On Thursday night, MLS released this year’s Best XI – but a boring text list wouldn’t do, of course. If you’re enjoying portraits of a vaguely snarling Sebastian Giovinco, or a perfectly coiffed Josef Martinez, thank Stanley Chow, the celebrated artist behind the visual lineup.
You might recognize the Manchester, England-based creator’s striking style by the way it recalls some of its influences – gig posters and Panini stickers among them. You might recognize Chow’s work for itself, of course, too. Not only does his work regularly appear in the New Yorker, among other magazines, but he first shot to fame thanks to special artwork for the White Stripes album Icky Thump.
We caught up with Chow -- whose soccer-specific prints you can check out here -- to hear a little more about how his loves of music and the global game launched him into the international art scene. And which player in our Best XI did he most enjoy illustrating? Check out our Q&A below to find out.
MLSsoccer.com: How did you first get interested in art as a child?
Stanley Chow: My parents owned a Chinese takeaway when I was a kid. When it was open, I used to sit in the back of the takeaway and just draw. My parents couldn’t really afford to buy me toys back then, but there was a lot of paper to wrap food with, which they gave me to draw on. That’s pretty much how it started.
As I got a little older, Marvel and DC comics were my gateway into art. From the age of four or five, I think I always knew that I was going to be an artist; it was literally all I ever did. I wasn’t any good at anything else at school.
You’re known for portraiture. What drew you to that specifically?
I don’t really know what drew me to it, however, I do remember drawing my teachers and school mates. I became quite a popular kid at school just because I could amuse people with my drawings. I used to draw pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson, and the other kids would actually buy the pictures off me. I guess that skill never left me.
You were also a DJ before your art career really took off. What kind of stuff were you playing out, and how did your time in the music scene inform your art?
I played different music for different venues, but predominantly it was 1970s soul, funk, and psychedelic rock. There was a TV/movie-themed bar where I had a weekly spot, and I played a lot of movie soundtracks, the Starsky and Hutch theme tune, things like that.
I can’t really put a finger on how my love of music informed my artistic style, but it I did create a lot of gig posters for the local bands that played in the venues where I DJed. This led to me doing a load of imaginary posters for well known bands for fun.
I did a “fake” White Stripes poster which I posted on Myspace. The band saw it, and asked me to work with them. This was great, as it led to being nominated for a Grammy Award in 2008 [for “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package”]. The work I do now is still pretty much the same still I did for the White Stripes.
This set of work has a pretty strong influence from Panini stickers. What got you started collecting them? Do you still collect them? How did their visual style inform yours?
All the kids at school collected them, and it was a big deal. It was the Mexico 1986 World Cup album which really kicked things off. I was very proud of completing that album. The head and shoulder portraits of each player were so simple and iconic, and it was the obvious way to portray a player.
I used to draw players by copying the stickers back then, and I guess nothing’s changed for me, as this is what I still do now. And yes, I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I still collect the stickers.
How familiar were you with MLS and the current players when you started on this Best XI illustration project?
I’m quite familiar with the MLS. During the 1994 World Cup, the US became my team of choice, as England, my home team, didn’t qualify. So I became big fans of Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, and so on.
So when MLS was formed, I kept a keen eye on what was going on. I’m a Manchester United season ticket-holder, and with David Beckham being one of my favorite players, I would always try and see how he was doing when he joined LA Galaxy.
I was lucky enough to catch a New York Red Bulls game the last time I was in New York, too.
What was your process like for depicting this year’s MLS Best XI? Which players’ portraits in particular did you enjoy working on?
The process of capturing the players is the same as how I do anyone else, really. I would do a Google image search and collate as many relevant images of each player as I could. Also I would watch interviews on YouTube, too, to give me reassurance of their likenesses, as sometimes photos just don’t give me enough of the visual information that I require.
I liked doing Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, just because I feel like they already looked like one of my illustrations. I also have to add that I didn’t like doing Sebastian Giovinco, though I do think he’s an excellent player and I would love to see him perform in the Premier League.
Read the full rundown on the 2017 MLS Best XI here.