Cookie-cutter, Mickey Mouse, DIY visual artists pop-up like windows in an Explorer Web browser; fortunately, an intelligent artist named James Blagden, a professional illustrator, can bridge current events, race and raw coolness through illustrations that offer greater insight than an hour of bubble gum news with Anderson Cooper.
Raised in Denver, Colorado, Blagden caught the artist bug at a young age, doodling furiously, forever inspired by comic books his father introduced to him. Currently, Blagden lives in Brooklyn, illustrating for The New York Times, Wax Poetics, Flaunt, King Magazine, Mass Appeal and several other clients that are the elite in their field of publishing. And it only makes sense that publishing kingpins look to Blagden, a 24-year-old illustration wizard. The first thing readers see is a visual that sets a tone for a monstrous article, thick with grey copy that is a disposable bathroom read, but after the reader wipes their ass, flushes their toilet and hopefully washes their hands, they will remember Blagden’s illustration.
“William Hung was like this Asian dude, this total cartoon, jig, Asian dude, like this Asian Sambo on T.V.”
Format: Found on your website bio are four physical attributes: your strength rating is three, stamina seven, agility five and speed is four.
Blagden: I was heavily into comic books, like Marvel cards when I was in elementary school. I think it was `92 when I got my first set. My dad, we used to go to a comic book store in Denver and I collected those cards. I had like kids have sports books, like baseball cards, I had books of those Marvel series and then the Masterpiece series came out, the Marvel Masterpiece. The back of them had ratings and seven was the strongest for the Marvel characters. I remember stamina, like I was learning vocabulary words, because I didn’t know what stamina or agility, or any of that shit was before those cards! And I remember thinking agile, I want to have agility like Night Crawler and Spiderman and the real strong dudes were like whatever, because I’m a skinny dude so I identify with the little lively motherfuckers, so that’s why I put that on the site.
Format: Also on your website there is a self-portrait of you as a Ninja Turtle wearing what may be Patrick Ewing high-tops.
Blagden: I don’t think they are [Ewing’s]. Some more educated sneaker head might be able to shut me down on that one. They were definitely the shoes that I had at the time when I did that drawing. They were fresh out of the box so I had to put them in the piece. Ninja Turtles that was my era as a kid – the toys, the show, everything about the Turtles I was really into, the movie, when the first movie came out I remember freaking out. I still think, to this day, that it was above average as far as its appeal and they’re still around, like they’re making a new movie right now. They were into the same things as us when we were kids like skateboarding, boom boxes, they were ninjas. I was really into it. I remember having the graphic novels, the actual books, because my dad was into comics. I remember artists that he liked, like Richard Corben the Heavy Metal guy, he was one of the illustrators from that and I have an ill Richard Corben Ninja Turtle comic. I think the appeal of the Turtles was wider than just for kids. It went a lot deeper and darker than He-Man, which I also love, but the Turtles were sort of a cultural phenomenon.
Format: Please explain your drawings of Beetle Juice.
Blagden: That’s the little Howard Stern guy, the Wack Pack dude. Those Beetle Juice pieces are an assignment I got from King Magazine. They’d do a segment with him in just about every issue where they’d interview him. I don’t know why, but they gave me the illustration once and after that they kept giving me the new Beetle Juice interview to illustrate. The ones that I have on my site are just a few of them. There are actually at least four more of those that I wasn’t too crazy about. Now, I sort of have a love, hate thing for Beetle Juice, I can sort of draw him with my eyes closed. It was sort of a conflict, not of interest, but I felt conflicted, because he was exploited. He’s so fucked up. At the same time, everyone involved with him says he’s happy, he’s living his life and not suffering.
Format: Please explain your illustrations with Wax Poetics.
Blagden: Wax Poetics was cool, because that was a magazine that I loved. Sometimes you get a call from a magazine and not know much about them. It is always great to get work, but Wax Poetics is a magazine that I was a real fan of. I have a friend that used to get a subscription and he let me borrow it, because it’s kind of an expensive magazine, so we would share a copy. He’s a writer and we’d talk about it like, ‘Yo we’re going to get our shit together and eventually you’re going to be writing something for them and I’m going to be drawing something for them.’ Finally, once I started getting work, I thought I’d try to get a hold of these dudes and I ended up going to meet this dude named Andre Torres, who runs it, when he was working at Scratch. I went into the office of Scratch when he was running both of them out of the same office. I just showed him my stuff and he was really cool. I had done some stuff for this record label at the time called Seven Heads, which is a Brooklyn hip-hop label, and he had known about them. After that we kept in contact and he gave me a couple good jobs. That was a cool one. It’s such a labor of love, too. The design is so clean and the writing is so good. It is a cool thing to be a part of.
“Now, I sort of have a love, hate thing for Beetle Juice, I can sort of draw him with my eyes closed.”
Format: As an artist, what are the challenges in marketing yourself?
Blagden: Oh that’s what it is, man. The thing is that I’m not really good at self-promoting. I have a natural tendency to not want to put myself up like that and it’s really important, especially for working. In order to get jobs you have to be out there, because you can get a certain amount of work by just having your website up and having a presence online, but you can’t survive if you don’t promote. Having a website is huge. I don’t know how, as an illustrator, how I would be able to get jobs if I didn’t have it. I remember thinking before I had one that they were kind of corny and that the Internet seemed so impersonal, but I embrace the Internet now. I love being a part of the World Wide Web. It’s cool to get people from Germany hitting you up and say they saw your site somewhere. As far as getting jobs and promoting it is definitely a big Internet thing and stuff you learn in school like sending out mailers. Being in New York and being able to go out and meet folks, art directors and people that are just doing stuff.
Format: How important was it for you to move to New York to have a successful career?
Blagden: I think it was in my mind, like as a little kid I wanted to be in New York. My mom was very urban motivated, which is funny, because she lives in the country – my dad was from the east coast, he’s from New York. Even though I never spent any time here as a kid, I waned to be here. All the comic books were based in New York, Spiderman was in New York – it just seemed like the place to be. I don’t think you have to be in New York if you’re going to put your art out or be an artist, but for me New York is always on, it is very motivating and energizing. To be on the subway and see people, and take it all in, it can be very exhausting and overwhelming, but you’re always inspired. For me, I think that is why I like being here and why I wanted to be here – it’s like easy access to inspiration.
Format: Please explain your illustration “Jay-Z Invades Iraq.”
Blagden: That one was for King. I love King, because they’re very good to me. They give me a lot of room. We’re still in Iraq so I guess it’s not really over, but that was at a really weird time with the Iraq situation. The story that went along with it, because they send me the copy, and there was a list of things they wanted in the piece, that one was very art directed. I felt kind of weird about it, because a lot of the language they used was border line racist, very Muslim-phobic, like anti-terrorist, towel-head type of talk and I remember thinking I wasn’t sure If I wanted to be associated with it, but it landed up being fun. It was a joke on Jay-Z, like what if Jay-Z was there. It was around the time Jay-Z started saying the Cater Administration on all the records so they were saying what if the Shawn Carter Administration was there instead of the Bush Administration. It was definitely fun and satirical, but it was border line and I have no problem with border line, but it was at a very sensitive time.
Format: Please explain your project, “Asians, White Folk, Black People and Mexicans.”
Blagden: That was a personal series, like a lot of the stuff on my site is illustration work, but there are a few personal series and most of them are about race. That one is kind of old it was in 2004 during my last week of school. There was a senior show and I did those in a day, I swear to God, I did all four of those in a day. I’ve actually had people e-mail me about those before, so I’ve explained it a couple times, so bear with me. It was when William Hung was out, the American Idol guy, and I had a conversation with one of my teachers, a Korean-American guy. We were talking about Asians in mainstream American media and how there were no Asian leading men in movies or television unless it was Chow Yun-Fat in some very Asian-centric kung fu movie – I think there is one dude on Law And Order, his name is B.D. Wong – but there is not much of an Asian presence on television or movies. We were talking about that and how eroticized Asian women were, like Lucy Liu and all these weird Asian fetishes that come through in American media.
Then William Hung came out and William Hung was like this Asian dude, this total cartoon, jig, Asian dude, like this Asian Sambo on T.V. and he was singing and dancing. It was like the Asian Mantan Minstrel hour and I remember thinking right after this conversation this guy comes out to represent Asians. It was like he was a caricature of himself. God bless the dude, he’s like Beatle Juice, he’s happy, he’s making money and shit, but at what cost? People were laughing at him and it wasn’t cool, it wasn’t like they’re like, ‘Oh you’re a good guy,’ it was like, ‘Look at this dude, he’s a retard,’ even though he was this college graduate MIT kid or something.
That was the inspiration for that whole series, like look how these people are portrayed on T.V. and the rest of it all came from television. Asians are nerdy or retarded, because either they’re in computer class or they’re William Hung or they know karate, they’re Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Black people, that came from the Parkers, because UPN is definitely a very skewed interpretation of black folks, so that was black people are loud and obnoxious. White people was Friends and I hate Friends. Friends is the most disturbing, culturally void program on television. And then Mexicans. I could have gone on and on, like Indians are drunks, Jews are money grubbing, I was going to keep on going, but I only landed up doing four. It’s sad, it plays on stereotypes, but you know how people say stereotypes come from a little bit of truth, like yeah, white people are the fuckin’ devil. It was just my 2004, like however old I was, 21-year-old take on cultural stereotypes in a day, like fast.
Format: Please explain “Pretty Girls Make Grillz.”
Blagden: That was for Nylon Magazine and they had this girl go out on getting grillz made and I guess they sent this girl out to Fulton Street in Brooklyn, which is like the mall, downtown Brooklyn, a predominantly black mall with grillz, sneakers and bootlegged DVDs. I guess they thought it would be funny to get this little white girl down there to get her teeth done. So they sent her down there and she got a set of girllz made, it was funny. I thought it was cool that they called me up to do it, because they obviously thought I was hip-hop-centric or whatever. I was thinking, not to knock them, because they were really sweet to me, but it was definitely like grillz, oh we’re getting grillz now, this is so three years ago.
Format: In volume 33 of Arkitip you have several of your personal series illustrations featured. Please explain that series.
Blagden: That’s another race thing. Arkitip is cool it’s like an art showcase magazine, there is no real editorial content in it. They hit me up to put some stuff in and I used to opportunity to do a new personal series and that was based on some half-baked idea I had about zombies, because I’m like any other 24-year-old, I’m into zombie movies. So, I was watching a lot of zombie movies at the time and I was thinking of zombie culture and how zombies are only interested in eating brains. They all kind of work together as zombies there’s no sub-cultures in zombies it’s all like zombies eating brains.
I was thinking about it and maybe at a point where they had eaten all the brains and everyone was a zombie they would have to start forming zombie society. Zombies would have to break off into sub-zombies, like white zombies and black zombies, and these different zombie neighborhoods and zombie communities. How would the different zombies identify with each other, would a black zombie see another black zombie and be like, ‘You’re my black brother zombie.’ That became the theme. These black zombies were playing with the head of a white zombie and these white zombies were playing with the head of a black zombie. The color piece was the two, a black zombie and a white zombie, looking at each other – are they going to see past their zombie racial boundaries or are they going to start fighting?
“New York is always on, it is very motivating and energizing.”
Format: Do you feel a responsibility for the images you create?
Blagden: I don’t feel responsible as an artist, but as a human being, not to sound corny, but I feel, personally, I can’t speak for anybody else, because there is a lot of nasty shit that I actually like, so I’m not going to say, ‘Yes I feel like artists need to be responsible,’ – personally, I feel a responsibility in a sense that I want my shit to represent me if it is going to be mine. I’m into shit that is not necessarily narrative, but personal, like a personal story that tells a personal perspective. I think you’re naturally responsible for your personal perspective, even if it is a fuck you, you’re responsible for it so I have no problem owning it.