Interview: Ben Brown and The Cult Art of Music n Surf

The work of illustrator and artist Ben Brown is loaded with pop culture iconography that has been given a trademark BB makeover. Be it Jack White with a flesh-eating disease, a zombified Elvis or Kelly Slater as Beelzebub complete with horns and tail, it is obvious Ben is having fun with what he does. This light-hearted humour that Ben applies to his work has not only been commissioned by every cool rock band to come to town in the last 20 years but it has also been a big part of the visual history of the surf and skate industry.

As Ben claims, “My work never has any underlying message.” So no matter how hard you study his deft pen and ink illustrations, they claim no deep hidden meanings, no references to secret texts, underground religions or satanic cults. You’ll have to look to Disney for that.

CW: What was life like for an artist like yourself before the digital age? How has the computer changed how you work? Can you describe your process?

BB: I started working for screen-printing companies in Brookvale when I was teenager – in the art department – so I was working with bromide cameras, rubylith, scalpels and Letraset. It was great to have access to all that stuff – because it wasn’t the sort of thing you had at home.

But within a few years computers came along and gradually changed the entire process – for the better. Pretty much anyone can use a computer and they are (reasonably) affordable. I think with computers you can be a lot more flexible and try different things. You can save different versions along the way, which gives you free reign to try idiotic things that may wreck your original art.

My process is generally pretty straight forward…I draw the image on paper with ink – brush and pen – then scan it into the computer where I can edit and fix up the original drawing, before colouring and finishing it in a variety of ways and styles that a computer allows.

Your work makes blatant references to the work of Big Daddy Roth, Kustom Kulture from the 50s and 60s and the like. Who else has influenced your style over the years? And what would you say catches your eye/imagination when you look the work of other artists? Do you ever feel a tad guilty borrowing or is it something you do as homage-paying?

Yes, my work references a lot of obvious styles that have influenced me since I was a little kid. I first saw Big Daddy Roth’s stuff on bubble gum cards as a kid – and always loved it. I have a brother who is five years older and I was exposed to a lot of that Californian surf and Kustom Kulture through his surf mags, music and stuff. So when I came back to it when I was older it had a familiar feel. I always loved the rock posters and underground comics of the era too.

As well as the above, I have been influenced by similar iconic Australian surf and rock culture – Captain Goodvibes to underground punk rock posters and the like. The punk rock/ skateboarding culture of the 1980’s – 90’s has influenced a lot of my work.

I have a pathetic skull fetish that I just can’t shake. I am influenced mostly by pop culture in general. My work never has any underlying message. I am motivated by things that are funny, stupid, ironic – not taking anything too seriously – it’s the fun of the moment, whether you are surfing, skateboarding, playing music – these are just fun things – something to do.

I never feel guilty borrowing styles. To me, it is clear that a particular piece of art is referencing Big Daddy Roth or whoever because it so iconic. It’s like playing music in a particular style. You may have an idea and you will think, “Oh, I’m going to draw it as a gnarly Roth monster – or play it loud and fast like Black Flag or The Hard Ons” and then somewhere along the way it also gets your imprint on it.

Outside of surfing, music (as a whole) is a great patron of your art. Who are your favourite bands/musicians to create imagery for? Do you listen to their stuff while you draw or come up with ideas? Have you or would you illustrate for a band you thought were shithouse even if they commissioned you?

Music is broad. I have lots of favourites. I’ve done posters for Nirvana, Silverchair, Swervedriver, Pearl Jam, Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Frenzal Rhomb, The Hard Ons, The Rollins Band, Hoodoo Gurus, Redd Kross… and so many others. I have seen all the bands I just listed play phenomenal live shows… just blow you away.

So I have a real respect for groups of people that can create something so full on right there in front of you. It’s very immediate; more so than visual art.

I will listen to the music of a band I am working for while I am working on their art – I think there is a particular feel you want to try and capture.

I suppose I would work for a band that I thought were crap if the budget was there – this is also my job. I have done a lot of work for major labels and big mainstream pop stars I might not necessarily like. It just doesn’t look like I did it and I don’t put my name on it (ha).

There is a heavy note of satire in some of your work. What do you enjoy about taking the piss?

I think I said it earlier sort of… The kind of work I do is not going to change the world – it is funny to take the piss, as long as it’s not offensive. It’s easy for some people to fall into the trap of being sexist, racist and just plain nasty when they think they are being funny. A good joke is fun. The more you think about it and the better you can execute it, is the trick.

Although having said all that, in my time I have drawn my fair share of big boobed vixens, and I know some people find my work hideous to look at and don’t get it… but you know… nothing seriously fucked up.

Also when I was doing comic strips for Stab Magazine they could be pretty brutal, and I know they upset a lot of people, so it can be a very fine line between satire and being a dickhead…

Do you have the bad habit of looking at people and imagining what they look like without skin?

Kind of… I love iconic images that are so burned into the psyche of popular culture that you can take them and completely strip them back or turn them into zombies but it is still clear who or what that image is. But I wouldn’t sit and have a coffee with you and imagine you as a skeleton…

Your wife Yani is a badass pilot! Can you tell us a bit about her and what she does?

Yes, she was a long haul hostie for many years and is now a pilot for Qantas. She began flying about fifteen years ago, and gradually worked her way through different levels of pilot work, like an instructor, an overnight freight pilot, etc. All the while keeping her cabin crew job working part time and then about two years ago made the switch from long haul international cabin crew to regional pilot.

We have two boys at school too, so her work now means she is only away about one night a week, as opposed to going to London for 14 days, so that has worked out very well. She used to stay in 5 star accommodations with a few days in exotic locales but now she is overnight to Dubbo or Albury, but luckily for us fellas she is home most nights for dinner!

What are some current projects you are most excited about?

I have done some work recently with Hurley, Mambo, Surf Dive & Ski, Afends, Volcom… lots of surf and skate related stuff, which is fun.

Late last year I was a grand finalist (unfortunately not a winner!!) in Secret Walls, which is a live art competition. That was great fun. You paint live against another artist in front of 500 people in a club with 90 minutes to create something large scale. That has led to a bit of work creating art at events, parties, murals and what not; which I never did before Secret Walls.

I show work in a lot of group exhibitions on a regular basis – but I am keen to create some new major works for a solo show. I have not done a solo show for about eighteen months, and really enjoy doing that.

In general, I’m just working away on commercial commissions and paying the bills. Luckily for me it is mostly fun.


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