The Man Behind The Dead Kennedy’s Logo


THOBEY CAMPION: Hey,
this is Thobey. We’re in North Beach, San
Francisco, right now to meet up with legendary artist,
Winston Smith. WINSTON SMITH: [INAUDIBLE]
later. THOBEY CAMPION: Pleasure
to meet you, Thobey. WINSTON SMITH: Thobey,
good to meet you. Yeah, that’s it. It’s like awesome, two worlds. THOBEY CAMPION: Thank you. So this is it? WINSTON SMITH: Welcome
to Grant’s Tomb. We’re right under
Grant Avenue. So this is mainly my work that
I’ve had up for a show, and then I generally pull curtains
across so people don’t have to look at my chaotic
studio part. I was born in Oklahoma. Then when I was a teenager, I
had the brilliant idea to go to art school. And went to study Renaissance
art in Florence. My mom’s a painter and
a sculptress– really talented. And I didn’t, unfortunately,
inherit her skills. I can sketch and draw, if I
wanted to, really well– but usually too much effort. So it’s easier to cut
up other people’s drawings and use those. And I kind of discovered
the medium of collage. Before there were photocopy
machines, I would make my own drawings. And then realized if I cut them
I could mix them together and come up with really
absurdist compositions that were startling. And once I did see a photocopy
machine, I think Xerox or Olivetti. In Italy we had Olivetti. And that kind of changed
everything. Because you could rearrange
pictures together, photocopy it, and it would make them
all look like one unit. At that time, and for a long,
long time afterward, whenever I would present this work or
composition, especially for commercial work like
illustration for a magazine, the art directors would say
well, it’s not a painting, and it’s not a photograph,
so what is it? So I’m trying to create
instant surrealism that you could get. I could take a bunch of
completely normal things and put them together and
they’re not right. The [INAUDIBLE] one time said
you take things that are all wrong, put them together and
suddenly make them right. That’s a piece we used
for a Dead Kennedy’s record in the middle. Mowing down the people, it was
on the inside of a record. THOBEY CAMPION: Do you ever have
brushes with the law or calls from authorities about
any of your work? WINSTON SMITH: No I think I’m
either so much under the radar or they probably figure oh,
let him keep doing that. That way he won’t cause
any real trouble. He’s just an artist. THOBEY CAMPION: A lot of
articles talk about you coming back to the States after
being away for six years or so was a real– WINSTON SMITH: Culture
shock, yeah. When I first arrived in America,
I had two friends who lived here, one who
lived in Boston– New York and Boston, he moved
to Boston– and then one friend who lived out
in San Francisco. The part of Boston I
lived in was right by the Charles River. The shock was that there were
TV cameras everywhere. Not just at banks and office
buildings, but at donut shops. And these little cameras would
follow you around. And like son of a bitch,
it’s like Orwell. THOBEY CAMPION: So you
were in Boston then. And then how did you get
over to San Francisco? WINSTON SMITH: I hitchhiked
across the country. San Francisco was
full of energy. It’s a small city, it’s only
seven miles across so you can walk around. In fact, there was a bus strike
for a couple of weeks and I did have to walk around
everywhere to find anything. Where I would up working was
like a rent a roadie joint working for different bands like
the Tubes, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, Journey. A bunch of other local bands
would come in and perform at our sound stages. I did run into lots
of interesting people in that industry. And it was right just before
punk rock had begun to rear its ugly head. THOBEY CAMPION: So what year
span are we talking right now? WINSTON SMITH: ’76 and ’77. A lot of places wouldn’t book
punk bands at that time because of too much trouble. The insurance wouldn’t cover the
place if the windows got broken or someone got hurt. And that’s why punk rock,
I think, was born. Because so many people who
didn’t want to perform were kind of pissed off that all
there was was these giant stadium bands. All there was was just big
show business stuff. And punk rock was about no, just
get up on stage in the corner of someone’s room in
a basement someplace. San Francisco was more
of an art movement for the punk scene. Because there were people who
were artists that couldn’t play anything, but they’d
perform and they’d have an act. Usually it was funny or it was
absurd, it was something interesting. THOBEY CAMPION: You mentioned in
some interviews about that time and the spirit that infused
the music and the art was kind of resemblant
of Dadaism. WINSTON SMITH: Totally. Advertising here doesn’t take
the form so much of TV ads, or radio, or billboards– it’s posters. And we had the opportunity
because people have to walk around to put posters or
propaganda for a band, or for anything really, on the walls
that you’d have to see if you were waiting for the
bus service or walking down the block. Sometimes I’d see these
and I’d think well, I could do that. I don’t think I can do better,
but I could do something like that. And I didn’t know a lot of the
people in the current scene that was coming up. I didn’t know people in bands. So I just made up my own punk
bands and put up posters for like The Twits– nonexistent bands. There was no Kinko’s then, you
had to go to the Rexall and put a dime in the thing. Or we’d go to the public library
and there’s be a Olivetti machine or
a Xerox machine. You could do whole
‘zines at Rexall. One of these was– the people must believe that
they are not manipulated in order for them to be manipulated
effectively. That turned into a compilation
album. THOBEY CAMPION: The name Dead
Kennedys I think inspired how you first reached
out to Jello? WINSTON SMITH: We’re kind
of at the same age. He’s a few years younger
than me. So I have a vivid memories of
JFK’s assassination as an 11-year-old, as a teenager, and
what that did to the rest of society. THOBEY CAMPION: Your career,
there’s been points where people will have reacted to
your work negatively, and sometimes extremely
negatively. And I think that the example
that yeah, you pointed across there, I think that the Pat
Robertson 700 Club instance was an interesting one. WINSTON SMITH: We used a picture
I had done a few years before for a Dead Kennedy’s
record, it was an EP. My piece was a cross of American
dollars with a Jesus on a cross. It was about greed and religion
and corruption and essentially how money
controls things, how people worship money. It wasn’t really
very profound. So we used it for the record. And then in Great Britain they
banned the record cover and big posters up in the window,
like table-size posters, from record shops. Because people complained
because they said it was heresy. Which meant they took the
records out of the shops. And Biafra thought
it was horrible. This is terrible publicity! And I was going,
no, it’s great! There’s no such thing
as bad publicity! You should write the
cops a check. You should send them
a thank you note. THOBEY CAMPION: Have you always
had a purpose, either political or social,
with your work? WINSTON SMITH: No. THOBEY CAMPION: Thank God. WINSTON SMITH: Yeah. Sometimes a lot of things I have
I’ll put together because they look funny, or interesting,
or kind of intriguing, or enigmatic
that way. THOBEY CAMPION: Some of your
work has a definite intent. One of the pieces that gets
brought up a lot is the baby being fed by the– WINSTON SMITH: Oh, the bomb. THOBEY CAMPION: The bomb. WINSTON SMITH: Baby
and the bomb. Force-fed war. That was about when
Ronald Reagan was President in ’82 or ’83. And he cut-off the school lunch
program for children, which sometimes was the only
meal they had in a day, and give all the money
to the Pentagon. The best thing about that rocket
that the baby is being fed, the real thing on the
tail said 666 DBH or some other code number. I just had to blackout the code
number and the 666 was already there. THOBEY CAMPION: What
drives you? Is it frustration that drives
you to continue to be working like 59 years? WINSTON SMITH: That actually
is a good motivator. A lot of it is just the desire
to put what is subconscious onto paper. We have a responsibility as
artists to express ourselves. I think. Even us, we might change our
mind 10 or 20 years later, and go oh, you know, I could
be wrong about that. Now I see it differently.

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