Jonathan Castro, graphics for Boiler Room

A lot can happen in a short time with Peruvian-born designer Jonathan Castro. In a 40 minute chat we cover graphics, of course, but also witchcraft, the intricacies of Cumbia music, guinea pigs in traditional costume, black metal, and a lot more. By the end of his first-ever visit to Europe, for a three-week workshop in Rotterdam, Castro had landed a gig with The Rodina, and shortly after, a job at Studio Dumbar. And in just two years of living in the Dutch city, he’s notched up freelance gigs with Metahaven, and Bureau Borsche over in Germany, among others. See? He doesn’t waste his time.

Castro’s style is colorful, impactful, and experimental; what’s all the more interesting about it is the multiple cultural and conceptual strands that inform it. Far from being simply a nod to the “acid graphics” doing the rounds at the moment, his practice draws on his Peruvian roots, as well as the black metal and punk graphics that served as his initiation into what graphic design is, and can be.

Jonathan Castro, New Rave poster

“Peru is really religious and spiritual–shamanism is huge—and it’s a thing I’ve been really interested in the last few years,” he says. Castro hints that he found the “super catholic” and “conservative” society restrictive; though such restrictions meant he forged his own path, running Lima-based independent graphic design collective Youth Experimental Studio from 2013 until he left the city in 2016. “I was part of this really underground scene in Lima, which was interesting in terms of music and independent art,” he says. “There are a lot of young people there; we created our own space to show our work, and our own music. A lot of experimental bands appeared, a lot of crazy artists, and this massive alternative approach to art that was really inspiring to be a part of. It was like a parallel universe to the rest of what was going on in Lima.”

His love of music (“the inspiration for my whole life”) is reflected in his portfolio, with work for the likes of Boiler Room, Rotterdam’s Pantropical Club, and Bristol’s Simple Things Festival. It began at age 13, when his older, black metal-loving cousin passed on a ton of cassette tapes. “He took me to a gig, and I felt like that was the place I wanted to live.” That revelation led to forming a band (of course), and collecting fanzines. “It felt natural for me to follow a graphic design career,” he says. “I was around all these music aesthetics—the black metal lettering, the crazy layouts.

“I also think this music really shaped my [social and political] position: it made me reflect on what it is to live in society and what’s really happening around us—capitalism, inequality—it wasn’t just about the music, but it was teaching me a lot about myself, and what I wanted to do with my life.”

Jonathan Castro, work for Pantropical Club

Looking at Castro’s work today, it’s clear that the angry, monochrome, forthright metal style soon gave way to something else—the influence of jazz and more electronic-based music. “When I started making graphic design I wanted the same sort of freedom you have in experimental music,” he says. “Just mixing everything in, and being really free.

“Music gave me the attitude to make the designs I do, but what inspired me was my identity as a Peruvian.”

Jonathan Castro, work for Red Light radio

Specifically, Castro was fascinated with the colorful traditional costumes for rituals and festivities; and the symbolism and shapes intricately weaved into them. “It was really powerful–it reminded me of the punk attitude; this multi-vocal approach to art,” he says. What really struck him was the animism: the idea of imbuing a soul into anything from natural phenomena to manmade objects. “People aren’t just making costumes, but creating energy and souls within them,” he says. “You can feel the spirit inside of them.” 

“Maybe that’s why I make these really busy, colorful things in my practice, and put a lot of colors into my lettering. I really believe design contains energy and soul and spirit, almost like witchcraft. With graphic design, it can have all this energy—then someone else sees and feels it in a different way, and it creates its own language for people to read. The main idea for my practice is to transmit feeling and emotions, just like music does.”

But while his homeland is a well of inspiration, he found its design scene, and education approach, not to be. “There’s not really a scene that’s trying to develop something new or alternative to the regular graphic design approach,” he says. “I respect branding and stuff, but graphic design can have a much bigger role: in school in Peru, they don’t teach you that—just how to use software and make a good magazine layout—not how to think, or embrace your own practice.”

For all his traditional influences, Castro’s work is anything but: it feels decidedly boundary-pushing and futuristic. He’s not only sought out, but heartily embraced the bold, conceptual approach to graphic design that the Dutch are so famous for. It looks like The Netherlands will be home for a while; not least because he’s a firm advocate of the Dutch government’s open, generous approach to funding culture.

“If you don’t invest in your culture and art and people, where are you going?” he says. “That’s why I feel sad about Peru: the political context its really shitty, and politicians want to impose all these conservative norms and ways of living. When they talk about culture, the only thing they think of is the art the Incas made 2,000 years ago. It’s impossible to be a contemporary artist in Peru.”

His enduring love of the folklore and nature of his country is palpable, even over an echoey Skype line; and in a charming finale, Castro reveals that his dream is to one day open a graphic design school in Peru: “We say Pacha Mama—mother nature—and she gives to you, so you always need to give her something back again. So that’s what I want to do.”