Interview with Justin Bartlett

Adam Ganderson


How’s it going dude?
Pretty good.

You’re in San Diego right?
Yep. Pretty close to downtown.

How’s that going? Did you grow up there?
Yeah. I grew up in… uh, is this being recorded right now?

Yeah it’s… I’m recording.
Oh, okay. Yeah, I grew up in San Diego. It’s cool. I mean for the most part it’s pretty mellow. There’s not a ton of stuff going on in San Diego. There’s the city and there’s San Diego county and it’s pretty boring, just a big suburb for the most part. Even downtown is pretty mellow. Since high school I’ve been into metal and hardcore and the scene here’s always been kind of pretty tame.

But Rob Halford lives out there.
Yeah, ha. I’ve actually seen Rob Halford walking around like three times. My wife and I live right on the border of Hillcrest and North Park. Hillcrest is the big gay part of San Diego. I’ve lived in the same place for a few years and it’s pretty much like the best place to live in San Diego. It’s a little more expensive but you can walk to anything you need. It’s not like you have to drive but, yeah dude I’ve seen him a few times. Like four years ago I was at this tattoo shop just standing there and this guy comes walking in and I thought “Wow man that guy looks just like Rob Halford.” And I’m not like star struck or anything, but it was pretty cool to see Rob Halford. I wish I had, I don’t know what kind of person carries around their Judas Priest records with them everywhere, but I guess if I did, I would’ve had him sign it. I’ve seen him a few other times just walking around. It’s totally weird.

That is weird. So, yeah, I guess we should talk about art. You make art things.
I make art. It’s weird to consider myself an artist, just calling myself that. So when people ask me what I do I just say I draw. I was having a conversation with Molly, my wife, last night and I was talking about calling myself an artist and it just seems so weird to me. Basically I’m an artist for hire. I mean I’ve done a few shows but most of the stuff I’ve been doing lately has just been client work. So I don’t have a lot of time for my own [work]. Which sucks. So I’m an artist for hire, but not really an illustrator. I think I put a lot more time into my work, even from a personal side, than just having a regular illustration job. I’ve had a few of those. I used to work for a company that did graphic design so I know the whole business side. When I put a lot of time into my work it becomes a little more than just illustration. But when you do it for someone then it’s not really purely art. There’s no reason for art really. You just do it.

You’ve had work in shows before, but you’re not really a gallery artist.
No. The reason why I’ve had shows has probably been because of my relation to the music world. Or, specifically, drone bands and metal stuff. It’s mostly because people know my work through album covers or t-shirts. Even a few years ago I never would’ve thought that I’d be having shows with my art at all. It just kind of happened.

What do you think about people like Banks Violette, or even Mathew Barney to some extent, using black metal mythology, I guess you could call it, to sell works of art for millions of dollars?  
Well, shit, if I could sell a drawing for thousands of dollars…. I actually have one of [Violette’s] books. I like his work and I appreciate where he’s coming from. He made the gigantic frame of a burnt church made out of salt. I appreciate the tie-in to the black metal stuff. He’s even done a few graphite drawings that have sold for $18,000 or something. I would love to sell something for $18,000.

I think the whole concept of things being underground is not like it used to be. They’re even making a Lords Of Chaos movie with one of the guys from Twilight. I mean I’m sure there are people that get their panties all ruffled about Banks Violette. I don’t want to say he’s riding the coattails of black metal, but even with Peter Beste, he’s a really good photographer, but it seems he kind of got a little more [attention] in the eye of mainstream art or even hipster culture just because for a lot of people the whole black metal thing is a novelty.

But I’ve always been into it for the music. I mean it’s cool that these guys are making money. That’s awesome for an artist. Even if they’re inspired by black metal, or Banks was always referring to a lot of stuff about Slayer and how there’s teenagers that committed suicide because of Slayer lyrics. I mean it’s really interesting how people relate if you’re a visual artist and you’ve been influenced by music and how you express that. That’s kind of what I do, but there’s still a detachment there. Also I wonder about if there was no such thing as black metal or if an artist such as myself didn’t associate with certain kinds of music. I like to think my shit stands on its own but most people that know my work aren’t really artists per se, they’re people that buy album covers or CDs. Banks is more in the art realm than the music part. How did you find out about my stuff?

I think it was through
Oaken Throne zine.
Oh okay. That’s cool. Recently a lot of people didn’t even know my work until the whole Anti Sweden thing came out.

What’s this?
I guess it’s some kind of fashion magazine. A lot of people didn’t know my work until I did the stuff for Anti Sweden. So it’s just funny. There’re all these fashion people that are kind of into metal and black metal, also because of the novelty of it. I mean, I always drew when I was a kid but for years I just kind of stopped and didn’t take any of that shit seriously. It’s just weird giving interviews for a fashion magazine, I’m gonna be in the “Illustration Now: Volume Three” that’s coming out. And all my weird illustration, it trips me out that a wide variety of people are into my work. The Anti Sweden thing was really awesome in terms of the scope of the project. It pays really well which is different from what I’m usually used to, ha.

Is that a Swedish company?
No, no, no, there’s a Norwegian design firm called Anti. I guess in Sweden there are a lot of fashionistas. There’re a few really expensive brands of jeans in Sweden that some Norwegian people think are really funny, so they decided to make their own line of jeans. I mean, the whole concept is silly in itself, but it’s still kind of neat. Like I said, the whole concept of black metal being underground now is just kind of silly. It’s gone. So really, they just made these jeans and I drew a lot of illustrations for the t-shirts and also for the inside of the jeans. It’s called Anti Sweden but it’s all kind of tied into black metal culture in a way. Ha, it’s all marketing dude. But, you know, back in the day the Norwegian black metallers had like a big problem with a lot of the death metal bands from Sweden. So there’s like the shit talking and threats going around for years, so it’s kind of some kind of fashion version of that maybe.

Oh. Wow.
It’s kind of tongue in cheek. It’s not like Norwegians hate Swedes and vice versa, but it’s just kind of like how Americans talk shit about Canadians and Canadians talk shit about America.

Well I’ve never been over there, but was always under the impression that metal in Norway and Sweden was just kind of part of mainstream society.
I guess they’re more secular than we are. Living in Norway, it’s a really awesome country and they have a high standard of living, but it’s kind of a cold and dark place for a lot of the year. I guess people get pretty into the darkness. Even at their Grammy Awards they have metal bands. Satyricon wins Grammy awards. I think Impaled Nazarene played at the Finnish Grammys or something. They’re a lot more accepting of it, and I think that has to do with the fact that the United States was founded by Protestants and people that were too religious for Europe so they moved here. So it’s like [in America] anything that’s dark is bad. And you should never think about bad things, question religion, or question Jesus.

So do you think your work is getting more recognized lately?
Yeah. Basically, about five years ago I started drawing again, and then four years ago I started doing some commission illustration. And I was also working full time and couldn’t take on a lot of work. But I quit my job about a year and half ago. I’ve been getting more work and once in while I’ll get projects that are kind of outside of the metal bubble, like some magazine stuff. My bread and butter are t-shirts and illustrations for different albums. It kind of seems like I’m getting more work, but there’ll be a couple of months where I don’t feel too busy or I’m not getting a lot of emails and then all of a sudden I’ll get like five or six things within two weeks. Which is cool, but kind of sucks because I like to put as much time as I can into my work and it takes a lot of effort to do my shit. I wish I had fewer projects that paid more. But with my style it’ll probably never be like that, which is fine.

Is there a certain type of pen that you use?

Yeah. Actually I’m pretty much just using micron pens made by this Japanese company called Sakura. And I go through those things so much. I started using the traditional dip pen, but there’s been a few times where I actually fucked up a drawing because of the ink control. Pretty much all my stuff that you see, unless it’s digital or a collage of found images, it’s all pen and ink. I use to never even sketch things out, but now I’m a little more cautious because I have more work so I have to be a little more serious about it. I’ll do a basic outline, just for placement of the certain elements in a drawing. But other than that it’s just pen. It’s cool working with pen because I’ve learned to deal with mistakes. The ink’s not forgiving. You can’t erase it. If I fuck something up a little bit then I’ll figure out how to get around it or tweak it. But I just draw with pen and it takes forever.

And there’s almost a sort of primitive quality.  
Yeah, I agree. I can draw pretty well, realistically speaking. But I did a bunch of stuff recently and realized, when I was halfway into one of the pieces that I had got way to technical with it. I tried to make it too realistic. So now I’ve been trying to be a little more expressive and not be too concerned with realism. Or just being more messy with my drawings. Instead of doing a lot of dots or stippling just do more scribble kind of things. Like I said I can draw realistically but I’d rather evolve my style a little bit.

It’s similar in style, from a primitive sense, to (Voivod drummer) Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s work. I know you’re influenced by other artists, but would you say Away is the main one?
Um, yeah. I mean, more of his earlier stuff. I think now he draws free hand then he’ll put it through a computer and it’s kind of more pop art looking, which I still like. But I like the older stuff a lot. Before I was really into the art of the Voivod albums, I was really into the band. And when I started getting back into drawing I started noticing his work more than I did before. He draws a lot of things, at least back in the day, that were super metal looking, but not just cliché metal stuff. It’s more like science fiction and a lot more imaginative that just drawing corpses or zombies or some kind of muscled-out Satan with a huge boner humping a nun or something like that. But the weird twist he puts on things, like how the figures, the faces, were robotic a little bit, it’s all very metal looking but without hitting on all the typical clichés. It has a primitive style to it. I’m pretty good at drawing people, but I always had a tendency to make them retarded looking because it was a little more fun that way.

As far as current metal illustrators, what do think about Chris Moyen?
I like Chris’s stuff. I know that some of it influenced me. He draws a little more anatomical and going back to the devil with a boner thing. I mean that’s what he’ll draw. There are a lot of people that rip him off I think. So he’s the go-to guy if you’re in a black or death metal band that’s obscure. He’s done old Incantation stuff and so many things. So I like his work, but some of it’s kind of repetitive.

Dennis Dread.
Dennis, he does the Darkthrone [album covers]? Yeah. I’ve seen probably ten, fifteen [drawings]. I’m not that familiar with his work, but for the most part it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty technical. I mean a lot of the artists I started getting into over the last few years aren’t really, except Away, in the whole metal world.

There’s a lot of Polish artists like Franciszek Starowieyski and couple other guys. There are these Polish versions of movie posters and they’re awesome because they barely resemble something you’d see in the United States. They’re very abstract and stylized. A lot of it is very ‘metal looking’ but it’s all for movies.

It’s hard to have an original style these days, but yours seems to be. Maybe because of a combination of things.
Yeah. I just started drawing the way I do. I didn’t try to make it any kind of way, but I just have a ton of influences from when I was growing up and it all just kind of came together one day.

It’s dark material. Some of the stuff is pretty heavy occult imagery. So is this something you study or research in your personal life, or how does this stuff work it’s way into the drawings?  
I really have little-to-no belief in the supernatural at all. I‘m more interested in the occult from a sociological aspect. I don’t believe in religion in any way or any thing, as far as there being an actual kind of Devil. But it’s still very interesting to me from how other people view or think of that. The occult is to a lot of people the opposition to Christianity, or it stands for darkness, or whatnot. So in terms of having experiences with the occult, I don’t. Orthodox Satanism is kind of strange to me because it’s basically the reverse of Christianity. But then Christianity has done more damage to the world than Satanism ever has, when you look at thousands of years of atrocities that have been done in the name of Jesus, or Mohammed or whatever. But I’m pretty skeptical of believing in things that are supernatural or superstitious. I’m more science minded. But I like the imagery and how it provokes people, whatever response that might be. People with Christian beliefs are repulsed by it and people that are interested in the occult find it entertaining or find… whatever meaning they get from it.

We’re not really living in dark times when you look at a comparison with, say medieval times, but there still is this darkness in the world that mainstream society just sort of glances over. Don’t you think?
I personally think that we’re living in pretty dark times. Yeah, in the Middle Ages they had to worry about getting the black plague, but who knows what virus could come along. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but I really think as far as the natural environment the way it is, that there’s no turning back. The next twenty, thirty years could potentially be a really dark time for humanity. There’s alternative energy, but the amount we use compared to how dependant we are on fossil fuels is minimal. The United States is like the new Rome. You can see it around you everywhere. People are so distracted by things that are completely not important to them, like reality TV. Most people are oblivious to it. They have their big screen TV and a new car so they don’t really care.

And of course there are still places in the world where people don’t really live much past thirty.
Oh yeah. Like Afghanistan. I mean, culture there hasn’t changed that much over probably like a thousand years. One of the things that is good about living these days is rational thought. But society as a whole is pretty backwards in terms of what we value. It’s interesting when you see places that are very religious. There is an appeal to a very simple lifestyle. Minus the religion. And the honor killings.

So there is this awareness that certain people have of darkness out there, but then it seems, in America at least, we might be interested in dark things, like metal, but then we’re expected to grow out of it after high school.
I guess it all depends on your attachment to music. Think about it this way: in the ‘80s there were a lot of people that were into Mötley Crüe and whatever big hair-metal bands there were because it was popular or it was a scene that they belonged to. But I’ve never really been into a scene or had a lot of people that I knew or hung out with that were into the same shit as me. Yeah, there’s always a social aspect when you go to shows. But other than that, it’s been like me and two other guys that were into metal, growing up. So it was always a kind of personal thing. Being into music, not like it defined me as a person, but I always found a certain attachment to it. Shit, I know I’ll be listening to Immolation when I’m like ninety years old cruising around on a hover wheelchair. But it’s a personal thing. Just like if you’re into sports growing up, I was into metal. Or people that were into Star Wars when they were teenagers are still into Star Wars now.

Do you think the creation of the type of stuff you do is maybe necessary to maintaining some kind of mental stability? Even if you didn’t get paid for it.
Most of the stuff that I draw, even if someone is paying me to do it, or it’s for a client, I do it for myself. Most of it is my idea and I would still be doing it anyway. I started out doing a lot of stuff for free. The [amount of] time I put into a lot of my drawings, I could be getting paid minimum wage. But it is cool to be making a living on my art and it is kind of like a cathartic experience. But when I have to rely on drawing as most of my income it’s like a double-edged sword. It’s cool that I’m doing it, but then when I have to rely on it for income it’s pretty stressful. I had a pretty good graphic design career doing corporate stuff. The money was good but it wasn’t exactly rewarding, just mundane shit. This is a lot more personally rewarding, but worrying about money is a whole other stress factor.

It seems like you got a lot of exposure through the work you did for SunnO))). You’re friends with Stephen O’Malley?
Yeah, I mean Stephen and I aren’t like best buddies in the world, but I’ve known him probably for like ten years and most of it has been through online contact up until a few years ago when I would see him more at shows or hanging out here and there, even in Norway. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to him because SunnO))) is a pretty popular band. And he really liked my hand drawn stuff a lot and [he] used it for t-shirts or for different releases, like some of the side projects on Southern Lord. I owe Stephen O’Malley a lot as far as just kind of a boost getting my name out there, rather than if I had just started on my own randomly getting contacts here and there.

What do you think about CGI in both movies and other artwork?
It depends if it fits the style or fits the movie. I really like Star Wars, the first movie. The special effects in the new ones are just so overblown. But also when I was a kid I was really into Tron, and I still love Tron a lot. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the new trailer, but they’re making a sequel.

Yeah, I can’t wait
Yeah, dude, I’m super stoked on that. That kind of CGI blows my mind. But there’re a lot of really bad Photoshop album covers in any genre. Like right after the technology boom [of] personal computing and art software getting big in the mid ‘90s, there were so many people who thought they knew what they were doing with Photoshop but really had no clue. As far as metal goes there was, and still is, a lot of bad Photoshop/digital-based stuff. There’s bad hand drawn stuff too. I think with metal it’s weird because it has a primitive root to it. So maybe some bands can get away with doing a digital thing if they’re some kind of horrible techno/industrial/dance/metal band. Then maybe it’s appropriate. But Morbid Angel has really bad album covers.

Yeah, ha ha.
Think about that. Stuff like “Domination.” I mean, I love Morbid Angel and I think on “Gateways To Annihilation” it was a painting, but “Domination” was horrible. If you go to the Web site, you can tell a lot of the merchandise is digital based. That’s an example of really bad digital artwork. There’re some Monstrosity albums that are really bad too.

Florida bands kind of went that route with bad album covers around the mid ‘90s.
Yeah, I don’t know why. Maybe there’s just like a novelty to it where people thought: ‘Well it’s kind of a cool thing to do, so I’m gonna try my best at collaging all these scenes together.’ The worst is when you can see something that’s obviously downloaded from the Internet or scanned at the wrong resolution. There’s (also) cool digital stuff that’s composited together. If it has some root that’s in the real word, like found artwork that’s scanned or even old clip art, it’s a little better than some crappy 3-D image software used to construct some kind of medieval torture scene.

The best horror movies are also the ones with real make-up effects.
Oh yeah. The Thing is probably my favorite horror movie. The special effects in that are analog. When you look at digital stuff today it’s like: ‘why did you even try making it digitally, when it looks like shit. It looks like a video game. Hollywood is trying to get people used to crappy digital special effects instead of maybe taking a little more time to use make up. ‘Transformers’ on the other hand, as far as the special effects went, that’s all digital and it looks real. I don’t really watch new horror movies at all, except for some Japanese and Korean stuff. Most of the horror movies I watch are from when I was younger. I’m 32, so like (from) the ‘80s. My grandparents used to babysit me when I was growing up and my grandma used to always watch horror movies, so I saw like a ton of shit probably that I shouldn’t have seen when I was a kid. But it made me attracted to dark things.

That’s interesting behavior for a grandma. She must have been pretty cool.
It’s pretty atypical I guess. Yeah, she passed away like six or seven years ago now, but growing up she was really into horror books and would watch movies. I have pretty vivid memories of watching The Stuff or whatever Stephen King adaptations were out at the time.

So were your parents into horror?
My dad was into science fiction. He took me to go see Aliens, Robocop, and a lot of rated R movies that my mom didn’t know about at the time. So I was exposed to a lot of stuff growing up. I don’t’ know if that’s a good or bad thing.