Interview: Artist Hash Kodithuwakku On… Creating Communities, Turning Your Hobby Into A Career, And Why Other Artists Aren’t Your Competition

Hash Kodithuwakku is an artist and the creator of online shop Sofftpunk, which they run with partner Ish. Exploring both the political and the personal, Hash’s art often centres queerness, community, and minority perspectives.

We spoke to Hash about engaging with other artists, creating accepting spaces, and the joys and pitfalls of turning your hobby into your career.

How did you get started with your art, and how has your style developed since?

I think, like a lot of artists, I started off as a really creative child. Then when I got older I had depression, and I lost my interest in a lot of things; things like art fell away. So I was really happy to finally reignite that interest when I moved away to university. When I got back into art, it was mainly through art journaling. I was making art that was very personal; I’ve kept diaries since I was a kid, and it started off just being words. I eventually started doodling my thoughts, and that evolved into art journaling. 

What actually got me interested in properly learning how to draw – rather than just doodling – was anime. I was one of those kids who’d draw fanart and that kind of thing. It really grates on my nerves when people say that fanart or anime isn’t real art – because not only is the style entirely valid in itself, but it’s also a wonderful introduction for children who are interested in art. There’s some elitist idea that there’s a “real” art and “fake” art, and there’s some kind of higher meaning to the “real” art. I’m not saying that art isn’t meaningful, but my point is this: your art doesn’t have to be “good”, it doesn’t have to tell your entire life story to have a value. The value is simply that it’s a human behaviour – just like birds make nests. It’s just a thing that we do. No-one can gate-keep that.

“You know when you see someone else on the bus who has a queer flag on, don’t you just have that “Woo!” moment? That’s the feeling I want to give.”

Hash Kodithuwakku

What is it like running the Sofftpunk store on a daily basis?

The day-to-day is mostly taken up with packaging and labelling orders, and getting things ready to post. That’s a really fun mundane task – I’m the kind of person who gets very into the flow of doing a repetitive task, so I really enjoy doing that part; it’s very anxiety-relieving. Often I wake up super early in the morning, rush up to my studio and do it with the rising sun.

The harder stuff was changing the style of the art I did, and preparing things to manufacture requires a lot of formatting. My style has definitely developed – especially now I’ve switched from what used to be traditional mediums to digital mediums. All of my anime drawings and my diaries were all pencil and paper – but then when you want to try to manufacture designs it’s so much easier with digital, which will obviously change your style. The style change that I’ve noticed is that my art is a lot more bright and blocky. 

Once I’ve got my design and drawn it up, that will need to be formatted in a way that can be printed at the manufacturer. For example, if I have areas with foil on them, I might have to make those areas transparent to let the manufacturer know which areas are foiled. I need to add borders, change the size of certain elements, and make sure that the colours are translating correctly to the printer. So these are all the things I need to consider.  When I started this, I didn’t realise how many jobs this actually was. In my head I was just like, “I want to draw things!” But the number of jobs I actually have to do is way more than I had intended. My partner Ish helps out with a lot of it, but we don’t have any experience or training in this. Every single step of this is just winging it entirely. 

Art from the Sofftpunk store - a wall hanging illustration and two paintings.

How did you first come to set up your own brand?

The way that it first started was honestly not with enough foresight! I was all very spur of the moment. The very first design that I ever released was before we even had a name, or a brand, or a shop. I made a tweet at some point along the lines of, “It’s really frustrating to try to find feminist products, but shop ideas of feminism are all, “Girl power!” when really I’m looking for something that says, “Guillotine the rich!” And a lot of people commented saying, “Yes! We’d buy that!” And I was like “Wait… you would?” (laughs). That design was my first time drawing digitally. That was how this all started. So for it to come here – I hadn’t planned all of this, or all of the work that’s come with it. 

A lot of people talk about the issues that come with turning your hobbies into your source of income, and that’s something I hadn’t considered. When I first created the Sofftpunk brand, I wasn’t someone who took art as a career seriously enough. The difference between liking drawing as a hobby and trying to make it your career – when it’s your career, even when it’s not what you feel like doing, it’s part of your job to put out designs, or hone your skills, in a way that’s different to if you’re just doing it as a hobby. So that change was what allowed me to go from just doing it as a hobby, and just doing designs as a whim in my diary, all the way to creating designs that are formatted and prepared. 

“We, as queer people, as minorities, know that there are too many vocal opinions that say horrible things about us. I wanted to create a space that’s vocally accepting. Silencing out the hatred by being much louder with positive messages.”

Hash Kodithuwakku

What has the response been like from your customers?

I have been amazed by the response. it was just something I did on a whim, and I was blown away. I think it’s because a lot of the time with the things I draw, I’m not someone who has a design education that will allow me to think about things like the target market – it’s just me drawing things that I like. On one level I’m incredibly shocked by the sheer number of sales, but what I’m truly grateful for is that so many people have stepped up to help me along the way. With my very first design, I had no experience with manufactures, and I got hit with some hidden fees. I didn’t have the money – I didn’t have any seed money or funding, I literally just put in the last £200 that I had left from my student finance into it. Somebody reached out to me and offered to cover the fee, and I was so amazed. You can’t get anywhere without other people’s help.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are two key factors that make this little shop my ikigai. It’s more than a job to me; it allows me to be active in and give back to my community in a way I never could before. On top of creating designs to help my community express themselves and raise their voices, I’ve been able to make much bigger donations and mutual aid than would ever be possible by myself. It’s a lifesaver to me as well – being disabled makes holding down and working a “normal” job pretty difficult; most workplaces simply aren’t accessible to someone with chronic pain. Being self-employed means I can make all the adjustments needed for my physical and mental health. It’s a real privilege.

“It’s really important to see the work of artists as motivation rather than demotivation.”

Hash Kodithuwakku

What sort of messages and themes do you incorporate into your designs?

The ideal in my head is that I’ve made something I resonate with and believe in, and when I have that feeling of shock – “Oh my god, this other person also agrees with me!” whenever somebody retweets that drawing I’ve done, or buys that product – I hope that feeling can be replicated, when people get to express these things about themselves and have someone else say, “Hey, I like your pin!”. You know when you see someone else on the bus who has a queer flag on, don’t you just have that “Woo!” moment? That’s the feeling I want to give.

The stuff I draw – even though it’s political – it’s not about the politics, and it’s definitely not about the opposition. It’s not about attacking anybody. A lot of artists are trying to have debates, but that isn’t what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create space for people that I love and let them know, “I see you, I agree with you, and I care about you. It’s not about them.” We, as queer people, as minorities, know that there are too many vocal opinions that say horrible things about us. I wanted to create a space that’s vocally accepting. Silencing out the hatred by being much louder with positive messages.

I’ve had parents messaging saying, “My child just came out as trans – what should I give them as a present from your shop?” Pre-Covid, one of the best things was doing markets and seeing the reactions from people. At a market event I did, a young person with their dad came up to my stall and was looking through a bucket of pronoun badges, and their dad asked them, “Which one do you want?” And they picked one out with the help of their dad. It was wonderful.

Packaging and stickers from the Sofftpunk store.

What aspects of your work are personal to you?

Art was always personal to me; through art journaling, I started with drawing things that happened in my day-to-day, which progressed into demonstrating the emotions of the everyday. And I think my ability to express emotions in my art is what has resonated with some people. There is a lot of me in there – I think that’s true of every artist. Your soul is in your art – even if you’re not trying to express yourself, whatever you draw will say something about you.

Even my shop is very personal to me. This isn’t an Amazon situation with a random person wrapping a random package; every single step of packaging an order, from me and my partner dancing because we made a new sale, to putting the box together, writing the handwritten notes, picking extras to put in – a lot of time and thought goes into it. I do think that what I do is a very personal job. It’s literally just me in my house doing this – it’s like sending a care package to my friend, that I’ve put a lot of love into. I hope people can feel that in the packages that they receive. 

“Consuming other media as an artist is a skill – we can’t consume it the same way as just a viewer. As a viewer, you can just say “That looks good,” and move on. But as an artist, you want to learn from that.”

Hash Kodithuwakku

How do you stay motivated to create art every day?

I have a lot of creative energy and a lot of ideas that I want to make at any given point, with a list of what to draw next. But the big thing is energy. I’m still a student, and I have to run my household – before the pandemic I worked three jobs including this one. I can’t just keep pushing and pushing. You have to give yourself rest, and have some discipline in not pushing yourself. I know a lot of self-employed artists who have an issue with their work-life balance – even though it seems like creating for hours straight is a good thing to grow, it can mean that you strain yourself and burn yourself out.

On the flip side, sometimes I have no artistic energy or inspiration – but it’s still my job, and I take it seriously; it can’t just be something that I do whenever I feel like it. So it’s about having a balance. I think what keeps me able to create is remembering that this is something that I’m learning, and taking active steps to train. I might not have the energy to draw – that’s fine, because I can do a training exercise, and that day it’s not about being creative, it’s just about practising. Sometimes I’ll draw the same shape over and over just to get a better understanding of that shape.

What gets you inspired?

I’m so grateful to Instagram’s explore feed! The power of surrounding yourself with art and inspiration cannot be underplayed. Even in your everyday life, trying to make your space beautiful will give you a beautiful aesthetic sense. Your brain is an algorithm that can be trained to understand art. One of the wonderful things about social media is you get all these new and fresh ideas – I’ve had so much inspiration, so many techniques I’d never even thought of; just looking at the way different artists do things gives me so many ideas of new things to try. It’s really important to see the work of artists as motivation rather than demotivation. 

A photo of Hash and partner Ish.
Hash & Ish

How do you engage with the work of other artists in a way that’s helpful to you?

I think it’s about remembering that other artists are not your competition – not in any way. If somebody is going to buy something from you, they come to you for you, and there’s nobody else selling what you sell. So your engagements have to come from a place of not being competitive, not trying to one-up anybody, and understanding that you have to put yourself out there as much as you can and find other people who vibe with you. Not viewing other artists as competitors, but as motivation and inspiration is a great mindset to be in, because every single piece of art I see is inspiration. 

Consuming other media as an artist is a skill – we can’t consume it the same way as just a viewer. As a viewer, you can just say “That looks good,” and move on. But as an artist, you want to learn from that; you have to get past the stage of, “Oh, that’s so much better than what I could draw!” Ask yourself, why is it good? What is it that you like about that piece? I always try to do this as an exercise – whenever I see an art piece that makes me feel bad about myself, I always try to think if I was the artist, what would I be unsatisfied with? What would I want to work on? I have to remind myself that every artist will be unsatisfied with their work.

“It’s fine if it’s not perfect, it’s fine if you don’t have products lined up and you just have one drawing, it’s fine if you just have £10 to invest. Stop putting it off, stop waiting until it’s perfect. Just start.”

Hash Kodithuwakku

You’ve built up a loyal following online with the Sofftpunk brand – what advice would you give to people who want to turn their art into their career?

It is a big thing to do – especially if you want to make a big thing of it, it’s something you’re going to be investing a lot of time and money into, and it’s scary. But that’s true of anything worth doing. I think the most important piece of advice I can give to anybody is to just start. It’s fine if it’s not perfect, it’s fine if you don’t have products lined up and you just have one drawing, it’s fine if you just have £10 to invest. Stop putting it off, stop waiting until it’s perfect. Just start. 

I think the difference between me and a lot of other artists I see is that I have products available on sale, but it’s not that what I draw is better than what they draw, it’s just that I put myself out there. Worrying, and over-preparing, and comparing yourself to others isn’t going to get you anywhere. When you look at successful artists, it’s not only the best or most talented who are successful – you don’t have to be Vincent Van Gogh. A lot of designs are actually very simple – the designs of mine that sell well are doodles, rather than pieces I’ve spent hours on. 

If you have started and got past that first step, I would say: don’t forget to do all the other parts of your job. You can’t just be the artist; you have to be the photographer, the social media manager, the strategist, the involvement analyst, the marketer! I think it’s important to remember that engagement is a two-way street. Maybe because of influencer culture, we have this idea that a following is one-way – trying to build up numbers, putting content out there and waiting for it to be liked, without engaging and creating communities ourselves. The people that supported me weren’t strangers – they were other artists, other queer people, people who knew me on a more personal level just because we’ve engaged with each other and supported each other’s art. 

How do you navigate the world of social media when you have a creative business?

It’s important to be available – a lot of artists just post every three months, they’ll post one finished piece, and to be honest I used to be like that as well. Social media is difficult and you may not always have the energy for it, but if you want this to be a job, it is part of your job. The only way you’re going to create a social media following is if you’re consistent, if you’re engaging, and posting a variety of marketing.

I’m not the kind of person who understands the algorithms – what I’ve always found is that if you’re putting out art that resonates with yourself, you’ll find other people who resonate with it, and that’s your target market. Who do you know better than yourself? If you make the things that you want to make, you will find the people who vibe with that. You don’t have to hide your identity, and not make queer content – but you also don’t have to only make queer content. You don’t have to hide yourself or tokenise yourself. Just put yourself out there as honestly as you can. We’re not a huge viral company, but the people that resonate with what I do believe in it in a very real way. Support and community means so much more than fans and followers.

You can find Hash on Twitter at @sofftestpunk and on Instagram at @sofftpunk.

Visit the Sofftpunk shop here: 

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