Portrait 6 minutes of reading

Charlotte Chauvin: for the love of illustration

Article author :

Marie-Flore Pirmez

A voracious fan of podcasts and documentaries, Marie-Flore is a firm believer in the revival of print journalism thanks to the many opportunities offered by the web and long-form magazines. When she takes off her journalist's hat, you're likely to find her hiking or in a yoga studio.

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Behind her minimalist lines, which are likened to Jean Cocteau, the illustrator Charlotte Chauvin, alias @chaa_coco on Instagram, unfurls a graphic world steeped in her moods, her dreams, but also a subtle eroticism. From melancholy to fury, by way of desire, a wide spectrum of emotions is expressed through her drawn strokes. But, in her everyday life, the thirty-something calls herself a bookseller first and foremost.

We remember the moment we first came across Charlotte Chauvin’s illustrations. It was during lockdown, a period when our screen time smashed all records. Like many people, we needed to escape into the thoughts of others. We were instantly taken by her illustrated and universal states of mind, which, let’s face it, are normally kept too hidden. And we are clearly not the only one. Her Instagram account today numbers over 78,000 followers, a community which first began to establish itself on Tumblr. If you are part of Generation Z (born after the year 2000), let us quickly bring you up to speed.

Tumblr is a microblogging platform created in 2007 on which you can post text, images, videos, links, audio, etc. Each user has their own tumblelog and can share the content of other blogs by reblogging. What makes Tumblr unique compared with other social networks is the fact that it coalesces communities around very specific interests. ‘Initially, I used Tumblr to publish what I was creating whilst studying graphic design,’ recalls the illustrator. ‘It was a very good exercise! But I quickly succumbed to the Instagram craze and my Tumblr community has fortunately followed me on this other platform.’

Her first Tumblr post dates back to 2011. At the time, Charlotte had just arrived in Brussels. Originally from Drôme, a department in the south-east of France, she first of all studied communication and graphic design in Marseille, before moving to the Belgian capital to take a Master’s in Artistic Practices and Scientific Complexity at the École de recherche graphique (ERG). ‘I haven’t studied illustration, but drawing has always been a kind of therapy. It helps me to verbalise, to deal with my emotions and what I am preoccupied with from day to day. Because I admit that I sometimes struggle with life.’

I preferred not to monetise my passion and instead found work in another domain which gives me an equal sense of fulfilment.

Charlotte Chauvin

Illustration is literally inked into her. Sitting with a latte in her hand during our meeting, Charlotte’s arms reveal numerous tattoos. But despite my tendency to call her by her illustrator’s pseudonym – her first name is Cha, her surname, Coco – our conversation very quickly turns to her primary occupation. ‘You might think that, having such a community, I make a living from my illustration work, but no. I am first and foremost a bookseller.’

Charlotte takes amused delight in pointing out that the ERG, her former graphic design school, is without a doubt one of the primary suppliers of personnel to the HoReCa sector, but this is partly because the illustration profession is precarious. ‘I know of few illustration artists who make a comfortable living. We are always paid peanuts. And many choose precarity. As for me, I preferred not to monetise my passion and instead found work in another domain which gives me an equal sense of fulfilment.’ This decision was motivated partly by financial security, but also by what the bookseller dubs ‘apaphobia’, or ‘flemmophobie’ in French: a word she has made up to describe her particular situation. ‘I feel both a dreadful apathy and phobia when it comes to admin stuff. I detest negotiating my prices. It’s always too much for the customers, not enough for the artists. I loathe drawing up contracts, producing invoices or expenses claims. And apart from that, I don’t really want to adulterate what I create because of other people commissioning my work. That said, I know that it is a privilege and loads of illustrators would dream of benefitting from a large community like mine to get their work known.’

When Charlotte is not drawing, she reads. A lot. Because she works in a bookstore, of course, but also because through her illustrations she has found a means of nurturing her love of words. Her work as a bookseller is not something she glosses over, even regularly talking about it on her Instagram account. ‘I think it is a job which people fantasise about a lot. But the reality of the bookseller’s profession is altogether different. In a bookstore, like in any other shop, class warfare is played out. When you are the one doing the serving, and on top of that when you are a young woman with tattoos and a nose piercing, people tend to place themselves above you intellectually speaking, or make comments about your appearance, or even forget notions of consent.’ So, every now and then, Charlotte Chauvin uses her illustrations and wit to set things straight.

Away from her bookshop, Cha Coco is relieved that she does not have to deal with too many haters, albeit she does protect herself from them. ‘I have never revealed a photo of myself on the internet; I believe I already reveal myself enough through the subjects I address. On Instagram, I am always careful with the hashtags I use to avoid ending up on discussion threads fed by haters. Nobody can direct message me or respond to my stories. It’s also because I am anxious about being contacted all the time.’

Even with this series of shields in place, her posts are regularly shadow banned by Instagram. This is a moderation technique applied by the platform, the outcome being a drastic fall in the engagement rates of her subscribers, but the reasons behind it remain hazy. Certain hashtags are apparently banned by Instagram, especially when they may contain sensitive content. ‘It is true that a large proportion of my illustrations show intimate scenes, which Instagram can’t be too happy about.’

I very often use my own experience as a source of inspiration, as well as numerous feminist essays. They allow me to establish a theoretical foundation for a series of personal feelings, because we tend to think that our feelings lack sufficient legitimacy.

Charlotte chauvin

LThe personal is political: a slogan used by many feminists. As a radical feminist, Charlotte has herself always wanted to place a magnifying glass over the intimate. Her drawings of naked bodies escape the norms of gender and aestheticism, tapping into the vast realm of the imagination. ‘It is my way of being an activist and of showing my feminist commitment. I very often use my own experience as a source of inspiration, as well as numerous feminist essays. They allow me to establish a theoretical foundation for a series of personal feelings, because we tend to think that our feelings lack sufficient legitimacy.’

With the arrival of summer, Charlotte has got back to exploring, through her illustrations, other aspects of life which also make her tick, such as her beloved bicycle or her constant eco-anxiety. ‘I tend to go through phases. I’ve just finished a heavy period of ultra-depressing posts, so now the good weather is here I also feel like having fun again.’ Her creative process is very spontaneous and quite rapid, which enables her to really create as the mood takes her. She adores the minimalism of black and white, but is increasingly improvising with colour. ‘Apart from when I get really fixated on something and can’t let go of it, my drawings often take me no more than thirty minutes. I draw everything with a pen or a fine brush, and then I make a digital scan.’

A tad introverted, Charlotte Chauvin does not specially showcase the projects that leave the confines of her Instagram account. But, occasionally, she also offers her illustrations to renowned cultural institutions – such as the Brussels La Monnaie 2019-2020 season, or the 37th Montreuil Book Fair. The illustrator has found a style which speaks to everyone, and which is very much her own. And if she had to conclude by offering some advice to those who aspire to taking up illustration: ‘I would say that a graphic universe is first of all created by observing forms, counter-shapes, the spaces these forms occupy. Then, you have to find your medium. Paint, ink, illustration on a tablet computer, which I just can’t get my head around because it is really not my medium, for example. The first drawings can be frustrating because they will not resemble in every detail what you had envisaged, but sometimes you find your own artistic niche by accident.’

This content is brought to you as part of Propulsion by KIKK, a digital awareness project for and by women.

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