Alex Hanke took his first steps in the field of design in 1996, firstly with graffiti and then from 2000 with his own websites and taking on jobs for his first clients. After a one-year internship in two agencies, he studied at the Cologne International School of Design, after which he moved to Hildesheim and studied at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts. He then moved to Hamburg and worked as a freelancer in various agencies, before going into business for himself with his company ‘Zum Heimathafen’. Initially he worked on the design of packaging, while nowadays he is an illustrator, graphic designer and screen printer in Hamburg. Alex Hanke comes from Magdeburg and is 38 years old.
Where and how did you grow up?
I was born in Magdeburg in 1981 and grew up between grey houses and unkempt backyards. My parents both worked, so there was plenty of time for me to explore the streets and fool around.
Could you describe your professional background?
We had to be creative as many things were possible in Magdeburg but not much was actually taking place at that time. So we put on concerts, organized exhibitions and created a wide variety of other cultural events. At some point after my civilian service, however, it was clear to me that to do what I wanted to do then I needed to be in a bigger city, so I went to Cologne. I wasn’t really happy there though so I moved to Hildesheim, although I soon discovered that Hildesheim was not ‘the place to be’ either. Therefore, after my studies and a little trip around the world I went to Hamburg, where I still live today.
Were there certain events or stations that were formative for your career?
The time when I sprayed a lot was formative. Spending the night with friends, discovering a new city and leaving my first traces.
Organizing the first concerts and events in Magdeburg and realising that you can and must take things into your own hands.
Leaving a comfortable situation, with a social network and friends, has definitely also shaped me and made me more open to new possibilities.
My first connections in the world of gig posters were definitely formative and that continues to this day.
Have there been certain people who have been formative for your career?
There are so many, such as my boss during the internship, who threw me in at the deep end and didn’t even watch me paddle around.
The people I painted with and later the people with whom I organised events. Then, people like Jay Ryan, through whom I first came into contact with gig posters, and a whole series of wonderful people like Lars P. Krause, Señor Burns or Ralf Krüger, who warmly welcomed me into the scene of gig poster artists. But there are really so many that it’s actually unfair to mention anyone explicitly. In every phase there were people who supported me and thus made sure that I had the courage to go on.
Has your environment supported you in your career?
Definitely. Starting with my parents, who were incredibly angry with me when the police knocked on the door at night, but were still there for me. Of course, there are always people who put obstacles in your way, but most of them were very supportive.
What are your current activities?
Illustrator / graphic designer / screen printer.
Although there are not really many concert posters I can work on at the moment, my field of activity is still closely interwoven with music. For example, I just finished two album covers for Tim Linghaus and for the band The Appleseed Cast. Both are currently in production and I’m eagerly awaiting the two LPs. Another one is almost finished, but I’m not allowed to tell anything about it yet. In these artworks illustration and graphic design go hand in hand, because I’m not only responsible for the cover, but for the whole packaging design, which is always a lot of fun.
At the moment, the screen-printing table is mainly used for my own printed material, but it’s also used for commissions from other artists who don’t have the opportunity to reproduce their work in screen printing themselves. But even here I cannot really talk about current projects, because the publication of the projects is up to the clients.
Does what you are currently doing fulfil you?
It fulfils me completely. I can make up stories, I can draw them, and somehow at the end of the month there’s enough money to pay for everything. What could be better? Also, to see that people all over the world are interested in my work is incredibly fulfilling and also a bit surreal.
Do you think that you yourself have an influence on whether your activities are fulfilling?
I think so, to a certain extent. If I don’t do something with fervour, then it won’t fulfil me. If something is a burden, then one should not do it. (Sure, bookkeeping is a burden, but it’s just a necessary evil). I believe that if we all have some humility towards life and our environment, many things become easier and more fulfilling.
The other fulfilling aspect is of course the people who buy my things or who are happy about it. There is nothing more beautiful than the direct emotion of people looking at my works. To see smiles, people talking about it, a child being happy about a funny figure and the like. Or even when someone from Alaska writes to me that a poster hangs in his bedroom and spreads joy every day, that is incredibly fulfilling. I don’t think my work would be possible without that.
Since I’m more or less socialised more as a designer than as an artist, the connection to the customer is even greater. You’re somehow more of a service provider, although that’s not meant in a negative or pejorative way.
What or who inspires you in everyday life?
Nature inspires me again and again, as does music immensely, or a good story. Individuals certainly also inspire me, but that also changes often and it is not always all the works of an artist. So it’s hard to name anyone here and I wouldn’t focus so much on that.
A good strategy is music and daydreaming, just shutting everything else off and letting your mind wander. Sometimes a long ride on the bike helps too.
What or who gives you strength and energy in everyday life?
My family gives me strength, but they also take a lot, so I guess it’s more balanced as far as that goes. Otherwise, I don’t really know how or what it is in particular. Good food, enough oxygen, stupidly little to no alcohol. Then I usually have enough strength. But it can also be that it is a project that gives me strength, for example because it is for a great cause or for a band whose music I love. It also helps to wander through the world as openly as possible, as then I also realise that everything is not half as bad as I might have feared.
There are ‘magic moments’ when everything seems to fit. Moments that fulfil, inspire and give strength. Moments that confirm that the effort is worthwhile and that what you do is meaningful and valuable. Have you already experienced such moments in relation to your own activities?
These are indeed very often, sometimes more, sometimes less. For example, when I design a poster for a band that I like very much myself. Hearing the music and putting the band’s name on the poster is sometimes like a dream, knowing that this is now officially for that band.
It’s also always magical when I collaborate with people and we speak the same visual language from the beginning and we inspire each other and take things further than I could have somehow done just by myself.
Do you actively do something for it, so that such ‘magic’ moments can happen?
I actively do nothing for it, I think it would not be magic if I wanted to anticipate it or see it or provoke it. Magic lives from the surprise. If I set myself up for it, then it can’t become magical at all.
Are there moments when you doubt what you are doing?
There are certainly daily doubts and these exist also for almost every project. It’s certainly unpleasant at the time, but it’s part of the process. Doubt is good if it doesn’t become too debilitating; at some point, enough is enough. Doubts also help to rethink and question things, and I don’t think you should hide from that.
In retrospect, can you find something positive in difficult moments?
Definitely, most of the time. Sometimes they are just difficult and in the end nothing comes out of it. That’s the way it is. But most of the time, you struggle through something and then you’re smarter than before. Mistakes are necessary, if you don’t make any, then something is wrong. Then you are not critical enough. And mistakes are first of all nothing negative and should not be judged. Something didn’t work and then you find the solution and are happy. That’s why you should celebrate mistakes – my friend Joris Diks coined the wonderful saying ‘I am ok with failure’ and it’s just 100% true.
Is there anything you would do differently in retrospect?
Every project I would do differently in retrospect, I always find a mistake or something I would change. But then it’s too late and that’s perfectly okay. Designed things are always a snapshot and you have to make friends with it and come to terms with it. If it were not so and I would not want to change my things for years, then I would be at a standstill and that’s not good. Every day we evolve, change our views because we learn, so it would be weird to think our own stuff is good forever. That’s not always great and it can make me quite mad, but it’s part of it.
Do you want to contribute to society with your activities?
I want to make people happy and give them something they can relate to and experience their own story through it. When I participate in social projects, I naturally want to contribute something socially in the respective field, but in terms of my other work, it’s enough for me if a few people are a little happier or more hopeful.
Is the recognition of other people or the public important to you?
Not at all in public. Nobody believes me about this this, but it is actually rather unpleasant for me. If someone buys something from me, is happy about it and does not know that I designed it, that’s enough for me as recognition. Everything else just massages the ego and we already have enough people with too big an ego.
How well can you live from what you do professionally?
It is enough to cover the needs of daily life and that makes me very happy. There were enough long periods of time when this was not the case and that causes immense stress and robs life energy. But somehow those times belong to the process, so I can appreciate my current situation all the more.
Is there something that is particularly occupying you at the moment?
It may sound platitudinous, but the environmental destruction and the social drift to the right worry me. The blindness with which people are heading towards a possible catastrophe, and sometimes also with conscious blindness, is worrying in my eyes.
Is there something you would like to (increasingly) spend time on in the future?
I would like to paint more murals again, back to the roots, so to speak. But there I still have to overcome my inner weaker self to some degree.
What are you most grateful for in life?
That people I don’t know allow me to live the way I live.
This interview is part of the project ‘Magic Moments’ by Kunstverein Schichtwechsel, in which people are interviewed about their careers, activities and their magical as well as difficult moments.
Curated by Stefani Andersen and Laura Hilti, Kunstverein Schichtwechsel.
Supported by Kulturstiftung Liechtenstein and Stiftung Fürstl. Kommerzienrat Guido Feger.
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