How to start a creative rebellion, with podcaster and founder Adam Brazier
By Emily Parker
When Adam Brazier left university, he was turned down for every job he applied for. Now he's the host of iTunes #1, 5-star podcast, Creative Rebels and co-runs a graffiti art and tattoo business in London.
As part of our Working the Dream series, Adam tells Quarterlife co-founder, Emily, how self-teaching, networking and starting passion projects were the secrets to turning around his lost year and thriving as a result.
Some people say that you can work out your ideal job by looking at what brought you joy as a kid. What were you like at school?
Growing up I was always very into stuff. If ever I was interested in anything I’d completely throw myself into it until I felt like I’d mastered it. At school I was always really into art and my parents always praised me for it, which meant I developed even more of a love of doing it.
But I also always knew I wanted to actually make some money from my job. For our parents, success was largely about money and prestige, so growing up that’s really drilled into you. It wasn’t really about enjoying your career.
I knew art was a difficult business. So, because I was always really into maths and physics, I decided I wanted to do what most people who love art, maths and physics do. I wanted to go into architecture.
And how did you then get from school to uni?
I went for an interview with Oxford Brookes, and it happened to be with the Head of Interior Architecture. He saw my portfolio and wanted to give me an unconditional offer for Interior Architecture. I hadn’t really considered Interior Architecture before, but it all made sense. So, that was it, and once I got to uni I then got really into 3D design.
And what was it about the design world that really grabbed you?
I’ve always seen creativity as less about expressiveness and interpretation and more about problem-solving, but just doing that in a visual way. That’s the thing with digital design - you get given a brief and then there’s a number of things you have to work around to get someone to look at your piece in a certain way.
Did you enjoy your time at uni?
I mean I didn’t find my lectures that interesting. They were all quite slow-paced, and I found I enjoyed teaching myself stuff so much more exciting and rewarding. The internet is the absolute best teacher you could ever have. You have every skill, every piece of knowledge, at your fingertips. That’s amazing. I’ve met people in other countries who have learnt entire languages just through Youtube. It’s amazing.
It is. So you still got what you wanted out of your time at uni?
I mean I still managed to get my degree, I got firsts in some modules too, and I’d decided I wanted to go into making digital visualisations for architecture firms. I felt like I had some direction. But looking back now I could have made so much more of my time at uni. You have accommodation sorted and loads of spare time - depending on what degree you’re doing of course. You can literally do anything, start anything, with no worries and very little risk. I just didn’t at the time. I also had no idea what was about to happen when I left uni.
What did happen when you left?
Well, my girlfriend from uni, who is still my girlfriend now, was in the year above me, and she landed this job in London. She came to live with me in Oxford during my final year and, once I’d finished, we both moved to London and I started applying for jobs. But that was when it got really tough. We moved to London in 2008, which was just when the recession hit. And I applied for so many jobs, but didn’t hear back from any of them. It was incredibly depressing. And it got to the point where I was getting so many “no”s that I eventually started applying for retail jobs, which were nothing to do with my degree, and I was even getting turned away from those!
I’d thought during my degree that all the work I was putting in would make finding work a sure-thing. But that couldn’t be further from the truth of what I experienced.
What did you do with your lost year after graduating when you couldn’t find work?
I started doing freelance stuff on the side. I set up a website. And then I met this guy coincidentally who knew some people who were setting up a graffiti company. I asked him if he knew whether they had any work going. He saw my portfolio and thought my work was good, but that was it, it didn’t go any further. Then two weeks later I got a call from him asking if I could design the website for this graffiti company. It was a £200 job, but I had no money and nothing else to do, so I took it.
It was experience for me, and I wasn’t really in a position to turn anything down. They were then so happy with the site that they offered me a place on the core team. So I went down to South London to meet the guys. We first met for a chat in the grottiest little pub with smashed-up fruit machines - it was so weird, I was like “where on earth are we?”. We then walked down to what became our first office; a small, cold concrete garage where we had to keep the radiators and our coats on all day when it was cold. That was where we had our first meeting, and in that meeting the guys were like, “do you want to join us? There’s no money in the company as we’re just getting started, but we’d like to have you on the team”. I had nothing else to do so I just said yes.
And that was the start of Graffiti Life?
Yeah, that was it then. From those humble beginnings. Now we have like 15 employees, we’re doing campaigns for some of the biggest clients in the world, we have an office in Shoreditch, and it’s all built from back there in that pub.
And tell us a bit about Graffiti Life.
So it was created at a time when graffiti was starting to be seen less like vandalism and more like street art. And David, my business partner and my fellow podcast co-host, and I knew lots of artists who were just so under-appreciated and had so much talent to do real work and get paid for it. We wanted to give those people a chance, and to change the way people thought about graffiti. We believe it’s a real art form.
And we’re all about giving young artists a chance and a platform. Like we have an official government apprenticeship scheme. And we love bringing in young people, giving them a can of spray paint and teaching them how to do graffiti art. It’s great.
And that need to help and coach and support young people was what then led you to create the podcast?
Yeah absolutely. We then got to a point where we were getting loads of messages on Instagram and other platforms asking us different questions about art and creative careers and careers in general. We were getting lots of the same questions asked to us over and over again, so we decided to set up a podcast to answer those questions, and to reach as many people as possible with the answers.
Ultimately, we’d love to set up a proper little school for people to come to, and to get trained in a load of the things that school and uni don’t teach young people, like an alternative university sort of thing. But, we need to wait until the market is ready for that sort of thing I think.
And what do you think about the education system? Your podcast is called Creative Rebels; is that a reflection of your view of how the education system supports, or rather under-supports, creative career paths?
I think I was good at art early on. And for that reason I got a huge amount of confidence really early on. And I think creativity is all about confidence, and getting affirmations and encouragement as a kid. I think for me I got all that stuff, but it totally depends on your situation. I know there will be so many people who could be amazing creatives but they never got the right support and encouragement as kids.
I know there are loads of cuts on the arts too. And that tonnes of jobs have been cut by digitisation. For example, there will be so many coding jobs that will disappear when computers are able to code themselves. But, the one thing that can’t be replaced is true creativity. And not enough people are even told that this is a real possibility, and not enough people are taught the things they need to know for less obvious careers.
I’ve relied basically on being someone who likes to teach themselves and find the answers online. But, schools shouldn’t make kids have to do that to educate themselves on the important and relevant skills they need for life and work. There are so many pointless lessons we have in school that could be replaced with proper life-skills lessons.
Was there anything really good that school provided for you?
We did get the option to do this young entrepreneurship competition. They were after-school classes at one of the schools in town and the process was basically designed to help you start an imaginary business. I signed up to that and it was amazing. You created a company name, a product, and then you had to try to sell it and grow the business. You were given raffle tickets and they represented shares. And you had to try to sell those shares to as many people as possible.
I really loved creating the logo and doing the design and everything. Our business idea was called A-Z because we thought it’d be cool to have a company that sold everything.
The only thing I would have changed about it is that we didn’t actually learn anything. We didn’t get any lessons in business, we were just told to go and do it, which is good but I think also learning some skills and theory would have been good. But I don’t think just giving every kid in the country these courses is the answer. Not everyone wants to start a business, and not everyone should. Some people should do great work for great companies rather than building their own great companies.
Yeah I guess the problem with education is the missing message about happiness and fulfilment and balance, and too much focus on prestige and money?
Yeah I mean that’s what our parents’ generation were encouraged to strive for, and our teachers were part of that generation too. That’s what they think is doing the best thing for us. Not encouraging us to do things out of passion, even though there’s no money in them, but doing things that bring maximum prestige and money.
But whatever you do with your life, whether it is for a living or just for fun, I think you should make sure you find fulfillment and enjoyment. Like people talk about side hustles and focus a lot on monetising them. But the only reason anyone should start side hustles is out of passion. As long as you can make money and support yourself, that is the most important thing. Doesn’t matter how you make your money, how flashy that money-making job is or how much money you make.
What would you say to someone in their lost year right now? Going through job rejections and crisis confidence like you did.
I’d say find something you absolutely love doing, and then get as much knowledge and skill in that area as you possibly can, and then just start offering it to people for free for a little bit of time. If you want to work for someone else, offer whatever skill you ultimately want to end up being paid for to a charity for free for a bit.
Eventually you will get paid for it, but if you can do it for free you can get so much better at it through doing that.
I also think, as clichéd as it is, learning to market your skills and learning to market yourself is so key. And again, personal branding is stuff you can learn about online. Working out what your thing is, who you are, and how you can answer certain needs that no one else can.
And any advice in general for careers and life?
I think just setting yourself little tasks to use the internet to teach yourself things. It’s so addictive and gives you so much confidence. Even if it’s only really small things, I think you gradually develop the confidence that whatever anyone else can do, you can do it too with the right amount of practice. Because we all have the same tutorials and skills at our fingertips. There’s very little that isn’t out there now to access and learn from, and we’re so lucky to have all that. Being inspired rather than discouraged by what others can do and how good others are is such a powerful mental shift. It’s so empowering to think in that way.
And the other thing is to not be afraid to ask for what you want. So many of the things that helped us get to where we are now have been things we’ve felt so cheeky asking for, and it’s always a surprise when people say yes, but you’ve just got to ask.
Same for us. We’ve asked for ridiculous things that we’ve been given, with total shock. Like we got a shout-out on The High Low podcast when we first launched back in February.
Completely. You’ve just got to ask. And then just pretending you know what you’re doing is a surprisingly effective tactic. Like I now have the graffiti business, I have a tattoo parlour, an outdoor advertising space company, and I’ve just taken up photography. And when I first started I wasn’t at all a photographer, but I gradually learnt how to do it. And when I started to contact some bigger models and influencers, they’d show up for a shoot and I’d be so nervous, because I knew they were thinking I was an actual photographer, when I felt in no way at all like an actual photographer. But I just had to pretend I had the confidence, and gradually those impostor syndrome feelings went away.
Fake it til you make it.
Exactly! Whatever it is you want to do. And also just be nice, that’s important. Oh, and there’s no shame in living at home for a while. Like, a lot of the big influencers I shoot still live at home. Or they did for a few years until they could get out on their own. It’s not something you’d see from their Instagrams, but it’s true, and it’s fine. If it helps you get to do what you really want to do.
Image via Adam Brazier.