For the latest in our Creative Conversations series, E&M talked to Marcello Martinelli, an Italian-American illustrator whose work focuses mainly on the world of football. But, as we learned during our chat, it is also about so much more than that!
E&M: So tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
Marcello: I was born in California and moved to Venice when I was three years old. My first memory of Italy is about hanging out with my friends, and obviously football is such a huge part of this culture. The school I went to in Italy was very focused on arts, history of arts, drawing, sculpture – and so I started drawing at a very young age. Mostly in a comics-kind of style, which is maybe not very popular now, but when I was growing up it was: think of Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, all of that. So eventually I started to combine the passion of football with the desire to draw. However, I actually stopped drawing when I was 18 or so: you know how it goes, many things started to happen and I just didn’t draw for a very long time.
E&M: And then what happened?
When I got to my thirties, I started to look for a hobby, something that would make me feel more accomplished. And instead of starting to draw again on a piece of paper, I bought an iPad with a pencil and I got this really cool app, called ProCreate. It made sense to go back into football, because it’s still my biggest passion. But at the same time, I try to drag in other aspects, I try to include different things. My work is still evolving, everyday feels like a new accomplishment. I am still learning every time I draw.
E&M: Your art is often a direct response to current developments in the world of football – how do your ideas arise?
Marcello: I think that following what is happening and what is trending, and then interpreting it for yourself, is a really cool thing. I am deeply fascinated by the illustrations from the New Yorker: these are based on current events but illustrators give their own twist to it, often with satire. In the past year, there have been so many topics that I have been able to address and bring some creativity to. Movements like Black Lives Matter, or things that happened in the UK.
For example, the story about the football player Marcus Rashford, that led to a petition to convince the UK government to get free meal vouchers for kids. His number as a football player is 10, and obviously I made the connection to Nr 10 Downing Street. Through these topics, I try to give my own input and bring life into my illustrations.
E&M: So what is your favorite drawing made by yourself?
Marcello: There was a series of illustrations I did for a football agency called Copa90, which covers a lot of topics related to grassroots communities and how football has an impact on specific cities or towns. There is a football team in Spain called Flat Earth FC – I think they are in the 4th division of Spanish football. The founder was a former player of the top league in Spain. He was also a Flat-Earther, and decided to create a football team to spread this message. The players as well as the fans all share that same vision. I thought this was just such an interesting topic, I immediately got this image of the world being flat with two football poles and the moon being a big football. It’s crazy, and super interesting and random. That is the type of stuff I love.
I dived into the history of this team: they’re not a joke, they’re sending out a message and they have actually been doing really well in terms of football results. It’s the type of story you don’t hear very often. The agency that contacted me wanted to give a platform to the team, to show what they’re doing and what they’re achieving. They made a Youtube video and even got featured in a Guardian article, so it was really cool to see my illustrations there as well. And in the end, football is politics. When you’re trying to show a message like this one, you’re obviously being a bit controversial – and that is very interesting.
E&M: So it seems you really see football as something that is part of everyday life. When you say football is politics, what do you mean exactly?
Marcello: Football fans are often associated with a particular political leaning. While history has shaped the violence related to football, there are also really good examples of football fans giving back to their community. These examples are often not portrayed in mass media, so I try to show this. But, at the same time, I try to avoid being too divisive and political, and I want my illustrations to entertain people and not offend them. I try to be politically correct, not to piss people off. It is a very thin line, especially when you’re dealing with fans.
E&M: How do you feel the Covid-19 pandemic has affected football, and how has it affected your work?
Marcello: The pandemic obviously has had a huge impact on football, because, first of all, there was no football for several months. So it was difficult to find content. Luckily, this is just a freelance thing I do, so it hasn’t affected me too much. But I know people for whom it has been really hard, especially due to the lack of content.
Now that the games are back, it is still not the same. The atmosphere around the game and the fans are a huge part of it, and they probably won’t be around for a long time. This has made me think a lot about what I am doing, and how to look for content. On the other hand, you do still get so many interesting stories from football, even though the games are now different.
E&M: Now, tell me a bit about yourself. You were born in the US, but grew up in Italy, moved back to the US and now you live in London. What did this do to you?
Marcello: So my mom is American and my dad is Italian. When we moved to Italy I did not think much about it, and one of the advantages is that when you are young you can learn languages very quickly. Nonetheless, at the beginning I did not speak Italian very well and it was quite difficult. I felt like an outcast. I realized I was different from my friends and this was not so easy.
When I was old enough, I started travelling around Europe and realized that you could travel for just a couple of hours and be in another country, with another language and a different culture. During my twenties, I went to many different places around Europe and even met a lot of new people in Venice, and I realized how lucky we are to be on this continent. To be fair, I think Europe is the best place in the world. I love everything about Europe.
Around 8 years ago, I moved to London. This gave me an opportunity to come out of nowhere, to prove myself and find cool opportunities. I’m not sure Italy would have given me that. I love Italy but it is a bit bittersweet, even though every time I come back it’s great. I would love to move back here, possibly if remote-working becomes a bigger part of our lives. For now, I really enjoy London, it is such an incredible place and it fits with my urban lifestyle.
E&M: So do you feel American, Italian, European…?
Marcello: I feel more European than anything. I do have a lot of American influence in the way I have been shaped, but I primarily feel European and Italian. Because of this, the Brexit situation has been very strange to me. Europe is in my heart.
E&M: How do you experience these cultural differences in football? For example, between Italy and the UK?
Marcello: When I was growing up in Venice, I would often go and watch the games of Venezia – a very old team from 1907. I have seen crazy players on the field which are still celebrated today, so I was very lucky to somehow be on the frontline. This had a big impact on me, as when I travel I always like to discover the football atmosphere in other countries. Here in the UK, for example, they do not always show the games on television, to encourage fans to go to the stadium. And there is a big sense of family around football. In Italy, it is really on another level of passion. You don’t necessarily have to wear the shirt, you just want to be there. In England it is much more about showing your colors.
For me, it has always been about combining my travels with my passion for football. Football has allowed me to learn so much, for example about geography. You hear a lot about the big games, but the smaller realities are so interesting. How a football team was providing jobs and other opportunities after a war, the last women’s World Cup with players that were not professional until very recently, players that come from Third World countries and try to make it in Europe…. You get so many positive messages out of football, and that is the kind of stuff I like.
E&M: Life as a young creative can be difficult. Which challenges did you have to face and how did you overcome them?
Marcello: Instagram has been the main platform I use to get my work out there. It is a bit of a strange world, because on the one hand it allows me to create a network and to follow other illustrators. But at the same time, I feel it is a bit toxic: I spend so much time trying to find out what is happening and what other people are doing. I do this as a hobby but I also try to put myself out there. Initially, I was a bit impatient, but at some point I learned that I have to stick to my own thing. It always takes a couple of years to make a name for yourself, so my advice is to just keep up with what you’re doing, and you’ll be noticed eventually. Define who you are and what you do and stick with that. And then grab the opportunities as they come along.
E&M: How do you see your future, and has the pandemic changes this in any kind of way?
Marcello: Good question. I feel I have a lot of creativity and my work does not necessarily have to be about football, it could be about politics or current events, or even food. Maybe these topics would be a bit more viable and future-proof. The pandemic has made me think a lot about whether what I am doing now is just a side project or if it is actually changing the direction of where I am going.
I’m quite excited to see what is happening next, so far everything has been pretty spontaneous. My confidence has definitely increased, so I like to throw myself out there now that I understand a bit better how it works to be an illustrator. So we will see what will happen, there are definitely a lot of ideas and potential – so I don’t have to limit myself to just one thing.
Many thanks to Marcello. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.