Born Darin Pappas, ITHAKA is a prolific, multifaceted Greek-American artist and surfer based in Los Angeles. Back in the day in the late ’80s, he was the photographer responsible for the first official publicity and record cover shoots for one of the most influential rap groups out there, N.W.A. In the right place at the right time, he was there when history was written.
Along with commercial and artistic photography, he has worked close with some of the most renowned artists of that era, making his body of work extensive, exciting, and covering fields like music, poetry, and sculpture (he’s even been called the “Godfather of contemporary surfboard art”). I had the chance to speak with him and hear him reflect on his time working with Eazy-E and Cube, eating Doritos with OE, and touch on his approach to inspiration, the grind, and creativity.
MANOS NOMIKOS: Hello Ithaka! How is it going? Where do we find you and what are you working on these days?
ITHAKA: Hey Manos, what’s up, man? At the moment, I’m in Santa Ana, California. I’m digitizing some of my archaic photo files, scanning and editing.
As with many of us old-school shooters, I was born at a very complicated time to be a photographer... half of my entire archive of images is still on negatives. It’ll take me a long, long while just to catch up with all of this. Kind of a pain in the ass, but it’s always fun to find gems you never even remembered shooting. This whole process has been forcing me to look at photographs individually and to relive moments of my past.
With the Straight Outta Compton biopic just recently ruling the box office, how do you feel about your work on the early official N.W.A photo shoots back in the day?
It was kind of an intense experience to see the flick. I was present in person in many of the scenes depicted in the movie—some of the tour dates, Eazy’s famous pool party, video shoots, etc. And I overheard many of the conversations that helped shape the script. Since I was observing their lives once every few months, I witnessed at a distance their increase in wealth, marriages, group separation, etc. The film seemed be as accurate as it could be. I mean, that’s the way I remember them, exactly. It’s a solid piece of cinema, well-deserving of some Oscar nominations.
An early N.W.A promo shot by Ithaka.
Did you have the feeling these guys were going to become so big and influential?
No, not really… not that big anyway—but I knew they were unique. At the time, I listened to radio KDAY daily and was a fan of N.W.A months before we ever did the first pictures. I was also working with a couple of other gangsta rap artists at that time and most of their music was just not that enjoyable to listen to—way too dark and depressing. I think what made N.W.A special is that as hard as it was sonically, the tracks were bombastic, upbeat with tons of energy and change-ups... and a lot of it was laced with humor. The mix of powerful lyrics, comedy, and slamming instrumentals made that shit what it is—absolutely timeless.
“THE BOYZ ROLLED UP IN EAZY’S GMC SAFARI VAN WITH CHROME WHEELS… WE HAD NACHO CHEESE DORITOS FOR LUNCH AND SOME OE. GOOD TIMES.”
How do you remember this shoot and how do you remember Eazy-E?
Eazy was cool as shit to me, always. A smart and funny individual. I worked for Priority records about eighteen or twenty times between 1988-1991, most of the shoots were of Eazy and N.W.A, and later Cube solo and N.W.A without Cube, etc. And also of Big Lady K and Low Profile.
But that first Miracle Mile shoot of N.W.A was fun as hell. It was a low-budget thing—all the sessions were—so we shot at my apartment. I lived near Fairfax and Wilshire at the time in a quiet, mostly old folks neighborhood known as Miracle Mile. And the boyz rolled up in Eazy’s GMC Safari van with chrome wheels, music blasting to distortion, and the neighbors were just horrified, especially my downstairs landlord. But fuck him anyway for raising my rent that month! [Laughs] Dj Speed was also there and Big Lady K. We had Nacho Cheese Doritos for lunch and some OE. Good times.
Where do you get your inspiration and how do you stay motivated?
Inspiration is a hard thing to fake; it’s obvious when people are just going through the motions. Example, a lackluster second record by a great band that had to mill out an album in only a year after using ten years of life as the basis for their first masterpiece. Their lives have changed; what do they have to fuel them now? Lunches with lawyers and record executives?
I try to make life choices that will give me fuel to create naturally. Change your path and the direction of your art will change automatically. I geographically change where I’m working several times a year just to break it up a bit and not to fall into too much of a specific routine, which can be death to creativity.
My principal stimulus these recent years is nature itself. Most big cities feel kind of the same to me at this point, but nature remains truly complex and always very different in every individual location.
I spend about six months of the year at my place in Brazil. It’s in the Atlantic Rainforest on the southern coast of the State of S~ao Paulo. I make my sculptures there and work on new music too, but I also do massive amounts of observation and wildlife photographs. Just looking and listening for hours at a time. I only have an acre property myself, but it’s in a large area of relatively untouched woodlands. I usually can’t hear or see any outside civilization from within the density of the forest, just birds and rain.
“I TRY TO MAKE LIFE CHOICES THAT WILL GIVE ME FUEL TO CREATE NATURALLY. CHANGE YOUR PATH AND THE DIRECTION OF YOUR ART WILL CHANGE AUTOMATICALLY.”
The immediate neighborhood of about 2000 acres, an area called AkahtiL^andia, is extremely rural. There is a native Guarani village just down the road, where many of the local residents literally live in mud and stick huts. There are several rivers and small mountains, exotic plants and birds and wild animals.
For the past five years, I’ve been occupied with a mutated version of the life I’ve known since my early twenties: making art and music—and surfing, but now part-time in a neo-tropical forest environment. One of the things that has really impressed me most about the jungle is the insect life. Visually, there’s no end to the variety. The colors and geometric forms are absolutely mind-blowing. To me, insects are living, cutting-edge, contemporary art forms. These last couple of years have been all about insects for me. Photographing them and creating insect-based reincarnated-surfboard sculptures inspired by actual living bugs that I observe in AkahtiL^andia.
A surfboard sculpture by Ithaka.
What does the future bring for Ithaka?
I have four principle artistic involvements that rotate in my life—writing, music, photography, sculpture—[and] which one of those that dominates any given year doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me planning on it. It just happens on its own.
I’ve been actively taking pictures since the age of five. I began my adult life primarily as a photographer. And although I never stopped shooting, I started getting involved in many other activities and photography kind of became a sideshow hobby. But in the end, my careers are my hobbies. The line between work and recreation is absolutely blurred in my life. To the point [where] I’m not even sure if I’m on vacation or working.
The few things that have actually been lucrative in my life, I’ve created out of curiosity in my free time, while the things I’ve tried to earn money from have been, for the most part, complete washouts. Lately I’ve been back shooting professionally again—and it feels pretty damn good. I guess one of the benefits of having four different means to express myself is, that I don’t ever have that absolute burnout where I’ll become unproductive, I’ll just switch to the next thing for a while.
I rarely have the sensation that I have as much experience at these four mediums that I actually have: photography 40 years, sculpting 25 years, writing 20 years, music 20 years. They always feel comfortable, but I’m little new too. I don’t feel prisoner of my own self and what I’ve created in the past. Just keep going with new juice.