Interview and Photos by Nicholas Gazin.
I’ve learned so much about drawing from staring at Raymond Pettibon’s work that I’ve completely assimilated his influence. Sometimes I’ll work for months, believing that I’ve reached a new level of creativity. Then I step back, take a closer look, and realize that most of what I’ve done was just ripped from his art.
Like most people, I was first introduced to Pettibon’s images when I started listening to punk. I noticed that he had drawn the covers for many of my favorite records, Black Flag being first and foremost, and most of them worked pretty great as t-shirts too. His show flyers appeared in all sorts of magazines and books I liked. (Most recently, he did the cover artwork for the debut record by OFF!, a supergroup fronted by Keith Morris of Black Flag, which is on Vice Records, which is owned by the same company that owns this magazine. So there’s that.) It’s almost impossible to avoid Pettibon if you’re into this sort of stuff.
At first I thought his work was rough and his lines were sloppy. As with a lot of great art, I had to grow in order to appreciate it. Eventually I began to see his lines as beautiful strokes that pushed the possibilities of black ink to powerful places. I realized they were wild and free like ponies in a field, doing whatever it is that they want to do.
I met Pettibon via the band Cerebral Ballzy. He was hanging out with them one night and happened to see a t-shirt I drew for them. According to the band’s singer Honor, he demanded that they give him one. I nearly died of joy when Honor told me about this exchange. Weeks later I ran into Pettibon and his girlfriend, video artist Aïda Ruilova, at one of Ballzy’s shows. Raymond was withdrawn but friendly, and his girlfriend was an enthusiastic lady who seemed as awestruck by him as I was. After chatting with him for a bit, I asked if I could interview him during my upcoming trip to LA. He agreed, and a couple of months later I was in a car, anxiously anticipating the visit to his workspace.
Raymond’s studio is hidden inside a building that was previously a furniture store. It still has the old business’s sign and ugly mural on the outside, and the big storefront windows have been covered with long sheets of paper. Inside, Raymond has dedicated an entire wall to pieces in progress so that he can work on multiple things at once. Toward the back there are shelves containing his giant paper collection, and above that, stairs lead to a mini apartment. We talked for about two hours. Raymond seemed distracted, but it was still fun hanging out. He invited me to an art opening and then we ate at In-N-Out. While we ate he was looking through books, trying to find reference and inspiration, I assume. I drew his girlfriend. From there I followed him to Mike Watt’s birthday party at a cowboy bar in Long Beach. It was one of the best nights of my life.
Raymond has stacks of drawings inside his studio. He pulled this one out to talk about something but got distracted.
Vice: I had some questions prepared, but I’m getting distracted. How about we just start with some questions about the stuff in your studio?
Oh yeah, sure.
How about this painting of a guy surfing giant waves? Why did you decide to make this?
I grew up near the beach. Violence at the shoreline can be worse than street violence sometimes. Local surfers are despised and hated by most other surfers throughout the world. There are good days, but if the waves aren’t coming, you’re sitting on the sand and praying for surf all year. Then you go and poach other people’s breaks.
I love the concentric lines of color. I’ve been accused of ripping off that sort of texture from you.
There’s nothing original, really. There’s an original style or a fingerprint of anyone who makes the first line in what they do, and that’s it.
Depending on how Raymond decides to complete it, this may or may not be a skinhead funeral.
Can you tell me about this drawing with the skinheads?
There’s not necessarily a lot to tell about it until I have a sense of where it’s going or what it means.
Right now it’s just a bunch of guys carrying a body?
Yeah. He could be injured or even dead.
Does this type of stuff come from your head, or is it based off photographic references?
This one was definitely from a photo, which was projected.
So the characters are slowly fleshed out the longer you work on them?
Right. You can get a feeling for that at odd times. That’s why I hang them up. It’s partly for the editing process.
This is a good example of how Raymond juxtaposes slight lines of ink with big fields of black.
This one with the large inky shape and light brushwork is interesting. What’s going on here?
This was based on some pamphlet for either dentistry or tonsil work. I just put it together like that. They are very hit-or-miss. I have many drawings that are half-finished and need a lot of work or rethinking. This one’s not finished. One artist who I admire, and who’s an influence, is Milton Caniff. He did
Terry and the Pirates
. He was a master who had a heavy brush style.
This might be a corny question, but here it goes: What is your favorite thing to draw?
Waves. To me, it’s natural. I grew up with ocean views—not even so much from the shore in real life but rather from surf magazines. It’s imagery that, for a lot of people around here anyway, is pornography. Although it’s probably been a few years since I drew one, there are people who want to see them. I like waves as images but I don’t relish doing them so much lately. Each time I don’t know how it’s going to look, like it’s an ordeal or a challenge.
Have you ever seen Secret Identity, the collection of black-and-white illustrations Joe Shuster made for porno booklets after he was fired from Superman and estranged from DC Comics? A lot of your drawings remind me of his use of black ink.
All the characters look a lot like Superman and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, but they’re sexually humiliating each other. There are butt-paddling machines, men in hoods, people tied up, and lots of whips. It’s really strange and scary.
Wow. That sounds like the Tijuana bibles. You can hardly condemn Shuster for it because both he and Jerry Siegel were so abused by the comics industry, and they were just kids at the time. To experience that after creating something like Superman that resonates so much and has been so influential and powerful in terms of culture… it’s more than being a disgruntled employee. I’m sure that was part of Shuster’s frustration, and the sex stuff is probably closer to Superman’s true character and personality anyway.
Do you remember when you first read a comic book?
My father had a handful of horror comic books from the pre-Code era, and he’d take them out maybe once or twice a year. It was always a cool event.
Were they mostly EC titles?
Not EC, but other ones of that nature—horror and crime, just a handful of them. Other than that, I didn’t read comics. I think I bought or read some other comics a handful of times, but as a kid I wasn’t a reader of comics or part of the comic fandom. Of course, my art borrows heavily from comics. I like many comic artists and writers and so forth, but it’s kind of a universal language. It lends itself to reproduction and the practicalities of making art and also to writing and narrative. They’re a good place to borrow from when you’re learning to draw, especially without a formal art education. But my work also comes from other things as well, like anyone else’s.
A random drawing that was on the floor near piles of comics.
When did you start drawing regularly as a serious endeavor?
Let’s say about 12. I drew quite a bit. It became a part of my life quickly, an everyday thing. I was doing editorial political cartoons at first.
Did your father teach you to draw at all? I know he was a painter.
Oh no. He was a writer, and he taught English. Many of his paintings are very good, I think. In my case, there are influences one can hardly even be conscious of.
How about your mom? Was she supportive of your art?
There just wasn’t any kind of direct mentoring influence in terms of my art. I don’t know if that is even worthy of attempting because what can a parent do, really? It’s easy to teach a kid how to ride a bike, but drawing or making visual art is something that’s a total mess until certain kids figure out their natural way of making marks and figures. If a parent stepped in, it would be frustrating on both sides. I have never sat over the kids I’ve worked with and suggested that they do this or that. I’d just give them the subject matter.
Were there any specific visual references that inspired you as a kid?
I don’t know if there were any. I can’t think of any crucial moments in my childhood when the veils were lifted from my eyes and I saw the world or imagined things in a new way that I could transpose to the actual practice of making art. I was more interested in words and literature, and I still am to a large degree.
When did you change your name from Ginn to Pettibon?
My father had nonsense names for everyone, so people always called me Pettibon. My brother was Tiger—you know, that kind of thing. He called me Pettibon after this football player John Petitbon.
This is some sort of scary demon-monster drawing that is exemplary of Raymond’s use of cross-hatching and black ink.
At what point did you start playing music?
I never have. I wouldn’t start now.
But weren’t you in a band with your brother Greg before Black Flag got started?
Somebody somewhere said that once, I guess. And like anything else anyone says about someone, it’s going to be endlessly parroted and repeated and disseminated to all corners of the world forever. I learned the bass parts for the early songs, some of them, and that’s about it. I didn’t have the interest, time, aptitude, or talent to make anything out of music. I understand that making music is hardly even a part of what being a rock star is about. I guess I had enough respect for music and also probably the fans to leave it to the musicians. I have been in bands or had band projects over the years, and at times I sing some things. I’m the unfortunate case of someone who has a beautiful lyric tenor, but there aren’t many spontaneous choruses or orchestras out there. You can find a guitarist, drummer, or bassist to jam with on every block, so you’d hardly know about my singing talents from my music work and live gigs. I’ve done some recordings as well, but it’s just things I’ve been backed into. Today I think there are probably only a handful of people who haven’t recorded something or put out their own 45 or cassette. Nowadays there’s no excuse for anyone not to have their own CD, you know?
When Black Flag formed, were you already drawing these confrontational and provocative images? For instance, the drawing of the giant devil throwing a cop.
That drawing is about growing up in motherfucking LA. NWA and Black Flag were very alike in their message and aesthetic of realism. Black Flag came out of a time when unarmed black people were being shot in LA. Every week there would be one or two shootings, whether they were older or younger. All we did was describe reality without editorializing it. The common denominator and the rationale were to put a happy face on the situation if possible, and it’s definitely possible to do that when you have the cooperation of the
and other newspapers. Their rationale was that if you smoke angel dust then you have superhuman powers and are a real danger. I was not creating caricatures or cartoon exaggerations. I was describing how the police would say that some guy, with the aid and abet of smoking sherm, could come to life as a force of nature and pick up a police cruiser. I apologize for once again referencing Superman, but that was the deal in this case. The cops used to use a choke hold, and again race had something to do with it. The cops couldn’t have been facing an unusually terrible crime or imminent threat if they were able to get close enough to put them in a choke hold, but there were several deaths, and eventually the police chief said, “Well, maybe it’s because the black people are anatomically different than ‘normal’ people.” I know I don’t have enough confidence in reality to be superconfident about anything. That’s my epistemology, but it’s OK for the newspaper to tell me that someone is capable of picking up a police cruiser and tossing it down the street? Or choking someone is just like some embrace at the airport, a send-off to your wife or father or mother or whatever? This is in the news section of the
New York Times
All the news that’s fit to print.
That’s really obnoxious and rhetorical. They make these outlandish characterizations of all people and races, flights of fancy that go above the realms of physics and act as justifications for going to war. They’re not only prepping it but cheerleading it and laying the groundwork. Not the kind of groundwork that a grunt or an infantryman does, but from a distance. My way of defending against this is the medium I work in, which includes cartoons and comics. Whether it’s hung in a frame in a museum or a gallery or tacked to a telephone pole or taped to the bedroom wall of some 15-year-old kid who hasn’t even gotten his first Black Flag tattoo or whatever. You can cut all of this stuff out of the interview if you’d like to.
No, I think it’s insightful, but I really want to know the story of how you got pulled into doing so much of Black Flag’s graphics.
My brother was in the band and ran the record company. The graphics for 45 records or flyers or whatever the case may be were usually just an afterthought, and I was the person who did those. I drew, you know, so it was nothing more than that.
Sandy Koufax is one of Raymond’s favorite baseball players. This illustration of him is almost life-size.
What about the Black Flag logo? It’s almost as ubiquitous as the McDonald’s logo in my mind. How did you come up with that?
If you gave an assignment to 100 illustrators to do a logo for a group named Black Flag, in the same context, as we know them, half would likely do almost exactly the same logo, except better. I don’t have any of the skills of a commercial artist. The height of the bars were never even. Most flags, if they’re illustrated, are waving lines.
Yours is rigid and imposing.
And it suggests movement and power, like pistons for instance. The name came from me as well. My politics are pretty far to the left and I’m not a colorist, or at least I wasn’t then at all. If I were I would have considered Red Flag, for aesthetic reasons as well for what it represents. Also, I want to be clear that Black Flag isn’t a reference to the ant spray.
Is there any reference to worshiping evil or anything like that? I’m not implying that you admire that idea, but maybe it’s some sort of commentary on the weirdness of flags and pledging allegiance to them?
No. A black flag is a symbol for anarchism, and that in and of itself instills ideas of fear, violence, chaos, and uproar into John Q. Citizen or Joe Public. And this is an example of when you blame the caricature to avoid the reality. Anarchism is about throwing bombs, which is not something I want. I don’t want to remake a new world from the ashes of the old. My politics come more from hardcore UCLA free-market economics. Peace and nonviolence. I’m not some right-wing or market fundamentalist. I’m not libertarian either. I’m for peaceful coexistence and not intervening in everyone else’s affairs—to have enough respect to let them grow on their own. I’m a realist. It’s like dogs. If you give them a longer leash their behavior will adjust to it, and civil society can do a lot better on its own without intervention. I could get away with mayhem, and the threat of jail has nothing to do with preventing me from doing something. I simply wouldn’t want to do it in the first place.
So you’re saying human nature is not inherently evil or violent?
It isn’t a perfect world. It’s never going to be, and I’m not perfect either. If I were confident that I could build some utopian society I would probably start here [
points to his drawings
]. As of now I’ve probably not done anything that’s near a success, not even a half-assed version of it. With Black Flag it was their dancing or their look, the volume and the primitive vows and hardness of their music. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of violence. That did come later, but it was from the media and the shock to the sensibility of mothers and fathers—their kid coming home with pink hair or something. Those kinds of things are very important to kids. They often play out transgressions and rebel against authority or their parents or their teachers. If you ignore it or look at it from some benign indifference or distance, they will tend to find some other way or grow out of it. So it became violent because the police were extremely violent. That’s the beginning and ending of that. If you use a group of people as a scapegoat then there’s going to be some kind of reaction. It was such an uneven playing field that the only reaction was to cower and defend yourself against the blows. For me, to be in a position to have to send these type of signals… I’m not completely against violence. I think people should be able to defend themselves, but even then one should think hard about physically retaliating. Usually nonviolence is a better way. Don’t give the media what they want. They’re usually the instigators, and the soldiers and the pigs will mop it all up afterward. Really, it’s about when your wiener doesn’t get hard.
When symbols are impotent of any real power and they’re symbolic and they’re playing with rebellion or whatever, then they are just empty logos. And even if a symbol does have real power behind it, it’s still just a badge of youthful revolt against baseball jerseys or button-downs or gray flannel suits or wingtips or bell-bottoms or whatever. At that point, it’s more than just a fashion statement, but fashion is nothing to be disdained either. I’ve never really thought of it in this way, but it is kind of cool to be the Gucci of my kind of work. I mean that in the
way that Gucci and all those type of trademarks can be cheaply copied and reproduced like my comic books or flyers. I don’t get any royalties from that. I haven’t got a cent from SST ever, and I don’t get any royalties from the tattoo trade. The tattoos are when it becomes an even more substantial brand because it’s stuck on someone permanently. And if someone wants it off, then the motherfucker has to go through even more pain to have it taken off than he did to put it on.
Do you have any tattoos?
I have this huge swastika on my back. I did three years at Pelican Bay. My cellmate did tattoos, and I showed him a picture of my girlfriend. I thought he was going to do her as this kind of angelic mother Mary with her legs spread, but you’re lucky to get a tattoo needle smuggled in or made there and he did what he wanted to do.
Why were you at Pelican Bay?
Copyright violation. When I finally saw the tattoo on the visor of one of the COs there, the reflection of it, I got really mad at my cellmate. But now I’m almost glad that I got the swastika, as abhorrent as anything to do with Hitler or Nazism is. The fact is that I’m in the business of making symbols and representations and stuff on paper. Ideas and drawings and illustrations can have consequences. As much as I despise that tattoo and as much as my girlfriend came to despise it, she turned out to be Hitler incarnate. So at least I was relieved that I didn’t have her image tattooed on me.
At this point Raymond was just shuffling through hundreds of old drawings by him and his relatives, all of which were great.