Justine Gilbuena: Roald Dhal, Enamel Pins and the Smell of Pandesal

Meet Justine Gilbuena, she is an illustrator and designer and a one-woman shop from Queens, New York. She was born and raised in Corona and Woodside, while her parents and siblings all grew up in the Philippines. She makes beautiful hand embroidered goods and enamel pins all of which are inspired by childhood memories and quite often nod to her Filipino heritage. We have been swooning over her work for a while, from jeepney to sampaguita to banana ketchap pins, so we had to find out more about the girl behind the pins.

 “Something that I truly understand
that my mom imparted to me
was the language of Filipino food"


When did you start to be interested in illustration - do you remember one specific point in your life where you thought this the path I want to take?


The earliest memory I have of drawing was when I was a kid. I remember watching Bob Ross and reading books by Roald Dahl (which included Quentin Blake's illustrations). When I was a child, I would make the brushing sounds like Bob and trace over Quentin's drawings. Even back then, I always felt that I wanted to do something creative with my life. I never thought it would actually turn out to be my second full time job.


You are from a Filipino background - what was it like growing up? Was your upbringing influenced by Filipino Culture?

Growing up in the United States, but with a strongly influenced Filipino background, I experienced a very interesting dynamic that I'm sure a lot of people who are first generation could relate to. My mom always spoke in tagalog/taglish and I would reply back in English. So, I understand the language very well but I can't speak it. Something that I truly understand that my mom imparted to me was the language of Filipino food. I remember the smell of pandesal, spam and garlic rice in the mornings. When my mom had her friends over, "the lolas," they would take turns with the karaoke mic and wrapping lumpia. I'll never forget the first time my mom taught me how to make adobo. I always ended up putting too much soy sauce and too little vinegar. And I won't forget the stern look she gave me when I used organic soy sauce instead of silver swan.

How do you incorporate your ancestral heritage into your work?

As a Filipina/Asian American, it was really important for me to design pins that I could relate to because I couldn't find any pins like that in the market. I did this by taking the images I remember. The banana leaf that we fanned over the stove top before filling it with sticky rice to make suman. The sampaguita flowers, like the ones my mom use to make into necklaces as a child. While, some of my other designs are more western and speak to nostalgic America, the ones that truly mean the most to me are the ones inspired by my heritage.


You work a lot with enamel pins - why? What do you have to bear in mind when designing an enamel pin? What key memory do you keep referring to/or influences your designs?

As a lover of all things nostalgic, I wanted to design something funny and personal like my butter cookie sewing kit pin. A lot of people related to this pin because it also reminded them of opening their mother's/grandmother's butter cookie tin only to find bobbins and hand sewing needles. I love how little things, like enamel pins, can serve as a memory of someone or something from your past.


How long does it take to make your embroidered pins?

It really depends on the design. Some can take two hours to make and others, like pet portraits, can take 8-10 hours.


What inspires your work? Do you have any favourite artists that you look to/follow?

I'm inspired by memories from my childhood, plants, natural textures, coming age books/films, and anything colorful I see walking down the streets of New York. I love pin designers like Coloring PinsAlienCryShiny Apple StudioNatelle Draws Stuff and Abakadaerika. I love illustrations by Miroslav Sasek and Quentin Blake. Spoken poetry by Sarah Kay and Anis Mojgani. Paintings and graffiti work by Margaret Kilgallen. Honestly, the list can go on!


Your work is bright and very feminine - what is your fashion style like? 

My fashion style is the opposite. I tend to wear muted colors but I recently started embroidering my jean jacket using brighter and colorful threads. There was also a short period where I hand-dyed all my t-shirts. 


Was it difficult to start off your business? How did you go about it? Did you get a lot of support from friends and family to go for it? Do you have any advice to those that want to pursue creating their own brand?

Before I opened my pin shop, I had a lot of creative business ideas that were not successful. However, I'm still grateful for my failures because it taught me so much. I was hesitant to open my pin shop because I didn't have a shop name and I only had one pin to sell. But I did it anyway and fortunately, friends and family were supportive of the idea. Of course, I always met people who thought it was a "nice and fun hobby" and didn't take me seriously. I think the best advice I can give to someone is to just do it and don't be afraid to fail. I always go back to this Roald Dahl quote, he says "If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it.”