Terrorizer Speaks To Artist Mike Wohlberg (The Fat Kid Illustration)

By on 4 April 2014

tfk

If you like metal, you’ll probably recognize the illustrations of Mike Wohlberg, also known as “the Fat Kid Illustration“. Chances are you either own a shirt, album or poster which features the art of this prolific artist. Wohlberg’s iconic art has been used to promote the likes of Baroness, Cannibal Corpse, Children of Bodom, The Dilinger Escape Plan, KMFDM, Pelican, City of Ships, Tombs, Sunn O))), Nasum and Rosetta, among many others.

Wohlberg has built an inspiring career from the ground up (from selling hand-made, screen­printed posters outside of shows, to working directly with labels like Relapse Records),­ illustrating for the music scene that he loves. Taking inspiration from diverse sources like the bold designs of 1920s Communist propaganda poster art, the emotive black line work of German Expressionists like Käthe Kollwitz, the striking and politically meaningful photo collages of John Heartfield and comic book artists like Rob Schrab, Wohlberg creates intense, eye­catching and inventive work which speaks perfectly to the intensity of the music he illustrates for.

Wohlberg recently sat down with Terrorizer to speak about his background, favorite bands, artists who inspire him, and where his art is going next…

WORDS: Joy Shannon

fuckthefactsDo you have formal training in the visual arts? If so, what is the most important lesson from your education that you use in your art currently?
Mike (Wohlberg): “I spent four years at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, majoring in their illustration program. I’d probably have to say that the most important lesson learned was that it’s entirely how much you put into art that will determine what you get out of it. I think I’m one of the few people who actually went to art school and valued the experience, but almost to the detriment of my social life. Since I was a child I knew to some extent that I wanted to do something with art professionally. Getting to art school and more importantly attending classes put a very real timer on my entrance into the “real world” of illustration. I wasn’t nearly at the level I had hoped to be and it was a real kick in the ass to figure out exactly why I was there and what I hoped to accomplish.

“Outside of very specific fields like anatomy and perspective, art isn’t really something that anyone can “teach” you. You either learn to understand composition and color theory and the like in your own way, or you don’t. Art school is more of a networking experience, a kind of forced consideration of your work and how others perceive it within the small scope of those around you. It either thickens or breaks your skin, shows you what you’re up against, and how to think critically about things you may have never approached on your own. I was then determined to output as much work as possible to the best of my ability and figure out exactly what I needed to work on, what I enjoyed, what I didn’t enjoy, etc. It was up to me to take the feedback provided and decide what to do with it. I was never much of a party goer and I did some real stress tests on my body’s ability to intake caffeine and stare into a glowing screen for hours at a time, but I feel it was certainly worth it.”

fetusWhen did you start drawing and what first inspired you to start creating visual art? Did you always want to be a visual artist or did you have other career ideas?
Mike: “I’ve always been interested in drawing for as long as I can remember and some of my earliest memories revolve around redrawing characters from my favorite comic books, video games, or TV shows. My mom bought me comics before I could even read because I was fascinated by the pictures and it made me happy, so even my absolute earliest memories involve me with a sheet of printer paper and an assortment of markers and pencils. It was something that I ultimately decided upon as a child to pursue for the rest of my life, though I didn’t really understand the gravity of what that meant until much later. I guess when I was very young I went through every child’s brief phases of wanting to be a super hero or whatever the protagonist of the latest blockbuster movie was, but honestly the only career I ever gave serious consideration to was illustration.”

deafheavenOver the years, due to the success of your bold style, you create a lot for clients, but what subjects, emotions, or ideas inspire you to create art just for you?
Mike: “Unfortunately my time these days is so sparse that I almost never get a chance to draw for myself. I only ever find myself idly doodling during the brief moments of downtime at my day job and even then more often than not they’re thumbnails for whatever project I have coming up next. The last piece I did entirely for me from start to finish was the Trve Love shirt design and that was mostly a response to George from Deafheaven being asked to put together a “romantic black metal” playlist for Revolver Magazine. I have a whole vault of ideas in my mind of things that I’d love to draw but for now they’re stored away until some arbitrary date in which I decide to take some “me” time.

 

“Honestly all of my work, personal or freelance, all come from the same areas. Plenty of bands give me free reign to come up with what I will, so I really get to determine the origins of most pieces. Thematically, I work a lot with iconography at its power to influence human behaviour and emotion. Some of the simplest shapes illicit some of the strongest emotions in people. The cross is just two simple intersecting line segments, and it’s one of the most powerful images today. It’s extremely potent simplicity, and I’ll never grow tired of exploring its potential.”

hivesmasherYour art is completely joined to the music it is created for, did you always set out to create visual art for the metal music scene? Or did that happen naturally because of your style?
Mike: “When I first started art school I was convinced that I was going to be a comic book artist. The art style I had cultivated up to that point was very cartoonish and I figured that it would be my fate to work in some cartoon­ based industry. Once I decided to actually sit down and try to make my own comics, however, I realized I hated both my lack of writing talent and having to draw the same character over and over again. The strange thing was, music was always far more of an interest to me than comics ever were and it was kind of silly to think that I would work in a field that wasn’t really my main love anyway. I didn’t even consider music illustration as a viable option until I got to college and started going to as many shows as I possibly could and saw just how much visual art factored into a band’s success.”

When you create for a metal band, how do you approach the project? Do you immerse yourself in their music and get a feel for what imagery jumps out, or what is your approach?
Mike: “It always depends on what stipulations a band will give. Some are pretty specific about what they want visually, some have limitations in terms of printing budgets, or some will just give me a single word as a jumping off point. Plenty of times though, a band will contact me with no ideas, just a desire to make shit “brutal.” When that’s the case I’ll typically start by looking at the song titles. After the band name itself and the album titles, song titles are what most fans will immediately recognize. If there’s a specific song off of the album that I like, I’ll try to focus on that, but more often than not, it’s based on the title that has the most potential with a striking image. Lyrics are then read and reread and re­reread while I start making mental thumbnails of the piece, charting out what I can draw in a certain amount of time with the best result. A ton of research goes into each piece for reference photos or more esoteric iconography that can possibly be incorporated. It’s almost never necessary to have to listen to an album while actually drawing, I’d rather listen to it once or twice initially and work off of my first impressions. It’s more valuable to play something in the background that will keep me awake and focused for the longest possible time. Typically I’ll have Netflix or YouTube playing for hours with something not terribly engaging so as not to distract me, but interesting enough that I don’t start falling asleep. If I’m listening to music I tend to gravitate towards stuff that’s a bit slower like Pallbearer or Author & Punisher. Slower music has a better work tempo than faster stuff I find.”

rosettaWhat band projects were your best collaborative experiences so far?
Mike: “It’s tough to say. If I had to single one out I guess it would be the work I do for Rosetta. They’re good friends of mine and most of the pieces I do for them have more to do with some sort of personal experience I shared with them or some kind of inside joke that adds an extra level of personality to them. The poster I did for their tour with KEN Mode was based entirely off of a random personal conversation I had with Mike Armine (their vocalist) that he didn’t even remember until I explained it to him. But every single piece I’ve done has some back story that in some cases is more important than presenting some sort of message. Looking back through some of the work I’ve done brings back a wealth of memories, some good, others not.”

Studio-­wise­, what environment do you work best in? Do you work late at night, early in the morning, in complete silence, with other artists around, etc?
Mike: “Save for some very basic planning and preparation stages, all of my work is done at home and by myself. My bedroom / studio is in the basement of my apartment so I literally spend the majority of my time on my computer in my basement. I most definitely work best at night, though mostly out of necessity. I still have a day job and plenty of responsibilities that take up the majority of my daylight hours and it’s not until nighttime when most people are finally going to sleep and distractions are at a minimum when I can finally focus on the work at hand. When I was in college I would work absolutely ungodly hours, usually from about 8 pm or so until around 6 in the morning. Sunrise was usually a good indication that I needed to step away and get some rest. I’ve unfortunately burned myself out physically on that, but my freelance working hours typically begin around 8 or 9 pm and end anywhere between 1:30 am and 3:30 am.”

piggydWhat are some of your all­ time favourite bands? Do they inspire your art in any way? Have you been able to work with any of your favourite bands?
Mike: “Minor Threat is my favourite band hands down. Their complete discography helped get me into hardcore and underground music in general when I was in high school and their music showed me that you can be straight edge without being a dick about it. There’s so many bands that I’m extremely passionate about, it feels strange singling out a few and not feel like I’m neglecting so many more. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of favorites like Rosetta, Gaza, Tombs, A Life Once Lost, Trap Them, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Cannibal Corpse, Dying Fetus, and so many more. I’ve really been extremely fortunate in this regard. The one that eludes me is Pig Destroyer. I would love to work for those guys, they’re definitely one of my top favorite bands for sure. I did a show poster for a Metal Injection / Metalsucks / 1000 Knives CMJ show that they headlined and I actually talked to them about possibly doing a shirt or something in the future, but my schedule has been so busy that I haven’t been able to follow up. If any of those guys are reading this, hit me up. I love you.”

Who are some of your favorite artists? What aspects of their style do you admire?
Mike: “John Heartfield’s work has had a huge impact on my work since learning about him in my freshman year of college. His work is probably best remembered as the cover of Discharge’s ‘Never Again’ or System of a Down’s self titled release, but he has an enormous body of work to his name and so much of it is breathtaking. He is one of the early pioneers of photo collage design and was essentially doing Photoshop tricks about 60 years before Photoshop was even an idea and his approach to type and layout helped change the face of graphic design. I was fortunate enough to see an entire room of his work at the Tate Modern in London about a year and a half ago and had to remember to breathe.

“Käthe Kollwitz is also another favorite. Her woodcuts helped shape my line quality and you can feel the emotion pouring out of each of her pieces. Her life itself is extremely inspiring and adds so much more depth to her pieces. German Expressionist woodcuts in general are amazing, but to me she is far and away the best out of that group.

sxsw“There was a comic back in the day called “Scud: the Disposable Assassin” done by a guy named Rob Schrab. I discovered the first few issues at my local comic shop when I was in third grade. Up to that point I was still reading stuff like Spider­ Man and X­Men, and for some reason the cover of Scud caught my attention and I decided to flip through it. There was a panel with the main character wearing a torn sash and a crown of thorns with a crudely drawn on smile and holding a giant laser gun. He had a crooked posture and a giant word bubble next to him that read, “I’m Jesus with a laser gun… AND YOU’RE ALL GOING TO HELL.” From that moment I was utterly infatuated with this comic and I studied the hell out of his art style for years. It was extremely surreal and trippy without taking itself too seriously.

“Russian Communist propaganda posters from the nineteen teens to early twenties taught me so much about composition and color theory. It’s so amazing to think that artists who lived in really terrible conditions and had some really awful materials helped to revolutionize the entirety of graphic design and illustration.

“Joel Peter Whitkin continues to be a gold mine of ideas and his supply of creepiness is limitless, though I discovered him later in life. And of course I love a lot of the modern greats like Paul Romano, Aaron Horkey, Derek Hess, and Jacob Bannon; I could sit here all day and talk about other peoples’ work whom I admire.”

cannyHow did you build up your reputation in your field? Have you had to work various jobs to support your art or have you been able to support yourself through your art solely?
Mike: “When I was a freshman in college I was looking for any kind of illustration work for my summer break. I contacted the big local independent promoter and asked if they had any desire for illustrated fliers for shows. They said that they would only be able to give me $20 a pop, but being a dumb kid who was starving for work I agreed, did a couple and sent them over. I never got paid and they never got used, so I shrugged my shoulders and figured it wasn’t meant to be. Before I started junior year however I found myself wanting to do fliers and posters again after a friend taught me how to screen print. I contacted the promoter again asking if it was possible to design and print my own posters and not get paid by the promoter but sell them at the show instead. He said he was fine with that but that he couldn’t afford me any table space, so I would have to sell them outside. For about four or five months I stood outside of shows selling whatever prints I could, which was next to nothing. In 2006 I did a poster for a show with An Albatross and Genghis Tron. I sold the most posters yet, a whole twelve, and the promoter for that show who worked for the same local company was in a band that opened. He was thrilled that prints were made and said that I was welcome to do prints for any of the shows he booked and to sweeten the deal he would give me a spot at the merch tables. I did as many posters as I could and would set up shop next to all of the bands’ merch and start striking up conversations and promoting myself. I met a ton of people and saw a lot of great shows during this time. During one of them some weird looking hippy approached me and said that he was starting to book shows in the suburbs and wanted to know if I was interested in doing posters for him as well. It turned out that this hippy was Bob Meadows, the vocalist for A Life Once Lost, and it turned into both of us booking shows in the area for the next three or four years and lead to not only a ton of work but a ton of relationships with really amazing bands. The day after I graduated from art school I also sat down at my computer and for the next three days sent out as many messages on MySpace to band profiles asking for any kind of work, and I got a lot more bites than I ever thought I would. It’s snowballed ever since and I’ve been working almost non stop for the past seven or so years.

“I still have a full time day job doing in house graphic design and unfortunately I’m nowhere near being able to afford working full time as a freelance illustrator. The vast majority of the work I do is for bands and as we all know, in the current state of the music industry, there’s not a ton of money to be made in extreme metal. If for some reason I was fired from my day job tomorrow I’d have plenty of freelance work to keep me busy and enough money saved to stay afloat for a while, but it would eventually run out and I’d have to move on to another job. I’m not giving up hope that someday I’ll be able to sustain myself solely on my freelance work and things have certainly been picking up, but for the time being I’m stuck burning the midnight oil.”

nasumI am a visual artist and have taught art over the years. One thing I have been asked occasionally by parents and administration, is “should we worry about this student if he or she is using dark or violent imagery in his or her art?” I have always felt that the arts are a safe place to express all aspects of being human from the dark to the light aspects. What is your attitude about this issue?
Mike: “Art is certainly a healthy outlet of expression and dark imagery in and of itself is a far cry from requiring parental or societal concern. I spend the vast majority of my time illustrating scenes of depression, violence, depravity, murder, and suicide, but more as a condemnation of such acts and less a reflection of personal interests. I’m sure there are hordes of psychiatrists and professors who are much more knowledgeable on the topic, but in my experience morbid imagery is not an inherent sign of mental health issues. At the very least, however, the fact that the question is asked is a good sign as well. Though it would be more fitting to go directly to the artist and ask why their imagery is so dark and what it means, but any concern shows that there’s at least one person looking out for their well being.”

What are some of your newest upcoming projects we should be on the look out for?
Mike: “I can’t say much of what I’m working on, both because some of them have yet to be announced and because I don’t like to confirm what I’m doing until it’s done. I’ve had plenty of jobs fall through for one reason or another, so until it’s done anything could go wrong. The one that I can say, however, is that I’m doing the next Rosetta EP layout. The sketch for that was approved, now it’s just a matter of finishing it.”

What inspired your website’s name “the fat kid illustration”?
Mike: “Because I’m fat. I’ve used the name for over a decade now and I don’t see myself dropping it any time soon. I’m also bored of people confusing my name with Mark Wahlberg, so it’s better to have something more unique to me.”

What is your ultimate goal for your visual art? Where would you like to see your career going in the next 10­15 years?
Mike: “I honestly feel that in some capacity I will be working with metal and hardcore bands for many many years to come. Despite all of the frustrations associated with working within the music industry metal will always be a very large part of my life and I can’t help but remain as excited for extreme music now as I was when I first discovered it. Outside of this though I would love to work directly on a major release video game. Video games are another passion of mine and with as many advancements both technologically and aesthetically that have been made the future of the games industry is limitless, even in the indie games community. Despite titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Grand Theft Auto utterly dominating the scene in terms of sales there have been some really amazing titles that incorporate really unique art styles like BioShock, Limbo, and Broken Age.

How much of your success do you owe to the support of your very cute dog? (I’ve seen it on Instagram.)
Mike: “In all honesty I owe him so much. He is ever patient with my schedule, he forces me to go outside periodically throughout the day, he’s been the gateway for me to meet new people, and he’s always happy to sit next to me and keep me company when things get rough. I think he’s more popular than me at this point and I am perfectly fine with that.”

pooch

You can find Mike Wohlberg on Facebook and Twitter.

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