Through his wildly popular Instagram project Eavesdropper, illustrator Mete Erdogan has shown a penchant for picking up on the more bizarre utterances of New York City’s huddled masses. However, for an artist with such a keen ability to capture the spirit of the United States’ most quintessential city, many might be surprised to learn that Mete is not a native New Yorker at all.
“I’m a first generation Australian of Turkish-Cypriot descent. My parents met in Australia. They met because my dad crashed his car and had to go to the insurance office. My mum was the receptionist. They got married 4 years later.”
Growing up in a small town outside of Melbourne, Mete quickly showed an aptitude for the creative. He would spend his time painting and sketching cartoons of his friends, but his big break didn’t come until the first grade.
“There was a competition to decorate a Christmas stocking. I just went to town on it—I got all the glitter pens. I thought that I’d only win if it was shiny. I ended up winning the competition and the prize was this 1997 diary with little cartoons drawn in the margins by this illustrator Terry Denton.”
Mete explains that he had long admired the work of Terry Denton, who was a prominent children’s book author from the area. Unbeknownst to him, Mete’s father played volleyball with Denton regularly at the local gym. This discovery led to a multitude of signed books, perhaps cementing Mete’s tie to the illustrating world.
Mete continued illustrating throughout high school, producing cartoons for the monthly school newsletter. He was met with a degree of success, one of his satire pieces winning a competition around the age of 16. When college came around, however, Mete resigned himself to the idea that drawing would likely be a mere hobby in his life.
“I didn’t see illustration as a viable career option. I didn’t know what else you could do with it aside from children’s books, so I went on to study journalism in school. I hated it so much; I just didn’t enjoy it at all.”
Fortunately for Mete, a visit to the Concept Art of Pixar Exhibition in Melbourne shed light on the many routes one could take in the field. With a renewed inspiration, Mete enrolled in a visual communications program at Monash university in 2008. While there, Mete found opportunity in the most unexpected of places.
“I followed Gotye on Twitter—he’s from the same town as me and he loves comics and graphic novels as well—and he tweeted about this comic I had read. So I tweeted to him saying, ‘Hey I’m actually doing a comic book as well. Take a look at some of these addresses.’”
The book was one Mete had just completed, Melburbia, a graphic novel homage to the suburbs in which he was raised.
“It’s about a kid who takes the train from his home to work, but every stop is a different chapter and every chapter is drawn with a different medium to express that suburb. There’s a particularly bougie neighborhood so it’s all done with charcoal and black and yellow ink-work, and then there’s another with a prominent primary school so it’s done with colored pencils.”
To Mete’s surprise, Gotye was delighted by the illustrations. Eager for more, he provided a PO box asking for a finished copy. The exchange struck up a correspondence between the two, which culminated in Mete making his way to the United States for the first time to see one of the singer’s performances in Radio City Music Hall. The two talked at length after the show, which Mete recalled as being one of the most dazzling visual performances he had seen in his life. For him, this was a definitive turning point.
“That experience inspired me to come back and live here to see what else I could achieve in New York.”
After scrounging together some savings back in Australia, Mete found himself in New York City about a year later. But with the limitations of J1 visa, which only gives its bearer 90 days to find employment, Mete knew that he had to hit the ground running.
“I sent out these postcards with my artwork on the front and a handwritten letter on the back. I sent out about 150 of these to studios I loved. Of the 150 that I wrote, 4 wrote back saying they’d give me an interview.”
Sax genie, the artwork on the postcards Mete sent out
All four interviews ended up as rejections, but Mete carried on undaunted. He continued to go on interviews and showcase his portfolio for agency after agency. As the clock wound down, however, Mete felt that his return to Melbourne was becoming imminent.
“I was approaching the 90-day mark, and had one interview left: Saatchi & Saatchi. I showed them my portfolio and they were positive, but I still wasn’t expecting anything. Afterwards I went to my friend’s place and started looking at flights and packing my bags. About an hour later I got an email asking if I wanted to start a summer internship with them.”
With his stay in the states extended for the foreseeable future, Mete could finally breathe a little easier, though he recalls dealing with the inevitable challenges that come with uprooting one’s life.
“The loneliness was a challenge. Back home I had my friends, my family, and I could always go get a hug from them. Here I had one friend whose couch I was sleeping on but we weren’t really on hugging terms. You learn how to start again. Taking yourself out of an environment that you’re comfortable in definitely helps you build a character and helps you find out who you actually are under pressure.”
But it was in this new environment that Mete made his biggest claim to fame thus far. During one of those many fruitless interviews, the renowned Stefan Sagmeister had actually suggested that Mete’s single typography piece was exceptionally strong, and that he ought to pursue it further.
“I decided for one week I would create one piece of hand-lettering a day. I have a problem with discipline unless I have an audience, which is why I put it on Instagram rather than in my journal.”
The result was Eavesdropper, a project in which Mete transcribes snatches of conversations he’s overheard in the city and immortalizes them on Instagram. Though the phrases themselves can be nonsensical and crude, Mete deftly adapts the words into elegant typography.
“I remember I was at a smorgasbord with a friend and I was nostalgic for Australian seafood. I was filling up my cup with baby octopus and my friend just shouted, ‘YOU CAN’T JUST EAT OCTOPUS FROM A BUFFET IN NEW FUCKING YORK.” So I decided to make that the first one. I did get very sick after eating all that, so she had a point.”
Initially Eavesdropper stood as a personal project for Mete’s own artistic growth, relegated to his own social circle. However, an unexpected signal boost transformed the project into a literal overnight sensation.
“A journalist from Buzzfeed wrote to me asking if they could do an article about it. In the space of 24 hours it went from 15 friends to 25,000 followers. It was very humbling.”
Since then, Eavesdropper has granted Mete increased visibility and recognition, which has allowed him to engage in a number of illustration projects throughout the city, from coffee table books with Barnes & Noble to large scale murals.
As he continues to grow into his new home, Mete says New York has shaped him as an artist, particularly in that it has invigorated a newfound passion for his own home and Turkish culture.
“New York’s influenced me, but it’s helped me realize more of my original style. My style is very inspired by mum and dad’s house, the Turkish rugs and patterns. Once you step out of that environment and look at it from the outside, you get to see how unique your style is.”
As a parting thought, Mete offered his advice to any newcomers hoping to forge a life for themselves abroad.
Mete's design for the upcoming You Are Beautiful & Bright Side exhibition
“Become your own best friend. Learn to love yourself again and then other people will. Trust that it will be just fine. As scary as it is, you’re doing something the majority of people you grew up with could never do. In itself, that’s a huge achievement.”