Coursing through the DNA of punk is an aggressive rejection of the status quo and its efforts to hinder the unique expression of those residing along culture’s outside edges. “I try to speak to state power in general without trying to take over anyone else’s struggle, but there’s lot of fucked up shit happening to a lot of people,” shares visual artist Alexander Heir. “Especially coming from a punk background, to just ignore it is ridiculous and I try to practice what I preach in many ways.” Throughout his prolific career, Heir has produced a recognisable body of work serving as one of the defining aesthetics of the contemporary underground punk scene – his influence reaching cities including Barcelona, Mexico City, and Tokyo.
From Japanese wood cuts to Russian prison tattoos and horror movie posters, Heir references numerous influences to shape a distinct and powerful visual canon of work capturing elements of 50 years’ worth of subversive underground culture through images: both demented and twistedly playful. Heir has produced images for international artists and his work has graced the albums and ephemera of bands such as The Mob, Martin Rev of Suicide, and John Carpenter, while his clothing brand Death/Traitors has become a counterculture staple – a favourite amongst the likes of Three Six Mafia, Fucked Up, and Odd Future.
With his upcoming book WARRK2K∞//WORK 2014-17 (out via Sacred Bones) Heir presents all of his work since 2014’s Death Is Not the End, with images exploring police brutality, political corruption, and death – all while bringing sci-fi and psychedelic influences into the mix. We recently met with Heir at his studio in Brooklyn to talk about his work and what is means to be a punk.
J.L. Sirisuk: What is punk to you?
Alexander Heir: For me there’s two definitions or ways to look at it: there’s “punk” as in a genre and a specific scene and style, and there’s “punk” as in more of an intellectual thing that has less rules on it. I’m involved in both, and respect both.
JLS: Are there certain traits consistent with both definitions?
AH: I think that essentially some people argue the effectiveness of punk as a genre now, which I think has its pros and cons, but I think its anti-mainstream, anti-capitalism, pro-being the other, the weirdo – just a rejection of whatever we’ve got going on now, be it political, be it just a terrible state of rock music or music in general. The status quo is what punk sought to destroy and also, kind of – I don’t wanna say futurism – but being willing to destroy all your heroes and society’s heroes, rules, morals or whatever it may be, and if they don’t work for you, to craft your own better world.
JLS: What things influenced your creative world when you were growing up?
AH: My father was a photographer turned painter so I’ve always been exposed to lots of visual stuff, but for me it was always this spooky almost Halloween shit – that was always the stuff that sparked me even back when they had VHS stores and looking at all the horror movies I was too scared to watch. I don’t even like horror movies either, they’re too scary and now I think most of them are just boring, but the art, the hand-painted ones really stuck out to me and its funny now coming full circle. T-shirts were one of the biggest things that got me going. Even before I was listening to music or knew about subculture on my own, I was always buying weird shirts. My father worked in the city so we’d walk around the village, we’d walk past a record store and they’d have some cool t-shirts and they had some tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt. Then discovering punk, and discovering Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and Seditionaries, all that was it for me.
“Obviously with the current president as well, things are very serious and grave but it’s almost to the point now where it’s ridiculous…”
JLS: Your work has reached an audience beyond New York. Has there been a city where you where you were surprised by the reception?
AH: I think Spain. Barcelona for sure, which is one of my favourite cities. I have so many friends there. The first time that I had an art show outside of New York or the States – I wanna say in 2014 – it was a group show with me, Heather Benjamin, Jess Poplawksi, and some locals from Barcelona and the turnout was insane. Hundreds of people lined up in the street and it was so cool – everyone was stoked and their scene was just starting to respect art in the same way that ours had. It felt like, “Wow look at all these people. I don’t even speak Spanish and they know my work, they’re really excited to see it and meet me.” It was genuine excitement without feeling too ego-strokey and more humbling.
JLS: Your book is coming out this month and includes a series exclusive to the volume. What can you tell me about the series?
AH: So the first book was all black and white and that’s mainly the medium I’ve been working on for a long time. This new book, most of it is colour. As you progress you start challenging yourself and for so long I was scared of colour, especially painting and stuff, but now I feel more comfortable with it. It was a challenge for me to do something full colour and push myself. It’s kind of a discovery for me. For a long time, I’d been painting with acrylics and then I started messing with these coloured pencils and felt comfortable with it.
JLS: What was going on in your mind when you were creating this series?
AH: For me, it’s almost like this cartoonishness of where everything has gone, this hyper violence. Obviously with the current president as well, things are very serious and grave but it’s almost to the point now where it’s ridiculous – so that’s kind of the sentiment I’m feeling now. All this stuff is actually happening and it’s portrayed in the media and it’s seeping through my brain and into my depiction of it.
“…I think it’s almost like a war documentarian or something, documenting the time we live in, be it about state power or not, and these are the things that I see.”
JLS: Also in your work there are images of cops and corruption. I recall a drawing of a punk sucking off a cop.
AH: Oh yeah people love that one [laughs].
JLS: What is it about cops and abuse of power that you’ve been trying to convey visually?
AH: I think that the political sentiment is pretty obvious. Lots of people have spoken about the problems with police more than I can, but I think it’s almost like a war documentarian or something, documenting the time we live in, be it about state power or not, and these are the things that I see. Particularly as a white middle class man I benefit from the way the system is set up and I don’t know if maybe some people would say this is white guilt or something. I don’t know if it’s a very productive term but I feel that I owe it to society or people to say something, and maybe that’s very egocentric. I’m certainly not thinking I’m saving the world but to me if the cops are out there killing black people how can we make work about anything else, you know?
JLS: There’s a psychedelic element to your work as well. What do sci-fi and psych mean to your universe?
AH: I think psychedelic, for lack of a better word, imagery and stuff is a really big part of my work because I love doing acid and mushrooms and tripping, and draw a lot when I’m on that, because for me to make any work you have to leave this regular plane of existence, get in your own head and transfer it from your universe to the physical universe. I have a big interest in occult imagery and a lot of eastern imagery, particularly like Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now about going to India and studying with other people, all these things form inside your mind and you take that to art. I’m interested in a lot of that, so the psychedelic element enters to a certain degree. My personal visual battle is wrestling like, “Okay, I’ve got these things that just come out if I’m doodling and drawing from my head. How do I take that and sculpt it into the visual language I have, and make new pieces with it?”
JLS: How do you feel that your work has changed throughout the years? Have you felt personal shifts?
AH: I’m young so far as an artist’s life span goes. A lot of people’s careers don’t start until their 40s so I’m still learning. My skill level from year to year has really gone up immensely. Also, interests shift. If you look back at every season of Death/Traitors you can see different things I was vibing on that year. Maybe one year I was into military patches and another year I was into 90s concert tees or something. For so long I was so self-conscious of my craftsmanship that I was more in the box, and now as I’m more confident I’m willing to embrace the psychedelic stuff and try to mix more looseness into my own work. I’ve been valuing doodling a lot more. So many of the more successful pieces I’ve done recently have been based on one minute sketches in my book, like the kite on the cover of the book. That demon face is based off of a little thing in my notebook that I doodled.
JLS: What do you hope people take away from your book?
AH: I hope they can take the positivity of the darkness. I think the overall vibe of my work is like the sad clown, because everything is dark and full of death and violence and stuff, but the message is against that. If you talk to me, I don’t think I come off as someone really morbid or negative, so I think everyone sees the personality of that.
Alex Heir’s WARRK2K∞//WORK 2014-17 is available here.