Justin Richburg Talks — Childish Gambino, Storytelling, and Reinventing Yourself As An Artist
The saying goes, big opportunities sometimes make or break you — but, in other cases, they can reinvent you and prepare you for the next crossroad. I’m sure the same can be said by many designers, a single job could determine the rest of your career — heck, even your life. For Justin Richburg, his success as a character illustrator set him up for more possibilities than he ever imagined.
Justin is a Philadelphia-based artist who just so happened to be the character designer for a Grammy Award-winning, big-name artist — *cough, whose name rhymes with Wildish Mambino — but don’t let the climb to fame fool you. Justin wants to establish his own claim to fame, his work set the benchmark to a whole new world of creative opportunities.
We sat down with Justin to shed some light on his experience as an independent character designer, and how his work and ambitions are a reflection of his own life and unique self.
Justin knew early on in life he was destined to be an artist — a dollar bill being the first drawing that he could recall — but it wasn’t until the age of 22 when he considered illustration to be a source of passion and income. “I’ve drawn ever since I could remember, and it just made sense,” he says.
He went on to discover that many of his favorite childhood TV shows influenced his unique approach to art. “Growing up I would watch ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ and ‘Dragon Ball Z,’” he says. “I was always fascinated with the details in the ears and the eyes; all those shows taught me detail.” From there, Justin went on to define his own style, inspired by many of the characters he grew up watching in anime and comics.
The Philadelphia art scene covers a wide range of vibrant and eclectic murals, mosaics, and a mecca for visual and contemporary styles — but it’s Philly’s thriving underground art scene that truly showcases this city’s gems. “I was born and raised in North Philly — Philly inspired me to become a storyteller, but with real stories.”
Justin was born and raised in North Philadelphia on the infamous Spruce Street — home to one of his all-time heroes, Will Smith — an area drenched in culture and art. Many aspects of his hometown and personal experiences are reflected in his work. “I was stalked for five years by a woman a while back, and that experience turned into something for my art.” Many of these stories passed along from people in Justin’s community that then motivated his exploration in storyboarding and comics.
Working with Childish Gambino
It’s no secret that he’s the man behind the characters in Childish Gambino’s music video, but his response to the hype has been nothing more than humbling. “This was my first time doing something like this, and I just wanted to give my input and sit back and learn,” he says, “I didn’t expect to be in a room with Gambino. I even got to meet one of my idols, Charlamagne tha God. He inspires me to speak my mind and stay true to myself.”
Justin worked alongside a team of animators and creative directors to perfect the vision of all 60+ characters, including background visuals, and, of course, capturing the essence of Gambino himself, the lead character in the video. “The Gambino drawing was the most accurate to my style of character design — also Wiz Khalifa, Diddy, Jay Z, and Dr. Dre were spot on,” says Justin.
The next is near
Justin’s experience reflects many artists in the independent underground arts community. Possessing true talent can push you to the forefront of an oversaturated industry and give you the freedom to redefine as many times as you want.
“My next project is a comic about space and aliens. It’s my second comic, but I’m trying to get better at writing stories,” says Justin.
As the opportunities flow in, Justin never forgets to stay humble, and patient with the industry, “People want things to come quickly, and that’s not how life works. People who have a longer path understand things and are more prepared.”
For now, Justin plans to ride the wave of his success, and hopes to land a studio job close to his stomping grounds. “I want a studio job, but how the way things look, I might go beyond that,” he says.
“I don’t know what the future may hold, but there’s something in front of me right now, and I have to take advantage of it.”