Skinner: The Artist Behind MASTODON's Trippy New Artwork Reveals All
Yesterday, we revealed the incredible artwork for Mastodon's next release Once More 'Round The Sun. Today, we bring you an exclusive interview with the artist behind the surreal artwork, known only as Skinner.
My name is Michael Weigman, and welcome to the Artists In Metal column. Here we will focus on Metal music, and the visual arts. Here you’ll find interviews, reviews, and spotlights on people in the fine art world and learn about their connections to METAL!
For this first interview we are checking out the insane artist Skinner! The man has a love for the bizarre and in his work you’ll see massive monster battles, links to the occult, crazy ass colors, and intense subjects that link to metal music. Not only is he an established gallery artist, but he’s also worked for bands like High on Fire, Kvelertak, Skeletonwitch, Holy Grail, and most recently Mastodon! He runs he own apparel company called Critical Hit, where you can buy prints, brutal toys, and crazy shirts featuring his handy work!
He recently completed the Mastodon album art, so he’s already on fire this year! In this interview we talk about how he got his start as an artist, his love for obscure music, how he feels about the current state of commission work for bands, and much more…
MICHAEL: Let’s start with the basic opener, what event or events in your life made you want to become a visual artist?
SKINNER: I would say it all started when I was four or five. I remember the very first time I tried to draw something, I was in Pre School and I tried to draw Hulk Hogan’s arms. I remember I was like, “Oh I’ll just do some circles, like balloons.” and I remember being fascinated by watching parades on TV where you would see Master of the Universe and all this stuff, because back then in the 80’s you had Conan, Beast Master and all of this crazy shit. There was just this new excitement about the bizarre and the fantastic in pop culture at that time and it drew me in visually.
I remember my mom had this office job working for a gynecologist, and back then computer paper was all connected and could fold out, so as a kid I could pull out six or seven pieces of paper all at once and just draw these massive monster battles. They would all attack each other over seven pages and my mind was on fire! I would then tape up these violent primitive illustrations all over this gynecologist’s office, and they would then let me have them up for a day. My mom kept a lot of them and in my book that came out a few years ago, Skinner: Every Man Is My Enemy, has some of these old drawings in it, so people can see that I’ve been insane for many years!
MICHAEL: That’s great! It really shows that launching point for what you do visually now, which still seems rooted in the 80’s style.
SKINNER: It’s funny, one time I showed my friends when they came up to my moms house years ago, and they were like, “Dude you’ve been doing this shit for so long!” But honestly now it’s even worse. When you’re a kid that’s the most raw/real artwork you’ll probably ever make, and for the rest of your life you’re trying to maintain that love. That’s why now I continue to experiment to get more bizarre, trying to make up my own myths, study the occult, 70’s artists, and I’m still worshiping the same inspirations, it’s just now everything I do is with expensive brushes.
MICHAEL: Massive paintings and huge murals to show your insanity on a grand scale!
SKINNER: Or making a horrible toy I wish I had!
MICHAEL: So would you say your drive as an artist, is to please that inner child? Things you just wanted to see? I feel your toys are a good example of this.
SKINNER: Yes absolutely! Basically every toy that I design is in some way something I would have wanted. Like I did this giant elephant warrior biker guy, and it was based on my favorite M.U.S.C.L.E. toy from when I was little, The Mammoth Man, so I just did my own evil version. All my paintings have these elements of youth too, my only problem is separating myself, because when I was young there was no such thing as external influences, besides what I loved. So it’s all preservation now. For me finishing a painting and knowing NOBODY IS GOING TO WANT TO BUY THIS, is when I know what I’ve done is good.
MICHAEL: Does heavy metal music play a role in your artwork?
SKINNER: Absolutely, I think heavy metal music, in the traditional sense, always has some connection to imagery.
A lot of bands are starting to make those connections with the visual artists now, which is great, but sometimes these two processes are marginalized by record labels, and it becomes too business oriented. Back in the day there was a lot more money you could spend on album art, but now it’s sort of like “What if we just Photoshop a picture of a scary church, we could get someone to do that for $100.”
MICHAEL: So when you do work for bands, do you want them to give you some ideas and the music, and then leave it up to you to make the visuals?
SKINNER: It’s so hard doing artwork for a band with their being typically four or five dudes in it, and they all generally want something different. That’s why I don’t really do that much for bands anymore. I just don’t want to deal with the politics of it. For bands its best when they all throw down a bunch of ideas before hand, and then give that to the artist, and not to ask for twenty changes after the drawing is finished, because normally we aren’t getting paid that much anyway.
MICHAEL: What got you into the scene of doing art in this skateboard/metal culture?
SKINNER: I had some friends that were skateboarders that lived in Sacramento, my friend Judd Hertzler got me to do a design for the company Creature, who I then worked closely with.
The thing that really got it started though is when I quit my job, I was teaching art for people with developmental disabilities in 2008, by that time I had done some art shows, and my friend Hal Rotter, an artist who runs Rotting Graphics and plays in the insane death metal band Plague Widow, came in and started helping me out with my website, getting it together with mocking up shirts, mocking up album art, and skateboard designs and a bunch of other stuff. At this point I decided that I was going to do it for real, and become a full time artist. Normally I’m just an instillation weirdo guy with big nightmare paintings, but to apply it to all the design elements of shirts, albums, and stuff like that, I really needed his backing. Hal continues to help me today and since then I’ve worked with bands like Skeletonwitch, High on Fire, Kvelertak. From they’re on out it just started to grow, and I would just constantly be working at unhealthy levels. That’s what you have to do when you quit your job, because nobody is going to come to save you when it gets bad.
MICHAEL:You also have done some charity work. Do you find that’s important to do as an established artist?
SKINNER: Yes, I take time to work for organizations like PangeaSeed, who are group trying to stop shark finning, and I also do stuff for Keep A Breast Foundation, who work on breast cancer research. While I’m not rich or anything I’m comfortable enough that I feel I should spend some time to give back to all these things I care about. I can’t just sit in my room in the dark and listen to Smiths records like I was in the seventh grade, and cry about the world. I HAVE TO GET OUT THERE AND KICK ASS AND DO SOMETHING POSITIVE!
MICHAEL: What is your typical day like in the studio? What type of tunes are you jamming to etc?
SKINNER: First I get my coffee before I walk in, then I typically do paperwork, contracts etc. For the most part after that I’m organizing all that I plan to do and just executing it from there.
When it comes to the music, I’m a weirdly obsessive person. For instance one week I will ONLY listen to Faith No More, next week Van Halen ONLY for that entire week. I also go on Youtube and look for weird music compilations some trippy nerd created, like all weird Led Zepplin or Frank Zappa tunes. I’m also really into Uncle Acid & The Dead Beats right now; I got that band from Youtube video suggestions. Youtube is like MySpace back in the day when you’d click on somebody, then click on a hot girl on their friends list, then click on that on other stuff, then all of a sudden your on a white power website.
It was cool when I was working on the Mastodon album art, my studio mate Frank Kozik (former owner of Man’s Ruin Records) was playing the Lord of the Rings appendices, so we would be learning all about the behind the scenes Lord of the Rings stuff, and a making stuff.
MICHAEL: Guess this leads to the obvious follow up, could you tell us a bit about the work you did for Mastodon?
SKINNER: It’s a four-panel pull out giant bizarre painting that encapsulates life and death. When Brann (from Mastodon) was talking to me about doing it I was really nervous, because to be perfectly honest I really didn’t believe in myself. I ended up staying with him during Halloween last year, and when we were hanging out he said, “I think you should do the artwork for this album,” and I was blown away, so my response was, “are you sure that’s best for the project?”
MICHAEL: Way to plug yourself.
SKINNER: Funny right? You get the gig of the year and you think “I don’t know if I’m that good.” In a way I think all my favorite artists are kind of insecure too.
Brann was pretty interesting when he told me what he wanted. The thing with him is he’s a very nonchalant guy, but will randomly say the most epic funny shit. So he said to me “I don’t know man, I was thinking sort of like the sun, or like a symbol of the sun, or like a beast representing the sun, and he’s all made of this organic stuff that represents life and the universe and it sort of moves and shifts and changes until it becomes death and the end of all things, ya know?” And I’m on the inside just freaking out, “HOLY SHIT, HOW THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO THAT!?” But on the outside I said, “Okay cool man, sounds good, no problem.”
The weird thing is a lot of artists need that person to really believe and push them, and with this project I needed that person, and it was Brann. It’s cool to have people be supportive that way, and in the end this Mastodon album cover has to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
MICHAEL: What was it like working on it?
SKINNER: When I was working on it I was sitting listening to the new Mastodon, painting this insane shit, staying in touch with Brann, sending him photos and seeing if he likes it, I’m listening to the Lord of the Rings appendices I’m just chilling. It was the happiest time I’ve had in the studio, so much so I canceled some travel events just so I could work on it, and just be mellow and zen out.
I got it scanned by the people who used to do a lot of work for Lucas Film. They were like “Oh yeah this is pretty cool.” But they were not blown away, while I was all proud of what I’d done, but honestly they had already seen every great film poster ever made by Drew Struzan, so its kind of hard to compete with that, but the did make me a latte. It was strong too.
MICHAEL: Would you say the resurgence of vinyl has helped visual artists get more opportunities, since album art on vinyl record releases makes design more critical?
SKINNER: Vinyl I feel is the true testament to the full album experience, making the consumer more involved both musically and visually. I would say that the resurgence of vinyl is helping the importance of visual artists, and the need for good album art.
When it comes to more work though, honestly how many artists besides an Arik Roper are just doing album art? They used to back in the day have offices full of illustrators, but now its like maybe a guy in front of his computer, in illustrator making an evil goat.
MICHAEL: It seems that individual artist need to start really hustling to find jobs, since illustration firms aren’t common. Would you say when you started working with bands that you did some free work to get out there, or was it all paid from the start?
SKINNER: I would say for me things were a little unorthodox, because I had already gained a reputation as a gallery artist. Overall I don’t think I had the same sort of struggle most artists have, and I’m not the kind of person who would do anything for free, unless I love you as a person or love your band. I know a lot of artists have to eat shit, and everyone does, but one thing that is a huge issue with artists that work for bands is they make their prices really low, and that all of a sudden becomes the standard. A lot of artists are crappy versions of other artists, so most poor bands will spend their money on them, rather than looking for a good tee shirt or album artist. What’s a really good artist suppose to do in those circumstances? How are they suppose to compete doing design work for bands? Collectively all artist need to come together and agree to not undercut ourselves and each other by making a design $150, when in reality at the lowest it should be is $300 or more. I typically charge insane prices for my design work, because I want to work on my own things. If you want me to stop me from doing what I love, you’re going to have to pay a lot.
I think the Internet has also changed things, since a lot of people post some drawings and think they can make it, when in reality you have to hone your craft for many years. I’m glad they want to make art don’t get me wrong, but they are fucking up the standards by doing something for free, emulating an artist they like, not taking the time to develop their own style, not taking the time to respect what their doing.
MICHAEL: With all this stuff you’re doing, is it hard to find time to work on your personal work, or even work on developing your process for that matter?
SKINNER: That’s something I’ve been working on in the last year. Getting to a place where I can just do my own thing. The Mastodon cover was a real cathartic thing for me because I was allowed to do what I wanted, and it felt really good. I get to do a lot of what I want commission wise because I’m so selective, but I still have personal art shows planned for the future. I have a two person show in New York at the Cotton Candy Machine with Arik Roper that’s going to be sweet, and in the Philippians a year from now I have another big show, so I’m going to have to find time for myself soon!
Ultimately much of what I do is on my own terms, but it’s still hard to keep up with everything.
MICHAEL: It is good to be busy, but it has its drawbacks for sure. It’s good that you have the ability to be selective now due to all your hard work.
SKINNER: My fear is that I’ll be known as just some commission work guy, which is ironic. People approach me because they really like my work, but somewhere along the way I just got so many jobs and so many things I wanted to try. Saying no to money seems like a ridiculous thing to do in this age, but I would encourage all artists to sometimes turn down the money to give to themselves the time to make art, because it’s the most fulfilling thing in the world when you do something for yourself. My favorite artists change and develop style wise every six months, you can see the change, and you can tell they are really taking the time to dig deep. People who are like “I liked how you used to paint.” Well that already happened, I had to move on.
You can purchase Skinner’s work and apparel at his company Critical Hit’s website www.shopcriticalhit.com