James Wilson’s darkly comedic vision brings a grim world of skulls, beasts and brutes vividly to life.
A few months ago, Crack was in a pickle.
We had a hilarious interview with DJ Funk – notoriously enigmatic, though so extroverted he’d make Tommy Lee blush – in the bag, but no image to accompany it. Scan the internet and you’ll find nothing but a limited range of grainy shots of the Chicago ghetto funk titan’s manic face bouncing behind the decks. We needed something to represent Funk in all his wild, exuberant, tittie-loving glory.
Enter James Wilson, a man quickly developing a reputation as one of Bristol’s most vibrant illustrative visions. A style grounded in everything from none-more-OTT heavy metal and B-movie motifs, comicbooks and a generous splash of humour, all accompanying his considerable technical prowess; Wilson was the man we turned to in order to bring Funk’s enormous personality to the page.
And Wilson delivered in spades. Exercising his signature light-hearted approach and impeccable eye for detail, he depicted the DJ sitting with a nipple-tassled young lady atop his lap, tongue wagging furiously in her general direction, adorned with the words ‘Totally Funked’.It was a hit.
And what else would we expect from an individual who’s proven himself highly motivated, versatile and talented at every turn? The briefest glimpse through his repertoire reveals everything from lovingly designed clothing, to toxic, face-melting celebrities and beguiling characters like ‘Lumber-Jack the Ripper’ and the Tiger & Bear cartoon strip. One need only turn to the front page of his website to see the man’s wonderful world of bittersweet imagery writ large. There you’ll find the artist’s own face depicted as a skull, yet as your curser hovers near it out burst wild, glaring eyes and the beaming word ‘Enter!’ It’s completely over-the-top, it’s extremely funny, and most of all it’s really, really good.
‘Illustrator’ can be a quite vague term. What does ‘illustration’ mean to you? Is it a reaction to a brief, or do you just think of it as ‘drawing’?
It’s both, but practically it often means working with a brief. The more of your own creativity you can put into it the better, but obviously you look to balance that with what the client’s looking for.
And is working alongside clients the majority of your work, or is a lot done off your own back?
I’d say it’s 50/50. I like to work on my personal stuff, if I have an idea then I’ll have to draw it. I get quite restless; if I just sit in front of the TV I end up feeling lazy. Although over the last month or so I’ve been playing guitar more than I’ve been drawing.
There are hints towards heavy metal imagery in much of your work, is music something that you draw upon a lot?
Definitely, I’ve listened to metal for years and that kind of occult, Satanic imagery, skulls and stuff – it’s just fun to draw.
Yet you seem to bring some humour to it, is that important to you?
For sure. I don’t want it to just be a really dark thing or really grim. I don’t want my work to be taken deadly seriously, whether that’s by giving characters funny expressions or features, or just the context of the drawings. Something like Zombie Bears II, I guess that’s a light-hearted mix of B-Movie and heavy metal influences. I’d refer to things like The League of Gentlemen – black comedy. It’s making fun of things that could be quite gruesome.
With the links to music, the obvious thing would be to work on album artwork. Have you ever given that a go?
I did an album demo cover for a band a while ago and that was fun, but I haven’t done much in that way since. I’d love to though.
Do you have a favourite album cover?
That’s a really tough question. There’s an album by a black metal band called Emperor called In The Nightside Eclipse. There’s loads of mountains and trees and it’s really barren, there’s so much going on, lots of little narratives within the image. The way it sums up the whole mood of the album, I think that’s how an album cover should work.
Styles in illustration can often move in scenes and movements, such as punk music in places like Exeter, where you’re from, also becoming entwined with zines and tattoo culture; is this something you’ve found yourself drawn to?
I’ve never been involved in those scenes in particular. There are always trends within illustration, and because of the internet and social networking everyone shares their work and it’s easy for people to copy each other. I just think it’s important not to get drawn into trends like that, to stay fairly timeless. One of my favourite artists is Gustave Doré, who does very fine etchings and engravings, very religious-inspired stuff, which I guess also is tied in with heavy metal stuff. That’s more of an influence for me.
You’re originally from Exeter, did you study there?
Yes, I studied at the University of Plymouth, and at the time the art campus was in Exeter. I loved it there, but when I moved to Bristol I became massively inspired straight away. Exeter’s art scene is improving hugely now with shops like No Guts No Glory and lots of different DIY zines, but it’s all quite tucked away, while Bristol is very proud of its art scene. Things like shop displays, the way places are laid out with art on the walls. I was really inspired by that.
And how long have you been here?
I’ve been here almost five years. It’s been a slow process, but I’m definitely gettingmore exposure.
You did an amazing illustration of DJ Funk for Crack. How did you find drawing such a unique character?
I tried to research images of him and it’s really hard to find anything online. I read the article quite a few times, and the overriding theme of it is tits, basically! I thought it would be a lot more fun to relate to that rather than just a picture of him behind the decks. And the ‘Totally Funked’ thing – I really couldn’t resist!
Another aspect of your work that stands out is clothing design; you’vedesigned a couple of t-shirts and a sweater for My Yard. Is that something you enjoy, do you like the idea of your work being paraded around the streets?
A lot of art these days is really expensive and not particularly obtainable, so t-shirts are an affordable way of displaying your work. There’s a real challenge in designing for clothes as well, you’ve got this restricted space and it’s not like other types of illustration where you can have things finishing at the end of a page. It has to sit as a whole piece and stand out. The My Yard one was the first time I’d specifically been asked to design something for a respected company, which was great.
Do you wear it?
Yeah, I’ve got a sweatshirt! I don’t want to wear it around too much, don’t want to seem big headed.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been playing guitar, do you play in a band?
Yes, we’re called Knifeman.
Like the Bronx song.
That’s where it’s taken from. We spent months trying to come up with names and finally settled on that. We’ve been practicing for about a year and we’ve got our first gig at The Croft on the 4th of February. Our name has gone up as The Knife Men on the posters though, a bit of a Spinal Tap moment!
You’ve made a series of images of ‘toxic’ celebrities, people like Simon Cowell and Paris Hilton. Would you say you take a fairly subversive view of popular culture?
Not particularly. The first one I did was Prince Charles – I don’t particularly have anything against Prince Charles! But then I thought it was too tempting not to do someone like Simon Cowell, who a lot of people do hate. I mean, he’s not exactly my favourite person in the world, but I don’t hate him. From then on I decided to do Paris Hilton and other trashy people.
Another intriguing thing you’ve worked on is the Tiger and Bear cartoon strip; can you explain that a little?
It’s quite weird really! One was published in the Korea Herald, which is a national expat newspaper, and a couple more were published online. It’s a couple of mates over in Korea who are doing a performance art project in their spare time. It’s based on a Korean myth, but I think it’s moved quite a long way from that now. They go around wearing big papier-mâché heads doing odd things to draw attention to themselves. They actually seem to be gathering a bit of a following. They played a festival and got really pissed, one of them collapsed off the stage onto the front row that was full of old ladies and they got banned from the festival. I’ve been illustrating their ongoing saga.
Are comics and graphic novels important to you?
Comics were my first influence really, I used to read a lot of 2000AD and that’s where it all started off for me. My dad was in a band and the people in his band were illustrators, and seeing their studios and how they worked was what first drew me to it.
Would you like to be involved in that more?
I’m happy doing little strips like I’ve done with Tiger and Bear, I don’t know about entire comics though. Without sounding lazy, it’s a huge amount of work. I quite like summing up lots of different ideas in one image. I like the impact of one strong image rather than sequential ones.
Do you have a very strong work ethic?
You have to. You have to be constantly contacting people, pushing your name and getting your work seen or you’ll just sink below the surface with so many talented people around.
It’s apparent that you’ve worked in a huge variation of areas and styles. Do you think it’s important to remain versatile and not restrict yourself?
At this stage it really is. I guess it’s weighing up your principles.
Can you see yourself adapting to more fine art, gallery-type work?
I’d like to exhibit a bit more. I was involved with a small show with a friend when I first moved to Bristol in the gallery space above BS8 on Park Street, and I’ve had some work up in smaller galleries. But I’d love to take part in a big group illustration show.
And in terms of growing and developing, what do you see as the ideal way to take your work forward?
I think album covers, t-shirts, music-based stuff like that. If I could make a living from doing those things, that would be wicked!
Words: Geraint Davies