All photos courtesy of Brian Butler I first met Brian Butler at Riot Fest in Chicago. The Cure was closing out the final night of the festival, and as I stood at the muddy barricade, I noticed a guy to my left with a beanie slouched low over his face drawing Robert Smith in a sketchbook. As a fellow illustrator, my interest was naturally sparked and I made room for him to join me. I peeked over again, now spotting what looked like a cartoon version of myself below Robert Smith. Butler was crafting together the beginning of a concert collage, with an entire sketchbook full of them from the weekend. By the end of The Cure’s set, he managed to encompass everyone and everything around him on a single sheet of paper, like some sort of super photograph.
Butler is a familiar face at many festivals, always armed with a sketchbook and a felt-tip pen. As an art school graduate from the greater Boston area who now lives in Miami, Butler travels the country, sketching live shows of all sizes under The Upper Hand Art moniker. “There’s something that illustrating an event can capture that maybe a photograph can’t capture,” he says over the phone months later. “It becomes almost like a narrative or a comic book in the sense of squashing a bunch of artists into a couple pages, and then pumping in a bit of overheard conversation, plus people freaking out or having meltdowns in the audience.”
Not that I was freaking out or having a meltdown during The Cure (okay, maybe I shed a few tears)—Butler just tries to give a nod to both the bands he admires and the people in the audience who share that same feeling. “I’m trying to document the energy,” he describes.
Butler carried a sketchbook at his side for years, turning it into a diary-style companion in art school. Eventually, his passion manifested into bringing the sketchbook to concerts. “I think I spent last year trying to establish whether I was a press outlet or an art guy,” he says, “How do I exist on the fringes here? With concert drawing, I exist in the art scene, but I also exist in the music scene.”
Although The Upper Hand Art umbrella, which includes art projects and murals, has been around for close to a decade (this summer marks its tenth anniversary), the Show Drawn brand (Butler’s concert sketches) only started a little over a year ago at SXSW. “Concert drawings are an effort to counter people holding up cellphones at shows,” he explains, noting how people around him don’t usually get upset to see him drawing. “I think I’d be more upset if I saw someone holding up his or her cellphone the entire set versus some weirdo drawing the entire time. When people figure out I’m drawing, they’re usually pretty down with it.”
Notable acts who are down with Butler’s drawings include the likes of Jay Z, Motley Crue, The Police, Wu-Tang Clan, Big D and the Kids Table, Dropkick Murphys, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, all of whom have used his illustrations for tour merchandise. “When I was in art school, I was working as a contract guy with a merchandise company,” Butler says. “The Police was my test T-shirt. They were like, ‘Hey, would you like to take a stab at a Police design?’ and I was like, ‘Totally. I’m gonna draw Sting!’”
Butler designed a T-shirt for a one-off Police date, and it was so well-received that he was asked to design a T-shirt for a second date. Then came HOV. “The company was like, ‘Hey, do you have some ideas for Jay Z?’ so I threw a bunch of things at them and a couple stuck for the Heart of the City Tour,” he says. “I ended up getting a paycheck from Jay Z, which was rad.”
Through that same company, Butler crafted t-shirts for Motley Crue and Wu-Tang Clan, working with the latter during the 8 Diagrams era. “I guess the title was inspired by The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, a kung fu movie,” he explains. “So I went to China Town in Boston and got a bootleg copy of it. I started pulling screen captures and doing weird illustrations and a bunch of photoshop collages.”
His first-ever merchandise design, however, was for Big D and the Kids Table, which led to the gigs with Dropkick Murphys and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones later on. “The first T-shirt that I did for Big D and the Kids Table, they took on a European tour,” Butler recalls. “I thought I was super baller for having artwork that was touring Europe. Looking back at the shirt design, it’s really embarrassing.”
Butler also made T-shirts for Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Cheech and Chong, but those didn’t stick. “I guess they weren’t stoner-y enough to get approved,” he says with a laugh.
Cheech and Chong and the 90s grunge icons may not have been fans of Butler’s work, but Pharrell was totally into it. “A homie in Miami who works with Pharrell asked me if I could get involved in his From One Hand to Another campaign,” he says. “I made this all-over print for a tote bag. Pharrell released it at ShaggFest in Virginia Beach, and the profits went toward underprivileged kids.”
On top of merchandise design, Butler has illustrated flyers for Peaches and worked with Little Dragon to design a comic book on behalf of Tumblr, which then brought him to Outkast’s #ATLast festival in Atlanta and Governor’s Ball in New York City. He’s also drawing album artwork for Coral Morphologic and has collaborated with both Vans and Absolut Peppar in the past.
Yet when it comes to the future, Butler hopes to one day draw Mindless Self Indulgence or Slipknot. “I think I would also like to draw the Gathering of Juggalos,” he says, “or go into a time machine and draw things that are nostalgic for me, like the Warped Tours that I’ve gone to. Illustrating has always been my way of contributing to music because I’m awful at actually playing instruments.”
See more from Brian Butler on Twitter and Instagram—@UpperHandArt.
Ashley Zlatopolsky is on Twitter, too!