This is just like those Marvel "origins" stories except the art isn't as good and I'm not a superhero! I did this long interview with my pal William McCurtin a few months ago. He asked lots of questions about my early childhood influences, which was fun to think about. William is a great cartoon artist who publishes a zine called Story of My Scab. I'm not sure if this interview will ever actually be published anywhere but I think it's a good one so I thought I would post it here in the meantime. Everything you never wanted to know...and more!
Name & age?
June 2, 1972
Year of the Rat
How did you get started making art?
At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, I’m self-taught. I’ve only completed one formal art class and it was a college requirement. Drawing is just something I’ve always done. I have no idea why or how. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting around the house drawing homemade comics and listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records with my brothers. One of my first comics was about a serial killer called ‘The Slasher’. I think the first Halloween movie had just come out and my oldest brother went to see it and reported back to us. I immediately sat down and attempted to capture in pictures the emotional thrill I got from his retelling of the story. I remember drawing that comic in nearly one obsessive sitting and when the black pen I was using ran out of ink, I had one of the characters suddenly break a light bulb and the rest of the story was drawn in blue ink. It was like an improvised visual effect that actually worked. I took the finished comic and tried to sell it door to door in my grandparents’ neighborhood. It was very bloody and nobody bought it. In many ways this incident has foreshadowed most of my commercial ventures ever since.
What was the first LP or tape you got?
My very first record was KISS ‘Destroyer’. I loved that Ken Kelly painting with the band playing invisible instruments and dancing over the ruins of a burning world! Shortly after it came out I was jumping on my mom’s bed while she was at work. I was almost 5 years old and my brothers were babysitting when I fell off the bed and smashed my head into the corner of a bedside table. There was blood everywhere and they thought I had lost my left eye. I’m told that the only thing that would calm me down while they wiped away the blood was KISS ‘Destroyer’. Once my head healed I think my brother just gave me his copy of the record. I still associate music with blunt head trauma.
How did you get interested in horror art & movies? Favorite movies or directors?
Looking back, it’s not a huge leap from collecting bug carcasses and road-kill skulls as a child to horror art and heavy metal. Growing up in New York there was a show on TV called Drive-In Movie that featured either a monster flick or kung-fu flick every Saturday afternoon and I would tune in every week. Before that there was Chiller Theater that showed late night horror movies. Chiller Theater also had great opening theme “music” with this crude claymation hand that rose up from a puddle of blood! It scared the shit out of me but I loved it! I’ve always found this kind of imagery incredibly powerful. I guess there is something fascinating about uncovering the taboo or hidden, whether it is imaginative art or occult subcultures or human anatomy or death itself. Scary films excel at showing that which is not meant to be seen. That’s the essential nature of horror. I really enjoy the films of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roger Corman, and Ken Russell, to name only a few. My favorite directors are those that challenge the viewer on some level and generally transgress etiquette and restraint. A good sense of humor is important too. Ultimately it is the task of all great dramatic art to, as Francis Bacon suggests, “Unlock the values of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”
How did you get interested in punk rock?
Aggressive music and horror have really been parallel artistic influences for most of my life. I get an emotional charge from both that is almost a physical reaction. I discovered punk rock accidentally by playing around on my radio as a kid. One night I was twisting the dial and landed on a college radio station that was broadcasting what sounded to my uninitiated young ears like the ranting of an insane person. It was disorienting and exhilarating all at once. Just like a good horror film. Later I learned that it was the ranting of an insane person. The song was ‘Inside’ by Rudimentary Peni, an amazing and haunting introduction to the genre. The first punk record I ever bought was the Misfits ‘Evilive’ because the colorful horror-inspired cover art resembled a more primitive version of the Iron Maiden covers I worshipped at the time. I still remember how weird it seemed that they were cursing and fighting with their own audience! This was very liberating to my concept of musicians and artists as somehow disengaged, mystical entertainers. “You think you’ll get out of the hospital in time?”
What was your first punk show or concert? Did you see a lot of CBGB shows growing up?
My first punk show was Suicidal Tendencies on the ‘Join the Army’ tour in '87 or '88. I guess some purists would argue that they were metal by that point, but I grew up during the crossover era and that was my first night of stage diving and taking sucker punches in the pit. It was at a little club called Streets in New Rochelle and I jumped on stage and sang ‘War Inside My Head’ with Mike Muir. It was amazing and…uh…it changed my life. Probably for the worse. I didn’t catch many shows at CBGB’s, or anywhere else for that matter. I grew up about 40 minutes away from some of the most powerful hardcore ever recorded but when you’re a young kid with no car and few friends, you might as well be living on another planet. My radio was like an umbilical cord during the 80’s. I did manage to catch a memorable Born Against show at CB’s but those matinees were sometimes incredibly unfriendly and it was an ordeal just getting through that neighborhood alone sometimes. During my last year of high school I set up an internship with CBGB’s as an excuse to go down and hang out every Friday night. I actually got school credit for sitting with Dennis Dunn and learning how to operate the stage lights. Dennis is the guy on Agnostic Front’s ‘Live at CBGB’ record that gets up on stage and threatens to kill the audience if they don’t quit fighting. He was actually a remarkably nice guy. I learned a lot from him. Aside from that I caught some great bands at other venues like The Damned, Cro-Mags, Carnivore, and Danzig on his first solo tour. I also saw Anthrax at L’amours on the ‘Among the Living’ tour. It was a Christmas Eve show with Anvil Bitch, who had a great song called 'Maggot Infestation'!
What was the first zine you saw?
I discovered zines through Fangoria magazine. When you ordered a subscription to Fangoria you got to post a few free lines in the classified section. I posted a blurb requesting pen pals and pretty soon I started receiving letters from all over the country, including weird bondage photos from some creepy English guy. Some people sent their Xerox “horror fan newsletters”. I don’t even remember them being called zines back then. A few years later, when I was about 16, my drawings were first published in a relatively literate horror movie newsletter called Scareaphanalia. Strangely enough, the guy who put out that zine and gave my crude drawings an audience has since gone on to become the managing editor at Fangoria magazine! Around that same time, when I finally learned to navigate the Metro North train system and began exploring New York City, I discovered See Hear on 7th Street in the Lower East Side. Back then, See Hear was a tiny shop at the bottom of a narrow staircase off the sidewalk and it was completely filled with “self-made magazines”. There was always some cranky guy at the counter, but if you checked your bag you could just hang out and read for a long time without anyone bothering you. I discovered a ton of cool zines down at See Hear, including Factsheet 5, which opened up the world of D.I.Y. publishing. I didn’t start publishing my own zine until many years later.
Who were some of your favorite artists growing up? And now?
Growing up I was influenced by the usual trash-culture ephemera of the day. I loved exploitation movie poster art, Wacky Packages, Marvel comics, cartoons, and tattoo flash. Tattoos were still very underground and illegal in New York during the early 80’s so getting my hands on a tattoo flash catalog was very exciting. Video stores were like art galleries. I was also a huge fan of Frank Frazetta. Obviously I was influenced by album cover artists like Derrik Riggs, Pushead, Nick Blinko, Joe Petagno, Ed Repka, Mad Marc Rude, and Michael “Away” Langevin of Voivod. As a teenager I began visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and delved deeper into more classical styles, specifically the dark allegorical work of Durer, Bosch, and Goya. Around the same time my mind was blown by the discovery of psychedelic posters and underground artists, most notably Greg Irons, Joe Coleman, Robert Williams, Robert Crumb, and S. Clay Wilson. As an adult it was a revelation to discover the obscure Symbolist movement, particularly völkisch and occult-oriented artists such as Franz Von Stuck, Hermann Hendrich, Arnold Bocklin, Franz Von Stassen, John Delville, Felicien Rops, and Alfred Kubin. Other influential artists are Rosaleen Norton, Austin Osman Spare, Fidus, Arno Brecker, Arthur Rackham, and Theodor Kittelsen. Nowadays I find inspiration everywhere, especially among my own close friends and peers. But I think I’ve already name-dropped enough!
Who are some of your favorite authors?? Or books?
I try to always be reading and learning and I have a small library of favorite books that I return to periodically. My father had a pile of old existential novels and I was always sort of looking for traces of him so I delved into these books at a very young age. Among them was The Boston Strangler by Gerold Frank, a true-crime account of serial murderer Albert DeSalvo. I plowed through that book and became fascinated with the idea that a man could do those things. I barely understood sex, so the idea of "sex murders" was pretty intense. I also read my father’s copy of Hunter Thompson’s biography of the Hell’s Angels for a 5th grade book report and kicked the knowledge of gang rape to my squirming classmates. Despite these early literary influences, I’m actually not a particularly morbid or violent person. I think of my drawings as stories and the best stories to tell involve brutality, blood, sex, and death. I didn’t invent that formula. Take a look at the stories people have been telling each other since recorded time. The Eddas, the Bible, the Upanishads, the epic Greek poems of Homer. These stories have survived because they somehow unleash emotion and unhinge the intellect.
What inspires you to make art now?
What are some of your favorite album covers? That you did? Or other artists did?
Album covers were the first “art” I ever saw and I love tons of covers for very different reasons. It’s really difficult to narrow down my favorites to a small list. As for my own stuff, it’s difficult to be objective but I really like my latest drawing for Abscess [Horrorhammer]. I worked on that particular drawing under some incredibly stressful conditions but the results are very close to what I imagined and the band was very pleased. It even reproduced well on the CD, which isn’t always the case. For instance, I really like my drawings for the Hellshock/Consume split 7” but they reproduced very dark and lost much of their depth. I also did two different versions of that back cover because the Hellshock guys accidentally gave me the wrong song list. I think they decided to change one of their songs at the last minute but I had already incorporated the song titles into the art. So the first 500 copies of that 7” were sold during their European tour with an explanation and when they returned I drew a new back cover with the correct song titles for the repress. Maybe someday that first pressing will be collectible.How did you get started using a Bic pen? Do you ever use india ink? Or just Bic pen?
Drawing with Bic pens isn’t something I ever really thought about or planned. I was using ballpoint pens as a kid at school, just doodling all over the margins of my books. I was constantly getting in trouble for not paying attention. I like to think that these days teachers might recognize this sort of behavior as a strength and suggest art lessons or alternative curriculums, but back then it was really frowned upon. My mom discouraged the arts because our family always struggled financially and I think she wanted us to be more economically stable. Turns out she was right! Anyway, I realized I was able to get some very brooding tones and rich textures so I kept it up. Eventually this heavily shaded noir style emerged and at a certain point I made a conscious decision to produce larger scale drawings on illustration board. I never considered myself an “artist” so I was unhindered by the rules of proper artistic media. Ballpoint pens were what I had available. Some people look at my art and ask why I don’t just paint, as if painting would be a more valid and respectable craft, but I’m still challenged and excited by ballpoint pen. I’ve tried lots of different media such as pastels, scratchboard, various paints and inks, and colored pencils but nothing gives me quite the same effect. Someday I would really love to try tattooing, but so far I haven’t had much luck setting up an apprenticeship.Have you ever had your art used without permission? Or bootlegged on shirts & patches or tattoos?
Yeah, my art has appeared in many “unofficial” formats. I’ve seen some really cool tattoos of my art and I very much appreciate when people send me photos. Sometimes I even post them on my blog. I was at a punk fest here in Portland recently and was surprised to see several of my older drawings walk past me sewn onto hoodies. I usually don’t mind this so much and if the print is homemade it’s rather flattering. The bootleggers that I don’t condone are the parasites that deliberately profit from my labor and don’t ask permission or send me samples for approval. Some chump in Oakland created a silk-screened show flyer with one of my drawings and deliberately removed my signature from the art and added his own! How low can a punk get?
Do you like showing your art in a gallery setting? Do you have any shows coming up? Where?
I’m curating a special exhibit of underground art here in Portland, Oregon this summer! The show is titled Entartete Kunts, a snide reference to the German term “degenerate art” and the infamous 1937 Nazi art exhibit that featured work that was officially banned by the fascist Government. The show will feature a broad range of underground artists, from well-known veterans to emerging unknowns, and includes some of my personal favorites. I’ve purposely organized this exhibit to coincide with a 2-day metal fest so it’s a great excuse to visit Portland and get drunk with me! I’m already planning to make Entartete Kunts an annual event. Gallery shows like this can be very fun and I’ve learned a lot by subjecting my own art to the merciless scrutiny of the general public. For instance, it is very interesting and often rewarding to observe how a diverse crowd will react to my work. There is also opportunity for valuable critical feedback, which I believe is essential for any meaningful growth. That said, I always remain very much in control of how and where my work is presented so my shows tend to be more like parties and less like pretentious “art scenes”. I just wish framing wasn’t so expensive!
Do you still work with runaway teenagers in Portland? How did you start that job?
I actually operate two different non-profit street outreach programs. Some of the kids I meet are runaways but many of the homeless people I work with are what we call “youth identified” adults who, for various reasons, haven’t been able to get their shit together and transition into sustainable homes and jobs. Most are dealing with severe trauma, addiction, and mental health issues. I go out under bridges and into squats and camps and find these people and try to provide some supportive options. It’s exhausting and thankless and occasionally rewarding work. I keep my art very separate from my day job and, for the most part, nobody I work with knows that I spend my nights hunched over a drawing table howling at the moon. Don’t tell anyone! I got started working with homeless people shortly after I moved to Portland and couldn’t find a job. I was a dirty punk with few references and dreads down past my ass. The only places that would hire me were porn shops, bars, and the homeless youth shelter. I needed glasses and my teeth cleaned so I stuck with the one that offered benefits. Perhaps not entirely surprising, I soon found that I was good at connecting with young fuck-ups. And the hours worked well for drawing. I often complain that my day job keeps me from my artwork, but I also think that if I were drawing all the time I would probably get bored and complain that I don’t have time to do anything meaningful in my community. Ironically, I’m about one paycheck away from homelessness myself.
Favorite time of day? Favorite food? Favorite drink?
My favorite time of day is night! I enjoy the solitude between midnight and 5am and that’s when I do my best drawing, writing, and thinking. My favorite food is meatless. I’ve been vegetarian for about 10 years, with the exception of some occasional meat at solstice potlucks. My favorite drink is good strong coffee. And beer. I should probably drink more water.
How do you think living in the N.W. affects/effects your art/life?
I’ve been told that parts of Oregon closely resemble Scandinavia and that aligns well with my spiritual and aesthetic coordinates. Portland itself is a beautiful city that inspires me very much. I like the rain and the architecture and the trees and the moss. I don’t think living here has affected my art much in terms of style or content but, until recently, Portland has been a very affordable place to live and that has allowed me to be a starving artist but still enjoy a relatively comfortable quality of life. Unfortunately this is rapidly changing as people continue to move here in droves. Please don’t move to Portland. The coffee is weak and the women are ugly…
Favorite thing about Portland? And the worst thing about Portland?
Aside from what I’ve already mentioned, one of the things that distinguishes Portland from many other U.S. cities is our combination of affordable rent and basements. There is a hidden D.I.Y. “basement culture” here that seems to sprout from the mold. Everyone in Portland seems to have a basement where they make art, homebrew their own booze, play music, sew their own clothing, and generally behave like crafty trolls. Portland is also geographically positioned between mountains, desert, and ocean which makes escape from humans much easier. The worst things about Portland are probably mold, methamphetamine, and gentrification. Mold constantly threatens to ruin my drawings. Meth causes crime, pollution, and ugly people. Gentrification is rapidly destroying the last vestiges of historic architecture, affordable housing, and the creativity that made moving here attractive for all these hip assholes in the first place.
What’s next for you? Are you working on any cool projects?
I feel like I’m just getting started! The group exhibit in June has me very excited about underground art again. There are lots of other projects in the works for the coming months but I won’t mention anything specific. Suffice to say, there will be more album covers and a few picture discs later this year. I’m also finally getting to draw a full gatefold! I’ll be getting around to the next issue of Destroying Angels in the next few months too. I’m getting more requests for my work than ever before and I only wish I had time to accept more offers. But I try not to overextend myself so I can continue creating quality work and avoid burnout. If drawing ever feels like a shitty job, I’ll quit...
April Fool’s Day, 2007
April Fool’s Day, 2007