Q+A: Frank Kozik

Frank Kozik is a Spanish born-American rock poster artist whose work helped define much of the visual aesthetic of the alternative music explosion of the late 80s and 90s. He has been in Auckland this week ahead of his appointment as main speaker at the We Can Create art and design conference, held at the Aotea Centre today and tomorrow.

Kozik’s talent emerged in Austin, Texas, xeroxing cut-and-paste gig posters for friends bands within the underground punk movement of the early 80s. Vibrant, psychedelic and often psychotic in colour, theme and style, Kozik’s silk screened poster art merged seamlessly with the chaotic musical stylings of the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and the Melvins, among many others. His work includes re-appropriated pop art and pop culture icons, American comic and cartoon characters from the 50s and 60s, the Cold War, the Klan, the Manson Family, and intravaenous drug use. It places guilt, points the finger, and mocks everyone.

His own Man’s Ruin record label was formed in 1995, one time home to Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age, before he disbanded the business and retired from the music industry in 2001. His focus shifted to the new Urban Vinyl toy movement, which has been yet another international success and introduced him to a new crowd of fine art fans and collectors of his toy characters, the Smorkin’ Labbit series, the Hate Dunny and Dr.Bomb.

The man himself was exceedingly nice, humble and polite when I met him to discuss his artistic career, his influences, and his connection to all of that musical history, along with the success of his more recent ventures.

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You were born in Spain and moved to the states when you were 14 – were you english speaking at that age?

Somewhat – I had a pretty upper class lifestyle in Spain. My mum married into a fairly wealthy fascist family so I went to a very proper sort of British type school that was for foreign kids, so I had a pretty good education by the time I was 14. Each day was a subject [over] six days a week and we had the same teachers year after year so it was kind of a weird school.

What was it like for you at that young age moving to the States from Franco’s fascist dictatorship?

Well when I first moved to the States I moved into a very low-class situation with my dad who was kinda the retired fuckin’ drunk guy – but he’s a lot of fun – so when I got to the States you’ve gotta understand I was living in a really lower-class redneck area in Sacramento, and I had this sort of like bizzarre way of speaking, and basically got my ass kicked a lot because of it. So what I did, there was this little ‘learn to be a radio broadcaster school’, 20 bucks a class kinda thing. So I went to this little private voice training school and learned to speak slang and speak ‘American’ – and got rid of the accent. I grew up in Europe around lots of languages and it was easy to adapt, so I got rid of the accent, learned vernacular American slang and I was fine after that. Its good because I’m able to function at different levels both in English and Spanish. So like I can fuckin’ hang out and be cool or whatever at the show or I can go to the bank and talk that idiots lingo.

That must have been a cool time to be a teenager in the USA?

Fucking amazing, dude. America was amazing in the mid-70s. See, I’d grown up in one of the last old-school dictatorships where everything was really rigid. It was class society for number one. Your political affiliations were really important. All media was controlled by the church, it was a complete police state.

No movies or hamburgers in Spain?

There was no rock’n’roll in Spain at that time. There were no movies, nothing. None of that stuff. Everything was like it could have been 1940 and everything was really rigid. I’m assuming there was some sort of underground world, but where I lived and the people I lived with, there was no exposure to anything. Occasionally I would visit my father in other places – I spent a year with him in England, I came to America a few times, and for me it was like, ‘oh my god, this is heaven’, right?

You’ve got to understand, I grew up in a situation where you’re gonna marry the business partners daughter. You’re going to work for your step-dads company. It’s different now but that’s how it was – it was a completely programmed existence. And my dad was like ‘just come over here, you can do whatever you want, you can have a car, you can have girlfriends’. America baby, y’know.

And so you enjoyed the typical Californian teenage life?

America in the 70s was all about hedonism, y’know. Like, it was the peak of self indulgence and so finally when I was 15, I was like ‘fuck it’ and I went over there on vacation and never went back. I loved it and I immediately did everything that you’re not supposed to do – I dropped out of school and started smoking tons of dope and made some money selling dope. I bought a car, split from my dads house, lived down at the lake for a summer, finally got a shitty apartment where I had like a sleeping bag and a TV – that whole thing. But I loved it because it was completely opposite of how I’d been raised and it was the ‘no rules’ I can do what I want thing, which was killer.

Then I got in a lot of legal trouble. I had gotten arrested and was going to turn 18 in a week and it was a classic movie cliche where I went up to the judge and he’s like, ‘look, you can either join the military and get the fuck out of town, or I’m gonna sentence you as an adult and you’re not going to like spending a year in county jail picking peas out on a farm kinda thing. So I was like “sign me up!”, and the Sheriff took me down to the nearest local military recruiter which was for the Airforce – and I’m not stupid y’know, so I went there and got 100% on their aptitude and written tests. The recruitment guy was all happy and boom! – 2 weeks later I was in fucking basic training.

How was life in the military?

It was good, the military taught me a lot and I had a pretty interesting job. I was in for four years and the two blessings were – 1: it rationalised my thinking process and got my head out of ass for me, because what I did was fairly challenging, and 2: I got stationed in Austin, Texas of all places, in 1980, and I was like ‘this is gonna suck’. Its gonna be all rednecks and cowboys but little did I know that it was sort of like this weird situation like Paris in the 30s, this amazing emerging music and culture scene happening. This really cool, beautiful, small liberal college town.

And the first week I was there I was downtown and saw my first punk rocker who was this guy with green hair walking down Congress Ave. I was all excited and I ran up to him and was like “are you a punker?” and he laughed at me and was like ‘yeah’, and I was like, “where can i punk out?” and he’s like ‘follow me!’ and took me to this place called Club Foot which was like a legendary punk and new wave venue. And that was it. I walked in there and I was like this is what I’ve wanted all my life – look at all the freaks, look at all the chicks, woah, shit, this is rad. And I got completely 100% immersed in the punk scene and when my time was up, I got out of the military and I stayed in Austin. And that’s where it all started from. If they had’ve sent me someplace else none of this would ever have happened. Billy Pringle was the guy with the green hair, he was like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

And living in Austin you became friends with all the local bands?

You gotta understand the deal, I’m kinda a pro-active person when I get interested in something. Like I’m the kinda person where I’ll read something in a book and then I want to go and do it. So it was one of those things, in for a penny in for a pound, okay? It was interesting because while the scene was big because of the college, there was a small core in the scene of musicians and a couple of guys that ran the venues and stuff like that, and I immediately became friends with all of them.

Did you ever play in any bands yourself?

I tried to be in bands and play music but I suck. I can’t sing and I’m not nice to look at up on stage or whatever but I had always done little drawings and cartoons while I was in the military and I used to be right into Mail Art – do you remember that? Where you’d send weird shit in the mail to other people and other places and you’d get shit back. So I actually used to do Mail Art with Chris and Cosey from Throbbing Gristle, and this guy called Dr. Al Ackerman up in the pacific northwest, and this weird guy in Northern Ireland. His cool thing was that he’d go to shooting sites around Belfast and he’d find the casings and make little souvenir packs of blood soaked dirt in a shell casing and ‘Greetings from Belfast!’ [on them]. So I had already been doing that weird Mail Art thing, which I had just stumbled onto after reading about it in a magazine.

These were your first forays into making art for other people?

Yeah. So I was already doing little weird cartoons and collage-y things to mail to people and all these friends of mine that had bands were like ‘hey can you make a poster?’ So I would do little Xerox’s y’know. It started there, doing it there on the kitchen table. And what happened is that back then in the early 80s there was an east coast scene and a west coast scene, with a giant wasteland of nothing in between except this little liberal college town right smack in the middle of this wasteland on the major highway. So all the bands that were travelling cross country could stop in Austin, enjoy the town, play a couple of shows, make some bucks and move on.

And you were able to meet up and make contacts with bands from all over the states?

All those bands that later became really famous at one point played to four people in Austin. Sonic Youth came through on their first tour and they played a little gig at a club I did posters for. I did one for them, they liked it and [said] ‘hey man, can you do one for us back home?’ It all started like that. I was just lucky and in the right place. I used to go and see The Butthole Surfers when they were the Vodka Family Winstons and they’d play free afternoon shows at the end of the bar and there’d be like six people there. So I got really lucky – the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana – all those bands I saw when they came through. I’d do the shitty little local poster and I also used to work at the clubs too – I’d work the door, I would hang out with them, and got to know them all that way and on that level, because once upon a time there was no Internet. People don’t understand this now – there was no alternative weekly newspapers. If you were fancy you had a fax machine. It was word of mouth and bands coming through in vans. So once you were hooked into that you were hooked in internationally, in this secret underground thing, and it was all very exciting and really special and really adventurous. And I’m talking about the days when if you went walking around as a punk rocker, you would get your fucking ass kicked by people if you were not careful yknow? Now of course everybody’s a punk rocker and whatever.

You were a part of pop culture history and saw the rise and fall of grunge first hand. What did you make of it at the time?

Yeah, I dunno. I didn’t think much of a lot of those bands that made it big, I mean I wasn’t right into it all. Nirvana was kinda cheesy arena rock to me and my friends at the time, although I understand why they became as big as they did. I mean, they had great songs and he was a pretty guy, who looked good and died at a good age. I was listening to stuff like Sleep’s first album at that time so I wasn’t really into that stuff.

Your poster art often features political imagery, symbolism and rhetoric, of both extreme left and right wing views. You embrace 50s and 60s counterculture and drug imagery as much as communist and fascist propaganda. Do you have any firm political views or are you just fucking with people all of the time?

My personal belief is that anyone who has firm ideas about social engineering whether they be left or right wing, [is that] automatically you’re an asshole. I am coming from a strange position on things with my upbringing because I believe on one hand that we should be free as individuals to paint ourselves blue and stick things in our asses if we choose to and on the other hand I believe everyone should get out and work hard and contribute to society. But people are lazy and stupid.

I am not left or right but I know that in all my years as an artist I have only ever been censored by, or upset, left-wing liberals. I have a lot of leftie friends who I’ll fuck with by doing a pro-religious poster or whatever, just to upset them. Punk rock magazines would get upset by some of the music that my label (Man’s Ruin) would send them because it didn’t fit with their little idea of things. ‘Oh can you change that, we don’t like that kinda thing’ y’know. I never had any problems from the right. A lot of liberals will claim they want to be left alone with no government involvement in their lives but they still want to be kept safe and be protected. And my friends that used to be all liberal and not give a fuck about things when we were younger are now having kids and becoming a lot more conservative now that they have families to think of. I like having a nice home and having enough money to pay my insurance so when I go to start my car each morning I know it’ll work. I like living comfortably and having my life in order and you need money to do these things.

The drug references throughout your work – needles, junkies, LSD – are you pro or anti drugs or just making fun?

I did lots of acid when I was younger (laughs). Junkies and addiction are not very funny usually but most people can appreciate there is something funnier about someone tripping, or someone running around out of their mind on acid.

Among the many different artists you have worked with, your work seems very in-sync with the particular style, humour and overall aesthetic of cool weirdo bands like the Butthole Surfers, the Jesus Lizard and the Melvins?

All those guys in those bands are my age and so they grew up in the 70s, which as I said earlier was this hedonistic wonderland. Then the eighties was really weird and we had Ronald Reagan, and we had these make believe dictatorships with this corny president, who really wasn’t that bad of a guy. But a lot of these guys from those bands grew up in really shitty places from which they really wanted to get out. None of those guys glorify being poor and living in the ghetto. The only people who want to live in the ghetto are rich white kids thinking it looks cool but for those guys they just wanted to get out and away to somewhere nicer. They wanted to move into the nice house on the hill.

So, these guys have also learned that being in a band and dedicating your life to it and traveling on tour for up to a year at a time across the country is really fucking hard work and they know what it is to have had it hard and that has made them very pragmatic in their choices and in their approach to what they do. Buzz Osborne comes from this shitty seaside town with hardly anything there in the middle of nowhere, a really shitty place. Someone like Buzz is just very clever as well and a very smart person. He’s never lost the money he’s made and the Melvins have been going for over 20 years, with him and Dale. And their new stuff is better than their early stuff. They’ve continued to evolve and progress and not many bands or artists can say that. Sonic Youth, those guys are cool and practical to deal with because they’ve been there and seen it all.

Your own work has also continued to evolve and progress. You stopped working in the music industry in 2001 and no longer do posters, is that right? And now your Urban Vinyl toy range is huge around the world?

Yeah I no longer do posters or music stuff and I still get asked to all the time. Except Pearl Jam – they have been begging me to do them another poster for their 20th anniversary tour so I’m doing one for them and they are letting me sell a bunch of posters myself, which will get me a lot of money through their fans and hardcore collectors.

The toys have been a huge success – much bigger than my poster art has been for me. And for me the toys were finally something I could be sure people enjoyed because of my talent and not wonder if they only liked my art because of the cool bands on the posters.

Really? You had doubts about your ability as an artist?

Yeah I think it is a common feeling for people doing band poster work.

You’ve done a lot of corporate work for the likes of Nike, Gatorade, Absolute Vodka, Oakley and Harley Davidson among others. How long have you done that kind of work and what’s it like dealing with a company like Nike?

I’ve always done work like that so it wasn’t ever a big deal for me. It gave me money that allowed me to start my own label and buy my studio. The Nike CEO collects my stuff and I’ve done commissions for him and they recently asked me to do a shoe which is to be released sometime soon. It’s based on the design, fabric and colours of the American fighter pilots uniform in Vietnam. they asked me to do a sneaker years ago and I was thinking it was lame to just put my images on a shoe so I wanted to have something unique if I did do one. They asked me again recently and I’d thought of this idea, and they liked it and said they’d never considered that idea, out of the thousands of designs and prototypes that they’ve already made themselves. I mean, its incredible, they have this giant room with literally thousands of shoe designs. Any idea you might have thought of for a shoe, they’ve already done it themselves.

What do you have planned for the rest of your time here before the We Can Create conference?

Not much really – sleeping and just taking it easy. I’m not big on tourist stuff. I’m looking forward to checking out the other speakers at the conference and honing my speech. I’m speaking last and there is time for a Q+A session. I just hope people have questions otherwise I’m gonna be offended.

3 Comments

  1. Michael McClelland says:

    man, what an amazing sounding guy. would love to meet him. great interview, dave

  2. White Rabbit says:

    I can guarantee you that a big piece of Koziks success is his work ethic. I am that white rabbit and got to see him everyday while we shared a rent house that he paid extra for a room to work in. Everyday … everyday he would go into his studio and work for 3 hours or more if he actually had a paid project. I remember thinking then, how prolific and dedicated that was. And it appears to have paid off. I am glad he stopped me on Congress so long ago, although I don’t remember it at all. He turned out to be a good friend back then, and of course his art was a blessing to a ton of bands, including mine.

    Billy Pringle

    • Shot Billy – this is actually dope to have you find this article & I have just read this interview 1st time.

      Gonna check this dude out, he sounds dope. Excuse the ignorance.

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