[ September 25th, 2006 ] Altpick recently visited with artist and illustrator John Lacko. We sit mesmerized as he recounts the story of his drunken sing along with our favorite breakthrough TV star, Santino Rice from Project Runway. John has been posting a lot of great new work in his Altpick portfolio and we wanted to hear more about his encounter with Santino and to find out what influences him as a designer. As it turns out, John's decision to abandon the traditional means of self promotion mirrors his rather unique artistic style.
Thanks for talking with us today. Your collaboration with Santino Rice seems to have been a successful match. I have to say that the whole "reality television meets the real world" story is so great. How did you two meet?
I first saw Santino on Bravo's second season of Project Runway. Initially, I liked his personal style and the fact that he never took himself too seriously. Besides, his effect on the other contestants was totally disarming. So you decided he was an evil genius?
Pretty much... Midway thorough the second season, Nicky Hilton appeared as a guest judge who challenged the designers to create her signature look. Santino won that round because the dress he created not only appealed to Nicky, but because he had the balls to hand her a business card during the judging as if to say, "take this - you NEED it!"
I think self promotion is really challenging for an artist. It's not in my character to have the nerve to walk up to someone and tell them why they need me. I guess that's why I enjoy watching these designers strut and pose on television. After that episode, I started wondering what Santino's business card might look like. If you're that much larger than life - no ordinary card would do. My own business card is pretty unconventional, so I started thinking about designing one for Santino...
I think my stylized illustrations are a great mesh with his gritty LA fashion sense, so I sketched out some drawings of his face and for kicks decided to post the illustration on Santino's MySpace page. A few days later he called to thank me and to tell me he loved the art.
Did you ever expect Santino Rice would call you on the phone?
I never know what to expect when I upload something to the net. Sometimes it gets lost in the void and sometimes I'm met with unexpected surprises. To be honest - when I first played back Santino's message, I thought it was a joke - but when I realized it was genuine, I was impressed he took the time to call me. Another match made on MySpace! Do you do a lot of self promotion there?
The last few years I've been taking an unorthodox approach to self promotion. Buying ads in conventional mass mailed marketing books or entering contests in traditional design trade magazines hasn't proven too fruitful. MySpace is just one of those avenues where self promotion has become an art unto itself. There is trend on-line where free content is being generated by users within on-line universes like MySpace and YouTube. More and more companies are creating sites that are offering users free web space and in exchange millions of people are filling these sites with their personal content. Turns out it's an ideal opportunity for self promotion. But isn't MySpace just a place where teenagers are posting pictures of themselves that would make Mom cry?
(laughing) I don't know what you're taking about... OK. Yeah. There is that too. But I actually post to groups of artists and musicians who upload their work to get feedback and recognition. The art director from Alternative Press (AP) Magazine saw my illustration of Santino on-line and commissioned me to do a caricature of the Van's Warped Tour founder. It was a desperate last minute search because he needed two illustrations completed in a single weekend. And of course in light of the ridiculous deadline, my computer died the next day! Long story short, I desperately started jiggling the wires and completed the project in the nick of time.
And you credit this business connection to MySpace?
Actually my MySpace page has a link to my AltPick portfolio. It never ceases to amaze me how the immediacy of the net connects people with projects whether you're ready or not. I find the more involved and exposed I become to these on-line communities, the more accessible the world seems to be. More and more artists from all around the globe are connecting with each other by speaking a universal language of art on the net.
Pictoplasma.com is great example of another on-line community where the love of character design connects artists. Based in Berlin, Pictoplasma invited internationally established and emerging illustrators from around the world to participate in it's BUNNY MANDALA project, a collection of bunny characters created for it's "Essence of Rabbit" show. I submitted a half dozen bunnies to the project that was ultimately exhibited as limited edition wall paper. The final project was displayed just before Easter 2006 at the Heliotrope Film Festival in Nice, France.I noticed all the rabbits in your portfolio. I like the Godzilla bunny. I have to say it looks like you're influenced by a combination of pop culture references, Japanese manga and graffiti. Tell us a little about your sense of style and how it lead to the development of your work.
Growing up on my own turned out to be fertile ground for a very active imagination. Both of my parents worked full time so I was a latch-key kid living on a steady diet of TV, movies, video games and lots of sugary snacks. I like to think my sense of reality was endlessly developing and expanding. It's probably the reason I constantly strive to find multiple solutions to creative issues. I start working out an idea on paper and then integrate my digital life into the drawing. Once I've got a solution, I archive the additional ideas for adaptation into a future project. That's why I like testing out my work on-line... I guess on-line everybody is kind of an only child. I've just got an advantage over most people because of all the practice I had growing up. Would you say your work involves a kind of creative recycling?
Yeah, creative recycling is a perfect way to define how the world informs and influences my work and the way I react to create new business for my studio. Projects seem to have a ripple effect on one another. Chain reactions take my illustrations in directions I hadn't planned...
For instance, last year I was invited to participate in a group show called "Future Progress or Destruction" at the Robocon Art Gallery in Los Angeles. The artists who participated were asked to interpret their future vision of Planet Earth, an outlook that might be sunny bright or pretty grim. It turns out the timing of the Robocon show coincided with Florida's wildest hurricane season. I had just explored the theme of bunnies constantly evolving for the Bunny Mandala Project so I decided to adapt one of the bunnies for the Robocon show. As the deadline for my piece approached, we were hit by a major hurricane. The power went out and I ended up working by candlelight to finish. It was surreal. There are these gale force winds howling through the rafters of my studio and I'm sitting there surrounded by candles trying to finish the piece in the dark... just me and the bunnies!
Did you make it through the storm okay?
Yeah, but every year it seems we're always running like busy little bunnies to stay one step ahead of the weather. I was gearing up for a trip to Tokyo when we were hit by Hurricane Katrina. We flew out of Miami on one of the first planes airborne once they reopened the airport and by the time we reached Japan the next day, New Orleans had been destroyed. I watched the aftermath unfold on CNN International and just felt so helpless. A few days later, Japan was hit by a category 3 storm so the entire trip was about the devastating effects of these evil clouds! That's what you got out of it? Evil clouds?
Yeah... I guess you could say I've gotten a little fixated upon the dangerous side of clouds. You know, the whole "dark clouds have silver linings" idea? Well after Katrina, evil clouds were all over everything I drew for months. I think I was trying to work out all the frenzy of that experience... Exorcizing your demons?
(laughing) Let's just say I've worked out my cloud issues. Later on, I was able to adapt the cloud characters into a project for the Adidas Adicolor International Design Competition called "Flight". My Adidas sneakers were covered with a traditional Japanese wave motif and then all these cranky ass clouds...
Was there a silver lining? Did you win the competition?
I placed second which isn't too bad for an international contest. All of the designs were reviewed by a select panel of judges. 10 finalists were chosen and then asked to solicit votes for their designs online - the artist with the most votes won. The goal for Adidas was to promote web traffic to the Adicolor project and in turn, they helped promote my work on an international stage. Once I realized I needed to generate votes, it was sort of a guerilla campaign to find people to log on to the site to vote for me. It was like that high school movie "Election..."Near the end of the competition while scouring for votes I discovered a lot of sneaker freak groups online... Sounds like a band...
Actually, there are sneaker fans all over the world who have organized groups devoted to the custom sneaker culture. It's funny because once I introduced my work to some of these groups, I not only found a lot more votes for my Adidas "Flight" design, but I got a few commission offers to paint some custom kicks! Once I made all of these new connections online, I was able to get together with new friends and industry professionals at the annual San Diego Comic Con. Over 100,000 people showed up this year - it's amazing!
Do you see yourself eventually becoming a comic book artist?
No. Not really. But the Comic Convention isn't really about comics alone. There were so many artists and illustrators attending because it's this huge celebration of pop culture. The vinyl toy business at Comic Con was blowing up - all these limited editions and collector's series. Plus all the designers were signing and customizing the toys, so it made them that much better...
You adapted an illustration into a toy?
Well - sort of... I took a character I designed a few years ago - Bully - who popped up after a summer vacation in Spain. Bully hung around a while as a sketch and then he turned into a series of illustrations. When it was time to put together the promo package for San Diego, I was slammed with work and couldn't decide what to do to promote myself. Suddenly I saw Bully and thought about how he has been there for me all this time - so I brought him along with me to California... And people liked him?
Yeah! This guy approached me and told me he and his friends wanted to develop the character into a toy. I am working with them now. During the course of my career I've had the opportunity to work in the Visual Merchandising field. I've helped develop custom mannequins, clothing fixtures shaped like surf boards and lots of other crazy oversized store props. The process of turning my illustrations into dimensional pieces is really exciting - so now I am actually trying to miniaturize my work. Department store props are sculpted in a giant factory somewhere, but I've started sculpting the toys on my own. It's a hands-on process I enjoy and I believe can add additional value to the toys once they're completed. Do you think a lot of your character work could be versatile enough to be turned into toys?
Well, yeah. But I still like to just pull things together and develop the character art. I was thinking of adapting the cloud characters into toys as well. Maybe something plush and soft looking but with an evil twist. I guess I'll have to see how people respond to the clouds on the shoes. And where are those cloudy sneakers today?
Actually they're on tour with the Sneaker Pimps. Peter Fahey contacted me during the Adidas competition and asked me to do some illustration work to promote the Sneaker Pimps Tour (www.sneakerpimpsusa.com). When my design made it in to the Adidas finals, he asked if I wanted to participate in the tour. Artists from around the world take actual sneakers and transform them into art pieces. Peter puts together this traveling art show with DJs and skateboarding and it's this wild road show.
Kind of Sneaker-Pallooza?
Yeah! I went to the opening in LA two years ago and they set up a skate ramp in the gallery parking lot. There were bands playing and the line to get inside to see the shoes went around the block! I was so impressed with the amount of work that went into every shoe. A lot of the artists were there. It was a great night. The next day, the whole show was on it's way to another city. This year my Adidas "Flight" kick is part of the tour. It was in Atlantic City September 9th with the Funkmaster Flex Custom Car and Bike Show with P Diddy, Flavor Flav and Jermaine Dupri! I'll be at the Miami opening September 23rd and I am hoping to fly up for the New York City opening on Friday the 13th of October. Well congratulations - where else can people see your stuff?
Well I try to update my Altpick portfolio when I can. I've gotten a lot of calls about my work from art directors who review new work on Altpick. I have to say that when Santino Rice appeared in the t-shirt we designed on Bravo TV's PROJECT RUNWAY 3, traffic to my website (www.johnlacko.com) and to my Altpick portfolio went way up. I've been fortunate to have been asked to illustrate for XM Radio, the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards on Fuse TV, and to design merchandise for the X-Games as a result of my participation on Altpick. We're happy to hear that. I have to ask - is it still possible to get a Santino Rice t-shirt?
Actually no - we did a limited edition run of 250 shirts. They all sold out on his website during the finale weekend of Project Runway Season 2. He took one of the last shirts and kind of tie-dyed it with bleach and then wore it during the filming of the casting episode called "Run Up to Project Runway Season 3." Does that kind of notoriety appeal to you?
Nah - I like being the man behind the curtain. He's able to deal with the complete lack of privacy that comes out of reality television and I really like working with him. But for me, the art is what people should be looking at, not the artist... I'm happiest when my illustrations are capturing the spotlight for my clients. Well that's a very good answer. Thanks for talking to us today. We'll check out your stuff when Sneaker Pimps comes to New York.
Great... Thanks. I hope to see you there.
Contributed by Alice Dreer
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