Old 1990s farts like yours truly are plain annoying. If you listen to (most of) them, their decade was the epitome of provocative skateboard graphics, blah blah blah Sean Cliver, blah blah blah Marc McKee, blah blah blah Todd Francis. And then, every now and then, they will actually, briefly, shut up when a newcomer is deemed good enough to meet their ridiculously high standards. Originally hailing from Connecticut, Brian Romero is one of these dudes.
Mainly known for his amazing, and gnarly, and perfectly executed graphic work with Deathwish Skateboards, he’s also done stuff for Hustle, Vol. 4, Stepchild Snowboards, Burton, and even The House of Blues. Not bad considering that the advertising world and its mundane, innocuous bullshit commissions almost ate him alive... “When he sent his first drawing to Deathwish,” his brother-in-law, Kingswell skateshop owner DJ Chavez remembers, “he was used to being told, ‘That’s a little too gnarly.’ Upon reviewing his stuff, Erik Ellington was, like, ‘It needs to be fucking gnarlier.’ So I called Brian and said, ‘You need more weed, and more blood, and more death.’ He was like, ‘Really?!’ He was so stoked. That was my favorite phone call, ever, to him. ‘Do exactly what your fucked up brain is gonna do.'”
Taking a look at his body of work since, there’s no doubt that the fucked up brain in question has been running freely ever since. From Mr. Romero’s house tucked in an Echo Park dead end, adorned with the mandatory Firebird, we discussed Mad Men wannabes, greatest hits and misses, and the FBI being really into his work.
Some of Brian Romero’s own favorite boards.
SEB CARAYOL: You were sort of a late bloomer as far as drawing skate graphics - what led you to where you are at today?
BRIAN ROMERO: From 1993 to 1995, I went to School of Visual Arts in New York, and I kinda never left. Even during the summer breaks I’d stay and take classes. I wasn’t leaving. I thought I’d live there for ever. But after school, I kinda got into working in the whole first dot com wave stuff, and I got into doing web design, even though I went to school for illustration. I learned a lot about graphic design, because I didn’t want some designer to draw over my stuff. I didn’t want somebody to put some ugly typography on my art work! It’s kinda become a big part of what I do - custom typography.
Anyway, before my senior year, one of my friends was starting a company, so I ended up working with them. They did everything, web design, I did book covers with them, I programmed things - until programming got too complicated. I did that for a while, then got into the ad agency thing. I was doing websites for clients like Playboy, Jose Cuervo, and Verizon.
Was it like in Mad Men?
I mean, it was similar to that in many ways. It’s just weird because it’s all about money and they don’t care about your clever ideas. I’ve seen tons of people laid off just because they had been here the longest so they made the most money, and my attitude got really bad, and I eventually got laid off purely for my attitude. It’s kinda like that movie Office Space, where I kinda stopped giving a shit. When we had creative pitches, I would go first, present my stuff and just leave, not asking if I could leave. I’d just do it.
I ended up being laid off in 2003, around there. It was exciting. I was, like, you know what? I love to draw cartoons and illustration, I’m gonna have to find a way to make this work as my living. I also got tired to live in Brooklyn and pay $2200 a month for a single brownstone bedroom. So we just flew out to LA. My stepsister Stephanie lives here, she introduced me to DJ Chavez (current owner of Kingswell skateshop) who was working for Baker/Deathwish Skateboards at the time.
“IT’S A WEIRD POWER TO USE A PIECE OF PAPER AND PENCIL AND PISS PEOPLE OFF WITH IT.”
A graphic Brian Romero did for Nuge’s Vol. 4
I grew up skateboarding but I sort of quit through art school. But coming here got me reintroduced to it, and once DJ saw that I could draw stuff, he was like, “Oh, I want you to draw a board for me,” since he had this guest model with Jamie Hustle’s company, Hustle Skateboards. He came up with the idea - a verbatim of what he wanted: “The Virgin Mary with the little baphomet.” So DJ was friends with Lizard King and Nuge and those guys, and they saw the stuff and I liked it. I ended up doing some sketches for Lizard first, that kind of Ren and Stimpy-looking board. That was late 2007-2008. Funnily, I did actually work with the guy who created Ren and Stimpy, helping him out on some web commercials he was doing, and toy packaging.
You are mainly known for your work with the Baker Boys/Deathwish camp.
I was looking to get back full-time to drawing, and DJ really pitched me to them, like, “Brian can draw whatever you want him to, he doesn’t just do cartoony stuff.” That’s when they took me on board full-time, I was there full-time for about five years, now I’m also freelancing.
It wasn’t until I got to Deathwish that I started to switch over to doing things traditionally again, drawing, inking and using the computer just to color things. I liked having actual artwork when I was done, computer stuff is kind of a dead end, you can’t sell it, you don’t have anything to show.
Brian’s Spring 2015 designs for Baker.
Was it intimidating at Baker Boys?
I understood that part, but to me - I like this kind of people. Rock’n’roll and skateboarding, all the stuff that I’m into is always kind of people that have a more aggressive personality, and I like that. When you meet these people, it’s only one side of their personality - you won’t see that side of them. Especially with musicians and skaters, when they’re doing their thing it’s kind of a performance, you know what I mean? It’s very different thing than who they are when you just hang out and talk to them.
You have to have a crazy Jim Greco story.
I don’t have any super crazy story. He and I never got a problem getting along. Only the first meeting was weird because I had never met him before, and he was still in that Johnny Thunders phase with his hair kinda teased out, dark sunglasses, super skinny jeans, leather jacket and striped shirt. He didn’t really say much, he was just sitting there at the far end of the table, and Erik Ellington was the one who was more warm personality, and Jim was just assessing the situation. He may have had sunglasses too, so I had no idea what was going on in his brain. It took time to get to know him, but it’s easy for me to work with him. I know stuff he’ll be into.
When we were doing the Garbage Pail Kids stuff, I did a bunch of drawings he was into, so he ended up wanting another one to come out later on. I can relate to him on a musician level too, he’s really big into music and a lot of same bands that I’m into. We’re also from Connecticut. It’s funny cause he was at a lot same shows I was at, at the same time, but I didn’t know who he was.
Did you get any cease-and-desist letters for your work?
Yeah, we’ve had some of those. The pro wrestling series we did. A lot of us grew up in the late ’80s or ’90s and that was part of our childhood. And it’s funny ’cause it wasn’t even the WWF that sued us, it was actually individual wrestlers, their management, who contacted Deathwish. All in all, though, we don’t really get cease and desists because the boards are out for such a short time. And also, Deathwish is still small enough for no one to say anything.
How about graphics rejected without being printed?
Yeah, a bunch of stuff I did didn’t make it. One was of a cop laying on the ground, being attacked by pit bulls and Rottweiler’s tearing him apart.
Sounds like the one Todd Francis did in the 1990s for Antihero.
Yeah, it could have been ’cause it was something similar that had already been done, or maybe it was too gory. There was also this unreleased series that was paying tribute to a legendary costumed rock ‘n roll band from the 1970s that never made it to production. I think it was considered a bit too silly, probably.
Do a lot of people want to buy original art from you, as is the case for “older” artists such as Sean Cliver or Marc McKee?
I have sold a few pieces, but people always want the Deathwish stuff - and I don’t own it. People like the Alice in Wonderland series. I see people buying the boards to skate them on Instagram but I wanna tell them to hold on to theirs ’cause they’re worth a bit of money now. They’re all gone.
The first board you did for Deathwish - did you send them this idea?
They just said, “We want Antwuan as Black Santa.” Cool. I did the sketch, they wanted his outfit more prison-style, but it was my idea to add all the design elements and the pose and a lot of the details. It’s one of my own favorites because it’s one of my early ones, and it’s not a parody of something already existing. This turned out into us doing a Christmas board every year, and every year they’re gnarlier. We had The Grinch decapitating Santa Claus, Snowman all drunk in the street...
What makes you want a graphic that’s gonna piss off some people?
That’s part of the appeal of doing stuff for skateboarding. I’ve always been this rebellious nature, and enjoyed making pictures that upset people. It’s a weird power to have to use a piece of paper and pencil and piss people off with it.
In high school I had friends who would draw, and we’d always try to outdo each other. One of my friends in his first high school Spanish class - you’re supposed to make a physical calendar with all these Spanish holidays, so he just cut out old issues of Fangoria, everything was… he was in huge trouble. They wanted to have him see a psychologist for doing that.
Who are your influences?
I grew up basically watching these old Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny cartoons and stuff, and Popeye and Betty Boop, and superhero cartoons. These main dudes, like Steve Ditco and some ’90s guys, Frank Miller. For skateboarding, it’s Jim Phillips and VC Johnson, especially Jim Phillips, ’cause those were the boards, as a kid, that I remember the most - skulls, slime balls, blood and guts.
Who are some of the new skate artists you like?
Fos, Matt French, Aye Jaye. They’re the ones I know the most because we communicate lot.
What would you not do?
I don’t know, ’cause to me the more outrageous the better, and I’d like to do more work like that.
How about a bunch of Mohammed caricatures?
That’s definitely something I’d think twice about, because those guys are crazy, they will find you anywhere in the world.
On the same range of ideas, it’s actually interesting ’cause I did this zero dollar bill artwork, where I basically re-did the dollar bill, it’s anti-corporate, anti-banking, it had Porky Pig in the middle. When I posted that on my blog, I looked at my stats, and within 24 hours it had been passed around the FBI, the CIA, you could see the servers, who’s looking at your stuff. That was another moment where I was, like, wow. It ended up on some Pocket Pistol stuff.