On the inception of Wild Animals as a brand, the first collection of Tiger Merch, and how all this came to be

Rop van Mierlo, in conversation with Gert Jonkers


Gert: Can I ask about the peculiar spelling of your name, Rop?
Rop: It’s a pseudonym. My parents named me Rob, with a b. But my grandma always used to write my name ending with a p, which I liked. And at some point at school I was in a class with three or four Robs, so that’s when I started signing my name with a p. The funny thing is, before that, no one ever remembered my name, but from then on, everybody did. So it’s been handy.

It definitely makes your name a lot more googlable. There are tons of people called Rob van Mierlo, but there’s only one Rop van Mierlo.
And one of the Rob van Mierlos has only one thumb. When I was a kid there was an article in the newspaper about this guy who’d stuck his thumb in a cage in the zoo and a monkey bit it off. A lot of people had read it and thought that was me.

It could have been you, with your interest in wild animals!
Indeed.

And then your last name, Van Mierlo, which implies you’re from Mierlo, a small town in Noord-Brabant.
I’m from Gemert, which is about 15km from Mierlo. I do have family in Mierlo, though, but they’re from my mother’s side, so they’re not called Van Mierlo.

Did you know that Lara Stone, the supermodel, is from Mierlo? And I read there’s also a zoo in Mierlo.
Really, a zoo? I know there’s a zoo in Nuenen, which is very near Mierlo.

Ah yes, you’re right. The main entrance to the zoo is in Nuenen. It’s just their mailing address that’s in Mierlo. It looks like a decent zoo, though. They have tigers and cheetahs and lions and lots more. You should sell your merch there!
That’s a nice idea, although I’m not a big fan of zoos in general.

As a child, did you already know you wanted to grow up to be an artist?
No, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to be. Not even as a kid. I was never one of those kids who said they wanted to be a fireman or a cop. My mother told me that our neighbor once asked me, and I’d said I wanted to be a person without a job – that was my dream for the future. In a way I got what I wanted! I was always interested in graphic design, but I never wanted to work for others. I really wanted to be autonomous. At some point I was at a presentation of Mike Mills, a movie director who also does graphic design, and I really liked what he was doing; it was very autonomous and personal and sensitive. That really touched me. What he did really hit me, and that determined my course.

So you studied graphic design?
I did, and then I went on to the Willem de Kooning art school in Rotterdam. But I was living in Eindhoven and sharing a house with people who were studying at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. I saw what they were doing, and I thought, why am I traveling all day to Rotterdam to a school that I don’t like and where they don’t put much pressure on me? I was a lazy student. At the Design Academy, they seemed to be quite tough on people, and I really needed that. So I transferred there and majored in Communication Design, which was great.

How did your wild animals drawings happen?
For my senior thesis in Eindhoven I did a project called Bonsai & Poodles, about humanity’s urge for control. I was intrigued by how people try to tame the world in any way they can. One chapter was about wild animals, and I was looking for a way to illustrate it. I started thinking, if I would draw a wild animal, I’d be trying to capture it in lines, but that’s just another way to control and tame it, which I didn’t want to. How could I draw an animal that you can’t control? As a kid I went to a Waldorf School, where they taught you to draw on wet paper. I hated it because you couldn’t at all control what you’re drawing. So I thought, what if I drew tigers and all these other wild animals in this untameable way? That was the abstract idea. And they all turned out really funny and nice, so much so that I ended up making a whole book called Wild Animals.

Do you still have that very first wild animal you made? The holy one that started it all?
I do. It’s the tiger, and I sometimes think it’s the best one I’ve ever made! I still have that whole first series, apart from a painting of the donkey which I sold to Marni when I collaborated with them on a collection of T-shirts and bags in 2013. I wish I hadn’t sold it, though. I’d like to keep them all together. Maybe I should sell the whole collection to Marni so that they’d all be together again.

The making of that first batch of wild animal drawings must have been a completely magical moment.
I made them very quickly: on one night, in one take. They were really done on intuition. They had to be made quite fast before the paper dried. I’m not sure if I immediately saw how nice they were. You can’t really think; you just paint, and the paint bleeds everywhere, and before you know it, you’re finished. You put them away, they keep bleeding for a while, and the next day you see what you’ve made.

Were you drunk or stoned when you made them?
No. I know some people can when they’re drunk or high, but I can’t. I once tried to do some graffiti while on ecstasy, but it was totally uninteresting to do. I just wanted to talk and do other things.

In general, do you need to enter into a certain state of mind to make your paintings? Do you have a particular ritual you do in order to start working? Time of day, music, silence, tea, coffee?
Not really. I tend to procrastinate, so when I want to paint I first do all my emailing and other things that aren’t urgent at all until I’m really fed up with myself. Then I get out my wooden boards and get everything together, and once I’ve wet the paper I’ll have like seven or eight minutes to make a painting, and then another one, and another one, and another one. Having music on helps.

What do you listen to?
I like to listen to NTS radio or something similar. I love Legowelt and his radio shows. Do you know him? He’s from The Hague and he makes a really rough type of electronic music. I also work well while listening to podcasts because it takes my mind off things. Maybe that’s the best state to be in: drawing while not thinking. This painting on wet paper is not a complex technique at all. You don’t need a lot of training. Kids can do it. You just have to be open to the uncertainty. Sometimes the funnier or stupider it gets, the better.

Is your technique applicable to other subjects? Can people order a portrait of themselves for you to paint?
That doesn’t really work.

Or architecture?
Architecture could be nice. I’ve been trying out different things, like flower patterns. Graphic grids are funny to do, because the strictness of grids and the unpredictability of the technique are total opposites.

What do you think makes wild animals so special? Why are people so attracted to tigers and giraffes and elephants?
I think animals are a bit more like we should be, or how we want to be. They’re closer to nature, less pretentious, less ambitious, less stuck up. Animals just do what they have to do, and they trust their gut. And people always think that animals are funny.

They can be super funny. But do you think animals have humor?
I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re trying to be funny on purpose. What’s interesting is that humans and animals are super alike, but with huge differences. You can’t help but mirror yourself to them. The other day I was sitting in my garden, watching this bumblebee going from flower to flower, just working and working. Wouldn’t it be great if we were a bit more like that? Not thinking, doubting, wondering if you’re happy or sad, but just doing it?

It sounds like you’re describing yourself here, and how your brand Wild Animals came about.
Well, yes, I’ve always had a lot of ideas for products, but it’s easy to just fantasize and not do anything. So I’m really happy that we’re launching Wild Animals, and to have it as a platform to make products with the way I paint.

Is this how your Tiger Merch merchandise collection came about, as the first incarnation of Wild Animals?
Yes. I’m really protective of my work, and I’ve said no to a lot of projects that I’ve been approached for. But I’ve always been interested in artists’ merchandise, and in how, after an artist has passed away, their work ends up on coffee mugs and T-shirts and shopping bags, and how it never looks like it’s been done in a way that the artists themselves would have liked. So, even though I’m not a super famous artist and I’m still alive, I thought it would be fun to make Wild Animals merchandise: Tiger Merch.

You’re right about how depressing merch can be, and how museum shops are often such depressing places full of crap.
Oh yeah, so often it’s done so poorly.

Do you know one truly good museum shop?
The one at MoMA New York is nice, but that’s because it’s full of expensive designer stuff. The shop in Museum Voorlinden, near The Hague, is good. It has a nice aura. And they often have my books on display.

And so now you’ve opened the door to all kinds of fabulous Wild Animals products?
Yes, but we’re still doing it our way so that we can keep control of the brand’s character. We don’t want to be forced to just churn out product.

Who do you mean by ‘we’?
I’m working with Remco, who was born in the same town as me. Wild Animals is based on my ideas and the way I paint, but we work on the brand together. We like to experiment and see how we can translate this technique of painting into all kinds of products.

There’s something nice and tacky about the term “merch.”
Totally, but then the products are really good, like, T-shirts and pajamas and wrapping paper and coffee mugs, and a plastic bag with a tiger print. I was really keen to make that plastic bag.

Why?
I love a plastic bag with art on it. The idea of making a plastic bag seems quite controversial these days, but it wasn’t my intention to stir things up. I just think it fits perfectly in a collection of merchandise. As an artist, you want to be remembered forever, of course, and plastic stays around forever, so it’s quite symbolic for me. It looks great and it comes in a limited edition, signed, in a nice envelope, like a work of art.

And the coffee mugs are all different?
We made a few different prints and put them on a limited edition of 100 mugs, 34 of which I painted by hand.

What about the tube with ten sheets of Tiger Merch wrapping paper? They’re beautiful. Do you think people will dare to use them for wrapping things?
Sure, you can use them to wrap presents for very special people. Or you hang them up as posters.

After this first collection of twelve Tiger Merch products, do you know what you’ll make next?
We want to do a series of products that we call Bench Players, which is based on my archive of unused and rejected animal paintings. They’re a bit quirky, so they’ll be fun to turn into products. We’ve actually already launched the first one, which is the Panda Rug.

I saw that online at a gallery in Denmark. It’s amazing! I was trying to find the price but I couldn’t find it.
It’s 17 thousand euros. It took three months to tuft it and it’s this thick. We have an idea for a collection of floral-print bedding. And I’d love to make a block puzzle. I’ve made a prototype and everybody loves it.

Can I ask what happened to your ear? Why is the top part of your left ear missing?
It got bitten off by a dog when I was younger.

Really? Ouch! That sounds awful.
Well, actually, it’s not true. But I like it as a story.

End