Interviews

A Chat with Iconic Underground Artist Raymond Pettibon

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

Here’s something I think you’re really gonna like. When it comes to old school hardcore punk, it definitely is not all about the bands and musicians. In fact I’ve always said that 7 inch records and flyers are what truly signify and symbolize hardcore. You know, art and artists (along with the music of course).

One of, if not the greatest artists to come out of that era is of course Raymond Pettibon. Who’s to say, but 100%, him, Pushead and Shawn Kerri are the top three, no question (well Mad Marc Rude is up there too but you know).

If you somehow are unaware, Raymond of course created the Black Flag logo and did countless album covers and flyers from back in the day. I really wasn’t sure if he’d be interested in talking to me about this stuff but I figured why not ask, worst case scenario he says no or ignores me, but he said he was down so here’s our Hardcore Conversation for your enjoyment and enlightenment. 

You are world renowned artist Raymond Pettibon, correct?

Yeah. 

How did your family end up in Hermosa Beach, California after starting out in Arizona?

Well, I was born in Arizona but I think I was about two when we left to Wasco, California, which is about 10 miles from Bakersfield. You know, Steinbeck country, Grapes of Wrath, farming, that sort of thing. I was five years old when we moved to Hermosa Beach. 

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

What was it like growing up there?

Well, which one?

I guess Hermosa, you know, your formative years. What were you into as a kid, comic books, rock n’ roll…?

I was never into comic books. That came later. My work is influenced by them somewhat but at the time as a kid, no. Hermosa Beach is, it’s like a beach town. Surfing, water.

Did you surf?

Yeah, some. It’s not a great surf town most of the year. It (waves) doesn’t break with much regularity but I spent most days at the beach. 

What initially inspired you to start drawing? Were you pretty much always drawing or do you remember specifically starting?

Well, I got my degree in economics but by that time I was pretty much burnt out on that and couldn’t see myself continuing. 

I was actually going to ask you about that. With your dad who was an English teacher and a guy like yourself who’s geared towards art and stuff like that, how’d you end up going into economics to begin with?

It was a choice, it was an interest of mine at the time. But that withered away over time. 

Gotcha. So, when did you start with the text captions in your art, where’d that come from?

I was doing, before that for a while, I was doing editorial type cartoons so that’s with image and text as well and, there is a big split, a big difference between that and what I subsequently did but maybe that has something to do with it. I don’t know, it’s not for me to say actually. 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

You were one of the people along with Shawn Kerri, Pushead, Mad Marc Rude, etc., who basically created the template for '80s hardcore punk flyers. Were you into the scene/music and were you a fan/admirer of any of your fellow flyer artists?

I knew them, not personally all of them but I was aware of them and others. The art and the music were much more separated and apart than what people tend to believe. I was a follower of punk since ’77, or actually earlier, but it didn’t have a hell of a lot to do with my art. 

Oh ok, I was wondering if you were even into that music or if you just kind of got pulled into it with your artwork…

No, I was for a time.

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

What were your favorite hardcore and punk bands?

Well, Black Flag, the Germs, umm, I went to a lot of shows. 

According to legend you were the original bass player in Black Flag/Panic but when I interviewed Bryan Migdol (original Black Flag drummer) he said that wasn’t true and he doesn’t remember ever playing with you. So can you set the record straight, were you or weren’t you?

I wouldn’t say that, I don’t know why that keeps coming up. I did learn the early Black Flag songs with Greg [Ginn] and that was a thought at one time but in retrospect, I mean, thank God I didn’t pursue that and no, I don’t think I ever rehearsed with Migdol, Chuck or Greg or anything. Nothing came to fruition with that. 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

Were you into it when Greg started playing guitar and writing songs or were you like, “Turn down that racket!” or whatever?

No, I was his biggest encourager at the time. 

Did you offer him your artwork or did he ask you, how’d that get started?

Things back then, there wasn’t a formalized way of doing that stuff. You know, like with a record department, art department and etc. They were never done as, except with a rare instance or two, they were works that had already been done, not with the intention of being associated with punk or as a cover for a punk band.

At the time, unless the musicians were artists themselves, anyone around, whether it’s someone they know or a family member… See what I mean?

Yeah, for sure. What did your parents think of you and your brother’s artistic pursuits, were they supportive?

My mother was always very supportive of everything her children did. My father, that was more complicated but it wasn’t a big fight one way or another, like, “You’re going over to Satan!” or punk or anything. 

[Laughs] He wasn’t going to try to kick you out of the house or send you to Parents Against Punkers or anything like that?

[Laughs] No, I remember those. No, it wasn’t like that. 

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

In the “Comic Relief” issue of Flipside fanzine (issue #33) you said your future ambitions included:

“To become richer and more famous and marry Brooke Shields or at least Jody Foster and raise a family on Blue Lagoon, or at least Fantasy Island. Also to learn how to draw.”

Do you feel you’ve achieved any of those?

That was spoken as a joke and I don’t remember saying that but I’ll accept it. As far as the latter part, learning how to draw, that’s always a struggle and I think it should be because I don’t think I’ve ever arrived. Like a signature style which you keep reproducing over and over, you know what I mean? 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

Yeah, and it’s like you’re never finished. It’s always a process of hopefully getting better and learning more stuff, right?

Yeah, it keeps your head in the game. 

Do you feel you’ve achieved your ambition of finally turning the safety pin into money? (from his answer to the question, “What inspired you to get into punk?” from the same Flipside interview) I guess making fun of the whole “selling out” controversy prevalent in all the punk mags back then. 

Yeah, selling out was a big deal with Flipside and punk in general. I never bought into that. At the same time, I never made a cent off of punk. I’ve never been paid. I mean, not one cent by SST or Black Flag or anything else and so that was also said as a joke and it’s actually the complete opposite of that. Mind you, like I intimated, the sellout issue means nothing to me.

I think people should get whatever they can get. A lot of people haven’t been paid by Greg Ginn or SST. At the same time punk did little or nothing except bad to my career prospects in art. Not that I think of that as careerism, that wasn’t the point. I never set my eyes on, God knows, meeting Brooke Shields and retiring to Fantasy Island or the Blue Lagoon [laughs]. 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

One of my favorite works of yours is the My War puppet, boxing glove guy. I was wondering if you had any stories or inspiration behind that piece?

No nothing, not that I know of. That was a long time ago.

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

Did you have an actual puppet that looked like that or something or did that idea just pop into your head? 

No, it wasn’t drawn from life or anything. To me it’s kind of lame but whatever.

Oh ok. What about the zines you made back then like Tripping Corpse and stuff like that, those were actually distributed through SST, correct?

No, they were never distributed through SST. I don’t think I ever sold one, they were just to collect drawings, to make record of them. They were nominally for sale for like a dollar, a dollar and a half or whatever but I was never in that business. Like I said before, I never made a cent from SST anything to do with SST, ok?

Nowadays those zines go for hundreds of dollars, flyers the same. I never sold one, it was always, doing anything through SST was just miserable. Many people can say the same thing, in my case even more so.

I’m not a businessman, I’m not a marketer. I don’t sell my own work, it goes through galleries. There’s probably over a hundred zines and SST and other people used to bootleg them without my knowledge, and that’s them. I haven’t even thought of those people for how many years, 50 years, whatever? May as well be.

Don’t think I’m talking like I’m some embittered, holding a grudge person, ok you know? I could go public with all this stuff, I never mention any of this. If you monetized everything I did for them it’d be millions of dollars ok? 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

Does it amuse you at all that the flyers that were just like glued on telephone poles and tossed on the ground are really valuable now?

No, I knew it would happen. I mean, if you look at that sort of thing, whether it’s comic books or baseball cards, it’s the things that people assumed had no value. The print run of the Superman and Batman magazines (back in the day) were a half a million or more and few exist anymore because they were all thrown out as garbage. Same thing goes with flyers for instance, or fanzines. You couldn’t give them away. That’s why they’re scarce.

Things that are scarce tend to have more value. It may take a generation or whatever but, no that was no surprise to me at all. I tried to say to them, “Hey, just save me 10 of them,” or whatever, but that was always a chore, you know?

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

It was a chore to even get them to give you 10 copies of flyers?

I still have some but I never sold any and like I said, most of the ones that are out there are faked or bootlegs but I have some of the originals, the ones I could get. And, well, whatever. 

I remember in your New Museum exhibit in NYC in 2017, you had everything from your original Xeroxed zines and punk flyers along with your current works and everything in between so, do you differentiate between the punk stuff and the rest of your work or do you consider it all part of one collective work?

I didn’t put up that show so I wasn’t responsible for it. 

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

Oh, did you go see it?

Yeah, I was there, I did work on the wall as well. But it’s not an issue with me, I don’t have reservations one way or another. Like I said, the drawings themselves pre-existed the album covers and the flyers so, I don’t know, I’m just kind of ambivalent about the whole thing but accepting. 

I have to ask, did you ever ask to get paid? Like did you ever call SST and say like, “Hey, I should get paid.” or whatever?

No. At one point they offered me, I think $400 for everything. Which was just an insult, ok? I was doing fine by then, I suppose. I haven’t talked to Greg since probably ’86 or thereabouts. He doesn’t, he’s broken off from just about everyone in his past as far as I know, I don’t keep up with it. It’s pretty brutal. 

I hear ya. Well, let me try to switch gears a little bit and ask you, when you were going to punk shows, did you hang out at Oki Dog back then?

Sure, after the gig that was like a place. 

So, you were actually pretty immersed in the whole southern California punk experience then?

To a point. 

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

How did you make the transition from punk flyers and album covers to fine art?

It just evolved organically. I didn’t pull strings or anything, it’s just not my nature. But I think things will find their right level and my art eventually, its level was in the gallery and museum world. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it wasn’t something I was trying to break into, I just had faith and self doubts, I suppose, that eventually it will find its own audience. 

Do you remember a few years back when you had a billboard in NYC on the westside, I guess it was in Chelsea, near the water? It was a baseball illustration, what was the story with that? I remember, I thought it was really awesome because it didn’t seem to be advertising anything, it was just a giant piece of your art on a billboard. Were you responsible for that or did somebody do that?

Well, I didn’t glue it up. You know,  I don’t remember exactly what that was for. 

Photo by Anthony Allen Begnal, from the Highline, NYC.

I took a picture of it, it was Jackie Robinson…

I know when I did a retrospective at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), I did a big, on the wall mural of Jackie Robinson stealing home.

Yeah, that’s what it was!

I guess that was the source of it. It didn’t start as a billboard, I just don’t remember the circumstances. 

Everyone kind of knows about your presence on social media, how do you feel about that stuff in general? Do you think it’s a useful tool or do you just like venting on there?

I hope it’s not too much venting. I used to be on Twitter, which is kind of a challenge because it’s short and succinct. I’m on Facebook a little bit but not much. And Instagram but someone else handles that. I don’t even keep up with that.

From the collection of Michael S Begnal

What’re you currently working on?

I have a show in LA in September and I’m trying to finish what I can.

Is it going to be similar to the New Museum show or what? 

No it’s at a gallery, Regen Projects. They’ve been showing me for 20 plus years. 

And finally, who was your favorite Black Flag singer?

Hmm, they were all very different in their own ways. I like them all, it would be hard for me to say. Seriously, and I’m not saying that because I don’t want to slight anyone. Sincerely, that’s a hard choice, I can’t make it. 

From the collection of Anthony Allen Begnal

Were you friends with any of them?

Yeah, all of them. 

Well, thanks very much for taking the time to talk me, I really appreciate it.

OK great, good talking to you.

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Tagged: a hardcore conversation, black flag

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