Jon Burgerman conceives fictitious friends from pure imagination. His colorful characters contort liminal space awaiting their transformation at any time, anywhere, using anything. From malleable cork figures to chalk drawings, Play-Doh, and custom-made comic strips, even his abstract canvases show traces of quirk. Burgerman’s style has now become instantly recognizable. His trademark googly eyes are emblematic of his unique approach, populating his dreamland with dancing doodles, eccentric emulsions, and otherworldly formations. I felt drawn to their pull from the very beginning.
The first time I saw Burgerman, I felt too intimidated to approach him. In May 2018, he collaborated on a mural installation with Hudson Yards under The High Line and left a section blank for passersby to design. The day I visited, he happened to be teaching a class. Confusion set in when an employee handed me a marker and told me to have fun: I was the only participant older than ten. Most were far too trigger-happy at the prospect of artistic freedom, evidenced by the commotion I watched unfold while snapping pictures. Burgerman’s happy-go-lucky characters diffused with sloppy lines and cacophonous color combinations while he overlooked, seemingly aloof. Even then, my imposter syndrome deterred my childlike fascination. I left without saying hello.
One year later kismet aligned our paths. UP had secured a last-minute booth at the Sick Sad Summer Art Book Fair, and we were cramped into a sweltering nook along the room’s back wall. Burgerman set up shop in the same corner. Situated next to a variety of his stickers, clothing, and other mixed-media works, his wife You Byun also displayed a few of her prints. I vowed to overcome my fear of rejection before the day ended, resolute in my new-found confidence. When the event wound down, I gave him my card, told a convoluted story about how “I watched him from a distance but never said anything,” and then asked for an interview.
Burgerman invited me to his studio in Brooklyn a week later.
As I neared his doorstep I rehearsed a litany of questions, my heart pounding with anticipation. Burgerman is a niche celebrity at best, but I couldn’t suppress my fangirl tendencies. I had followed him on Instagram for as long as I could remember, and standing in his studio felt like a fever dream. Awe overwhelmed me. I witnessed the space come to life with rainbow reverie, his polychromic pals plastered on doors, walls, and floors throughout the tiny whimsy on Greenpoint Avenue. Their googly eyes followed me while I pulled my phone out to record. When our interview started, Burgerman continued creating more.
Burgerman began his career in Nottingham, where he attended art school, though his impulses eventually guided him to New York City. With sufficient success creating toys, children’s books, and other mixed-media, he could have continued living comfortably in his native England. But he feared a monotonous routine would breed complacency, impeding his creativity. Burgerman made a short-list of all the cities he could imagine himself living in, and settled on New York because he sought the challenge. He embarked for the rat-race in 2010 with little to no possessions.
“I was very comfortable before, and I don’t think people make good work when they’re comfortable,” Burgerman said. “It’s beneficial for artists to go somewhere new, to be an outsider.”
New York’s perennial possibilities excited him.
He had no plan when he arrived. Freelancing and living in a small room, Burgerman put off finding a studio, determined to evade the same old patterns. New York’s perennial possibilities excited him. He joined a band with a group of friends, performed gigs, and spent his days hanging out, seldom concerned about his career. Though he continued making art, he didn’t worry about selling it. He soon realized he couldn’t survive on his savings. As Burgerman spent more time in the city, he felt inspired to recommit himself. He had always enjoyed working. He just wanted to do it on his own terms.
“I came here to retire, but all my money lasted about a weekend,” Burgerman smirked. “Of course, then I had to continue working to support myself.”
New York inevitably evolved his practice. With exposure to a range of media, Burgerman broadened his creative scope, focusing on the interactive aspect of both music and art. The change took place over time, a momentum visible throughout his opus. When he handed me old picture books to peruse I noted the shift firsthand. The characters seemed familiar yet lacked their usual vivacity; content, but muted. In Burgerman’s studio, his newer works sprouted with spirits of their own, comparatively more dynamic. He specified the difference in culture between the United States and the United Kingdom as a major impetus. When New York welcomed his sardonic wit and occasionally gloomy British outlook, it also provided him with space to find his rhythm.
“There’s a certain ‘you can do it attitude’ that exists here, more so than where I’m from,” Burgerman commented. “It’s contagious.”
His style now encompasses a wide-range of anthropomorphic mixed-media: felt pizza, paper-mache hot dogs, bagel plush toys with sympathetic eyes, begging to be squeezed. I perused until I spotted my favorite: a smiling hamburger with two buck teeth, so on-the-nose I assumed it deliberate. Burgerman’s non-food related characters are similarly endearing, occupying cardboard cutouts, canvases, stickers, T-shirts, paper, and enamel pins. There isn’t much the artist hasn’t put his signature on.
“Life is short. I want every day to be new and enjoyable,” Burgerman explained. “I don’t want to feel like I’m treading water or doing what people want me to do. Or what was proven effective, but ultimately lacking any kind of interest for me.”
Instagram often substitutes as his sketchbook. Burgerman takes pictures of his surroundings and puts googly eyes anywhere he sees fit: flowers, trashcans, squash at the market, a crevice between the street and the sidewalk. The comical characters wrap around urban landscapes in earnest, effortlessly determining their own routes. When a surface suggests itself, he follows its trail, causing some of his best alterations to happen at unexpected times. Every city he visits shapes his creations. Occasionally, he even flips the question, and asks his followers what they see. Burgerman is also keen to the frequent snack review, during which his characters often make an appearance.
“Social media is a fun tool to use,” Burgerman said. “I consider it a novelty.”
Audience participation is at the center of his career. Burgerman frequently hosts workshops, live installations, and lectures in order to educate a larger audience on his “quiet interventions,” his version of a nonpermanent alteration. He also shares pictures of visitors integrating themselves into his installations on social media. Sometimes, he even makes the viewer his canvas, sketching humorous characters alongside riders on the subway, selfies, or photos of celebrities. (His bizarre rendition of Cardi B in a hot dog dress still haunts my memory.) In 2019, Burgerman collaborated with Curated by Facebook on a series of online tutorials available to the public.
“I like it because you never know what people are gonna come up with,” Burgerman said. “And that’s exciting.”
Burgerman’s work has always existed somewhere between fine art, illustration, pop culture, and graphic design, proving it difficult for an audience to label his pieces.
Burgerman has also designed a video game for SONY, illustrations for the New York Times, and even collaborated with Spongebob Squarepants on a line of limited apparel. His work can be found on temporary tattoos, pillows, and occasionally furniture. When we met, he had just returned from his solo exhibition Fun Factory, which was on-view at M Contemporary in Seoul. (For reasons unknown to him he’s particularly popular in Korea.) More recently, he’s painted a wall inside Scoops Ice Cream Shop and Xian Famous Foods in Chinatown. Burgerman’s work has always existed somewhere between fine art, illustration, pop culture, and graphic design, proving it difficult for an audience to label his pieces. Many simply refer to them as “doodles.”
“Everyone always asks ‘what is this work, what do you call it?’” Burgerman lamented. “People have always tried to put me in a box.”
He’s a self-proclaimed doodler. The label originated accidentally from a deprecatory remark Burgerman made once in an interview, and then it stuck. Rather than taking umbrage, he’s learned to embrace the term, providing it’s not used to discredit his craft. But his process is more complex than the word’s amateurish connotation. Elaborating the meaning during his lectures, he now defines doodling as “thinking and making at the same time.” While many read this as an absence of thought, he emphasized the opposite: doodling is about exploration, when the act of creating defines its own evolution. As initial conceptions change, instinct takes hold. Burgerman likened the process to writing a song.
“I’m not trying to change what people think of doodles. I don’t give a shit about that, or being called a doodler,” Burgerman quipped. “I’m an artist and I make art. Sometimes it’s messy and abstract, other times figurative. That’s just my process.”
Improvisation plays a large role in his technique. Burgerman spent our entire interview doodling on bright magenta paper, answering questions as his hand followed linear patterns. Each character builds off the others as he discerns what’s effective, some lively and cheerful, others uneasy or bewildered. Titled based on context, the pieces tell self-contained anecdotes. His canvas work is a similar concept on a bigger scale. Most are a colossal mix-and-match, a neat blend of figures in a paradoxically jumbled composition. The same could be said about his mural at Hudson Yards, which towered over participants like a life-size coloring book. Burgerman claims spontaneity keeps his work enticing.
“I can’t work any other way,” Burgerman said. “Planning beforehand? That’s not how I roll.”
Burgerman’s attraction to ephemerality partly stems from his love of graffiti. A lot of his work is inspired by characters, messages, or tidbits he sees on New York’s streets. When he first moved, he spent time sticker bombing, and some of his slaps were featured in the street art sticker book Stick Em’ Up. A few years ago he created a series of chalk drawings throughout New York and called them “polite graffiti.” He’s also painted his characters on Extra Place, a sidestreet near Bowery. Today, Burgerman still appreciates the medium’s non-conformity and aversion to aesthetic refinement. In contrast to a mural, he views graffiti as strategically spontaneous. He follows a similar strategy.
“Humans get into their heads that there’s a right and a wrong way to do things, so eventually there’s a convergence of a taste, and everything looks the same,” Burgerman told me. “That’s the opposite of who I am.”
Still, Burgerman occasionally battles his age-old adversary: doubt.
Though some of his motifs repeat, many are one-of-a-kind, complete with their own physical defects. As someone with meticulous compulsions, I couldn’t help but ask: what happens if the end result seems underwhelming? Burgerman put it frankly when he told me if there’s no plan, it’s a lot easier to avoid disappointment. Naturally, there are instances where he feels he could improve; a line gone askew, a questionable color choice. But his characters’ animated nature lends itself to some flexibility. Since his work is more gestural than realistic, it’s dependent on eliciting a reaction, rather than depicting verisimilitude.
“All of it is fucked up,” Burgerman said. “And that’s perfectly fine.”
Above all, Burgerman underscored the importance of consistency. Something redeeming is bound to emerge from trial and error. Motivated by the pure joy of creating, he conveys a complex emotion with each brushstroke, his art a subconscious manifestation of its meditative methods. Given this personal investment, he stressed the need for distance. If Burgerman feels a work looks subpar, he puts it aside for a while, or asks his wife for her advice. He’s even thrown art in the garbage and then later fished it out. At a future exhibition, the pieces he trashed sold first. We both laughed at the familiar struggle: an artist is often last to discover their work is compelling.
“Formulas are boring,” Burgerman insisted. “Art is a performance, and whatever’s left is the documentation of that act.”
I know the feat all-too-well, the impossible quest for an unattainable ideal. I’ve spent my whole life craving assiduity. I even hesitated writing this article because I wanted it to be flawless, some incredibly nuanced depiction of an artist I’d admired for years. But Burgerman’s essence stands contrary to these same fixations. I love his work because it’s fluid, a slapdash medley of farce, playfulness, and idiosyncrasies. Many of his characters light up a room, however clumsy or crazed they may be. Ad-libbing merely affirms his acumen.
Burgerman’s ability to turn nothing into something demonstrates the power of fantasy. To an untrained eye, tedium often subdues the possibility of experimentation, favoring uniformity instead of lightheartedness. Trepidation renders our inner-child a stubborn skeptic, its foresight clouded with cynicism. Burgerman preserves a precious innocence through his art. He paints in hopes of sparking uninhibited originality and inspiring the acceptance of artistic liberty.
His growing audience proves the goal’s validity, as does the increasing success of his techniques, which have caused others to similarly dub themselves as “doodlers.” Nonetheless, the word inescapably recalls its predecessor. Burgerman’s fan base now lauds him as the original doodler, a pinnacle of influence. I can also attest to the creative conversion. Even with my initial reservations, Burgerman eventually proselytized me too. Writing this was a performance like any other; my final test of endurance.
Jon Burgerman’s maxim is “it’s great to create.” With each new creation, he continues to leave his mark on a multitude of forms, his legacy passed down through a doodle dynasty. His primary concern, however, remains the present moment. Burgerman works under an assumption simplistic in its aim: perseverance outweighs perfectionism. Action combats fear of failure, if not willingly, then by force. Trust where intrigue can lead a curious mind.
Sometimes, a happy accident yields surprising success.