Jon Contino merges classic lettering with a fresh, modern take. He talks about his musical and art influences and how they go hand-in-hand with his work. He also gives his thoughts on the ephemeral nature of sharing work quickly and instantly vs. cultivating a meaningful signature style over a long period of time.
Pencil or pixel?
Well, always pencil but it always ends up being pixel because that’s “I have to be.” This is the world we live in. I can’t hand over like a 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper with my drawings on it…
…and just be like…You don’t.
But you always start with a pencil or pen or brush and…That kind of thing?
Every single thing I do is pencil on paper. You can kind of see…This is from the past two months…
Look at that. I’m going to do a screenshot of that.
Yeah, why not? They’re t-shirt designs for Hurley and I think they’re probably coming out in a little while, by a little while probably like a year and a half.
That’s usually how long it takes, yeah.
No, I got some stuff on there we can share. We can definitely share.
There’s some, like, reject stuff.
OK good. So it’s not something that they decided to use.
Well some of that stuff they decided to use but we could share some other stuff.
Hey, man. It’s all on you, buddy! It’s all on you…
No, I’m kidding, man. Yeah, if you want to, that’d be awesome, dude. That’d be really cool!
Yeah, totally. Absolutely.
Alright, so, Jon, let’s get to know you a little bit. For the folks that aren’t familiar with your work, what you do, can you give us a brief history, a little background of what it is you do?
Man, there’s no such thing as a brief history…
Go as long as you want, man. As long as you want.
How can I break it down? It’s something I’d been doing my whole life. I got a very creative family so I kind of grew up with it. My father’s a carpenter. My mother is an artist. My grandmother’s an artist. My grandfather’s an engineer. And then we have artists and whatever going back years and years. I was always growing up building or drawing or creating something.
And then I kind of got involved in music in my early teens and I used to play drums in a hardcore band or multiple hardcore bands. I did that until about 2005 or 2006. I was in bands for a long time. That whole time I was freelancing because I had an artistic gift, I guess, or not even like a gift but the gift of desire to create art.
So any type of place that I could find to design something, that’s what I ended up doing. That ended up being something that…people just started paying me for it.
I remember, my very, very first paying gig, I was 12 years old. And then I kind of bounced around a little bit. 14 years old, I first started doing freelancing because that was around the dot com boom. So I kind of taught myself how to build websites and design, I think it was Photoshop 2 or 3, and I started freelancing when I was 14 years old.
I did that all through high school, all through college. I went to a small college so it wasn’t like big art school or anything like that. But it had like a small, little art department so it was really tight. The teachers were really cool. Everybody knew each other. It was a very personal type of thing. They would nurture my business freelancing side and kind of teach more about the real life part of the design and then just the basics of typography and all that stuff.
So all through college I freelanced. Once I left college, I tried to freelance full time but when you do it part time and you go in a school and I was working — my dad doing construction and stuff like that — it’s hard to really be disciplined, so after a couple of months, I kind of crash and burned.
I worked at a few small agencies. The first one was an agency that strictly designs for financial planners and stuff like that, so I was terrible.
I mean, the people were nice but the work…What could you expect from a place like that? You’re not breaking any boundaries with financial planners.
Everything’s already set, you just kind of go with the motions.
Yeah, that’s all it is. And everyone wants the same thing. They want to convey wealth. You know what I mean? What kind of wealth…you know? It’s not…It wasn’t in Manhattan. It was in Long Island. You’re not talking like the Vanderbilts of the world.
Then I bounced over to another small agency with a friend of mine and that place is pretty cool. It’s a place called Orange 32. We used to call that “designer boot camp.” The guy who owned it who’s a friend of mine, he’s a crazy person. And all of us, we were crazy, too. We were in our early to mid-20s and he was maybe about 10 years older than us, so the place was constantly…It was a very testosterone-filled type of environment.
Like a lot of metal playing, a lot of yelling and screaming. Like deadlines were like insane. I always thought I was fast but the deadlines at this place, like, no one ever really congratulated anyone on a job well done, either. It was really brutal. We would just shit-talk each other constantly. It was fun but sometimes…[laughs]
We always joke about it, too. Because sometimes it would go too far and one of us would get mad. That was kind of fun…
So was there a lot of yelling when you get mad?
So much yelling.
So much yelling and like breaking things and slamming phones down and whipping things across the office and stuff like that.
But it was a cool place. It was one of those places where with that kind of intensity and with those types of deadlines that we were dealing with, you had to do good work and you had to do it fast. I worked there for almost a year, I think. And from working there, I kind of got my act together and I disciplined myself really well.
Then I went out and started my own studio. I think that was about 2005 I started that studio. It was called 126 and I did that for about 4 to 5 years. Then with my partner in 126, a guy named Matt Gordon, we started a clothing brand called C.X.X.V.I. Clothing Company and that went on for a couple of years, too, until I started kind of dipping my toes back into the freelance world. Because years before that, I really, really got into trying to push lettering and illustration on people and no one was really interested in hand-lettering or anything…
This is before it became a thing.
This is like 10 to 12 years ago…
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
…when I was trying to push hand-lettering. Nobody wanted it. Because especially, you think they might…
Clients didn’t want it?
Yeah. Nobody…I couldn’t even get bands to take it. Bands didn’t even want it. It was really hard to push hand-lettering on anybody. You figure, like, 2003 to 2006, it was still very clean, and anything that wasn’t clean was very, almost like…If it didn’t look letter-pressed or something, then it wasn’t right. So it was tough. It was really tough to push that.
But around the time we started C.X.X.V.I. which was around 2008, 2009, we started…I kind of threw it all…I was like, “Whatever. I’m just going to put this on shirts and if people like it, they like it. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it.” Because we were printing them ourselves. So if it didn’t work, we’ll just stop printing. It wasn’t the end of the world.
These are hand pulled, at home?
Yeah. Hand printed. Everything we had downstairs in the garage of our shop, we had a four-color press and a dryer. We were running the design studio, we had this idea that we’d also run the print shop at the same time and keep it all-in-one type of place. So we started doing that. We piggybacked a couple of t-shirts of anther client’s order…
…and we created a lookbook and put it out there and just slammed a bunch of blogs. Because there was no social media or anything at the time, besides like Friendster or Myspace but that was useless. It was totally useless at that time, you know?
So, we just hit a bunch of blogs and it kind of picked up a little bit. Then once we saw that people were interested in buying those t-shirts, I just decided it was time to throw stuff up online, like just a personal portfolio of all my lettering and illustration stuff that was either rejected or personal work or for the clothing company that people didn’t really seem to gravitate towards for client work.
And then the rest is history from there. All of a sudden, I put a website together with all the stuff that no one wanted, and then I start getting attention for it.
Approximately, what year was this?
I think 2009-ish. I had been trying to push this for a long time and around then…2009 to 2010 is when I really saw it elevate and turn into something. And I had been working for so long at that point. I was already a veteran and there were people that were coming out of college or coming out of internships or jobs at agencies or something that were just starting to do something around then.
I had my name in places here and there, but even though I was around for a while, when this whole revitalization of hand-drawn artwork kind of came around, I was in there at the right and the right time. I just happened to have 10 years’ experience before that.
We’re going to talk about your influences and the background in your hand lettering and why you decided that, but, let’s segue to music, this is really interesting to me, obviously. I always ask this question. If I find another designer, illustrator or artist I talk to, and I find out that they have a background in music, it’s automatically, I’m just like, “Hey!” “Alright!” Because it is something in common between us…
So you started playing music as a teenager.
Yeah. Like 10 or 11.
You were like in multiple bands. Were you…starting to create things like band posters, flyers, and those kind of things?
Yeah. T-shirts, demo covers, all that, yeah. Even going back to my very first bands that I was in. I would get all those blank cassettes and we would play in my bedroom or whatever and just record…
Like in a 4-track?
No, no. Like on a boom box. [laughs]
We couldn’t afford a 4-track. That was too expensive.
It probably sounded so raw and so good. So loud!
I bet bands would like pay thousands of dollars to get that sound now.
Yeah! Yes! [laughs] So true! You see some of the bands or some artists that have to have that recorded tape sound where it’s like coming in and out, right?
Yeah. I would just go in there. I would go to like CVS and buy like a 4-pack or 6-pack of those Maxell blank cassettes. And we would dump it in the boom box, this little, crappy boom box that I had, press “Play” and “Record” down at the same time…I’d like run over to my drums to make sure it was all set up right…
And like my friend, Mike, was playing guitar and we’d have a bassist sometimes…
No way! Bass sometimes?
We’d start recording…
Sometimes, yeah. Once we were done, they would go home and then the real fun would begin because then I would sit there and I would just start drawing covers for each one of them. So I have like boxes and boxes of little tapes of recorded garbage. But the covers are so designed and all the layouts are there and everything. All illustrated ideas and all those type of stuff.
And that was when I really began to become obsessed with what graphic design is before I really knew what it was. I had always been into drawing monograms and team logos and copying movie posters and stuff like that, but, I think this was like the real deal graphic design introduction for me. I just wanted to do music packaging forever and that kind of went away.
Did you have your sights on becoming a professional musician at a point? Were you thinking seriously about that?
No. I always loved playing music and I really enjoyed especially playing the drums. Because I’m a very aggressive kind of person, I think…
Gets the heat out, man.
Yeah, yeah. No matter what it is…Even today, it’s harder now because I got a little girl, but when I’m just having a stressful time, I’m a grown-up now and I live in a house, so I can actually go and play my drums, I just go downstairs and I just run through like an old Hatebreed song or something…
…like smash the hell out of my cymbals and just play as hard as I can. It helps. It’s great. But it was never my thing.
So being a musician was never really your thing?
Yeah. I love to do it and I was pretty good at it but it was always like the conduit to be able to do cool design work. I remember I was in one band all throughout high school but then half the band went away to college, the other half stayed, so we started a new band.
I remember when we started it, one of the things that I was so into was designing everything for this band because at this point, I had already had experienced working on a few bands and I was ready to completely art direct this new band. I remember my singer put together something in Photoshop or whatever and after practice he was like, “Yo. Check this out.” And I got so mad at him and I was like, “Listen. This is not your job. My job is to design the logo.”
“You’re in my turf, man!”
I just remember. And it’s so funny because you know how you remember those things in your life where you’re like, “Oh, man. That was a little overboard. I shouldn’t have done that.” I went so overboard and I was so, “Stay out of my way. This is what I do.” And no one ever tried to do that ever again.
But you felt bad about that, right? Like afterwards…
I felt so bad about it, yeah. It’s his band, too. But I was just like, “Don’t touch it. Don’t even try. You sing. You stay over there. I’m going to be doing my thing over here. You don’t have any say in it.” [laughs]
Was it good, though? I had to ask you that.
No. Because he wasn’t a designer. He was just messing around.
But he wanted to partake in that…
Especially around that time, it’s like when a lot of people would have hacked copies of Photoshop and people would just mess around. Like adding filters on stuff, beveling, embossing, light flares or whatever…
Oh, man! No! No! Terrible.
You started this clothing company shortly after with Matt Gordon and that took off. Like you said, you were in the right place at the right time around 2009 doing lettering. What were the influences behind your work and what are currently your influences? Has anything changed?
It has changed but it also hasn’t. When I was a kid, I loved…Going back, growing in the ’80s and stuff and the ’90s, there still wasn’t digital anything. So all signs were still painted. All graphic design was still hand-drawn. They still did it the old fashion way.
There was X-acto knives, there was tape, there was glue, there was Photo Stocks…There was all these things…Stuff still looked like that. That’s what I love and that’s what I grew up knowing.
Clearly, I still love that to this day, but that’s kind of how I was introduced to all these stuff. As I got older and stuff, I was introduced to Ralph Steadman, Herb Lubalin, and all these guys who had different styles that I felt really drawn to.
So Ralph Steadman had that sick, really loose ink splatter style but he would always write stuff. He would have his crazy illustrations but then there would be this lettering that no one who wasn’t into it I don’t think would consider it lettering, would just be like writing on a drawing. But it was a thing that I was really influenced by.
Then you get into Herb Lubalin so all these guys with the crazy letterforms and actual custom type and I got pretty obsessed with that.
Graffiti, going up as a kid, too, I was so obsessed with…I sucked at it. I sucked at it. I mean I was so bad. I wanted to be good and I was so bad. I would watch kids draw on the backs of their notebooks and stuff in middle school and high school and just do the sickest tag looking things with all these arrows pointing everywhere and all those crazy cliché graffiti stuff. But I just…
Where did you grow up? I didn’t even ask you where you grew up.
I grew up in Long Island. Levittown, basically, kind of near Jones Beach. Technically, I think, it’s referred to as the first real suburb of the United States because it was built right outside of New York City and then when everybody came from home from World War II, they have all these little houses planned and whatever. So we would learn about that every year in school, like every single year.
That was the thing that they wanted to make sure you knew.
Yeah, yeah. Because that was important, right? I mean, suburbs are important.
But you were saying there were a lot of kids that were drawing these really neat tags on their notebooks.
Yeah! It’s only a half-an-hour outside of the city. So you hop on a train on the Long Island railroad, you’re in Manhattan, or whatever, really quickly. There was all these kids who would go in there and skateboard and tag-up stuff and all that. In school you would see them doodling and stuff on their notebooks.
I remember someone was always really good at drawing the sickest S’s or A’s or whatever and I would just be obsessed with watching them draw that kind of stuff and I would always try and I would fail. But the way that I would draw stuff, always had more of…It was so much less graffiti and so much more what design actually is.
So here I am, practicing and practicing doing stuff and I would always mix in Old English into stuff, like Blackletter forms and all these types of things that I thought was really cool but really didn’t have any place in graffiti but I would kind of take that and I would take my love for metal and stuff like that and how cool those logos were, like Metallica, Megadeath, Anthrax, Slayer, Pantera, all like the best metal logos. And that would be part of the inspiration, too. All these stuff would just kind of blend together.
And then as I got older, I kind of rediscovered my love for sports design, especially with baseball. I’m a huge baseball fan. Love the Yankees. I grew up a huge baseball fan. And not even realizing how cool all the scripts were in the jerseys, the monograms, all that stuff. Eventually that kind of led me to older newspapers and just digging through scraps in antique stores and just finding all those cool stuff that people would make.
After all these years, all those stuff really kind of comes together and ends up being this weird, diverse pile of stuff that just becomes my influence.
Yeah, you really have a prolific body of work and a lot of it to me looks…It has a very classic feel to it. I always refer back to the style of the ’20s, the early ’20s of here, an American graphics, if you will. And I just love the quality of your work how there are purposeful imperfections. It’s not like a clean cut block of something. It’s this organic feel.
You know what the thing is, too, is that I’ve always been so obsessed with design and especially growing up so close to the city, everything to me was like this super clean, modern, Swiss-style design. You’re talking like the city subway maps and all that kind of stuff. Like Helvetica Black on white and it’s composition and I was always so obsessed with that.
But every time I would try to design that way, it just wouldn’t feel like me. So after a while, I kind of learned that I could still design using those classic techniques and the things that make good design good design, but if I just hand drew it, it just put like a different spin on it.
So if I’m sitting there and I were to illustrate something like Massimo Vignelli would have designed, it takes on a whole different feel. But that’s like where it’s coming from, too. And then I realize that there is a crossover with early 1900s because that’s essentially what they were doing. They just didn’t have the wherewithal to make it as clean and as modern-looking.
I mean Art Deco, all that kind of stuff, huge inspiration. It’s very modern, very crisp, very clean, but you put my shaky hands on it and you have something that’s a little different looking.
Actually, come to think of it, it’s more like the 1800s.
Like 1880, 1890s.
1880, yeah. I’m thinking way ahead.
Well there’s definitely ’20s in there, don’t get me wrong. There’s ’20s in there, for sure.
Definitely with sports.
“Instead of trying to force something on myself that’s not me, I should embrace my shortcomings and see if I can make them work for me.”
How did you find your style? You were looking into different source of inspiration, but was there a pivotal moment where you’re like, “This is what I’m going to do.”
No, I’ve always been a mess, man. I’ve just been a mess. I could never do anything clean. And especially cutting my teeth, or whatever, in the dot com boom era, if you remember, everything was super crisp, techie…Everything was The Matrix.
Everything that I did, all I wanted was grit and dirt and nastiness and beat up like Art Chantry style, hardcore punk flyers. It was just me, man. I can’t grow a straight line to save my life. So I was like, instead of trying to force something on myself that’s not me, I should embrace my shortcomings and see if I can make them work for me.
So I had my knowledge in composition and classic design sensibilities and all that type of stuff, and I was just, like, I could still design that way but I’ll just use the fact that I look like I just got off a jackhammer to my benefit.
I love it. I see more and more and more of this approach, embracing the imperfections, embracing the natural, organic look.
You know what the thing is with that, too, is that, and you see this happening a lot more nowadays, and I think people are doing it wrong, there’s a handful of people that do it right, but there’s so many people that are doing it wrong. Especially I see it with a lot of these people who rip off my work or whatever, it’s like they’re not getting it right. It’s not like they’re not getting the style right, they’re getting the purpose wrong.
The reason that I like to do things in an imperfect way is because I always feel like the first mark you put on a page, it’s always the right one. It always has the most emotion in it. You can always see the most personality in it. Even if there is a mistake here or there, it’s part of the personality of that mark.
So what is it that gives it personality? What are the things that you see that give your work or anyone else’s work personality?
The best way I can describe it, and it’s something that tortured me for so long, is that, I would a pencil sketch and I would look at that pencil sketch and I’d be like, “This is awesome. It has the exact feel that I want. It’s got the life and the body to it that I want. And now I got to ink it.”
Of course, as you’re classically trained to do, you take a piece of tracing paper, you put it over, and you ink it. And it just looks so rigid. It doesn’t look like anything. It’s like lifeless. And to me it’s just like the second you go over it and you do that again, it loses all of the emotion that you had, all of that desire to create in your head, all of that just goes away and it’s done. I just try to start embracing those first marks and getting them to be the expressive part of the design.
If you can combine the rhythm with the emotion of the first marks on the page, then you have something really special. It’s like a piece of you that you’re able to share in a way that people can just observe and just soak up so instantly.
And then once you get into…If you’re lettering or if you’re doing whatever, it’s about poetry. It’s about rhythm. It’s about all these types of things that I like to express in my work. If you’re doing some type of lettering piece and it’s a phrase, you want to be able to emphasize the rhythm of the phrase.
So if you are reading a Dr. Seuss book, there’s a sick rhythm to the way he would write. In order to communicate that rhythm, you have to be able to use bold letter forms, bigger words, smaller words, stuff moving — all that to show the reader how it should be said. Poetry does that with the way that writers…
…kind of layout…
Yeah, exactly. So in terms of lettering, you can do that but you can add more emphasis. So you can do like ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta…You could do that and it’s all rhythm and I think maybe it goes back to music, too.
But all that, if you can combine the rhythm with the emotion of the first marks on the page, then you have something really special. It’s like a piece of you that you’re able to share in a way that people can just observe and just soak up so instantly.
I think a lot of the people who try to just replicate the style because it’s popular or whatever completely miss that. It’s not just about this looks like griddy, or this looks wobbly, or this looks like it’s made a hundred years ago or something. It’s not about that and that’s what they missed.
How can you tell when they missed the point?
You could tell.
Is it the context?
Yeah. You can just tell it. The one that I always see, and it’s you always see it on Instagram, too, with these younger kids who have 200,000 followers or whatever, and you’re just looking at their stuff and it’s like, “Well, first of all, they have no real sense of typography.”
Anyone that I know that’s an amazing lettering artist, already studied typography from the beginning. They know what serifs are supposed to look like. They know where the counters are supposed to be, what the x-heights are. The ascender and the descender is and blah, blah, blah. They already understand that. Once you learn the rules, then you can break them. If you don’t know the rules, then as soon as you try to break them, it just looks like garbage right away. That’s what ends up happening.
Again, they’re trying to replicate what it looks like but they’re not…It’s almost like if someone sees a Ferrari on the road and they’re like a novice mechanic or something and they’re like, “That’s a cool looking car!” Maybe they could make the car look like it but they’re not going to have the engine in there to make it…They don’t have the hundreds of years of experience to be able to make it run the way a Ferrari runs. There’s so much more to know about it than just the surface. It’s really disappointing to see that.
The benefit to being a little bit older is that I have made all those mistakes in private. These kids make these mistakes in private and in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
How do you feel about that?
It’s kind of a shame because I think, No. 1, it hurts them because I think the learning experience becomes a much more…It’s less real, almost. Even though it’s in front of some many more people, I feel like they’re not learning the way that they should be learning. So everyone who’s doing this…Some of these guys, they’re like 21, 22 years old and they got a couple of Instagram filters and they got their microns and this and that, they place their coffee down just right…
…they place the pen down just right and they shoot it on this piece of reclaimed wood or something. And it’s the same thing over and over and over again. But there’s nothing to it. It’s like completely hollow. There’s nothing to it.
These guys…As much as I love it, it’s not 1919 anymore. So, what does it mean? What is it? What is any of that? It might look good but there’s nothing there, there’s no foundation to build off of. You’re not really expressing anything of your own. You’re just kind of regurgitating stuff.
Before social media, you could do that. You could feel embarrassed for yourself once you got a little bit older and look at it, it’s like, “Oh, man. I totally ripped him off.” Like, for years, I was a huge fan of Derek Hess and I just wanted to emulate his style so much and I would just try to rip him off all the time. But no one knew because I didn’t share it with anybody. So I got to rip him off and be like a total con artist… in the privacy of my own home and nobody had to know.
I kind of learned as I got more into it and I shared my work with maybe a couple of friends or even better, I took like a figure drawing class or something and saw what other people were doing, and I was thinking about how I approached it. You feel a little bit embarrassed and you’re like, “OK. I got to turn this into me more and stop trying to be something that I’m not.”
Just seeing all that, it’s kind of sad, a little bit. It’s only going to get worse because as years go on, there’s only more and more of these stuff be exposed.
Everything’s so instant.
Yeah, everything’s instant, everything’s right there. You got no privacy to learn and do your own thing. I think that probably a majority of these people, no one’s going to know who they are in the next two or three years anyway. But hopefully some of them who do have the real passion and the real drive that are doing this can maybe learn a little bit from it and shift and create their own world and hopefully leave some of that stuff behind them and figure out how to deal with it. When it all comes down to it, you’re not going to take 200,000 social media followers to the grave with you…
I don’t know if that’s ever going to be in an art history textbook. You know what I mean?
“If you want to create something of true value, why would you want to pander to an audience? If you want true value and to express your actual passionate desires to create, you just make.”
Yeah. It’s so disposable right now. That kind of thing.
Yeah! If you want to create something of true value, why would you want to pander to an audience? If you want true value and to express your actual passionate desires to create, you just make. It’s not about who’s going to see it and what passing fad blog is going to post about it. Do what you love because you love it.
It gets a little bit more philosophical the more I get into it because it’s like…
And that’s great.
We’re all going to die. When you’re on your deathbed, you’re just going to be like, “Oh, at least I have 150,000 followers on Instagram.”
What does that mean? What even is that? It sucks to be able to think that that’s something that people care so much about right now.
If I was on my deathbed, and I’m sitting there, it’s just like, at least I got to design this for this or something. Something that has personal significance to me.
It’s something that I eat, sleep, and breathe, like 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I love what I do so much that I essentially work 2 days in every 1 day. So for every year, I’m working like 600 days, because I just love what I do so much.
And I don’t really care who sees it. I don’t care what happens…Even if I don’t do this for a living, I would still do what I’m doing right now and I would just do it for myself.
I’ve talked to younger designers and younger artists and stuff, and there are some of these guys and some of these girls that understand that. And I think those are the ones that you’re going to see in the next 5 to 10 years be superstars because they’re just like, “I’m doing this for me. If other people like it, great. I really don’t care. It’s in my head, I need to get it out. It needs to be…”
It needs to be made.
Right! As a creative person, you have all the stuff building up inside of you and you just got to keep getting it out because it just keeps coming, it keeps coming. You just have to keep doing it. It’s just the natural evolution. And the people who are forcing you too much and they’re pandering to an audience to just try to get attention for what, I don’t know.
And trying to keep up with these…Because there’s this whole thing where people feel that they have to…For instance, since we’re talking on the topic of social media, a lot of people that are doing seemingly well on social media feel the need to, more than anything, keep on giving something to an audience whether it’s a thing that they’re really passionate about – or really care about – or not.
Yeah. It’s completely disposable. I hate to talk about some of these things sometimes because I don’t know if it makes me sound like a bitter, jaded old guy…
Please do it.
If you go back to punk and hardcore days, when I was around, even the generation before me and the generation before, there were zines.
Zines that people…They made it. They photocopied it. They stapled it together.
And these were all underground, word-of-mouth…people that knew about this.
Yeah! And it was just because they wanted to do it. They just wanted to share their experiences with people. They have a certain way that they perceived the world and the environment around them and in that case it was music and the scene that went with it.
It wasn’t just music. It was like, you would go to a place…Maybe you went to a record store, you saw a flyer for a show. You didn’t know who any of the bands were but you liked the logos or something, or the picture was funny on it. You’re just like, “Oh, what’s this about? I’m not doing anything tomorrow, let’s go see.”
You would wit your friends, you’ll go down and all of a sudden there’d be like 20 people standing in a weird basement and they would be 6 bands and 5 of them were terrible but 1 on them was pretty good. And then you kind of get into it and it’s like this natural progression of discovery. And as you’re discovering more, it becomes more of a passion because you start to get hooked.
And I think discovering and seeing other people be creative is like the craziest drug that’s there because once you get it, man, and you feel creativity in a room being so raw and natural that you just want to be able to contribute to it.
A lot of these guys who did zines — I keep saying guys but there were girls, too…A lot of these people who did zines, maybe they weren’t able to play music, but they wanted to contribute to the community, and one way to do that is to keep everybody afoot of what’s happening. This band played, this band played, this band’s got a new demo out, and this show was sick, blah, blah, blah – whatever.
You had all these people who were photographers and writers and illustrators and designers…People who were in these things but didn’t know that it was a thing. I love to take pictures so I’m going to take pictures of bands when I go to shows. You want to use them in your zine? Sure. I like to write. I’m going to write about this band. Do you want to use it in your zine? Sure. It was just raw, unbridled desire to just share this creative experience.
All that shit is gone. If you’re going to have your Instagram or your Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you could treat it like that. You could share your experience. It doesn’t have to be so oddly hollow. It could be so much real than it is. A lot of people do that but the majority of the people I see in my industry, there’s X amount of people who are legit and they’re totally real and then there’s the stuff on the top is just whatever boring…It’s going to be gone in a while and it’s just, again, pandering to the masses and everyone will forget it because it’s completely disposable and then that’s it.
When you see the people that are doing it with their true emotion, you can latch on to it. You could tell. And maybe they’re not even as good as the people who are faking it and just ripping people off, but it doesn’t matter because you can tell it’s coming from a real place.
Absolutely. I’m going to give you some quick questions. This is on the topic of…different topics, really, but…
…but in the same realm, if you will.
I want to ask you, man. Who’s your favorite artist today?
I know it’s a tough one.
Yeah. Like current working artist?
Let’s just say someone that you’re really into nowadays, like right now. Maybe a new love. It could be a current artist or old artist that you didn’t know about or didn’t really pay attention to before.
I’ll answer that in two parts.
A current artist that I absolutely love is a guy named Kimou Meyer and he goes by the name Grotesk. He also runs an agency called Doubleday and Cartwright. I’ve always loved this guy’s work. He’s constantly a source of inspiration for me. I just love what he does.
If you look at his work, I feel like you could definitely see parallels in what we do. He’s one of those guys…I just love what he does. I’ve always loved what he does. I’ve had the pleasure to be able to work with him once or twice before. It’s like one of those things. I’ll see there and talk to any number of people about design but I got to sit there and talked with him about design and I just loved hearing what he had to say.
It’s cool to watch him progress after watching him for so many years, too.
What kind of things did he teach you or he tell you?
It’s just what he does in his day-to-day is very similar to what I do in my day-to-day. The things that he’s inspired by, I’m so inspired by. We come from similar types of backgrounds. He’s from Europe but he moved to New York City like 15 years ago or something like that. But he’s just so inherently New York in the way that he does things. He loves it and he does it so well. I grew up here and I love it. He hits all the beats that I love about what New York is or was.
Classic New York.
Yeah, right. Just being able to talk with him about product design or branding or whatever, it was very cool because it was almost like seeing the type of designer I wish I was or a type of designer I would like to be. He’s older than me, he’s got more experience. He’s been around the block more than I have so it’s great to be able to watch him do that in real time.
And then, I actually kind of had a rediscovery of two artists that I always really liked and appreciated but never really had an obsession with. It’s not like they’re no-name artists, but for reason, it started to resonate a lot more with me. One which I think is kind of a no-brainer is Norman Rockwell.
I started learning more about his earlier days over the past couple of years. I developed this whole new appreciation for him. And the other is Keith Haring. That was one of those things too where it’s just I always liked it. It never really resonated with me that much but for some reason, in the past 5 or 6 years or so, I’ve like been really growing to appreciate everything that he did and the style and just the way that he did everything. Again, very New York type of style, very urban type of commentary which I love.
And especially coming from like a hardcore New York background and Italian background, I’m a very hot-blooded kind of guy… I just love commentary on stuff. Like when someone thinks that there’s an injustice somewhere, I just love that raw emotional, “Fuck You” type of thing. It’s something I really appreciate and I think that he did a great job of that when he was doing it. It was just like, “This is is how I see it. If you like it, fine. If you don’t like it, I don’t really care because I’m going to do it anyway.”
“I just want to be raw and I just want to be overloading with emotion when I do stuff.”
So you’re talking about your hardcore background so I’m going to ask you, what’s your favorite band?
My favorite band of all time is Nirvana.
Of all time. And it’s so funny because I realized this recently. I grew up loving Dave Grohl, too, because I play drums.
The first tape I ever had was Never Mind. I just loved it. And it’s so funny because, I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but I had a conversation with someone and I was just talking about some old Nirvana stuff and artwork. It was one of these bigger creative conversations. I kind of realized the way I draw is the way Dave Grohl plays drums.
Because he just beats the shit out of the drums?
He beats the shit out of the drums and I heard an interview with him about Never Mind, too, where he was just like, “I never played to click track.” He’s like, “so my timing was a little off.” But it didn’t matter because it was just so raw and so aggressive and it had such personality to it that I always tried to emulate that, especially in my drum playing.
But I didn’t realize that it kind of bled over into my creativity in general where I just want to be raw and I just want to be overloading with emotion when I do stuff. As I’m getting older, I’m finding these connections into things I always loved growing up and seeing how they crossover into my every day creative life.
It’s funny that you bring Dave Grohl because I watched his documentary about Studio 606…?
Oh, Sound City! I saw the documentary. I remember him talking about the reason why he was so enamored by that…Have you watched it, by the way?
Yeah, yeah. Of course.
He was so into that sound board and the reason why was because that sound board captured the true essence of the music being played at those instruments being played and he brought up a good point. He brought up Led Zeppelin for instance.
He said that every time he listens to a song by Led Zeppelin or whoever, it doesn’t matter who it is, but this is a song back in the good old rock and roll days, he could find something new every time he listens.
So there’s a huge difference between…His argument was, I think something between classic recorded music and past times and recorded music today, how things are recorded like on Pro Tools and whatnot, and you play to a click track and you clean it up after the fact and it sound so perfect. And that perfection kills the song or kills the music altogether.
It’s almost like when you have a thought and you let that thought out. Like you just let it be. Once it’s out, it’s out. It’s the same thing for playing music, for drawing, for painting, for whatever. You can never capture the energy of a live band on recording because there’s something intangible about it that’s so in the moment and so real.
Especially nowadays with the Pro Tools, I’d been through the ProTools, man. I’ve done my share of ProTools cleaning up on my drums.
But it’s funny, too because the first couple of times I ever recorded once ProTools was more of a thing, I cleaned up the stuff…It was so clean and so robotic-sounding. The two last recordings I ever did I barely touched anything because I wanted it to sound more real and messy. It just feels more natural. Honest.
Everything to me, in creativity should be, creativity and honesty should go hand and hand, without a doubt. There should never not be honestly involved with creativity. And I think that’s so important. I think there are mistakes that you can clean up but I think for the most part, mistakes are there for some kind of ethereal reason and they should stay there.
“creativity and honesty should go hand and hand, without a doubt. There should never not be honestly involved with creativity.”
Absolutely. Who’s your favorite drummer?
Dave Grohl, definitely. I think more so because of the style that he played in. There are plenty of guys that are just the sickest drummers ever. I used to really love Will Goodyear who used to play drums in Prayer for Cleansing and then he played drums in Between the Buried and Me when they first started. I loved his style too because he was very musical.
And then I grew up with Neil Peart too because my uncle taught me how to play drums and he was in a Rush cover band so my uncle…
Yeah, he was a sick drummer! So he taught me how to play so I learned YYZ, Tom Sawyer, all that type of stuff.
Yeah, yeah. And then once I started listening to bands like Candiria and The Dillinger Escape Plan and all that where all the drumming was just so vital and so intense. There’s any number of guys I can name but Dave Grohl, he’s the guy. He’s my number one because his style of playing drums matches my style of doing anything creative. I can’t put anyone above him.
I love it, man. And then also the personality. The personality really shines.
With Dave Grohl, with you and your work…
What exciting things are you working on currently that you could talk about? I’m sure there’s a lot of exciting stuff…Anything you could talk about. Or maybe give us a little inside scoop.
I got two things coming up. I started doing this Tomahawk Brand notebooks. I actually ran into a lot more speed-bumps that I expected just because of all the little details that I wanted to keep in there and I really didn’t want to compromise so it’s taking a little longer. So I kind of announced that a little prematurely. But hopefully that stuff will come out next year.
And then the new brand too is going to be more in vein with the C.X.X.V.I. style stuff. I was doing Contino Brand stuff for awhile and that was really low number stuff like every single piece was hand-made to the smallest detail. But the unfortunate end to that is it has to be expensive because there’s so much work that goes into it.
So this stuff is going to be a little bit easier to swallow, a little bit easier to consume. Then as it grows, I’ll kind of dip back in there a little bit but I want to be able to put out some cool stuff for people that’s way more affordable and way easier to get their hands on, like C.X.X.V.I. used to be.
Sweet, man. Well, I don’t want to take too much more of your time, man. I appreciate you doing this. Thank you, man. Thank you for being on the show. Really appreciate it.
Them song by: Pencil vs Pixel
Images and work are used with permission of the owners/creators or their representatives.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
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