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“Be Your Own Hero”: BadRep talks to illustrator Tiitu Takalo

2011 June 22

The moment I find her website, linked by a reader who’s posted some of her illustrations for a feminist textbook on Tumblr, I’m in love with her work. She’s not widely known here in the UK, and works mainly in Finnish (with some translation, mainly into Swedish). Her website bio identifies her as a feminist before everything else. And her illustrations are so arresting, so real, that I have to learn more.

Cover art for Keha, in red and grey. A blonde young woman sits in the corner of a boxing ring, reflecting. Her name is Tiitu Takalo. You might not know it yet, but she’s your new favourite illustrator. You’re welcome.

So much stuff is available to English-speaking markets that I reckon the vast majority of us here in BadRep Country have a lot of inertia about discovering non-English language media, from the music of Rammstein through to subtitled films, even.1 It’s a shame. We’re missing out. And though I’m not currently able to read Tiitu’s books in the obvious sense, her art is that kickass that I just don’t care. I’m willing to muddle through. Muddling is how a great deal of important learning Gets Done. And if you’re interested in feminist art and media from places outside the UK/US over a language barrier, then comic books are, for obvious reasons, an excellent place to have a go at climbing over said language barrier.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that at least three of Team BadRep, me included, are budding illustrators ourselves, so I was fascinated to hear how Tiitu approaches her work.

When did you first realise you were a feminist?
“I think I have always been a feminist. Or all the conflicts with the rest of the world have made me one. It started when I was a child. My mother was a career woman in the metal industry. Most of her co-workers and colleagues were men. She drove the car and also fixed it herself and one of her hobbies was carpentry. And my father did cooking, and he did our carpets by hand – I don’t know the word for it, in Finnish it’s same as knitting, knitting carpets – and he still does that as a hobby. He also did some sewing. And my parents never told us (me and my sister) that we couldn’t do something because we were girls, or that we should behave a certain way based on our gender. I never heard anything like “nice girls do not act like that”. Before I went to school I didn’t know that our family was somehow different. I didn’t know that people think there are some jobs for women and others for men. I didn’t know that men and women are not equal in this world.

Cartoon image by Tiitu Takalo showing a growling woman with pigtails about to throw a punch. Text reads FIGHT LIKE A GIRL.“When I was six years old in school I noticed that girls and boys are treated differently. Expectations are different for boys and girls. Even as a child I knew it was not OK. I also noticed that all my friends didn’t share this opinion. They were already brainwashed to think that girls are nice and quiet and tidy, and boys are not, and that this was some kind of natural law.

“I started calling myself a feminist when I met other girls and women who were using that word and were proud to be feminists. Before that, I thought that feminism was a dirty word. (That’s what they want you to think!) And yet, still, I was thinking and acting like a feminist.”

I’m in no doubt that some readers will be asking this, so despite my earlier sentiments on it not being a must-do in any way: are there any plans to translate any of your comics into English? (I really love the look of Kehä (The Ring) as I’m really into boxing, and the blurb reminds me of Girlfight, which is one of my favourite films.)

Kehä has been published in Sweden, but I don’t have the energy to contact more publishers. There was one small press comic publisher in England which was interested, but nothing happened. I have English translations on a leaflet for Kehä and also for Jää… but it’s sold out in Finnish.”

Who are your heroes and what inspires you?

“I get inspired by other people who do stuff, other zine makers and artists. And it’s inspiring to do things together. Organise a gig, or festivals, or protests, or an art exhibition. I don’t have any heroes or idols. Everyone should try to be one’s own hero.”

What are you working on at the moment?

Tiitu - a young white woman with dyed red hair - adopting a boxing pose for an illustration aid“I just finished a graphic novel about the history of my hometown, Tampere. It’s a collaboration with a scriptwriter and the Museum of Tampere, so it’s different from what I have done before. Maybe more mainstream. But I like the idea. There are nine stories from different periods. For example the 1850s story is about a 14-year-old girl working in a cotton factory – not the story of the factory owner like it usually is in the history books. The book is also published in English as Foster Sons and Cotton Girls. And now I’m trying to start a new comic project about a community living project I’m involved in.”

We’ve had some artists decide they don’t fancy being interviewed on our site because they didn’t want to be identified with a “feminist” site. Have you ever had difficulty getting work because of your feminist reputation?

“No, I don’t think so. Or I just don’t know if it has been an issue somewhere. In Sweden, where my comics have also been published, it’s actually really cool to be a feminist. They have a really cool feminist comic collective called Dotterbolaget (“daughter company”), and the most popular comic artists in Sweden are women and feminists. I have heard that it’s so fashionable to be a feminist comic artist in Sweden that some male artists who are not feminists are calling themselves feminists in order to be cool or increase the sales of their books.

“We certainly don’t have that problem in Finland. The F-word is still something people don’t want to be associated with. I think it’s important that more people are calling themselves feminists. It is not something to be quiet about. We should be proud and we should be loud! After all, we are making this world a better place for everyone. For women and men and children and sisters and brothers around the globe. Feminism is not just smashing patriarchy: it’s making everyone equal.”

How much do you use digital tools to produce/edit your work (if at all!)? Mine is mainly hand done with barely any digital editing because I like marker pens and am still really getting to grips with digital at all! How is it for you?

“I don’t like computers, and I’d rather spend my time painting with watercolours than staring at a screen. I love to see how the colours blend with water or how ink spreads on the wet paper. It’s like magic! If it’s possible, I don’t do anything with digital tools. I don’t even want to scan my work myself. Someone else can do it better, or even find that interesting. Why should I do it? The answer is, unfortunately, money. When I do my own zines or other publications, I don’t have money to pay anyone to do computer stuff for me.”

You created Hyena Publishing to help get your work out there. Being arty types, we have a fair few friends who are often trying to launch self-published projects, and it’s often a lot of work to stay afloat. What advice would you give to young artists starting out?

“Take a small edition of your book or zine. It’s more fun to have sold out than to find 500 copies of unsold books under your bed when you’re cleaning up your place. Try to do something small first. Twenty copies with your home printer or copy machine at your school or workplace.

“Do something together with your friends. It’s more fun and you can split the work and expenses. Do not try to do your best book first. It seems like people have massive ideas for the first book or zine, but they get exhausted by all the work and get nothing done. Don’t think you will get rich by doing zines or even comics. It’s hard work and underpaid.

“Try to contact other self-publishers or small press people. Find out where they are printing and selling and share your knowledge with them too. Go to zine festivals and events. The best thing about being your own publisher is that no one can tell you that your comics aren’t good enough, or that they are too political, feministic, personal or emotional. Do comics you would like to read yourself. Not the comics you think other people want to read!”

Warm thanks to Tiitu for talking to us. Head to and order her books by email – if you ask nicely you might be able to get a translation leaflet…

  1. I have never understood this one. It’s BEEN translated! What’s with the anglocentric excuse-making complex? It’s just embarrassing. []
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