From sailor to lord of the Kraken

Highton illustrator Jake Ross. (Louisa Jones) 212032_31

By Luke Voogt

Blacking out from the pain of a back injury while training with the navy’s special forces was “a massive blessing in disguise” for Highton’s Jake Ross.

The new Kraken ‘lair lord’ talks to Luke Voogt about his colourful career change, illustrating for big brands and meeting Justin Bieber.

A single piece of paper changed Jake Ross’s life forever in 2017.

The then Able Seaman had been on ‘war training’ with a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) dive team on the mid-New South Wales coast, practising scenarios such as helicopter crashes and boats capsizing.

Jake provided communications for a team of clearance divers, RAN special forces who conduct clandestine operations and clear mines in shallow water.

While not technically a clearance diver himself, he underwent much of the same tough training on land and underwater.

“The cool thing is the training doesn’t stop,” he said.

He had been carrying heavy bags of antennas and other equipment over rough ground to set up communications at a HQ, when things went wrong.

“I just had this crazy pain and my legs had electric through them,” he said.

But after completing the arduous task, the lightest of loads triggered the pain that caused him to black out.

“I went to pick up a piece of paper and this massive pain just hit me,” he said.

“I’ve just fallen to the ground and not remembered what’s happened.”

Jake had snapped two vertebrae and torn the disc between them.

“What I remember, lying on a hospital bed, was I was at my happiest painting or drawing on a pad,” he said.

“I had no idea what to do. I was just drawing so much to keep my mind from thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing?’”

Jake had been an avid artist growing up on the Mornington Peninsula but he “gave up painting and drawing completely” as a teen to focus on his football career.

He was playing for Frankston Dolphins in the VFL when injury put a stop to that too, he said.

“We were lining up to go into the [AFL] draft but, funny story, I copped a knock to the head and got a brain bleed.”

The injury ruled him out for a year, so he started studying counter-terrorism.

“I realised I was playing football for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

“It was just to fit in, not because I loved it.”

Wanting “a fitness role”, he enlisted in the navy at age 21 and a few years later joined a dive team, which pushed his art further into the background.

Fast forward back to the hospital bed, Jake was battling to work out what to do with his life.

“I had very dark thoughts in my head,” he said.

But he what he struggled to express in words to loved ones, he found he could say with pencil and paintbrush instead.

“I found out I had this very special gift,” he said.

“I started putting all of the things I wanted to say in my head on paper.”

After his medical discharge in 2017, he transferred his credits from his earlier study and completed a visual arts degree.

“To end a career bending down to pick up a piece paper is just insane,” he said.

“But it was a massive blessing in disguise.

“I just didn’t want to jump into arts until life gave me a huge slap in the face to say, ‘stop wasting your time with this shit and just create!’

“It’s such a change from being practically a number in the military to an arts career.”

After he recovered he hit the waves at Bondi, where he met a writer from surfing publication Stab Magazine.

An interview over coffee with Stab’s director scored him a job on the creative team.

Then, public mural makers Authority Creative “poached” him as their brand director in June 2018.

About the same time, Jake and then-fiancée Daniela Viana, who he met in 2016, started The Avocado Agency.

“That was the first time I realised you could get paid to illustrate,” he said.

The work took him and his Brazilian partner, who made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list last year, across Europe.

“She’s a massive entrepreneur,” he said.

But often his ideas did not “correlate” to the client’s, he explained.

“I’m hopeless at talking. I’m not a client man,” he said.

“The hardest thing for me was to wake up to deal with clients.”

In late 2018 he was sitting in a restaurant in Bali drawing on his iPad when he realised he wanted to be more selective in the jobs he took.

After Jake drew a crowd illustrating the restaurateur asked if he would help rebrand the business, to which he agreed.

“That was the first time I realised my art could help someone else.”

He moved to Geelong early last year to focus on art and surfing.

“As a kid I loved surfing Bells or Winkie,” he said.

“After living in Sydney for eight years and travelling a lot, I really, really wanted to focus on my passion. There was too much distraction.”

He has since designed a carton for VB celebrating supermarket Ritchie’s 150-year anniversary and, in a nod to his nautical past, he became a Kraken ‘Lair Lord’ last month.

His projects for the black spiced rum company include an Instagram illustration experiment with stand-up comedian and self-described full-time gamer Crayator.

Jake “nailed it”, Crayator said in a video capturing the quirky challenge.

“It was a fun one with a very tight turn around,” Jake said.

He also designs record covers for Angus Stone’s band Dope Lemon, which scored him a gig painting a 30×35 metre skateboard ramp for the Aussie folk icon.

“They brought me from Geelong to Byron Bay but I had no idea what they wanted me to do,” he said,

“He said he didn’t care what’s on it, he just wanted a skull.”

So Jake did just that, drawing Angus as the skull, with two beverages representing his laid-back life and some tentacles representing society.

“The tentacles were society trying to bring Angus down. Angus always saw if himself as above society.”

But perhaps his biggest gig to date was a mystery project for Canadian pop megastar Justin Bieber.

“The project hasn’t come out yet so I can’t talk too much about it,” he said.

Jake was in Mexico last November doing some work for Day of the Dead when former schoolmate, Samantha Collins, emailed asking if he had time to “meet someone”.

Samantha endured bullying at school but was now working as a music writer in the US, Jake explained.

“I always went out of my way to be nice to her at school,” he said.

“I only got the call up because I was nice to this girl and she gave me a chance with one the biggest stars in the world.“

When Jake asked her who that someone was, he was gobsmacked.

“For the first week I was laughing thinking, ‘surely not’,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was real until the day I met him.”

A few months ago Jake and Daniela “broke it off” amid COVID-19 because she needed to stay in California for work, he said.

But Jake has big plans for when the pandemic is over, including to travel to Africa, Mexico and Palestine for three months each.

He hopes to immerse himself in the local life before creating a graphic novel to raise money for charities in the countries he visits.

But for now he is keeping busy illustrating and enjoying the winter surf.

“I have a lot of clients left that I’m working on,” he said.