CHICAGO STREET ARTIST BRAIN KILLER SPICES UP THE THREADLESS KITCHEN
Since Brain Killer paid a visit to the Threadless kitchen, lunchtime here has become an experience! It’s as if he topped our PB&J’s with bacon and bananas and left a personal masterpiece on all our napkins. The Chicago native was kind enough to answer some of the burning questions we had for the man who decorated our favorite room. We spoke with him about his stint in art school, his work in television, and where his inspiration comes from. Read on and get to know more about Brain Killer and his work with Threadless!
The new and improved Threadless Kitchen.
TAKE NO SUGAR!
Let’s kick off by learning a bit about your background!
My “biodad” (as I like to call him) was an artist; not a working one, but he was incredibly talented. He was in and out of my life, and every once in awhile I’d get a painting or drawing, usually from prison. I had a cool little collection from him of unicorns, monsters, and other weird things; they were usually painted on velvet. My dad, the dude who raised me, was all business; a very smart guy who he taught me how to toe the line between being creative and being grounded and structured, which is a huge part of my professional life. He ran business in prosthetics and orthotics, so I learned how to make artificial limbs. I can fabricate functional arms and legs, cobble shoes, sew leather. I’d make a pretty good serial killer.
The face of the brilliant brain.
Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised on the north side of Chicago, spending my childhood in Lakeview, Roscoe Village, and Old Irving Park, and my teen years in the Portage Park neighborhood. I’m a Chicago local 100 percent. Locals only, bruh!
That can’t be English.
How’d you get into street art?
I was always involved in the arts while growing up, including hip hop, punk, skateboarding, and graffiti early on. I was also a little shit, bustin’ tags by the fourth grade, sneaking onto trains and buses, stealing paint. I was just a shorty in the neighborhood and looked up to a lot of the MAD crew guys, like Kato, Risk, Reem (RIP), who were all a big influence for me as a kid. Eventually I entered art school, got sick of it, studied film, and moved to LA where I really started getting into street art. As a producer for Attack of the Show on the G4 video game network, I covered the early days of Kid Robot and Giant Robot, and met people on the show like Buff Monster, Jim Mahfood, and Shepard Fairey. I worked on segments for a show on Space Invader, but at the last minute he pulled out to work with Banksy, which later turned out to be his involvement in Exit Through the Gift Shop. After moving back to Chicago, I got the bug to start doing my own art again instead of spectating. In my professional life I still produce and direct everything from commercials to music videos, much of it under the Brain Killer name, but more recently I’ve been gung ho about making more art.
Does the name Brain Killer have any significance in your art?
There is no real significance other than it sounds pretty bad ass.
What inspires your artwork?
My inspirations are a hodgepodge of everything around me; past, present, and future. Movies, TV, comics, cartoons, monsters, sci fi, horror, music, fashion, the internet… It’s really all over the place.
How did you hear about Threadless?
I heard about Threadless from working on Attack of the Show; I produced a t-shirt round-up review and of course we featured Threadless. I remember a box of shirts landed on my desk with a lot of early runs, and I gave so many away not realizing they would be collectibles. I’m pretty sure there were some first run Communist Party shirts in there. All gone!
Chicago indie-rock band Gemini Club’s “Sparklers.” Official music video produced and directed by Brain Killer.
How did the environment influence the piece you did in the Threadless kitchen?
Threadless offered both outdoor and indoor spaces, but I wanted the kitchen because everyone hangs out there and it’s on the way to the bathroom. When there’s a party or a tour, the kitchen feels like a centerpiece to me. I went with a combination of a “food gone bad” theme and improvised illustration. My brand colors are pink and black so I painted the whole kitchen pink and went from there.
When inspiration strikes, how do you decide what medium to express it with (illustration, video, photography)?
Inspiration usually doesn’t strike; it’s all just floating around in my head all the time. I can’t shut it off, and I don’t start unless I’m on deadline or there is a project or opportunity on the table.. That’s when I pluck something from the tree. Even on a mural, I show up and see what comes out. Video is different as it requires conceptualizing and planning, but I still don’t start an idea until there’s a project attached to it. With street art, I hit a point where I realize I haven’t put anything up in awhile and I better get cracking. I have a few things in my head for the next round of paste-ups. but I haven’t pulled the trigger yet. I guess I’m planning in my head but I’m not writing anything down, or creating a timeline. One day I’ll just say, “Ok, I’m not busy, let’s start.”
More street art from Brain Killer. What do six foot worms with horns have to be afraid of?
Is there any city in particular that you want to leave your mark on? If so, why?
I lived in LA for a long time. I need to go back and plant a flag soon.
What are you most proud of as an artist?
As an artist, what am I most proud of? I’m not proud of any of it.
What do you get out of creating art yourself that you miss out on when producing for other clients?
When I’m doing it for myself vs. working for a client, I throw it all out there. In my mind I have this chip on my shoulder full of scumbaggery, and my alter ego is a total degenerate, so that’s what I bring. I tap into all the bad shit and put it out there. I’m very “This is me, and you can go fuck yourself” about it. I’m not an angry person, but any negative energy floating around in me will come out in my work.
How did studying advertising and graphic design in college benefit your career as an artist?
Studying advertising and graphic design didn’t do much for me as an artist, but it did teach me about self-promotion, business, and branding, and that’s a huge asset.
A chilling Brain Killer short. Hold your breath the next time you enter a stall…
I saw Dark Matter Coffee made limited edition bottles with your art on them. What was that like?
I did a street art installation on one of Dark Matter Coffee’s future coffee shops; the image we used was my interpretation of their coffee Unicorn Blood. When they asked me if that same artwork could be used for a limited release of Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Day beer, which used Unicorn Blood coffee, I was floored. I got some mad props for that.
Do you ever reuse characters in your art? Which ones are your favorite?
I use a lot of worms, blobs, eyeballs, creatures, and guts. For the paste-ups, I like to use photographs featuring a combination of models I’ve shot, skulls, painting, and illustration. There’s always lots and lots of pink. I think the worm is my unofficial mascot.
I like your… hair?
Are you working on any new projects right now? If so, could you tell us a little about what you’re up to?
Right now I’m freelance producing some really cool things at Onion Labs, The Onion’s production company. I am also planning a huge street art attack once I slow down. I’m going bigger, brighter, and crazier. It’s time to get back out there.
On your Facebook page, you say you’re an agoraphobe. How do you manage living in one of the busiest cities in the world?
My Facebook page also says I’m a billionaire. The great thing about being Brain Killer is that I can be whoever I want.
Just a taste of the dark corners of Brain Killer’s brain.
MEET OUR “MAKE YOUR STATEMENT” CHALLENGE WINNER!
Due to the recent launch of our app Type Tees, we’ve had lots of reason to be makin’ statements around here. Therefore, we wanted to toss the opportunity out to our awesome community to do the same, in the form of our Make Your Statement challenge! We had so many amazing designs roll in featuring witty, clever, funny, goofy, meaningful, silly, heartfelt (oops, are we getting wordy?) statements, that it was super tough to award the winning crown. However, in the end, we must present it to artist 38 Sunsets of Poland for his tongue-in-cheek design “Le Royal Meh”. Check out an interview with him below, and don’t forget to snag his new tee here!
Congrats on your winning design! Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
The grand prize - sounds so big! It is really exciting. I am thrilled. Thank you so much for picking me! There were so many entries, tons of cool ones, and I want to salute every single participant. It is an awesome sensation to compete with you guys! I want to thank also all the supporters that have scored me highly.
I am bicultural. I was raised in Poland, but spent half my life in Paris. Being multicultural is nice, but sometimes it gives an impression of strange duality and identity. I am an independent artist, working on very diverse commercial and private projects. Self employment is hazardous, too. There are blank moments (ouch!). Incoming projects include designing for an art show catalog and a video/photo report about sculpture creation. Private projects include paintings and photography. I’ve been hooked on illustration for about a year now (thanks, Threadless!). I have now a new tag: “Modern Zombie”, as I am working through daylight, and working through moonlight. No sleep.
This challenge was a little different since it focused on words vs. design. Why did you decide to partake?
While studying contemporary art, I was attracted the most to language. The language of art, the language we speak, the universality of signs… those kind of things. I have made a lot of very conceptual artwork words in my paintings or videos; words have been always of big interest to me. The Make Your Statement challenge was a perfect occasion to renew my interest with words and play with different concepts and styles.
What words do you live by?
DIVERSITY is probably my word for today. Society needs to be diverse; it’s a concept that’s understood largely. Diverse people even like opposite thoughts as there is no hate, no aggression between them. Diverse things all around feed me well… oh yes! Like diverse sauces on a hot dog: ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise - YUMMY! That’s a cool word too - and STRANGE at the same time. I like the word SOUND. I love DIVERSE SOUNDS. I love to listen to JAPANESE. I listen to Japanese movies while doodling my illustrations; they have such cool sounds.
We love the tongue-in-cheek concept of your statement and design. How did you come up with it?
So often we take life events too seriously. What if we could be more relaxed? The day I came up with Royal Meh I was upset and wanted to say something to help alleviate the rising stress, but the common “Fuck it” has a negative charge. I needed to chill out positively. What’s more relaxing than a good laugh? I said “MEH” out loud, which has a funny sound to me, and an instant later thought of “ROYAL MEH”… which got me laughing hysterically! I have realized that Royal Meh is double-faced: both serious and funny. And very positively charged because of the underlying laughter. The word “royal” came up spontaneously, but I think the real source of it is in the French part of me. The title with the determinant “Le” adds another layer of funny reference like in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction dialog about burgers. “Tongue-in-cheek” is really the perfect description; it concludes what I am trying to explain with too many words!
What officially makes a “meh” royal?
The apparent formal elements, like a crown and leaves. But, most important, “meh” is royal when your attitude is appropriate. That includes your body posture, how you pronounce “meh”, and the timing with the situation. Imagine you slip on a banana in the street and you fall on your face. This is the perfect time to show up your “Royal Meh!” You atten to the meeting of adversary political camps. “Royal Meh!” Your boss is pissing you off. “Royal Meh!” So attitude and timing are definitely the official rules. Yet, a positive state of mind is also very important. I actually think there is a potential in this “Royal Meh”. It could be a popular saying. From now on, why don’t you say “Royal Meh!”. Please test and report to me the observed effects.
What was your process of creating it?
My goal was to encompass the feeling of the royal design from the past, since “royal” has rather a historical connotation. I have few old coins with a lot of royal stuff on them, and I searched the internet too to see royal emblems. But my design could not have the true royal precision as “Royal Meh” is a tongue-in-cheek concept; making it too precise would appear too serious. So all elements are plain and bold, not too many details, and everything is drawn by hand. The “MEH” word design has the letter E bumped a bit so it has the feeling of a monogram, something aristocratic. Also, that bump fills the space better between the crown and leaves. I knew exactly what I wanted this design to look like, so I had no hesitation. I sketched the final result straight ahead.
How do you approach font design differently than you would typical design?
Actually, when I treat words differently than typical design, I fail - royally(!). I have decided to treat fonts as geometric forms that have a role to play in the whole composition. I treat them like pictograms (logograms, ideograms, or whatever you call it), rather than phonograms, then continue to tweak. Font design is really not easy; it’s a science, a real knowledge. Instead, I treated “Royal Meh” exactly like an image in its totality. I even forgot for awhile that the statement was meant to be read, so I filled the circle with geometric forms. The words came out of that more and became more unified with my design.
What advice do you have for artists trying to incorporate words into their designs?
The most difficult task is to give one piece of advice for a thousand cases out there. But, basically, try to forget that words are composed with fonts, and play around with forms instead. Check out the rest of your design in accordance to the lines and curves of your words. Take risk to loosen readability. Explode the words into their most simple elementary parts, then recompose everything. Clean your stuff, and be delighted. Practice a lot. Draw. Forget your computer. Take something you’re comfortable with, like a pencil, and draw for five minutes. Then take something you hate, like a brush and ink, and paint for an hour with it. You actually might be surprised of what comes up from the chaos.
If you had to wear one statement t-shirt for the rest of your life, what would it say?
I’ll be snobbish on this one” “Le Royal Meh”. Yeah!
Any other shout-outs?
You guys at Threadless are so cool! No wonder so many of us are so hooked to you. Simply: Long Live Threadless.
P.S. Yes, as soon as I get a copy of the tee, I am going to send it to the Royal Family… who knows, maybe I’ll get a response with a Royal Meh?