SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
You may have noticed that our cover art this month is a little different from our usual stuff — more R. Crumb than C. Monet.
But then artist Robert Tatum comes from a background that’s quite a bit different from most of the other artists we’ve featured. He comes out of the Los Angeles skateboard, surfboard, cartooning, advertising, and graffiti culture.
His art is offbeat.
He says that he considers his art to be ‘low-brow underground’.
“I try to keep it in good taste,” he says, “but it’s a little strange.”
A lot of Robert's art is 'parody' art, where he re-purposes commercial and historic designs.
HIS COMMERCIAL BACKGROUND
Robert has worked for big advertising agencies, he’s designed logos and skateboards and tee shirts — he even worked for Disney, designing art for clothing, where his speciality was Goofy (although he also designed an image of Micky Mouse with his ear-hat slipping off).
Robert says he dropped out of school in the early 1980s, when he was about sixteen. He wanted to be a graphics artist, he says. What’s more, he wanted to make a living. So even though he had a scholarship to a design school, he quit and took the first commercial art job he was offered.
“I kind of blew it,” he says now. “I had a four year scholarship, but I thought at the time — hey, I’m going to school to get a job as a graphic designer and someone just offered me a job at a graphics design firm. So I took it.”
That was a production job. He wasn’t creating his own visions, rather he was taking someone else’s work and preparing it for reproduction. Today, he says, that kind of thing is done pretty much automatically by computer. Back then, it was a careful manual job.
He worked there for two years, he says, primarily doing logo designs. “I learned a lot,” he says.
He also started doing freelance work, designing graphics for tee shirts, and he spent a lot of time trying to educate himself, since he had skipped the opportunity to get a formal education.
“I joined an organization for advertising and design, because they gave seminars I could go to if I was a member. I remember it was a lot of money for me back then, but I met famous designers, older designers, and listened to their lectures and learned from them.”
He liked the security and the regular pay that attached to working for a company, but, he says, in his mid-twenties he was becoming ‘more entrepreneurial.’
He took a shot at starting several businesses. He started a company called ‘Thoughts for Tots’ that made little baby shirts. He started a novelty company called ‘City Trendz. And he started a company called ‘LA Bronx’, which designed graffiti skateboards.
When we talked to Robert, it was the LA Bronx skateboard company that animated him the most. He says he was ahead of the trend for bringing street art — graffiti — into commercial products like skateboards.
“The problem with that was I had trouble getting into stores, even the ‘edgy’ stores, because at the time, in the eighties, graffiti art was considered gang-related or vandalism. But I was really getting into the art of graffiti, the wild style, the bubble lettering.”
“I’m a graphic designer,” Robert says, “so I love typography. When you see tagging on the side of a building — well, there’s bad tagging, but there’s also really beautiful calligraphy tagging with a spray can or a fat ink marker. There’s a real rhythm to that, and I always really appreciated it. I thought I could bring it to the commercial market.”
When the market was ready for it, however, bigger companies with more money quickly dominated, and LA Bronx — which he ran from 1987 to 1992 — was never ‘monetarily successful.’
Then he got a job offer from the Caribbean Tourist Council and spent a year in the Caribbean. “That really changed my life. I learned how to slow down.”
For a while, Robert went to work for Disney in the textile department, where they produced clothing and textiles for all their stores.
“Because of my surfing background, I suggested ‘Goofy foot’ surfwear, because surfers that pivoted with their left foot were called ‘goofy foots’.”
Getting something like that approved took time, Robert says, because he insisted that Goofy couldn’t surf with his shoes on. “It took six months to put together a whole booklet on how Goofy’s foot was going to look.”
A lot of his art, Robert says, is ‘parody art’ — art that takes something in popular culture and changes it, creating a parody of the original. As an example, he points to a Burger King logo where the text has been changed to ‘Buddha King’ (‘buddha’ being a term for marijuana). He also pulls characters and images from the past and embeds them in a parodied context.
He emphasizes that he doesn’t like ‘shock art’, where the intent is simply to deliver a jolt. He prefers subtlety. He also says that his work shouldn’t be taken literally. He says he doesn’t like to explain his art, he’d rather let people discuss it and engage with it on their own terms. On the other hand, he can explain it, if that’s what you want. For example, his painting of a little girl praying, with a gun tucked into her pajamas: It kind of says, ‘hey, god, help me out with the bullies at school; on the other hand, if you’re busy, I’ll take care of it myself.’ But, he says, the gun isn’t meant literally; it’s intended to symbolize the girl’s own strength.
Robert may be best known for his murals, which can be found on highway support structures, interiors and exteriors of bars and restaurants and retail shops, even on the exterior of a bus. The looks of his murals vary from cartoonish to painterly, but they’re all gorgeous.
In a conversation, he told us “I’d like to do abstract art when I grow up, but I find it really hard to do.”
He says that he has, in the past, painted something and said to himself, “I’ve done it! I’ve created an abstract painting.”
But then the next morning, he can’t help himself, and he paints a horse on top of it.
Deep down, Robert says, he remains a commercial artist. Of course, he’s literally a commercial artist, designing logos, packaging, tee shirts, and interiors for restaurants, but, he says, even when he’s painting straight art on a big canvas, he’s thinking about how the work might scale down for reproductions.
It’s easy to see where that comes from.
HIS MOVE TO TEXAS
In the late eighties, people in LA began paying a bit of attention to Texas, Robert says, because there was a hot skateboard company in Texas, Zorlac, that was competing with the big name, Dog Town skateboards, and there was also a band that was popular on underground radio, the Butthole Surfers, and they were from San Antonio.
So, Robert says, he was curious and came for a short visit.
At first, he says, he wasn’t impressed. But then he started meeting people, other artists, and felt welcomed.
They invited him to work in their studios.
“They encouraged me to paint,” Robert says, “so I started painting. I love painting. so the two weeks I was going to be here turned into thirty years. I just couldn’t leave.”
“In LA it was just so cutthroat and always competing and having to make money. Everything was materialistic, and you get wrapped up in it. Here I just met a lot of good people to slow down with. Go to people's house, have barbecue, hang out for three, four hours.”
“ It slowed me down. I started painting and I've been a painter ever since. So it was kind of like being born again, not religiously, but being born again. Getting to do what I really wanted to do.”
See more of Robert's work on his website.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
Thursday, October 20, 2022
In the Hot Box gallery, Robert has a selection of his commercial items, including tee shirts, prints, and a CBD product that carries his packaging design. His murals appear on highway support structures and the interior and exterior walls of bars, restaurants, and retail stores.
A sampling of Robert's paintings
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