Ben Brown: Poster boy for the deranged doodler
Artist, musician, surfer, and skater, Ben Brown slides easily from role to role. Yet it's his art that's taken him beyond the tabernacle of Sydney's Northern Beaches. Featuring a signature style that mixes the macabre with glossy pop culture it's appeared on tour posters for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, plus countless album covers. He recently spoke to blindboy.
blindboy: So how did you get into working as an artist?
Ben Brown: I just always drew as a kid. I kinda always drew at school, did comics and things like that, and when I left school I started work at a screen printer in Brookvale. So you had access to bromide cameras and art departments and everything you needed. So I would do like horrible koala T-shirts for them by day, and then because it was a dark room you could take your own work in and shoot that.
So what was some of the first stuff of your own that you did?
The first stuff I can remember that would have been significant was like handbills for bands like my band, The Hellmenn, and Massappeal, that was another band with a couple of guys who lived around here and after doing them I started doing handbills for other bands around town. We used to play in the city a bit and there was a small scene around that, bands from here and Melbourne and Brisbane, so I was doing handbills and stuff for them.
So what were some of the bands you did work for?
Massappeal, us, Vicious Circle, Bored, another good Melbourne band. That was in the early days but as time went on I started doing stuff for touring bands. I did Nirvana's poster when they came out and Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, bands like that, The Rollins Band. That was a small scene, it was the late eighties and it was getting more popular so people started bringing out bands like that so that was the opportunity to work for bigger bands and just doing record covers for tons of bands really...I can't remember them these days!
So what were your influences?
Growing up it was a lot of surf cartoons. I used to love Rick Griffin, still do. He was always a real sort of hero, all his comics I used to see in my brother's Surfer magazines. Big Daddy Roth, who I really didn't know at the time, the hot rod guy who drew all the hot rod monsters, I remember them as Scanlans bubblegum cards when I was a little kid...oh and Captain Goodvibes, just generally bent comics like Zap comics from California in the late sixties, weird stuff that you would see, mostly underground stuff, oh and MAD magazine, I always loved MAD magazine.
So when did it cross over into surfing?
I don't know. I think I did a northern beaches poster for Mick Mock when I was pretty young, at 19 or 20, then I started working for brands like Peak and Hot Buttered. Then Gary Dunne started editing Tracks, I actually had a record job from Island Records that was three consecutive months and I said to him "Can we treat it as like a pilot to see how a comic strip would go?" He didn't have to outlay anything or give me any editorial space and we did that and I started doing a comic strip for Tracks for a couple of years. Now my biggest clients would probably be Mambo and Volcom and Hurley and stuff but I worked for Billabong and Rip Curl and everyone in between and I worked for STAB for a long time too doing their comic strips, up to about issue 52. They were about 4 pages each too so they were pretty intense. All kind of stuff really and the odd event poster that people wanted me to do.
Have the demands of the clients shifted over the years?
Probably, I tend to work word of mouth, it's not something you advertise or anything like that. So it's pretty straight forward, people know what they're getting when they hire us, most of the time. Sometimes you get things where you have picky clients who want to chop and change stuff. I just did a Bowlerama skateboard thing this year and a couple of other event things and you know, judging by the size of the event, if it's a big event you keep it pretty slick and clean and not too crazy, but if it's a smaller event and just for fun you can have more madness I suppose.
I suppose the technical side has changed enormously.
Yes, like I said when I started it was doing screen printing using bromide cameras and stuff like that then computers came and took over through the nineties which was good, it made it a lot easier, but it hasn't changed the way I work. It just means you don't have to go into a darkroom to shoot art onto film and stuff. Setting art up for print used to be quite a deal with all the overlays and that sort of shit. These days it's pretty easy to do, so computers are really good. I know a lot of guys draw straight onto tablets but I still like to draw onto paper and things so that sort of stuff has changed a fair bit but it still hasn't changed the way I work.
But my work, even if it's not screen printed looks like it would be 'cos I grew up liking that sort of look. I never took on 3D rendering or stuff like that I just like the look of flat colours from old posters and things. So old rock posters are a really big influence too like those old Rick Griffin San Francisco ones, then through the nineties there was a lot of posters, it always dies off then comes back on again. In America there were a lot of posters through the nineties and even out here. There have been a few books on Australian posters that both me and Marty Schneider, who works in the same studio, have had posters in, which is good.
So do you exhibit?
I've done three or four solo shows. The first one I did was in Melbourne in 2009, then I've done three here and I'm always in group shows. People ask you to put something in, always putting stuff in that. I haven't done one for two or three years but I have a show coming up in December down at the Manly Art Gallery which is good that they asked us 'cos it's different. It's kind of like these days there's a street art movement that is like rock bands when we were younger. People go out and see shows and drink the free beer and that sort of shit. A lot of the shows I've done before were in sort of smaller galleries like that so it is good to do one in a decent sized regional gallery like Manly, so I really have to get to work on that.
What about the T-shirts? Some of that stuff must be pretty collectible these days.
There was one T-shirt I did for a band called Massappeal that was a guy with a gun in his mouth and he had that Choose Life t-shirt on that was like that Wham T-shirt from years ago, and that became really popular and people still ask me about that, where can they get it and things like that...
You don't do re-issues?
Well it [the Massappeal shirt] has been now and then 'cos I leave it up to the guys in the band. When it was originally done it was through a merchandise company and it sold shitloads. They funded their next two records or something through the T-shirt and I would get my cut as well. I always leave it up to those guys, people have asked me to redo it but I'm glad that we never have really. It just stays like that. I sometimes see on eBay people do sell shirts from bands of that era for quite a bit, $200 and they're normally grotty pieces of shit. So that's pretty weird but posters, that Nirvana poster has been bootlegged a few times, so with poster collectors there's the original screen printed one and then there is the bootlegged ones. There's collectors these days for everything. It used to be a real American phenomenon but there have already been a couple of good books out here on posters and there's another guy putting one together now which will be massive, out of reach of the average punter, two volumes and three or four hundred dollars. It's kinda out of control, I mean, do I get a free one or will it be too much to post to me!
Still surfing! Having the studio here [Manly] is really handy. Surfing in the city is crazy, so being able to come down to work and surf about 9 or 10 is better than getting up at 5 or 6. So I get out there a fair bit. I turned fifty a while back and was thinking we should go on a holiday other than just surfing. Every holiday I have ever been on has been a surfing holiday. It's like we should go to Europe and see some castles or go to New York.
Follow Ben on Instagram: @mentalben