time in Paramaribo has had a big influence on your artwork?

Definitely. When I’m in Surinam, I feel more inspired because of the mental peace I experience. In the Netherlands we’re always in a rush and there’s always this feeling of having to do something. In Paramaribo, I could sit back with my sketch book and a set of markers and draw all kinds of scenery that sparked my interest. At one point I started taking pictures of family members and people I met on the street and challenged myself to use colour markers only. That felt amazing, I felt inspired, it was very meditative and the results were better than I expected. It felt more honest, direct and pure.


What’s your own favourite work of art?

My favourite project was when I painted a shaved ice cream cart in Surinam. My great grandfather introduced shaved ice cream in Surinam and now many years later you can find these carts on almost every corner. It’s a tradition for cart owners and busses to have the most beautiful paintings on them in order to attract a lot of customers. As an ode to my grandfather I wanted to paint a cart. My friend back then loved making all sorts of mini documentaries. We would walk through the city together, scouting for shaved ice cream carts that could use some touching up. Once we found one, I told the owner my story and how I would love to paint his cart. He could not believe that I wanted to do it for free – as painting jobs can be quite expensive. I asked him to bring me the cart on Friday morning and to pick it back up on Sunday evening. He traversed the whole city with his cart and left it for me to paint. On Sunday evening he picked up the car and was lost for words; that gave me a fantastic feeling.


Surinam: Schaafijskar – personal project


There’s a lot of diversity in your projects; you work on personal projects but you’ve also got a lot of projects going on with a more serious notion to it. In collaboration with United Paintings and Verdedig Noord, you painted a big mural of victims of anti-black violence at Tolhuistuin. Could you tell me more about that?

Brian Elstak is a big support to me, I believe that 8 out of the 10 projects I work on, I got because of him. Brian gave my number to Massih Hutak (founder of Verdedig Noord) just before he also moved into A Lab. He asked me if I wanted to portray victims of anti-black violence on the wall at Tolhuistuin. It was days after the black lives matter protest on Dam square and I was so fired up by it all that even though time-wise I was not sure if I was going to make it - I thought: let’s do it. I thought: If that’s my way of being able to contribute, then I’m going to do it, it felt like an outlet to me.

I also felt that it was a nice way to express the problem. In this age we’re very saturated with information. In this mural there are no words, it’s just something you can see. People are intrigued by its colours and are inclined to think about what they’re seeing. It’s a nice way to make people conscious.


Amsterdam: Mural of victims of anti-black violence at Tolhuistuin


It’s not the first time you paint or illustrate for social themes. Your illustrations are regularly on the cover of newspapers or may it be - very big walls. Is this something you want to do more often or something you want to keep on doing?

I find it important to be socially involved, it’s nice to be able to contribute and I enjoy making illustrations that empower and activate the discussion on certain social themes. That said I don’t want to become type casted like some actors; to only get asked for illustrative projects on social themes, because I do more than that. I enjoy the combination of working on both illustrations for social themes as well as working on personal projects. Sometimes I like for my work to be less about the message and more about the feeling. I enjoy illustrating friends, family and some sceneries. But I’m in a good place right now, both forms are coming together while I have the freedom to stay close to my own working style.



Do you believe that creating both illustrations for social topics as well as doing personal projects create a balance that gives you the power to do both? One is an outlet to blow off steam while the other gives you mental peace and lets your imagination flow?

Definitely. As an artist you can sometimes ask yourself ‘what am I doing that contributes to a better world?’ you ask yourself ‘am I just creating images?’ - it’s then great to be able to have this opportunity to work on illustrations for social topics.


If there was one social topic you could contribute to with your artwork, what it would be?

The black lives matter movement. For this movement I also painted other heroic Surinam people on the walls of the building of the Black Archives. Something different but close to my heart is the mural I made of Aletta Jacobs in Groningen – she is the first woman in the Netherlands to go to university. I’m also happy with the mural I made of Vincent van Gogh in Nijmegen. The mural of van Gogh is a reminder that you can’t be perfect as a person, that doing your own thing is good enough. Back in the day, people found his work odd or evenstrange, but eventually it was highly appreciated. This shows that doing your own thing is the best you can do. These kind of messages or topics are things I highly support.


Nijmegen: Mural of Vincent van Gogh


Illustrator and co-labber Brian Elstak brought you together under the alias of ‘Superfriends studio’, could you tell me more about the birth of Superfriends?

Brian and I have been friends for a couple of years. We have always had this illustrator-nerd- kind-of-friendship. We would meet up and talk about ongoing projects and talk about illustrating. He has been very supportive from the first moment. At one point he asked me if I wanted to rent a studio together. He then asked artist Dewy Elsinga (Butterfingaz) to join in. We only first met while looking at the studio and instantly connected. Brian then told us that Salma would like to join in as well – funny enough I already knew her as I had spent time with her working on a project in Surinam. We all work visually but also do it a little different from each other. In this way we compliment each other and also work together sometimes. It’s a feeling of a dream team, super nice, superfriends!

Superfriends studio: Dewy, Brian, Salma & Hedy


A Lab is a hotspot for creatives, how do you experience working here?

Speaking for the Superfriends studio we really enjoy the nice vibe and atmosphere in A Lab, there’s always this close A Lab family present at every event, that’s really nice. And of course we love team A Lab!


What would you like to achieve or create in the future?

I like the way things are going right now and I like to go with the flow. But if there’s one thing I would really enjoy doing is to paint the façade of a big building. For the rest I just want to do more of everything I’m already doing all the while being able to maintain as much as artistic freedom within projects as possible. I want to keep on growing, developing and challenging myself with my work.



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