By taking things out of context, you actually can create a truer meaning for something than it had in the beginning.
interview by Todd
Instead of sticking a pair of scissors into a co-worker’s neck or dragging the uncrossed blades from pelvis to collarbone as a piece of performance art, he works with a steady hand, liberating images from old magazines and sticking, for instance, a housewife who looked like she just huffed oven cleaner right into The Apocalypse, or riding a dinosaur, or reviling from a steam shovel, or becoming the queen of Egypt — in effect, pulling up the blinds of traditional consumer context, deflating the tires on the shiny rims of the American Dream, and stripping back a couple layers of skin from political beasts; he quietly lacerates and, in the process, gets to a new, darker heart. At first look, nothing’s wrong — with the capture and re-arrangement of images from their intended picture language, cropped so close you can’t see the line, his art looks like a photo. For instance, an idyllic, innocuous scene with a ‘50s Betty Crocker replicant whipping a meal into place. Look closer. Maybe a dog’s peering forlorn from a window in the oven. Or the baby’s bottle is a nuclear warhead. Or Reagan’s not mowing a lawn or a carpet, but a tall shag of people. Men fish for money. It’s not to say that Winston’s heavy handed or has a ham for a brain. Far from it. With no shortage of humor or lightness in a fundamentally grim situation, much of his work simultaneously operates on an extremely polite, soft talking, artistic level. And this is how I found Winston, the person: cutting into loaded topics with dexterity, wit, and a firm grip on the lamp that shines across the face of America’s popular culture. On a final note, since the advertising budgets of mega corporations have come to far exceed most countries’ gross national products, civilization, for the first time in history, has taken on a commercial assault akin to the 24-hour B-52 carpet bombing of North Vietnam: non-stop hot turbulences, disorienting buzzbomb noise, supra-fast flashes, creating many vacuous craters in not only the landscape but in the public’s mind. Think of Winston as a bomb shelter against the assault, or better yet, the media who picks select pieces off the pocked battle field and glues them together how he thinks they should have been in the first place…
So, what do you do?
As little as possible. I try to synthesize everything that i see in contemporary culture into its real meaning and in order to do that I have to condense many images because our culture is so image based. I condense what are, to me, the high points into compositions that betray their true meaning.
Portray or betray?
Betray, because the true meaning of some of these things is really hidden in contemporary culture and I think to show what it is really saying is a betrayal from what the origins are. They want you to think that this wonderful food or soap is terrific, and if you don’t buy their food or soap, you’re not going to get laid or have a nice car or have a wonderful life or have 3.2 children, whereas my thing is that their soap is really just poison. It poisons the environment and it poisons you and you wind up enriching them because of giving them your money for blah, blah, blah. So, by taking things out of context, you actually can create a truer meaning for something than it had in the beginning because of advertising… All of these things are coming from old advertisements and illustrations sometimes, but mainly old advertisements from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Their original intention was to lie to you. That’s what propaganda is all about. Not that all propaganda lies, but to propagate anything just means to tell your version of it. But commercial versions of telling you anything is generally done to enrich them monetarily at your expense. I don’t know why I have such an axe to grind over that, because I’m a happy participant in enriching them myself. If I had more money, I’d spend it on more crap. More plastic shit. I’m not really much of a saint when it comes to those things.
How old are you?
Do I really have to tell? Anyone who knows their arithmetic will know how old I am if I say that I was born in 1952. Right at the end of the Korean War.
Why should punk rockers who have had a hard time getting over their bad selves be familiar with your work? Why would somebody who’s a hardcore punk rocker… How would they know Winston Smith?
People know my work mainly from Dead Kennedy records and from some things in Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll or just other underground punk scenes during the period of the late ‘70s throughout the mid and late ‘80s. I guess even into the 1990s because there was a resurgence of the punk trip. I think when the Gulf War came along, I think that actually added… I don’t know if one thing had to do with the other, but there was a protest movement that built up. Instead of the frumped-out hippies who, after the Vietnam War, had turned to television and cocaine and money making, these frumped-out punks — I don’t know what they turned to, but — just becoming slackers, but I think when the Gulf War came along in 1991, that a lot of people woke back up again and figured that, well, this is something that a lot of half-old farts like us had better stop, and enough of them are old enough now where they are half-old — they were teenagers in the late ‘70s and now they’re in their early 30s or older and now they’re mature adults in a certain sense and they actually have the wherewithal to do something about society although we’re all contributors and we’re all steeped in what our society does, both good and bad. And who knows, maybe it’s been around long enough that there’s been a marketing aspect. I never though punk rock could ever be co-opted by the mainstream; it’s so ugly and so tawdry and off- putting and so repellent that I was always thinking, “Great, this is something that won’t be that flower-power, hippie-dippy, love bead shit and no headbands and sandals can be sold to promote K-Mart. Because you could go to some dime stores and see all this flowery crap with all this hopeful hand-woven stuff to the hippies being re-marketed from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to the mainstream and it would just join and suddenly every product in the world was being marketed in that direction. And I didn’t think punk rock would ever do that, although unfortunately, it actually has. The mainstream has actually embraced it, which shows how far the mainstream has sunk.
When did you first think of, “Hey, I wanna cut out some scraps of paper, glue them together, and make something”? Did you have other artistic avenues before that or was the progression to collage?
The first time that occurred to me to cut out pictures and glue them together was sometime in late 1958 and I was probably about 6 years old then. I recall being shrieked at by my mom because I cut up one of her art books. It had Michelangelo and Leonardo and I cut out pictures of the Mona Lisa and put Mickey Mouse’s eyes on her. I thought it was really clever. I think I got my behind paddled severely, so I had to cut up things that weren’t her property. Years later, when I was in high school in the late ‘60s, there were no Xerox machines at the time. You couldn’t go down to the Kinko’s and push a button, so I would draw pictures out of old magazines. The fear of being punished was so strong — even when I was a teenager, I refused to cup up anyone else’s magazines. I’d draw the pictures and then cut out the drawings and then collage those together. And that had a certain effect — being able to draw helped because I was able to reproduce, at least to my satisfaction, what I was drawing. Although, unfortunately, it all had the same tone. It was all black and white drawings, it wasn’t color. Also at that time, the pictures that I’m using now didn’t have, for me, any nostalgia factor because they were too recent.
Going back to the first time you cut out scraps of paper and started gluing them together. Have you ever huffed the glue just for fun?
Yea, it’s great. It’s my favorite high. [laughter] Next to angel dust, it’s my favorite drug. Actually, the glue I use is Uhu glue, and it’s a German glue and you can get it at the dime store. Unfortunately, there’s no odor. No aroma. There was no high. Any high I get is…
Purely artistic. [laughter] What’s the newest technology that you’re really excited about?
There’s a new technology for reproducing pictures of limited edition prints onto fine art or archival paper. The new technology’s called Iris Prints and it’s a form of reproduction that involves the artwork being scanned by computer and then computer outputted onto canvas or archival paper. It’s very high quality ink and very high resolution so it’s actually the closest I’ve ever come to using a computer in my work. People ask all of the time what computer I use to do this. I don’t do this on computer. The only digital action is my digits. Razor blades and glue. Sometimes I wish I had a computer just because it might make life easier, only I simply don’t have the patience to deal with computers. I think I’m too old-world for that or I’m just too old for that. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Maybe someday — I even said that in my book — I will get hip to using computers about the time that implanted mind control computers are the standard. I will still be using some archaic Mac. In fact, the one I got — I actually own a computer that I bought about three years ago that I’ve turned on about five times. I don’t know how to turn it on or off without help. I must say it was temporary insanity. I don’t know why I bought it. It was cheap. It was a couple hundred bucks and it was a garage sale computer. My friend said, “Oh, if you’d had that computer on your desk 10 years ago, it would have been the fastest computer on the planet and now it’s landfill. You were over-charged.” And people ask what I have on my computer and I tell them that on my computer are a pair of tennis shoes, a hat, and a can of cat food.
Have you ever attracted a fan that you wish you never had? Has there been anything non-productive?
For the most part, people who write or email me now (my girlfriend knows how to run the computer) usually have said pretty positive stuff. People have been, over the years, very supportive about my work, they also tell me how my work may have opened their eyes about something or inspired them or given them encouragement, which I think is what we’re all here for. This may sound really corny, but I think we’re all here to encourage one another because life is so hard that it’s pretty bleak for most people in the world. We’re kind of lucky where we are, but for the most part, encouraging others is really where it’s at. So it’s nice to know that people are encouraged by it, although I have gotten a couple of things from people over the years that are pretty zippy. Years ago I would get these giant containers from a lady named Julia in England and Biafra would get them too. They were sometimes long, rambling letters like someone was reading someone’s diary. “OK, good,” I’d think. “Now what does this have to do with anything?” And there would be long diatribes and there would be these boxes that were obviously pretty expensive to send from England filled with newspapers — The Daily Press. I kept looking through them trying to find…
Something against you or appropriate…
Is there something like a message? It was just your standard newspapers and tabloids and sometimes I’d go through them and would see a little circle that would say, “Winston and Biafra” and there’d be a little arrow pointing to a house or there’d be some cryptic thing. The woman may have unfortunately have had some certain psychological problems. Biafra actually figured out that she’d been in a home some place and had managed to get to the post office and was, from time to time, able to send us stuff. So that was a little disturbing to know that she had my address, but it was really nice that she was over in England and not here. I have a few people come up to me at shows or my expositions or at book signings who want to kind of challenge me over the artwork. “You must be some kind of commie.” And I say, “The work just speaks for itself” and it turns out they were Reagan supporter types and had been listening to Rush Limbaugh and so they saw me as a convenient target who represented the other side, the anti-Christ or whatever. I would say that for the most part, people… If they like it, they really like it; if they don’t like it, they don’t mention it. I’m a non-entity to them, which is fine for me.
What’s the largest cache of images that you’ve gotten? Have you ever scored a mother load?
Years ago I used to buy old magazines for 5 or 6 for a quarter. I would get old war-time Life magazines from the ‘40s for 50 cents apiece and then the last couples of years because of the vintage craze… Everybody’s into vintage now. Everything that’s 10 years old is called “vintage” now. So people would say, “Oh, that’s vintage so therefore this magazine that was formerly 50 cents or a dollar and a half is now 5 dollars.” $2.50, $3.50, $4.50, $5, $10, $20, $1000. I even had somebody who wanted to sell me some of their old magazines and then they said, “You need to take care of these” and I said, “I’m not going to take care of these. I’m going to cut them up.” And then he wouldn’t sell them to me. I should have said, “Yeah, I’m going to give them to my grandmother. I’m going to put them in lucite. I’m going to put ‘em in a time capsule.” No, sometimes I feel bad when I cut them up because I feel like, “Oh, these are things that should be preserved, but the fuckin’ library of Congress has them. I don’t have to preserve everything. I’m not an archive.”
You’re not a historian?
I really do enjoy the history factor of it a lot, but someone did point it out to me once. They said, “Well, actually you are preserving them in your own way. You’re taking images that would have otherwise never seen the light of day any other way. They were cast-off, commercial images from before the war or the ‘50s, stuff that people had forgotten about. That generation that’s past now and those products no longer exist and the whole rationale for selling them no longer exists. And so you’re actually resurrecting this as a cultural icon.” So that made me feel better. I bought it. [laughter] “OK, I agree with you.”
According to the artist Crumb — the piece of art that he did that people almost immediately identify with him was “Keep on Trucking”…
Oh, was it The Mr. Natural Guy?
Right. But it’s also the bane of his existence. Is there any piece that you’ve done that would fit that bill? Is there anything that you’re glad you did, certainly, but people identify you way too immediately with it?
I would say what people identify me with mostly is work done in concert with the Dead Kennedys. Biafra referred to me a few times in articles as the artistic conscience of the Dead Kennedys. The bad conscience. I think that, perhaps, the cross of dollars, the cross of money, is the one thing that people identify with. They identify it with, perhaps, not me, but they identify it with the band. The DK logo is also something that people make cheap t-shirts of. The cross was something I made quite some time before I knew Biafra and I made it specifically because of people making money off of religion.
People can make money off of anything. Selling landfill if they want but to rip off money from little old ladies living off of their retirement fund and people who maybe aren’t terribly deep thinkers or aren’t scholars in something else. They either end up giving Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson all this money and other people in between who are several layers down. That kind of thing is what really irked me and I grew up in Oklahoma and that was the bible belt and I’d see a lot of this stuff. I’d see people flock to these guys. Not that I think I’m much of a deep thinker or a big scholar, but, god, I just feel bad for these people who are being ripped off. To me, it has nothing to do with Jesus, it has to do with the fact that their idol, what they worship, is dollars, and they were doing it over his dead body. That’s essentially how it breaks down.
A couple of questions about the piece “Idol.” Why did that take 3 years to do?
Because the first date is the date of creation. The second date is the date of publication because I had to alter it. The Secret Service came by and they said, “You really can’t print it the way you’re doing this.”
The Secret Service? Really?
Yeah. Well, we were warned, actually. They said that this could constitute legal problems and it was their first record and Biafra figured, “Ah, let’s not fuck with this, we’ll fuck with it later.”
I noticed that there’s double eyes on the pyramid.
Yeah, you noticed that. Good. Actually, I was kind of happy that that happened. At first we were kind of bummed that we had to change it, but it gave us a chance to change it in a much more sinister way than it would have ever been if they hadn’t ever intruded.
Forked tongue out of Washington. Snakes over the crucified hands.
See this part right here? That’s on the dollar and to me it looked like a rattlesnake tail, so I made this as the back of a rattlesnake. I think it was a little while later that on my ranch I had to dispatch a rattlesnake that was going to kill my cat. It was about as long as my baseball bat and just about as thick, and I didn’t have a gun at the time — they were locked up some place — but I had a sword. It was a renaissance faire sword that I’d carry around when I worked at the faire — a costume sword — and I stabbed the snake. I made stationary with it. I sued the snake skin and the rattle and, in fact, on the day I was photocopying it, I had to go answer the phone and the shop lady went to put something in the photocopy machine and opened it up and went, “Yeahhooww” because she saw the snake and there is a visceral thing to seeing a snake (especially when it’s unexpected). So she shrieked. I sent some letters to Biafra on that stuff and unbeknownst to me, he cut them all out and put them all over his next record, “Let Them Eat Jelly Beans.” That snake became more famous in death than he ever was in life. My cat, 101 (its name)… I had it hanging on the wall for a long time, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night hearing this “prrr-prrr,” thinking that I was hearing a rattler in the room and in the morning the rattle part was all gone. He had gnawed it all off. Good ‘ol 101. So, yeah, I was able to change a lot of things on that cross. Like the atom bomb at the top that made the UPC…
With the 666
…Behind the INRI thing
Usually over the cross is “INRI,” the abbreviation from Latin, “Iesus Cristos Rex Ebreo.” something about, “Jesus Christ, king of the Jews” which is what the Romans put over the thing to mock him. So I replaced that with the anti-Christ symbol because money essentially, if you want to get abstract about it, money is the anti-Christ. The bible says you can’t serve God and mammon/wealth. It’s mammon that’s become their god, not that I’m a bible thumper, but there something about our culture…It’s what in our culture we’ve absorbed, what becomes prominent in our culture. And in the “United States of America” I took out the letter “s” so it’s the United State of America, and then behind the 1, I made it into a German iron cross. I had a cat named 208 so I changed the serial number to read 208 there and I put it as series 1984. And then I put two eyes over the pyramid and it says something like New World Order over it in Latin so I just changed to read “Nuit,” which I think is French for “Night.” On a few record artworks, I would put my name at the bottom right-hand corner to be indiscrete. Unfortunately, by the time the record got made, it had to be cropped here and there to make it fit and then, boom, my name’s gone, and it’s not like I’m making a big fortune doing this anyways. So you’d like to get credit if you’re not getting any money for it. By and by, I learned a lesson from Michelangelo.
Incorporating it into the middle.
Apparently, people thought when he made the “Pieta,” an incredibly beautiful statue, that they though tit had to have been made by Leonardo. “Only a master like Leonardo DaVinci could make this.” And he hated Leonardo and Leonardo hated Michelangelo. They were rivals. He was 20 years younger and it was a different generation. That was the old shit and he was the new shit. He went in the middle of the night and he carved on the sash across the Madonna’s Chest, so it said, “Michelangelo Buonarroti made this.” (I made it, damn it, and nobody else. It’s mine.) So on some things I actually wound up putting my name in the middle which people may have thought, “Oh, this guy has an enormous ego.” Well, not quite as much as that, it’s just because I figured that if it was in the middle, then it can’t get cut out. So it’s right underneath the torch, right above the hand of Lady Liberty on the “Bedtime for Democracy.”
What other jobs have you taken to keep yourself fed?
For a long, long time, I worked digging ditches. [laughter] For the last 17 years I’ve lived on this ranch up in northern California and I’d do carpentry for people. I’m not much of a carpenter; I can swing a hammer, but that’s about it. That, and I worked at a solar power company for a while doing packing and shipping and stuff. I did lots of illustration work for local magazines and illustration work for newspapers. A few years ago for a couple of years in a row I was working at a photocopy place which was great because my work is basically based on photocopies. I even told the owner, “Do you realize that by hiring me, it’s like hiring an alcoholic to work in a brewery?” I was pushing that button all day long, but he was very cool and he very much liked my work and I think without his help, a lot of what you see around me wouldn’t even exist because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experiment with things. So that was actually very good. Now I’m successfully “self-unemployed.” I don’t know how successful that will be in the future, but at the time I’m still here and I actually do have somewhat of a roof over my head even though by this time next month or next year I could be living behind a 7–11 eating out of a dog food can. “Mighty Dog. Mighty good. Mmm.” Maybe I could get a job advertising that: “Winston says: Mighty Dog is great.”
Have you ever gotten into any trouble with the images you’ve used from a copyright standpoint? Have you ever been approached by that?
Knock on wood. So far, no. Most of what I use is copyright-free and it’s so old that it’s over with. I try to stay away from photographs of inspaniduals — photographs of celebrities. I’m not going to use a picture of Sinatra or Coca- Cola or Disney. These guys will clobber you if you try to do that. I also take pictures out of context; pieces of “elements,” is what I call them. Like here you have somebody holding a fish. Well, he was holding a flashlight originally and I put a fish in his hand so the fish came from another piece. The fish came from maybe a famous painting or something. But being taken out of context, it no longer is associated with that painting or that product — fish food or whatever it was. If I ever get hauled into court, I guess I’ll have to practice saying that again in front of the judge. [laughter] “I’m just a working stiff trying to get by, your Honor.”
Name some of the bands that you made up. That you said were playing at the Mabuhay Gardens.
WE used to do these posters. When I first started out, I didn’t know a whole lot of people in the scene in the late ‘70s. I knew different bands and stuff and would go to shows. It wasn’t like I was associated with them in any sense so in order to do band art, I wanted to show people in bands what I would do. They would say, “Well, what kind of style do you do?” So I’d make up some bullshit bands. Names of bands that didn’t exist. The Clip-Ons, Lenny and the Spitwads, PTA, the Dip Shits, Anonymous Technicians — a whole series of weird, bullshit bands. The Clones, The Rejects, and one called Half Life and then Biafra reminded me that there was probably a band called Half Life in almost every major American city. Certain ones were pretty obvious names. They were really obvious and by and by, some bands took names just like them. I’m certain I had nothing to do with it. They came upon them on their own, I’m sure. Biafra has a long list of the most repulsive combinations of names that are possible to have… They could never have been thought of by anyone else. I mean, other people could think of them, but it’s not like it could be duplicated by accident. George DiCaprio (Leonardo’s father), I was having lunch with him — - not to drop names or anything — but he has his own long list of names that were so funny that as I took a drink of beer when he was telling us these names, I spit out my beer. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that in reality. It was so fuckin’ funny. And he was saying, “Gee, I wish there were bands with these names.” I can’t remember it, though. My memory fails me. It’s Alzheimer’s. It’s incipient, advanced Alzheimer’s. Don’t do drugs, kids. Either that or do lots of them and if you do, share them with me.
What’s the biggest lightbulb that’s gone off when you made a connection that wasn’t there before — like putting a strategic bomber in a lady’s arms — or was there one idea that was the catalyst for a lot of other ideas that came along that burst upon you?
That’s a good question because that’s happened. There were some things that I know were watermarks of evolution that changed the course of things — the concept that less is better when it comes to composition. Imagery is more effective when it is most direct visually.
Have you ever met somebody who Winston Smithed you that used your images or ideas that you’ve used and done it to you?
Yeah. Actually, one time I saw a zine — this was a hundred years ago, like in 1979 — and I saw a zine at a little punk shop somewhere in San Francisco and it was exactly my picture, only the guy was in a different position, and it was the guy cut out and put into another picture and he was floating the wrong way and I thought, “Oh man, they ripped me off.” But then I thought no, they couldn’t. If they had cut it up, the part behind it wouldn’t even be there. So it means that whoever did this had to have gotten the original stuff and did it on their own separately and decided where to put it because otherwise the figure would be gone — there’d be a hole there and it wasn’t there. It was nice and clear. You saw the background as it was in its entirety. So I got in touch with this cat. His name was Keith Ulrich and I think he lived in Pasadena at the time. I have not heard from him for years and years. We corresponded. He sent me a lot of his work and he did incredible collages and he just happened to be using the same stuff I was using and the same idea occurred to him as it occurred to me only he made it a little bit trippier by making this guy floating around where I put the guy on solid ground. That was kind of cool. And then I’ve had people send me things or I saw pieces of my work photocopied from my books or records cut up and made into collages and the first time I saw it I thought, “Oh, they fucked up my thing,” and then I had to think about it and I realized, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s what I do.” The reason I’m doing what I’m doing is to fuck up other people’s things. I’m screwing up other people’s hard work. And so I thought, “More power to him.” That’s fine. And there’s this guy named Joachin; he is in a band called The Hellworms that has anew record out on Alternative Tentacles and he does really cool collages. He made an entire collage based on one of my pieces and without knowing it, used that same piece; exactly the same picture; the Last Supper and put a bunch of my figures in this Last Supper thing and he didn’t even know that that was one I used myself. That was irony on top of irony. He sent it off to me and said, “Look, I hope you don’t mind my doing this. It’s just kind of a thank you note for what you do.” I thought it was totally cool. It was an honor to have someone make something out of what I’ve done because now I don’t feel bad for all the things that I’ve ripped off of other people. One time I met an artist who was one of the commercial artists in the ‘50s who made some pictures that I’d used and when I met him, he mentioned that and I went, “Oh, man, I hope you don’t mind… It’s strictly for laughs. I’m not getting rich off of this or nothin” and he said, “Oh, no, I totally approve.” Art is art. Even in the history of art where people see paintings and then a generation or later it changes to a different style of panting, but it’s because those artists would study the work of the past and then alter and change it. None of us have any original ideas. We all formulate them off of the things we have grown up with. So many of the 1950s images of housewives make them look as though they just had a nose full of cocaine and their eyes are big and they’re so happy to wash that pan. Happy white guys with little bow-ties. That was the image people wanted to live up to, but I’ve seen some things from other countries, especially from behind the iron curtain, that I think really hit the nail on the head because they live that life. The live what we protest against.
Secretly, do you wish that Reagan was still president?
Yeah, yeah. I wish Newt was still around. I would join the Republican party just to get votes for the bastard [laughter]. We made these shirts: “Newt Hates Me.”
Yeah, I even told the guy I made them with, “We should go out and campaign for Newt so we can keep peddling these shirts.” Actually we could re-sell the shirts by writing underneath the image of Newt, “I Voted,” because the vote that took place when the Republicans lost all those seats in the mid-term vote here in October and the Republicans lost pretty much big time after they thought Monica was going to help them win. Monica helped them lose and Newt had resigned probably for a lot of reasons and he knew he didn’t have the votes to remain the speaker, but who knows, maybe Larry Flynt has some shit on him. I told Biafra that when Reagan had completed his second term, “God, now that Reagan’s no longer president, we’re gonna be unemployed real soon. Now what?” Reagan was only Bush in sheep’s clothing.
Reagan looked better, though.
He was a better actor. People think he was a bad actor, but he was actually a very good actor. He swindled the public and the world into thinking he was a President for a long time.
I call that…
Pretty damn good acting. Have you ever wished that the worlds which you created would come true and that you could live inside of them?
H yeah. That’s why I wish I’d shown you this video tape I had. I was doing this interview for this woman from the Canadian Broadcasting Television Company and she was asking me “Why do you even do these silly pictures?” I pointed to a picture called “Enough is Enough.” [It’s in the new book. There’s a platypus all harnessed up to a little cart pulling a pygmy hippo down the road and children holding bunnies and spacemen and robot dolls] And I said, “Well, because I wish that there was a world where a platypus could trundle down the road with a pygmy hippo in the back of a cart and a meteorite would be coming down and a man would be being chased by a dinosaurs in the background and a clown would hold a sledgehammer up to the meteor.” But there aren’t any worlds like that, so I make them up myself and I do these things to create my own little dream states and nightmare states. Although on the same level, I’m glad that these things don’t exist in reality. It would be pretty scary.
Have you ever dreamt of driving an Austin Healey into ancient Egypt, running into a snowman [referring to the piece “Eclipse of the Gods”]…
Yeah, the snowman is definitely in the wrong neighborhood and in the wrong time of the year for him. [laughter] When I was a teenager I used to draw rooms where all of these spanergent things would be put together because I couldn’t cut them out so I would draw them in and make these surreal environments. It was during the craze of the pop art thing in the late ‘60s, like Roy Liechtenstein, and I kept thinking, “Well, why not? This could be. You could make one of these. It could be this way.” If you cut them out precisely enough and assembled them closely enough, they would appear to be the way they are. My thing and my personal style is that I try to make these things look as though they were born that way. I’ve actually had people look at certain pictures I’ve done and there will be two or three subtle changes and they’ll think, “Well, what did you do? So what? Big deal. There’s no change here.” And I’d kind of point out that, “Oh, here’s a fish coming out of this guy’s hat.” I wanted to create the illusion that you should be relaxed while looking at them and then be startled by the things that you notice; the nuances that you see that are out of place and then perhaps that would surprise or shock people in a certain way.
Have you ever been accused of being a “bastard artist?” You don’t create anything yourself. You don’t paint anything, you don’t draw anything with the collages and the montages.
Every now and then I have to paint some edges to make them match up with something else, but I try to avoid that. Even though I can draw, I definitely can’t draw as well as some of the people who I rip-off. I had someone tell me about 10 years ago, “Winston, what you’ve been doing for years and years, that’s all the rage now back in New York. They call it ‘appropriation.’” Unfortunately that didn’t help me. [laughter] It doesn’t mean much to be a pioneer. I rarely have people get completely on my case over that. I guess that I change things significantly enough and make enough alterations that it does create a new work of art, a new composition. And not all of them are works of art. They’re simple compositions. I may like them, but they’re not masterpieces in any sense of the word. It’s funny, too, because you never know what people are going to hit on. Some things that I like a whole lot because they mean something to me and it’s relevant to me but it doesn’t grab anybody much. Other times I’ve had things I’ve liked because they were kind of interesting to make and I liked it at that moment, but later it didn’t grab me but other people just flocked to it and they said, “Oh, this has such deep meaning.” And that’s OK. Even if it has no meaning toe, if it has it to them, then that’s what art’s all about. I t means whatever you bring to it. I have people interpret things good and bad. Sometimes people will look at things and go, “Oh, that things’ about animal abuse. You’re terrible.” No, I’m not talking about the abuse of animals. I’m not into that. This is strictly pygmy hippos being taken down the road by a platypus. Marsupial abuse is probably the proper term. You can’t second guess people. You can’t take guesses of what they’re going to be offended by or intrigued by so my thing is just to do what I do. These images are in our culture that we’ve all grown up with or we’ve all seen in one form or another or we haven’t seen those images but have seen the things that have been created through their inspiration. Not everyone has seen certain ads that I’ll use, but they’ll see the things that were made by people who did. There’s a generational difference between it and it all contributes to the great cosmic swarm that makes up our society and our civilization, and when people see things they brig to them whatever baggage they have psychologically, emotionally, or mentally. I have things that I’ve made because I just thought they were funny looking and one guy would look at it and go, “Man, that reminds me of a story I heard when I was in Australia about one of the first men on the moon that said he saw a Russian base there and that he couldn’t be quoted in the American newspapers.” And I’m all, “Whoa, back off, this is a picture of a space man holding a fish.” It was called, “The Fish on the Moon” or “The Fish That Knew Too Much” and this guy’s like, “yeah, this was the astronaut who knew too much and they had to silence him because he claimed that he was up there and there was a Russian base. He was one of the guys on the Apollo 16 or 15 and in the United States. Everything he said was completely blacked out from the media and he had to go to Australia to get it on the air.” It could be bullshit or not, but the thing is is that he had a different take on it and it had nothing to do with what was going on when I made it. We could look at a painting by Michelangelo or Botticelli and think, “Well, we can see clearly that Botticelli meant that this is an allegory between good and evil but maybe he just made it because he got the money up front. I can just hear the guy who commissioned the artwork: “I want a naked chick over here and a babe over here, I want another babe over there and I want a water fall in the middle.” [laughter]
And make her hair flowy.
Same thing with “The Birth of Venus,” the woman on the half shell. She was a beauty pageant winner in Florence at the time. She was a big star. She was apparently a very nice woman, beloved by everyone, and she died very young. Botticelli was hired to glorify the prince’s concubine. It was his girlfriend. He was married and had kids and this was his mistress. She was the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator for whom they named America. She died at age 24 of consumption (tuberculosis). A lot of people died young in those days because of consumption. Naturally she caught pneumonia. She had no clothes on… what did she expect?
Are there any nectars of creativity for you — food stuffs? Like Garry Larson of the Far Side said that he just got tanked up on caffeine and whatever came out came out.
I get tanked on Chianti and whatever comes out comes out… Beer is my favorite drug. That’s probably not a very good thing to say to people because it’s obviously not good for you. Too much of a good thing can screw things up, but caffeine… I like coffee, but not really to work by. It doesn’t really jazz me up so much. I do most of my work at night. I’m very nocturnal. I probably was born in Hong Kong because my circadian rhythm is completely the opposite of everybody else’s . That’s one thing Biafra and I have in common. We are up ’til 3 or 4 in the morning and don’t wake up until noon or one o’clock at least. That would be early for us. I’ve been an insomniac all my life. When I was doing the cover for Green Day, I finished it, finally, and there was kind of a deadline for getting it done. It took me a couple of weeks to get all of the pictures together. You have to find a million pictures, go through those million and then find a few thousand and go through those few thousand and find a few hundred. You whittle those down to a couple of dozen. You cut out a hundred of them and you have a dozen or so images and you select the ones that will work, but you have to go through all of this high-grading to get to that point and that took a couple of weeks. And finally, in all of three days, I worked and worked and worked on that and at one point I just didn’t go to sleep and I was up for 35–36 hours and then I got it finished. Then I called up Bill and Tre and said it was done and that they could come and get it and they said, “Well, bring it to the studio downtown so we can check it out.” And I go over there and I’m still zipping along ‘cuz I’d been awake for 38 hours by that time and I’m on a second wind but I’m really buzzin’ like I’m on an acid high almost. Sleep deprivation, essentially. Everything was glowing and fuzzy. I get there and they immediately loved it. In fact, they recognized certain things. The title of that piece for “Insomniac” is actually called “God Told Me to Skin You Alive” and Bill recognized it immediately (being an old Dead Kennedys fan), it came off the first poster we made for the DK’s first LP. There was a Jack T. Chick cartoon with a little arm coming out of this Armageddon cartoon about the world coming to an end. There was this little bubble coming up but you don’t see anything past the paper. It says, “God Told Me to Skin You Alive!” So they were jazzed on that and at that time, the working title for the record was going to be “Tightwad Hill,” which was one of the songs on the record, and they kept saying, “Well, do whatever you want.” I was like, “Do you want this? Do you want that?” “No, just do whatever you want.” Which was cool because it meant that I had free reign. I had no constraints. Usually people say, “It’s got to have horses or flying saucers in it. No dolphins and no chickens.” So I felt pretty free to do what I wanted and when I got it done, he said, “How long does it take you to do this?” “Well, over the span of the last few weeks I sorted through ten million images to get to this point, I finished the whole composition in the last 36 hours,” and he said, “How could you stay awake that long?” And I replied, “It’s easy for me, I’m an insomniac.” And we hung out for awhile and I went back home and slept for 24 hours. When the record came out, they called it “Insomniac.” It was probably a big coincidence because there’s no song on the record called insomniac, but I wondered if they and taken it off of that experience. Maybe I deserve an extra royalty check. I’ll have to talk to Tre about that. [laughter]
Have you ever walked into a store or gallery and said, “Hey, I did that. I’m Winston Smith” and they didn’t believe you?
Often I’ve come into places and seen things, especially the things that are out of context that I did, but they were bootlegs or the things that I know are clearly unauthorized reproductions of the work and I would say, “Oh, I made that, blah blah blah” and they’d go, “Oh, shit. Really? Naahh.” I’d have to tell them that I wasn’t going to sue them or anything but that they were bootlegs. It’s kind of fun because I’ve seen my work in Rome. I saw it in London and back east in several places where they were clearly bootlegs and the guy would say, “Yeah, I’ll give you this for half price”. Another guy said, “Oh, then you should have one for free. Have one for your girlfriend, too. Take another one for your mum,” jus so I wouldn’t get uppity about it. I wasn’t trying to wig on him, I was just surprised. I don’t mind. Again, I can’t get on anyone’s case over it because I, myself, have made a career out of wiping work from other people -real artists. [laughter] Only one time i was in Florence — I was going back there for a visit and I was showing some friends around — in fact it was the assistant guy from Alternative Tentacles there for the musical convention of alternative music in 1989. I happened to have a shirt they gave me in London that was a DK logo shirt and I just had it on. We’d gone to see the statue of David by Michelangelo at The Academy of Fine Arts which is the school I went to in Florence. I wasn’t a very good student, but I was there. so we walked out of the place with the statue and the woman I was travelling with and I walked down the block to the front door of the academy and I was saying, “Here is where I went to school and where I would hang out in front of the “loggia,” (the porch), everyday, waiting for the doors to open.” Then we go into the courtyard and on the wall is a giant DK logo painted with a paint brush and my mouth just fell open. “Son of a bitch!” I took a picture immediately because I wanted to send it to my mom. “Mom, I’m not in the academy, but I’m on the academy. I finally made the big time!” So I’m taking a picture and this guy comes upon his Vespa and he takes his helmet off and he was talking Italian and he said, “What the fuck are you doing? Are you some kind of tourist? Fuck you, man.” and I said, “No, no, no, I’m taking a picture because that emblem over there on the wall is this emblem I made.” and he said, “Oh no, you just have that shirt. Blah blah blah blah blah (in Italian)… Winston Smith.” And this woman who doesn’t know Italian says, “How does this perfect stranger know your name?” So I said, “Well, that’s me and I’m taking the picture because it’s…” “Nah, that’s bullshit, man, you’re not even American, you’re Florentine.” (Because I speak fluent Florentine. Florentine’s the dialect of Florence. It’s not like regular Italian so if you were a foreigner, you’d probably come with a broken accent and I didn’t have that. I had grown up there. I had proper pronunciation. Even though it’s bad Italian, its’ good Florentine. It’s like speaking Cockney or something.) So I’m rapping away with him and you could tell he was a bit s toned. “No way, you’re a local boy.” I pulled out my passport and showed him. “Oh man, you could get into a lot of trouble fucking with passports like that. You could get into a lot of trouble with an American passport.” He puts his helmet back on and on his helmet there’s a masking tape DK logo across the middle of it — a homemade thing. He gets on his bike and takes off and he wouldn’t believe it… He probably went home and said, “Man, I ran into this joker today.” Which is kind of cool because I had no idea I would even be known there. When I look at records and things, even when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t really study who did what and who produced this. I’d like it and appreciate it and that was about it. That’s where it ends with me. I’m not much of a fan type. I’ve never really been a fan of any band… Except for Gwar. Gwar is my one major fan thing and also my new major fan thing is Storm [Storm and Her Dirty Mouth] — the singer in San Francisco who’s the hardest working girl in show business and I’ve been a Storm groupie forever. Other than that, I’m not really a fan of anything. [laughter]
What’s the largest element that people have gone and said, “I’ve been looking at this piece for a while, but I didn’t see (and fill in the blank)?” What’s the largest hidden element that people didn’t see that they came around to see?
One thing is a bit of an optical illusion and it was intended that way, but I always thought it was so obvious that it couldn’t’ be mistaken. But it shows you how, visually, people react. It’s “The Spotlight” — the piece I made that a is black and white drawing of two people standing in front of a spotlight, holding a couple of bottles of beer in front of a table at a club. Well, from a distance it looks like a skull and that took quite a while to come up with. I had to make many drawings with my glasses off by candlelight. I dew it and then would take it and put it across the room and look at it and see if it worked then I’d come back and draw some more, put it back on the other side of the room with a candle next to it. I went back and forth a dozen times before I could get that just right on. I have actually encountered people that can look at it… “What do you see? The vase or the two profiles?” It’s a thing in the brain. It’s just how the right brain and the left brain work. Some people see it faster than others.
A little bit of departure, but what do you love most about living in America today? What advantages do you think you have over living in other places.
My work probably would not be as easily given out into the public if it were not for photocopy machines which have, of course, been around for 30 years. I think that we do have other advantages over other countries. Like it or not, we have certain freedoms that other people don’t have that we take for granted here. Unfortunately, a lot of our freedoms are backed up by the U.S. Marines and we can pay a dollar and a quarter for a gallon of gas and everyone else is paying four and a half dollars. And why? Because of the U.S. Marines. We’re used to going to the pumps and paying a dollar and a quarter and we’re used to flipping on the electric lights magically. It’s just like science fiction. Push a button and the house heats up. Where I’ve been living on my ranch for years, I’ve got kerosene lamps and I’ve got to go and chop wood to make the house warm; throw it in a fire box. In the rest of the world with the exception of America and Europe that’s how it really is. Europe is essentially the 51st American state. They don’t like to think of it as that, but that’s what has happened, unfortunately. We have advantages that other people don’t have as far as freedom of speech.
I say in the second book, the new book, Artcrime, that it’s easy for me to sit in my studio and slice up little pieces of paper, put them together and think I’m an anarchist and a big revolutionary which is horse shit. [laughter] If i were really in a position to have to deal with that, I’m afraid that I’m so much of a coward that I’d keep my mouth shut. If I were in El Salvador or Nicaragua or from some Nazi country in central America that has death squads wandering over the country side shooting pregnant women because they’re all rebel communists. (Their attitude is: if you shoot a pregnant woman, you kill two communists for the price of one bullet.) It’s easy for us to protest and make remarks about things because there are no significant repercussions, whereas in this country, the only significant repercussions that they can hand to you are economic bars. You can get put in jail if you knock somebody off or stick up a bank, but the way of punishing people in America is to economically deprive them and make it really hard and bitter for you to deal with all of the expenses that are necessary to live in the United States by fuckin’ up credit cards or your mortgage or your student loan, just makin’ it really hard for you. A friend of mine made this observation once; he said it’s all about rent. He said in the ‘50s and early ‘60s you could live in San Francisco, for example, and have a nice little apartment and maybe a part-time job or full-time job and have time and energy and money left after you took care of your expenses to maybe go out and protest things. It’s like they figured, “We don’t need anymore of this horse shit. We’ve got to stop these people from being able to have this leisure time.” There was a thing about making life much more difficult to deal with so that you wouldn’t have time to interfere with them doing whatever they want to do. “Them being the government, corporations, whatever. They don’t want you interfering. “Get back to work. Keep your noses to the grindstone.” People began thinking, “All I want is to come home from work and watch a little TV and be left the hell alone.” The screws started tightening around the late ‘60s. I think Nixon’s re-election in 1973 was the end of the “‘60s era.”
Have you ever sold a piece of work and then seen it for sale for a gross amount?
No. I wish. It would be a big ego boost. It would mean I could go find an attorney.
Have you ever thought about changing your name?
It’s kind of too late for that. I already did that more than 20 years ago. Way more than that, actually.
What was your first name?
It was a typical Irish name. My family’s Irish and Scottish. In fact, my dad, one time, looked at my book and even though he approved of my being an artist, he disapproved of some of the subject matter because he was your typical older, conservative, World War II veteran, Nixon supporter type and he looked at the book and said, “You never did tell me why you changed your name.” And I said, “Look at my work, dad. Don’t you think it’d be easier for me to change my name than for our whole family to change their name? And he sort of nodded, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” After that he was thankful that I was being so considerate of the family honor.
When you were talking about Green Day, you said you had literally thousands of images. How do you organize your archives?
I don’t. I tried that 10 or 15 years ago. I tried to put all TV sets over here all the snakes over there and all the guns, wedding pictures, etc… and I spent a couple of months sorting through things and putting them into different piles and then I realized I’m dyslexic. I knew I was dyslexic to begin with but I realized that my being dyslexic, that was the totally wrong way to go about it because now I’ve completely forgotten where these images are. They’re all separate and I can’t even get to them because I don’t see things as words; I see things as images and if I don’t see them, they don’t exist to me. If they’re not directly under my nose, they’re not there. That’s why everything in my life is so cluttered. I can’t put things on computer discs and I can’t put things in drawers. They all have to be out. If not, what’s out of sight is out of mind. That’s the story of my life. That’s why I didn’t graduate from high school. That’s why I flunked algebra four times. I just don’t have that kind of mind to sort things into different compartments. I would trade anything to be able to do that. I would love to have that kind of memory and sorting mentality. It would really help me in what I do. To find an image, I have to go through everything I’ve got. Billions and billions of images to find it. A monkey holding a chainsaw. It’s like trying to find a name in a New York City phone book when it’s not in alphabetical order. It would take you years. In fact, it’s a big drawback ‘cuz sometimes if I’m doing illustrations for people and the deadline is next week. “Can you drop everything you’re doing and make a picture of an aardvark flying over the Empire State building?” So then I have to find the aardvark and I know I’ve got one, but I don’t know where it is. I know I have the Empire State building, because I just saw it last week. Sometimes I’ve gone through a pile of shit and found it right at the bottom.
Doing the cover for “The Sky is Falling and I want My Mommy” [Nomeansno and Biafra] there was something I needed to have… It was a pair of cars that were crashing. I had the entire composition done in a couple of hours and I spent about 4 or 5 hours until dawn to find that piece and it was literally under my nose. I’d gone through 16 stacks of paper. “I know it was here. Did i eat it?” [laughter] I finally found it and it worked, but it was one of those struggles that was like salmon swimming upstream. My organizational skills are nil and the fact that I can keep things together as well as I have is a miracle. Dyslexia has its limitations.
Do you ever associate what the band is releasing to what you produce? Do you listen to “Breed, Spawn, and Die” from Lard? Is there any direct correlation to that or does somebody say like what Green Day said, “Go with what you have. What ever you want to do.”
Actually, for Lard, I had made that piece over one weekend. I had not done anything for a long time. I had broken up with some girlfriend of mine and hadn’t done any work for a long time, so suddenly over that weekend I finally had the free time and I did all this stuff. When I went and showed this lady I knew and showed her my new stuff she said, “You should break up with your girlfriends more often. You’re gettin’ some good stuff.” In fact, she looked at that one piece with the steam shovel about to eat the lady holding the baby [the Lard cover] and said it’s a real Buddhist piece. The title is “Welcome to the World ” and it’s like, here you’re born and this is what you have to deal with. You’re fed into the machine psychologically, physically, economically, everything. Even if you’re a baby you become a consumer and a producer. When Biafra saw that, he saw it as a potential cover so it was selected without my having to puzzle out anything from his work. I was off the hook. I didn’t have to listen to the music. [laughter] One of my favorite things is that they’ve done is “Lard.” The song “Lard.” “What we need is llaarrdd.” That’s actually a wonderful song. One of my favorite things of all that Biafra ever participated in was “The Witch Trials.” That was the coolest piece of music. Christian Lunch, Klaus, and this guy who used to be in the Dead Kennedys — Carlos was his name. I don’t know where he is. I haven’t seen him in a long, long time. I think he may have been in on “The Witch Trials.” That was a great record, though. Real funny shit. We need more classics like that one.