Simplicity is often the best answer to fear. And in a time where so much of the conversation is fuelled by uncertainty, who’d have thought that the trials and tribulations of one little pink cartoon bean could bring so much joy? Certainly not its creator, 20-year-old artist Harry Hambley. Born out of school boredom and classroom disillusion, Harry’s journey with his cartoon series Ketnipz and protagonist (the Bean) began whilst he was still a student, later picked up by Instagram to be included on Insta Stories as a stickers feature. Ketnipz now brings joy to over 1.5 million followers through endearing messages of kindness and relatable humour.
In this Armani Exchange exclusive photographed by Editor-in-Chief Cecilie Harris, we discover Harry in a new setting - where for once it is not his work that is the focus but himself. Shot before full ‘lockdown’ mode commenced, they took to a deserted South Bank to uncover the boy behind the creation where these striking frames reveal an understated worldliness that can only be the result of launching a global business at age 17. Cecilie and Harry work together with ease, finding joy in the novelty of this post-apocalyptic stage. Stylist Nathan Henry opts for comfort. Pulling from Armani Exchange’s SS20 collection, neutral outerwear shields from the uncertainty of the times and, much like the boy who dons it, offers an effortless, approachable way of navigating the outside world.
Harry is entirely aware of life’s little ironies and openly shares his story - and the darkness that characterised his adolescent years. Through Ketnipz he is now able to promote a message of non-judgement and self-love; however, it is still very much a business and commitments of this scale come with a responsibility that he had not anticipated at such a young age. For logistical reasons he used to keep American time, taking work calls at midnight, until it messed up his Circadian rhythm and he ‘got all sad’. As his brand grows, so is Harry learning the best way of understanding his new platform – even if he is not entirely sure himself how he got there.
How was the shoot with Cecilie?
Really fun. Everyone was super friendly. I was so worried because I don't really do much in the way of modelling or anything. Usually, it's the stuff I draw which gets the attention.
What did you think of the Armani Exchange collection?
Yeah, I really like it. I used to be mainly into vintage shops but this is fun. It’s more futuristic-y! I like the colours.
How are you holding up in the current madness that is COVID-19? Will we see any influences of the ongoing climate in your upcoming art?
I’m alright - I’ve been avoiding Twitter for the last three days, so I don’t really know what’s going on. I don’t want to look! In terms of the current emotional climate, I'm definitely wanting to make more content around that because I feel like it's something people might need some reassurance around. Everyone's going through the same thing, so it's important. But it's hard because you don’t want to be insensitive about it. I was thinking about making a comic or something which would humourise the whole ‘people being freaked out about being cleanly’ thing. At the same time, I don't want to play it down as not being serious - it's an important subject but a touchy one. It’s strange because I've never really come up to any sort of restriction before.
Who is Harry?
Oh, man. I'm 20 years old. I like drawing. From Wales. I’m someone who is always learning. Often not right about many things, but trying. Human.
We’ve seen the bean in GIFs, memes, on merch and paintings. What’s your favourite format to tell the story of the bean?
I don't think I've found it yet. I've been trying a bunch of different stuff. I’m very lucky to be able to do art shows and things like that. Merchandise is always fun and seeing people wear it - that's great. But I'd love to lean more into animation and things which can bring it to life a bit more. I'm also very fond of old mediums - like Moomins. I have childhood memories of reading the pages, and I think that’s really important too. I'd like to create more work like that: books and things which are more personal than just an Instagram post.
There's something a bit more permanent about it.
I don't know if kids these days with their iPads and everything will have the same nostalgic connection to the content because it's not as visceral. But at the same time, the amazing thing with the internet - and why I keep wanting to do the internet first - is that its reach is so much more. Other mediums are a nice slow burn, but if your goal is to get your message out there and reach as many people as possible, then you need to find a compromise. It's so strange…
Haha, the internet is strange. You must have quite an international fanbase.
Weirdly, a lot of people in Singapore, that's one of my largest markets. It's sort of everywhere. I don't really rely too much on language, it’s more visual stuff, so I don't think that is as much of a barrier.
Is there anything that Ketnipz
has taught you on your journey together?
I've been doing this for four years now. I had to grow up quite a bit because I had to take it seriously as a job. When I started, it was just doodles and a way of getting my stress out. I would doodle in class, in A-Levels, and anything I would draw in those lessons, I'd then post. That was how it got going, and then it changed a lot. Anyway, back to the question! I just had to learn to treat it more like a job. There's a misconception that it’s really chill and you can dip into it whenever, but when you're responsible for other people and you're working with others, you have to get into more of a routine. Though I think that's just growing up - and I’ve been growing up with it so it's just come to that point in my life.
So far you’ve taken Ketnipz to America and Mexico. Where else would you like to see Ketnipz go?
I’ve also done bits of Europe with Armani - but I’d like to take it somewhere like Singapore or Japan and really explore those areas. Mexico was lovely. I'd love to go back there. That was early on in 2018. It was a really quick learning trip because I didn't know anything. I had never travelled outside of Europe before and it was really humid.
Tell me about your creative process. I read in a previous interview that the words come before the visuals or the joke/captions. Are you constantly jotting things down as you’re out and about or do you dedicate specific time to creating these puns?
It’s mainly just putting stuff down in my notes and then revisiting it. But funnily enough a lot of the time it's just the ideas that annoyingly hang around that are your best ideas. It's never really the ones you work hard for. I’m like, ‘this is going to be great’ - but then they always suck. A lot of it is just throwing a bunch of different stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Though I don't think that I start so much anymore with the word play specifically. It's more the feeling.
It’s really witty and endearing stuff. Do you feed your personal humour into this account or is the bean a separate character altogether?
I think a lot of it is the same humour. But I also leave stuff out with Ketnipz because it's its own brand at this point and I have to respect that. I can't just throw in a really mean joke! So it’s about being conscious of that, but a lot of it is me.
Did you notice the shift after Ketnipz
evolved into its own brand?
It was really gradual. When I started, it was all very abrasive content: I was very frustrated in high school and so it shows. But I started to think more about my own impression on Instagram and the space that I was taking up. I didn't like the feeling that my content wasn't warm. I wanted it to feel like a hug more than anything else, and I was just tired of the other stuff. I definitely leaned more into that and I think my audience like that, too. Then it becomes a thing of ‘you follow the audience's preference’ as well, and then the roads meet, and you have to walk down it. You might leave a part of what you were before on a different path, but you can always revisit it. For the moment I'm working on this and I really like that it’s a friendly thing and not something that's really going to challenge.
I wanted to touch on your earlier work because as you said, it reflected a darker time. Can you share any of your story?
I was just like a nerdy kid in school and didn't have many friends - very quiet. The only thing going for me was art really, so I used to draw constantly. When I first got on Instagram, I was doing portraits of people. I was just trying to learn how to draw so I'd have people send their profile picture, I’d draw that for them and send it back. I met a bunch of friends doing that online and that gave me faith in the whole idea that you can make it into a job.
But my actual life life was not too hot. I wasn't doing well in school, I had no prospects for university or anything like that. I'm not from a very wealthy family and so didn’t want to do a uni course and then worry about all that debt. I also got a little bit agoraphobic in terms of going to school because I just didn't like going in, and then it sort of became a downward spiral: you go in but then get told off for not turning up and so then you're like, ‘I don't want to go because I just get told off again.’
When I was 14, I used to sell cookies in school - that was a fun thing - I was learning about business and also wanted money. But it created a weird sort of relationship between the other kids and I. I went to a Welsh-speaking school where you get a lot of privileged kids mixed in with kids from less privileged backgrounds. So there was the pressure of trying to fit in with that crowd. As a kid, I was just worried about finance and it always felt like that was a barrier; I got quite cynical about school and always felt not very in touch with the others.
I was just being dumb though because you have to get a perspective on these things. In the moment you think everything is money and then when you come into a bit of money you realise that's not really it. But you never know if you don't get it so… It was a real waste, to be honest.
What was wasted?
Just that time - I could have used it better. But then again, I probably wouldn't have gone into what I did so I don't know. It's weird.
It’s interesting you say that - I look at what you’ve created at 20 years old and it’s amazing.
Thank you. I know I missed out on a lot too. I didn't do the whole uni thing and was immediately around 30-year-olds from the age of 17 when I was travelling. I've skipped a peer group. But I don't regret anything; it's just a different path. Though I'd like to be more chill, I think that would be a fun thing - if I could just ease up on the responsibilities for a second.
You seem like you channel the calmer side of life through your art.
Haha yeah, I’m probably projecting all sorts! There’s definitely a paradox of it appearing so calm and then everything behind it is a bit like ‘ahhh!’. But that's work and it’s the same with everything. I am trying to make it less stressed, though.
Let’s talk about the wonders of social media. You built your brand and career on this platform. How do you manage time away from Instagram?
A lot of my time is spent drawing and on calls. If I didn't use social media as a business and was just passively using it, I think it would drive me insane. But because I've sort of gamified it, it doesn't feel as intrusive, if that makes sense. And also, for me even just consuming content is an investment, very loosely, because you sort of see what works and what doesn't.
But I don't know if we know how to use social media yet. In terms of whether it should be available to kids; is there a right amount of time to use it? It's such a new thing. I worry that people will really miss out on actual experiences - but I think we're getting back to that. If I'm out somewhere I’ll put my phone away and really just enjoy a conversation.
What does your downtime look like?
Well, this weekend is going to be Animal Crossing because that just came out! I like exercising. I’ve just taken up Muay Thai, which is crazy. It's good to get beaten up. Travelling is good, too. I've been really lucky in my work because I'm able to travel with it: I've been to Italy a bunch, then France last year and the States quite a bit. I'd like to do more of that this year but I don't know what’s going to happen with this virus. I might have to cut some plans.
How do you get yourself out of a dark place?
I used to beat myself up quite a lot. A lot of it has been about changing that inner dialogue, which is super hard to do - for lots of people. It's really sad because I feel like a lot of people, myself included - you don't really see yourself as your own friend. You’re always in conflict with yourself. One thing I've found that has worked for me is to treat yourself as if you're someone who you want to help. So how you would treat your best mate if they were going through something, for example. That’s something which has really made a difference because before that, I’d do one wrong thing and it was like the world was over.
It’s about taking a step back - which is hard to do when you're in the moment - and getting a perspective on the whole thing; just realise you’ve got to deal with it, and it's easier to deal with if you're on the same side.
You previously suggested that Ketnipz
resonates with followers because it offers ‘positivity but not in a preachy way’. Why do you think this particular approach appeals to today’s audiences?
I think people get enough of the troubles of day-to-day life, especially at the moment, so it's nice to put something out there which isn't that. I think the conversation these days is way more about mental health and really looking at it and trying to understand it - because you can only really deal with it once you understand it. I think we're doing that for the first time in a big way, anyway. I want my work to explore that area, but not in such a clinical way that it may put a regular person off. My work is sort of like a gateway. It's strange because I'm learning too, and maybe I'm still trying to find the best way of communicating what I think is a good technique in certain scenarios.
I think a lot of people see the bean as a sort of innocence that maybe they felt they lost along the way. It’s that Jungian thing that in life you have to abandon your childhood self to find structure and responsibility, but then once you get that it's about returning to the child within yourself and trying to find a balance between the two. That's what I'm personally aiming to do: take on a bunch of responsibility and stress myself out but then also balance it out with creativity and all those things which you have to sacrifice initially.
Is taking on responsibility something you are prone to do?
Yes. I do it even when I don't want to - it’s annoying! I'll be like, ‘yeah, I could do that.’ I think a lot of people don't really want to take stuff on because it's daunting. But I’ve found that really the things that stand out in my life come from having a responsibility towards someone or something. I feel a responsibility towards my family; trying to support them and vice versa, because they've supported me for all this time. My mum worked a bunch of jobs and really looked out for me and also taught me a lot creatively. So I owe that, and that's my responsibility. And it's good because it gives you structure, too.
We’ve already touched on the current uncertainty around travel. I understand you were intending on moving to LA this summer.
Yeah. I work with a bunch of people out there and it’s something that I wanted to do. It's good to change the scenery but… the world's very crazy at the moment.
Have you got a plan B?
I liked Amsterdam. I’d just like to change the scene. It doesn't matter if the scene’s really crappy, but just to get fresh ideas. A lot of your mindset comes from where you are in the world, geographically or environmentally. The people you surround yourself with on a day-to-day as well; you're only as good as those people.
Cardiff is super creative - although, I've had difficulty with the scene there. It's always been pretty supportive but obviously it was never really the way I found my footing. I wanted my work to be more universal, and I felt like if I was just doing it about Cardiff or just about the Welsh experience, then it wouldn't translate to as many things as I'd like. It's something I want to return to, and it definitely bleeds into my work regardless of whether I want it to or not - I draw a lot of rain! I think the language is beautiful so I’ve always had a real passion to try and use language correctly. I speak Welsh myself so I've always liked the metre and the poems.
Have you any ambitions to create more characters?
Kinda. I like the bean though. I like having that as the focus because it's such a simple character. It doesn't really come with much baggage: it's very easy to put in any situation and have it be its own thing. Sometimes it's hard when people create a character, they find that others can't really project themselves onto it and see the world temporarily through its lens. But with the bean, it’s mainly able to appeal to a lot of people in different ways just because it's so simple.
What is the ultimate dream?
Oh, wow. That's a dangerous question. Personally, I'd always like to be creative. I can't see myself not doing something in that lane, but I'd also like to have some sort of workshop where I can see other people feeding their own creative visions and build on them. If I've got any wisdom left, then I'll pass that on. With Ketnipz, I'd like to explore different stories and really try and find other ways of reaching as many people: having it as that breath of fresh air. There is a goal but it's very far in the future. I don't want to set it too close and then get there like ‘oh. That’s it.’ I'm very happy with where I am at the moment.