It's interesting to watch someone grow as an artist right before your eyes. I have been friends with Philadelphia illustrator Mike Bukowski for about a decade now, and I can honestly say I've seen just that. From doing fliers for local shows, to record covers for international bands, to having his own solo shows, the progression has been obvious. We sat down at his South Philadelphia home to talk about "Roll for Damage", his new show in which we see his interpretations of classic Dungeon & Dragons creatures.
Denis: You have a show coming up and it’s based solely on Dungeons & Dragons creatures, why?
Mike: I’m really into monsters. Bestiaries in general are kind of a thing I’ve been getting into lately. I think just about every show I’ve done in Philadelphia has been some sort of bestiary, either real animals or monsters of some sort. I was actually on the way home from Benna’s [coffee shop/art space in South Philadelphia] one day and there was a flea market right outside your old house and some guy was selling the 2nd edition Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio [Dungeons & Dragons Publications]. I bought them from him because I thought the illustrations were…“badly neat”, if that makes any sense. It’s not the term, but you know. I thought it would be cool to reinterpret those drawings even though I know a million people have since in subsequent Monster Manuals. I thought, much like the H.P. Lovecraft drawings that I’ve done, there is almost what seem like impossible combinations of monsters and elements of animals together. Like a brain with tentacles and a bird beak doesn’t make any sense, so it’s kind of cool to take that idea and try to actually make it come to life and not look stupid, which I don’t know if I did.
Denis: I think anyone who is familiar with those Monster Manuals knows exactly what you mean by “badly neat”, which is why I think some people might have a problem with you reinterpreting them because that was a lot of the allure to those images…they were so crappy but awesome at the same.
Mike: They are really crappy. The Hook Horror specifically it’s just this, it kind of looks like a skeksi [creatures from “The Dark Crystal”] with armor and two giant hooks where its hands would be, and I was thinking how if this were any sort of real life world, how evolutionarily there would be no benefits to that at all. You wouldn’t be able to do anything with your hands besides claw warriors.
Denis: I thought maybe F. Gary Gygax…Is that his first initial? Is it F? [Ed.Note: It’s E]
Mike: I think it’s just Gary Gygax. Right?
Denis: [Mike searches through the Monster Manual to get the proper name of the man that created Dungeons & Dragons]
Mike: I’m sure everyone reading this is waiting on the edge of their seat.
Denis: I don’t think you can read moments.
Mike: It just says Gary Gygax in this one.
Denis: Well, I’m sure Gary Gygax was just trying to come up with the most ridiculous monstrosities that he could in the beginning.
Mike: Some of them are monstrosities but some of them are just stupid. Like one of them was a gorilla bear which is just a gorilla with the arms of a bear. So it’s not that much different than a gorilla.
Denis: Have you ever played Dungeons & Dragons?
Mike: I’ve actually never played Dungeons & Dragons.
Denis: You’ll find that a lot of them are just absurd, and ridiculous and not worth anything. So, you have no idea if you’re lawful good or chaotic neutral?
Mike: No, I have no idea actually. That is actually one of the things that always deterred me from it. It seemed very complicated.
Denis: I’m lawful good, if you were wondering.
Mike: Oh are you? What would you say I am?
Denis: Oh you’re chaotic neutral.
Mike: I don’t know what that means.
Denis: Wow, you’re going to admit that?
Mike: I’ll admit it. Whatever.
Denis: How did you enjoy the Crow for the 20th time?
Mike: It can’t rain all the time.
Denis: What number show is this for you?
Mike: Solo show or including group shows?
Denis: Solo show.
Mike: I’m not being cocky I just don’t remember most things. I want to say around 6.
Denis: What is the challenge of doing a solo show? Do you just say “I’m gonna do a solo show next year” and then come up with an idea or do you have the idea first, start working on it and then put a date for a show?
Mike: It’s a little weird because it kind of evolved into something different than what it started as. The first show I did was a show in Belgium, which set the bar way too high. They flew me out, it was kind of a retrospective of all the work I had done up until that point and like maybe four new pieces. That gave me a very skewed perspective on what doing non-commissioned art shows would be like. Since then all of the shows I’ve done have been personal projects I’ve been working on. It’s gotten to the point where people are asking me before I have time to organically make the work. I can’t just say “I’ll draw just monsters.” It has to come from somewhere and seeing that guy at the flea market with the Monster Manual was when it happened. Unfortunately it was kind of later in the game than when I would have liked to start it. I think the animal show that I did at Benna’s, I started that a year before it actually went up. This one I started maybe four months ahead of time.
Denis: How do you see that your work has changed from strictly doing show fliers and work for R.A.M.B.O. [Philadelphia hardcore band 1999-2007] years ago to now doing records for international bands and doing your own solo shows? And how does it feel for you to go back and do fliers for shows or maybe humorous shirts or record covers for bands?
Mike: I think part of it is not taking myself too seriously, not getting too wrapped up in it. I’ll always do covers for bands. Honestly, I’ve never heard most of the bands I do covers for because a lot of them are new and from other countries so I haven’t gotten a chance to see them. I don’t know if I’m answering this question right but I love doing it so I’m not going to stop. So I’ll basically kind of always do whatever anyone asks me to as long as it fits the criteria that I’ve laid out which is no sexist, racist or homophobic stuff.
Denis: That brings me to my next question. Have you turned down things that you didn’t agree with?
Mike: I have. I don’t think I’ve told many people this but Michale Graves’ [former singer for The Misfits] publicist approached me once via email and asked me if I would do something for a Michale Graves record. I don’t know if I said “no” but I think I asked for $22,000 and I was very cocky in the email, like it was obvious I was being a dick to him. Even if he did offer me the $22,000 I wouldn’t have done it, or if I did it would have just been a drawing of him as a dick and that would have been it.
Denis: Do you want to explain why you would turn Michale Graves down?
Mike: Michale Graves is, what’s the website he runs? Punk Republican or something? Conservative Punk? He’s a douche bag.
Denis: You know conservative politics and punk music go real well together. [sarcasm]
Mike: There was also a compilation that I did a record cover for. The person that contacted me was really nice and obviously knew the kind of stuff that I did, and I’d heard of most of the bands. There were a few bands I had never heard of before. When I got it in the mail one of the bands had really fucked up, misogynist lyrics. There was nothing I could do at that point. It was different because it was a compilation so I didn’t have the one on one contact with every person in the band. The only thing I could think to do was write a letter to MRR [Maximum Rock and Roll – a punk magazine] and apologize for it.
Denis: Has there been something that you have done that has been widely accepted or that you were surprised at the reception?
Mike: The Rock Against Bush cover, which I’m also not very happy with but it was a while ago so I’ll let that go. At some point, I think I was still doing stuff with R.A.M.B.O. and Andy Wheeler [R.A.M.B.O. guitarist] called me up and told me I should go the Starlight because Anti-Flag was there and my drawing was plastered on their bus. It wasn’t a van, it was an actual tour bus and all four sides of it had this giant 5ft tall George Bush head on it that I drew. It was really weird. And one of the funny things was, one of the execs at Fat Wreck Chords was talking with me and joking “oh, we don’t owe you any extra money for this? “ and it was like “ha-ha, kind of you do.” I understand what it was for and I agreed with it at the time, but I think that I got paid very little for it. It might sound like a contradiction to talk about how much I love doing this and how I’d never stop but then also talk about how I need to get paid for it. I don’t make a lot off of it so when I am deserving payment for the thing that I did, I would really like to get it and would really like a large label like Fat Wreck Chords to not joke with me about how they’re not paying me for it.
Denis: Because at this point in time it’s not really a hobby anymore.
Mike: No it’s not.
Denis: I’m sure you love doing it but it does supplement your income.
Denis: You’ve done a lot of record covers and t-shirts for bands across the world. How does that happen?
Mike: I think a lot of it was from when I first started with Shark Attack, R.A.M.B.O., Down in Flames and Tear It Up Records. I think for all of those the combined payment was maybe $100 and a dinner. And my only stipulation was that my website and email address be in every single record. I guess a lot of those records were popular at the time. They got bootlegged and legitimately distributed in Southeast Asia and Central America, so people got those records with my information on them and the internet is free and accessible to everyone. That’s mostly how it happened I think. Just word of mouth from having my website and email on record covers. Being on tour with R.A.M.B.O. helped a lot because I would meet people, we would start talking, they would figure out who I was and then ask me if I would be interested in doing a demo cover for their band. And then other people in the Czech Republic would see that and other people in Australia would see the other thing that I did. The Australia thing definitively snowballed. It’s ridiculous; a lot of the work I do is for Australian bands and clothing companies.
Denis: Do you want to publicly thank the Internet right now?
Mike: I would like to publicly thank the Internet. I hear it weighs nothing.
Mike: I hear it weighs nothing.
Denis: It’s true….
Mike: It’s really light.
Denis: It weighs nothing? I don’t get it. [Apparently Mike was referencing a TV show]
Denis: The Internet has played a huge part in how you have gotten your name out there. Do you think the Internet has made you lazier as an artist or has it made you try harder?
Mike: I definitely think the exact opposite of that. I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s probably made it easier to do some things. It makes it easier to accomplish certain things. It doesn’t make me personally take it easier because, like I said, I’ll accept almost any job that anyone asks me to do. I’ve been basically working for 10 years straight, doing this because of the Internet. I haven’t really taken any time off except to go on tour or go on vacation for a little while, but there has never been that long of a lull. (knocks on his desk)
Denis: Knock on wood.
Mike: Knock on my desk.
Denis: You know that’s not wood right?
Mike: Yeah. But it’s also kind of driven me because I can see other people that are doing the same thing as me very easily. I can do a Google search, or looking at other record covers I can see other people that are making record cover art and be like “oh fuck that guy is awesome, I better step up my game”. It pushes me. It definitely doesn’t make me lazier. It’s weird, because I think that it’s definitely a completely different time from when people like Mad Marc Rude or Pushead were doing things through mail and through zines and stuff. I would not have gotten the amount of recognition that I have now. It would have taken me a lot longer. And also the amount of work I’ve done for bands would have been a lot less. I probably would have done the same amount of work for myself.
Denis: Your art definitely has a focus on horror, macabre, sci-fi, scary monsters…that sort of thing. Are you trying to work something out? Maybe by drawing monsters are you trying to protect yourself from them?
Mike: Whoa deep!
Denis: Yeah, I go to college now.
Mike: No, I really don’t think so. I’ve never really been that scared of monsters. I’ve never really had anything super-traumatic happen to me so it’s not like I’m retreating into my art to get away from it. Maybe I am just not thinking about it hard enough, but most of it is that since I was a little kid I thought monsters were cool! I would always gravitate towards “Tales From The Crypt” instead of Superman comics. Now I’ll read Hellboy instead of X-Men. I’ve just always gravitated towards more macabre stuff. Actually, I think my aunt has the first drawing I could remember making which is a crayon drawing of the shark from Jaws being stabbed by 20 harpoons with a lot of blood all over the place. And that was before even the minor fucked up things happened in my life. It’s just something I’ve always been interested in.
Denis: You went to art school?
Mike: Yes, I went to University of the Arts.
Denis: Do you want to give art students the message to stay in school? Is schooling for art helpful?
Mike: Yes I would say that. It was helpful to me. I viewed it as a technical school, as a place to hone your skill. They had me on a strict regimen of practicing and learning anatomy and looking at the human figure and meeting deadlines, learning how to use color. It’s stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of or I would have thought of it way later in the game, so it was good to have that kind of guidance and focus. I do think grad school for art is a big waste of time. At a certain point you just have to go out on your own and learn it, and exist as an artist in the real world.
Denis: Let’s talk about your process. How does something go from an idea to a finished piece that we see on the wall or on a record?
Mike: It usually starts with an absurd primitive thumbnail sketch that looks like a bunch of squiggles. You can probably pick out a skull and that’s about it. From there I’ll usually take reference photos, which are hysterical, of me or my friends in various poses.
Denis: Or one of your best friends in a cemetery in the middle of Old City?
Mike: Yes, that’s happened.
Mike: From the photo, I’ll gather other internet references of a place or a building. Then I do a pencil drawing, and then I’ll ink that. The pencil drawing takes a day or two, to ink it takes another day. Then I’ll scan it, import it into Photoshop, then add the color and render it. The whole process, for a record cover, start to finish…if I can work on it intensely, takes about a week and a half. I don’t know if I’ve gotten better, but I’ve gotten faster.
Denis: How many hours a day is that?
Mike: I’d rather not talk about it, makes me sad. It’s a lot of hours.
Denis: But how much of that is paying attention to watching Phantasm II?
Mike: I actually don’t pay attention to it! That’s the one good thing about director’s commentaries on DVD, I usually just put them on to listen to them, and I don’t look up. Unless it’s “Dawn of the Dead”, then I’ll stop to watch the guy’s head explode in the beginning. Netflix Instant is also great for that…I think I watched all of Fawlty Towers this weekend while drawing. It doesn’t need to be great, it just needs to be there so I’m not bored out of my mind listening to the same record over and over.
Denis: And for the record, what DVD has the best commentary?
Mike: “The Reanimator” DVD is really good, because it’s just a bunch of the people from the movie joking around.
Denis: And what has the most ridiculous commentary?
Mike: Probably “Trapped in the Closet”. Actually “The Happiness of the Karikuris” has actors doing the commentary since the director does not speak a word of English…I thought that was weird.
Denis: What happens after the Benna’s show?
Mike: After the Benna’s show, I have two record covers lined up, and a shirt design for Philly band The Claw. The description for the one band I’m doing a cover was pretty amazing, let me find it. [5 minutes go by] The band is from England, I think. The guy says, “I’m in a thrash/grind/ska/metal band.” And their idea was something with chainsaw trombones.
Denis: Ha! So naturally they came to you!
Mike: Yeah! I’m excited to do it!
Denis: Any other shows coming up?
Mike: Yes, I’m doing a show in March at Part-Time Studios with Jeanne D’Angelo.
Denis: Is it weird doing a show with your “life partner”?
Mike: No, I’m excited about it! I think it will be cool. Even though we work in very different mediums and approach art technically in different ways, our styles are very similar (flat color with minimal gradations, very graphic).
Denis: Ooo, gradations. Do you find that you inspire each other, or is it a little competitive? Not in an “I have to do better then you” way, but maybe in an “Oh man, Jeanne’s doing this, I better step up my game”.
Mike: Yes, it’s definitely like that. She’s really good. I’m not trying to show her up, but I see that she’s doing an awesome thing and it makes me want to do something just as awesome. But that also goes for friends of mine, like Justin Gray and Alicia Neal. Both of them, when I see their work, it’s the same thing.
Denis: What other artists are you blown away by these days?
Denis: Just Pushead?
Mike: Yes, just Pushead. I’ve only been accused once of borrowing from Pushead.
Denis: Oh, I don’t think your stuff looks like Pushead.
Mike: I didn’t think so either. I think the only reason is that there was a horse skull in that piece.
Denis: Skulls are so hot right now!
Denis: So what artists are you into? Any medium. Any video artists you’re into these days?
Mike: Knox Harrington? Geoff Darrow (Hard Boiled, Shaolin Cowboy), Charles Burns (Black Hole), D'Israeli (Scarlet Traces), Junji Ito (Uzumaki), Seth Fisher (Willworld), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Guy Davis (B.P.R.D. Antonia Prohias (Spy Vs. Spy), Eric Powell (The Goon), Wayne Barlowe (Guide to Extraterrestrials), Ed Repka (Megadeth-Rust In Peace), Shawn Kerri (Circle Jerks), Screamin Mad George (The Mad), Zbigniew M. Belak (Watain-Lawless Darkness), Derek Riggs (Iron Maiden), Michael Whelan (Sepultura), Gee Vaucher (Crass), James Groman (Madball designer). One of the first artists that made me want to get into drawing record covers was Dan Seagrave. When I was in high school I was really into Death Metal and would specifically buy record covers that had his art on it. I remember the Suffocation “Effigy of the Forgotten” record and the Dismember “Like an Ever-Flowing Stream” record because he paints landscapes that make me want to go to those places. It probably wouldn’t be the best idea to go to those places, but they created such an environment and made me like the records. It helped me understand at a very young age what kind of power a record cover has in relation to the actual music.
Denis: So while other young kids that were getting into metal were buying records with “hot chicks” on the cover, you were buying records because they had “scary places” on the cover? I see where your focus is.
Denis: You love traveling, what is up with that?
Mike: Ha! Well, there’s these things called places, and you can go to them.
Denis: There’s adventure right around the corner, why take a cruise to Antarctica?
Mike: Well, I’ve been to almost every state.
Denis: How many continents?
Mike: All of them.
Denis: That’s amazing. How many countries?
Denis: You still have a lot to go, aren’t there like 250 and something?
Mike: I don’t know. There’s some Adventurer’s Club where you have to have gone to 100 countries to be in it.
Denis: Not even close bro.
Mike: I was thinking about it. I’ve done a lot of traveling, but only 37 countries.
Denis: So you’ve been to 37 countries, 7 continents, countless states…
Mike: Not countless, it’s very countable.
Denis: Fine…countable states. You’ve publicly already thanked the internet, would you publicly like to say that the United States of America is the best country in the world?
Mike: Mmmmm…I mean, it’s pretty cool. I don’t know about the US government, but it’s a pretty cool country. I’ve been back and forth across it a bunch of times, with you, and we’ve seen some really beautiful and amazing things.
Denis: Remember when that coyote scared you?
Mike: I remember when you almost peed because the coyote was outside the tent.
Denis: I didn’t almost pee, you didn’t tell me until the morning!
The opening reception for Mike's newest show, "Roll for Damage", is Friday, October 8th at Benna's Cafe, 8th & Wharton St in Philadelphia.
Mike has a blog of drawings inspired by H.P. Lovecraft here: Yog-Blogsoth
Mike also has a blog about Madballs, his new obsession. Check it out here: Blarghhhspot
Transcribed by Jaime Morgan. Thanks!