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Frank Kozik | interview | artist | Lollipop
An Interview with Frank Kozik
by Jaime Kiffel
Followed by a paper trail of hot pink woodland creatures maniacally grinning, four-armed Campbells soup kids playing with weapons, and legions of fluffy, smoking bunnies in military formation, poster artist Frank Kozik has told journalists for years that there is no "source" for his inspiration. Andy Warhol, 1960s psychedelia, and the phrase "post-modern" raise exasperated sighs in the San Francisco artist. But late one Thursday night, Jamie Kiffel gleaned some more insight into what makes Frank Kozik tick... and where and when his inner time bomb will explode next.
[I'd been trying to reach Kozik for days. He'd either been too busy or ignoring my emails. Finally, I wrote that I was his own personal demon, and would be faithfully troubling him until I got my interview. That evening, my phone rang.]
(Scrambling to turn on my computer, launch a word processing program and yet keep up banter before he says anything I don't want to miss) Oh, it's great to hear from you! I didn't expect to get a call so late... [Witless banter here.]
[I try not to panic.]
This is embarrassing, but I don't know much about your background. Maybe you could tell me a few...
(Suddenly talking faster than a faucet sans aerator) I first started doing stuff back in Texas. There was a really good punk rock scene there, back in 1981. I did mail art...
What's mail art?
Mail art was a movement in the early '80s, kind of like how the zine thing took off... People sent weird shit to each other. Organically, one step at a time, it got bigger and bigger. I was in the military when I started doing this stuff. I got placed there, lived downtown, and ran across my first punk rockers. I was just hanging around, and started doing street flyers for no reason, flyers for bands, clubs.
The scene really took off. Touring bands started coming through, and so I started doing posters for touring bands. I wasn't an artist at all. I just liked punk rock. I moved out here [to San Francisco] in '94.
The label [Man's Ruin, the label Kozik launched in 1995] exploded. It got too big to handle. So now we've shut everything down. I've decided to slow way the fuck down and just work out of the house. I'm burned out. I mean, for the past five years I've been trying to do all these shows, do this label... the whole thing kind of collapsed. Now I'm just gonna kick back, do the occasional commissioned job, make some extra money, and kind of just relax.
I have a third book coming out: an E-book that'll come out for Christmas. This new book is most of the good stuff I've done in the last, say, four years. It's called Empty Pleasures and Desperate Measures. The next book is going to be weirder. I'm gonna actually sit down and illustrate, attempt to synthesize all the crap I've been doing for the past ten years. So altogether, I'm gonna do this weird book project, a set of tattoo flash, and a bunch of paintings. So I'm kind of stepping back, shutting down the business, and doing the art thing again.
Speaking of your art. I know people have asked if it comes from pop art or...
[Exasperated, implying that everyone who's ever lived asks him about his inspiration] Oh, God...
I just want to know... When I see someone drawing severed bunnies or fanged animals, that's a signal that something's going on. What's this about, to you?
It's everything. It's stuff that I admire from all different eras. It's a lot of comic book stuff, stuff I just see, stuff I read about... weird, stupid jokes to myself. I used to get really analytical. I used to really think about the bands. But now, it's just something that vibes with [the band]... it isn't really a picture of them. There isn't a real point to what I do. I don't think about it a whole lot. There's never been a real cohesive plan. I don't have a really big personal connection to it. I do that "X" amount of hours a day. The rest of my life has nothing to do with it. I write for biker mags.
Yeah. I'm really into Harleys. I write for outlaw biker mags and hang out with bikers. I have this military truck that I've restored, and I hang out with these outlaw military people. I read a lot. I'm fairly anti-social, and I tend to spend a lot of time by myself. I'm gettin' too old for the scene. Having gone through, like, five generations of punk rock in the last 20 years, it's like I've seen it before, understand what it is, and now, I'm too old to get excited about it anymore.
My attempt with Man's Ruin was that there were a lot of really killer bands who never got anywhere. The label was my attempt to turn people on to those bands. Financially, it was a disaster. The record-buying market is, unless you have a one-hit wonder... I lost, personally, over half a million dollars.
Half a million?
Personally. My money. I'm pretty well-paid, but my label just totally collapsed. There's gonna be a lot of bad feelings, but I did give it my all. We put out some good records. I'm definitely out of it. A lot of good bands happened, and a new scene popped up. Most of it was non-political.
I've heard people say you are political.
My politics are personal. I'm not left or right, I'm a mixture of both. As far as social and mental freedom, I'm insanely left-wing. I mean, you should be able to do whatever you want. You should be allowed to walk around with a flame shooting out of your ass. But when it comes to money and crime and responsibility, I'm really right-wing. I'm not into imposing my ideas on others. Out here, it's ultra-left-wing idiots... They got some Commie fuckin' trip which does not work.
I have no interest in politics. My political interests are personal. I keep my politics to myself, and unfortunately, the music scene is intensely political, and I have no interest in getting involved in that. Politically, what really works is money. The only thing that matters in America is money. If you have it, you're okay; if you don't, you're fucked. See, I'm Spanish. Now, we had politics. My family was divided by civil war, we killed each other. Politics in America... it's a corporate state, and if you're smart enough to take advantage of that, you're a rich guy, and otherwise, you're gonna lose and you can stand on the corner all day long and it won't make a difference. If you want to change the system, you gotta do something about it.
To me, music and punk rock was about not dealing with any of that. It was about hedonism, getting drunk, getting high, getting laid, getting in fights, and having a really good time. It wasn't all these rules. Bullshit. Rock and roll and punk rock exist so you can get rid of that shit so you can be a fucking caveman. That highly polemicized idea is fucking silly. Go be a lawyer, don't get into entertainment.
You say you have no interest in politics, but what about the Russian military poster style you've adapted?
I'm turning it on its head. I'm taking this absurdist style, and applying it to the opposite of what it is. Plus, social realism is visually appealing. There's a certain interesting morbidity to it. And I'm half-Russian. It's interesting-looking stuff. I collect it.
I'm really interested in poster design in general. For a long time, the poster was the perfect medium accessible to every level of society. You didn't have to have any degree of education to understand it. A street poster is meant to speak to everyone. That's why there are so many different styles. What interests me is: Is it an appealing style? Will people stop and look at it? Is it visually stimulating for "X" amount of time? If not, it's a failure. Often, the most successful designs are total shit [in terms of artistic merit].
Do you have any favorites that you've done?
No favorites. I don't even know if I have a complete collection. Once they're done, I don't want to deal with them anymore.
So you just figure out what works by what looks good together, or what images strike a reactive chord in you?
It's pretty simple. I started off Xeroxing shit, so [what I do now is] an evolution of that. I was originally like a collage artist. I like taking existing images and tweaking them. I hesitate calling myself an artist. I consider what I do graphics or design.
I looked at the Man's Ruin site (www.mansruin.com) and noticed that the poster prices are very affordable.
My deal always was that if I'm trying to sell a poster, I've gotta figure that the average person buying it is someone who's into that band. They've gotta make a decision: Am I gonna buy a T-shirt or a poster? I make the retail price the same as a CD or T-shirt so that they're accessible to people interested in that band, kids who are college age and don't have a lot of dough. The collectors' market is really small. There are about a hundred collectors who will pay $150 or $200 for a poster. I try to get my work into the hands of someone who's into really the band. Maybe they've got $20 to blow, not $150. The posters have lost money, but they've led to good commercial work. Collectors complain that I've done too many posters, so they can't jack up the prices.
So that's your way of keeping some control over who buys your stuff?
When I started doing posters, I didn't have any money. Some of my early posters are selling for like a thousand, because it's a really cool band and we didn't make a lot of 'em. But when they were new, they were only $10 or $20. So I always try to make them financially accessible to what I imagine the market is, which is college-aged males, about 80% of the time.
In ten years, when they all get to be my age, the posters will get to be really expensive, because all these punk rockers will have grown up and gotten good jobs.
I saw a show with your stuff in Jersey City; it was quite expensive, all under glass.
There's always been this bizarrro after-market which I've never dealt with. Occasionally, a collector guy will come around and I'll say, here's a Pearl Jam from '92, and he'll give me $500, but I really just love doing the posters. I probably won't be able to do them anymore now because I had to shut down the whole shop. So there might not be many more. I'll still do offset stuff for people.
I need to sort of re-evaluate on a personal level. I'm gonna do this book. It's not gonna have a story or anything, just be all visual. I've always wanted to write like a history of the scene, so this is gonna be more like a visual history of, like, everything I've dealt with over the past twenty years. People have been bugging me to do a real set of tattoo flash, so now I've got someone who's gonna do it. A real slick case, fifty tracing designs, probably ready to go in the Spring. I'm basically gonna take traditional tattoo designs and do them in my style, really freaky. I'm gonna do some art for a bunch of paintings. Next year's work is gonna be pretty personal. Large format with colored pencils. I'll also be doing a bunch of stuff for my biker mag trip.
Bikers are kind of like a new deal, a new group of people. I'm probably gonna be designing a line of motorcycle accessories. Non-PC ones. SS stuff, swastika stuff, pentagrams. There's lots of hardcore bikers who'd pay a lot of money to have a swastika. I'm gonna tap that market.
That's some seriously volatile imagery. Aren't you afraid that you'll really offend some people?
That's the point: Those totally psychotic bikers running around wearing that stuff is actually the most punk rock thing I can think of. For the last 20 years, I've been hanging around with a lot of people who spend a lot of time pretending they're cool. But they're really just spending $20 to drink beer and pretend. I've met people who really are fucking weird on a daily basis and deal with all the fucking bullshit. It's not something I'm gonna pursue, but it's interesting to see it in its real state. I'm interested in doing this for those people, because it reminds me of when I started with the punk rock scene. You could really get your ass kicked. Now, you could have an ironing board stuck to your face and no one would care. The biker world is interesting because they're actually rebelling to the place where there's real punishment involved. I've noticed that a lot of people my age are getting involved in this stuff. You still want to feel something.
Punk rock had a certain energy and excitement that's gone now. What do you do next? The motorcycles are interesting because it's really a fucking kick to ride a rigid chopper. It's kinda my new obsession.
Still, swastikas... that's a lot more serious than any slashed bunnies or fang-toothed children. I mean, you're dealing with a very deep soul-reaction to an icon. Are you ever afraid that your buyers will turn on you?
Not at all. I have very good relationships with them.
One of your posters is a Campbell's soup kid with several arms, something kind of Tibetan. Are you interested in all that Eastern philosophy?
I'm not too obsessed with it. That was the Campbell's soup girl Kali. Well, I get bored doing Jesus all the time. It's good to have a different deity once in a while.
Kali is a far cry from Jesus. They're pretty dramatically different...
Not so different. Both devour the souls of people. Blood sacrifice, pain for eternal bliss. Catholicism puts quite a few demands on you.
My mother used to be intense. She'd wear painful girdles and castigate herself because you're supposed to suffer the sins of Christ. She'd kneel on rocks, wear barbed cinch belts.
That must've made quite a deep impression on you.
I don't really have any feeling about it one way or the other.
[He changes the subject.]
I'm making some toys. I made some stuffed smoking bunnies for the Japanese market. Soft vinyl figures...
Oh, I'd love a stuffed smoking bunny!
I might make some stuffed bunnies for America.
Are there any left in Japan?
They're all gone. They sold in like a week. They were made by a company called DEP, made about a thousand, some the size of a little dog, the others guinea pig-sized. I do a lot of stuff over there. A company called Bounty Hunter is famous for making these soft vinyl toys. I did two ghost figures for them, a skinny one and a fat one. And a smoking bunny. They're just these weird things, like a doll or something. I've been collecting them for years and now I get to make them.
You're also a collector? What do you collect?
[His voice becomes more animated, talking about the collections] I have weird stuff. I have a lot of burlesque material in the '80s. I collect weird Victorian stuff. Weird statues and stuff, carved furniture.
Yeah, morbid, Victorian-era stuff. My collection is really random. I also collect Picachu stuff, so it doesn't really make much sense. I'm actually getting rid of a lot of stuff lately and just keeping the really good stuff.
[Half-ready to go pick it up myself] What do you do with the stuff you get rid of?
Sell it on Ebay. Ebay's a wonderful thing. When I lived in Texas, I was really into pulp '40s and '50s stuff. I sold it all. Then I started collecting robot toys. Sold it all. I'll collect this stuff, be obsessed, then one day just sell the whole pile. I bought this old army truck, it's really cool, that's my new collection. I spend my time finding old parts for this truck. It's a weird collection, but when it's all in a room, it all makes sense together. There's some sort of general weirdness vibe. For years, I've had a studio and a house. The house is for super old-fashioned stuff, almost Gothic. The studio is all bright and zany. I like having both. I like having subversive environments that don't have anything to do with each other. It's gotten to where I have friends who don't know what I do for a living, friends who don't know about other friends. It's good to be able to get away from things for a while. I tend to keep these collections really separated. Each room has its own stuff, but as a cohesive whole, it gives some kind of mental balance. Collecting is about trying to control your environment. So apparently, I need several.
Has your stuff ever shown up in your art?
Oh, yeah. I've used a lot of my stuff in photos for album covers, all the time. A lot of the photographs, I'll set stuff up at the house. A lot of my stuff has been on posters and album covers. That way, I can write it all off.
This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but I just did an interview with a woman who lived in a haunted house, and...
I used to live in a haunted house.
What's cool is, the house never bothered me. I never believed in it. It used to be a boarding school for boys in Austin. It was a huge hotel dump, and I lived there for years. I was always really comfortable in that house. I think it liked me. But I had friends, and I'm talking nobody witchy, totally normal 45-year-old guys, who refused to go upstairs. One time, a girl housesat for me. She was sleeping in my bedroom which had a chandelier over the bed. Well, she woke up at 2:30 am for absolutely no reason at all, sat up, and got out of bed. The chandelier fell exactly in the spot where she'd just been sleeping. But the house never did anything to me. I really liked the house, so if something was there, I was okay with it.
I grew up in a really superstitious household in Spain 'til I was 16. I grew up with freaky wives' tales and elaborate rituals. It was such a morbid environment - open coffins at funerals and stuff - it had the opposite effect on me: It didn't bother me. I don't get freaked out. I do get agoraphobic. I get scared by parades. I can't go to crowded restaurants. My ultimate nightmare is 40,000 people. But some gloomy house is really comfortable. I'd rather spend a night in a haunted house than go to the fuckin' Fourth of July fireworks. But I don't have any religious beliefs, so I have no fear of ghosts. It's just a thing. Cool, you're a thing. Current domicile: Not haunted. It's a very nice, sunny apartment.
You have no religion?
My mom went through a phase, and as soon as she got remarried, she stopped. My old man was not religious at all. He was just a drunk. Mom went through this fucking thing where we had to go to high mass four times a week. It was retarded. After that, I never went to mass again.
How old were you?
I was between eight and twelve.
A very impressionable age... That had to stay with you, because it crops up in your work now.
I liked the graphics. I collect religious stuff. I think it looks really cool, it's just really boring. Just three hours of chanting...
May I ask your age?
Believe it or not, I'm 39. I'm actually having way more fun now. On a daily level, I'm actually a much happier person. I don't mind getting old at all.
Is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have?
Well, I'd like to put some general info... We've been selling through our website, Man's Ruin, but the website people are going belly-up, so I'm shutting it down. There will be a new commercial website coming out in a couple months, probably called Kozikart.com or Fuckkozik.com. In the interim, there's a cool person who put together a Frank Kozik page, and if anyone's interested they should go on. I look at it all the time, and people are actually talking to each other and turning each other on to other cool websites there. It's at yahoo.clubs/mansruinevillair.com.
Also, if anyone wants any work done, they can email me. I mean, people can just write to me; I answer. I like to correspond.