October 17, 2007

Frank Kozik Interview with Paul Budnitz

Interview by Paul Budnitz, President of Kidrobot

October 2007

Frank with Eddie Goralsky the Cat, October 2007
Frank with Eddie Goralsky the Cat, October 2007


Born near Madrid, Spain in 1962, Frank Kozik is best known as a living master of poster, album cover, and toy art. Credited by such sources as Rolling Stone and the Smithsonian Museum for single-handedly reviving the ‘Rock Concert Poster,’ Frank Kozik has done over 1000 concert posters and 300 album and CD covers for acts as diverse as the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Soundgarden and The Rolling Stones.

Frank Kozik also founded and managed Man’s Ruin Records, which popularized the genre of ‘Stoner Rock,’ and released over 200 records and CDs in a 5-year span, including first releases by bands such as Queens Of The Stone Age and the Hellacopters.

Frank has also maintained a steady stream of fine arts gallery shows with over 60 exhibits in the last 15 years.

Kozik began to work in collectible art toys in the late nineties. His Smorkin’ Labbit character has become a huge success, as have his scores of other characters (Mongers, Chumps, and many others) created for Kidrobot, Bounty Hunter, and other manufacturers.

Frank Kozik currently resides in San Francisco.

I utterly love Frank, and it was a blast to interview him.

-Paul Budnitz


PAUL: I remember that you once told me that Kozik is a Czech name. What was it like growing up for you, and how did you first discover that you are an artist?

FRANK: Actually, I think it’s a Polish name. My father’s side of the family came over here around 1905 or so, and at that time I believe the village was in Russian hands. I do know our ‘hometown’ was wiped out sometime between 1914-1919 during all the battles in eastern Poland/Russia.

I had a sort of odd childhood…my dad was American, but my parents split up before I was born and I was raised primarily in Spain by my mother, although once in a while I’d spend some time with my dad when he was in Europe. I remember living in England for a year.

My mother’s family was a classic case of a Spanish family split up by the civil war there in the 1930’s. My grandparents where from Barcelona, and lost or gave their business to the ‘anarchists’ or ‘communists’ or whatever and ended up both being killed during the war… and on the losing side. My mom ended up being raised by ‘fascists’ and my uncle, who was older, fought in the war, survived but was branded ‘undesirable’ as he fought on the losing side as well. My childhood consisted of shuttling back and forth between the 2 households. One wealthy, right wing and ‘connected’ and the other, poor, disenfranchised and tied to anti-government activities.

I hated it… and when my dad showed up again when I was 14 and said I could come to America, I immediately did so.

As to discovering the ‘art thing’… I have no idea. I was always attracted to visuals as a child and drew a lot, I also loved building things. So for me, it has always been there. I don’t really consider myself an ‘Artist’… I just like to make stuff. I have no formal training of any kind, but I always was fascinated by the visual thing and spent a lot of time as a kid going on my own to museums and so forth (in Madrid I lived very near the Prado, and went there at least once a week for maybe 10 years), looking at comics, art books, atlases etc…. so eventually I got a pretty good education in ‘art’ and ‘pop culture’ from different eras on my own.

PAUL: I know what you mean about not considering yourself an artist, and having worked with you, there’s a kind of freedom that you have that makes sense to me. I have the same experience, often I look at something I’ve done and it’s as if it was done by someone else, maybe someone I’d heard of once before, but certainly not by me.

FRANK: This correlates directly to my experience. I think the ‘fugue state’ is a valid indicator of immersion in the process, and an essential part of it. I look back at 25 years worth of projects and there is not much of a personal connection, its far more abstract. But then again, I don’t archive or ‘collect’ my own work (I have none of it at home, for example), so maybe my ‘art’ is simply one very long-term project.

Frank's San Francisco studio, October 2007
Frank’s San Francisco studio, October 2007

PAUL: I don’t have much of my own work at home either. I hadn’t thought of that before, I think it’s sort of like designing a clothing line, after a while all you want to do is wear black because you’re so immersed in your work life. All Marc Jacobs ever wears is a Mickey Mouse T-shirt!

I’ve said about you that you’re the easiest artist to work with, because all you care about is making good work and at the same time, your ego isn’t in the way. So it isn’t about you, it’s about the work. My experience of you is that making art is pretty easeful for you, it’s not a big stressful thing, and yet your work is nevertheless immaculate.

FRANK: Well, having some sort of big ego is pretty tacky, basically. Additionally, I already considered myself a ‘whole person’ by the time I decided to start doing whatever it is I actually do in the creative field, so my ‘art’ does not have very much to do with my ‘self worth’. It’s more of a very interesting hobby.

Also, I came into this by a backwards route… My very first ‘real’ work was done commercially, I learned all my techniques by doing commercial, technical hands-on graphics work. Any ‘theory’ actually crossed over from my social and entertainment interests… music, weird art, world history, etc.

Basically, I don’t have a message. Each stage and the level of the things I have done over the years were always linked directly to what resources and tools I had available, and my ‘focus’ has shifted many, many times.

As to it being ‘easy’… well… Ideas, yes. Very easy. I have a MILLION ideas…some of them good. More every minute as one unfolds into its opposite or another.

What IS very stressful is the ‘actual physical’ part of it. I am fairly capable in a wide variety of techniques and ‘schools’… but really hate doing the work. So in essence, my approach is to think about it a lot, then do the end piece as quickly and ‘perfectly nailed’ as possible the first time out. I do VERY little sketching etc. I don’t do sketchbooks. There are usually no more than 1 or 2 rounds of revisions (for commercial stuff). And when I paint or make a 3-D object I never revise, it’s just done once.

This works really well for me, to fully mentally have visualized the end result. I hate the process, I am results-oriented. In effect, everything I make is already there, already finished before I ever draw it or lay it out in the computer. This allows me to do a lot of work, very quickly, that is very focused and finished.

Bird is the Word, 20-inch vinyl statue, 2006
Bird is the Word, 20-inch vinyl statue, 2006

PAUL: There’s a kind of funny ironic darkness in your work, Frank. It’s as much in the colors you choose as the imagery (light blue rabbit with a cigarette, orange Mao Tse Tung with Mickey Mouse ears). Is that something you think about, or is it just what comes up? Is there anything specific you’re thinking about when you make these things?

FRANK: Well, each type of character or object exists for a fairly specific purpose. As to the Labbit, well, it’s my attempt to create a very simple, very ‘expandable’ character along the lines of say… Hello Kitty… except it’s a character that reflects my own sort of view on things. Basically, the ‘dark-sided’ Hello Kitty. Bright, pastel colors serve as a nice sort of ‘poison candy’.

With things like the Mao…that’s a bit more complex. It involves these factors:

1) My love of and desire to make ‘Pop Art’…what better than a large, shiny plastic object?
2) My fascination with Mao
3) My fascination with ‘branding’
4) The utter oddness of the current ‘3rd road’ approach in China
5) The ability to produce an exceedingly odd object of no value whatsoever, except it makes people go ‘whoa… what the fuck?’ …and then want to own it
6) My love of the utterly absurd

PAUL: Where did Labbit come from?

FRANK: Back around 1996 or so, I was in Tokyo doing some work and visiting my friends. One evening a few of us were in a bar or restaurant or something and my Japanese friends where trying to figure out my Hello Kitty obsession, and why I had asked them to take me to places to get ‘rad’ HK stuff. They, being sort of upscale people, thought it was weird and sort of trashy that I was into it, but they appreciated the commerciality of it, so they suggested I design a ‘Kitty’ type character.

Original sketch of Smorkin' Labbit, circa 1996
Original sketch of Smorkin’ Labbit, circa 1996

So, I doodled a lumpy little dirty bunny looking thing with a cigarette on the spot and they all thought it would ‘work’ and agreed to make a few items for Japan out of it. We ended up selling like 1000 plushes instantly. I then started putting it on stuff like ashtrays and Zippos etc., even made some plastic lunch pails. They sold really well, primarily to the ‘music’ crowd I was dealing with then.

PAUL: Was this related at all to your record label? I don’t think most people know that you had a pretty successful record label. What made you want to do that? What kinds of bands did you sign? And going backwards in time, how’d you start out designing rock and roll posters?

FRANK: I first started doing posters in 1982, in Austin. I had been doing ‘mail art’ (sort of a pre-zine thing where people would make weird art and mail it back and forth… I used to correspond with people all over the place, Europe etc…. anyways, we had this little mail-art collective (Artmagots) going on and we would also do weird ‘punk’ comics and posters, just random street art sort of stuff. Some local bands saw these, liked them and they slowly developed into posters for shows. One thing led to another and around 1991 I had a national sort of deal going on, doing these posters for bands like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers etc. Right around then I started doing ‘fine art’ and gallery type shows and eventually, large format silkscreen stuff. All basically music related.

This led me to do a lot of high budget ad campaigns for BAF and Nike and soon… I took those massive checks and used the money to start releasing vinyl records by small bands (and not so small), which in turn led into CDs and a full blown label (Man’s Ruin). I ended up releasing about 220 different singles, EPs and LPs in all formats. Did all the artwork, and posters etc. Some bands include Kyuss, the first Queens Of The Stoneage, Turbonegro, Hellacopters… many, many bands.

D Generation Poster, 1999
D Generation Poster, 1999

Queens of the Stone Age, 2000
Queens of the Stone Age, 2000

PAUL: The most amazing thing I ever saw in your studio was a giant Star Wars imperial walker toy that you’d modified and painted in WWII camo. I think you said it was a commission. That just blew me away, and I’ve been secretly trying to get a Star Wars license so we can produce something like that together, though I doubt it would get past the Lucus branding machine. It seems like you have a kind of obsession with WWII-era Soviet-era Mao-era stuff, where does that come from?

Walker, 2004
Walker, 2004
Walker, 2004
Walker, 2004
Man's Ruin Records, Album Cover, 1999
Man’s Ruin Records, Album Cover, 1999

FRANK: I did several of those for a show in London. As far as my love of militaria, well, I come from a ‘military’ family on both sides and grew up watching military parades, and then went on to serve in the military myself. The ‘look’ is fascinating… what can I say? I was surrounded by military people and machines until I was 22 years old.

PAUL: What happened to the record label? Did you enjoy that?

FRANK: That’s an epic saga of despair. Basically we outgrew our distributor and the whole thing simply imploded.

PAUL: Man’s Ruin Records was an apt name, I guess.

Your story about the posters makes it feel like you almost fell into being a working artist. Your whole identity has morphed as things keep changing. Now you’re making all these toys and clothing with us, bigger art shows, sneakers, big art pieces. Is there anything you’re just dying to do that you’re planning to do someday?

FRANK: Well…part of me has this desire to very large, very stupid ‘pop art’ installations and interiors. The 16″ and 30″ busts and the giant Labbit stools are sort of the tiny first step in that direction. Also, I really want to keep making the toys forever. I really love them. I have always changed my focus according to what resources become available… so as those change, so will I.

© Paul Budnitz. © Frank Kozik.

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Find out more about Frank Kozik in his artist profile, or shop for Kozik stuff on kidrobot.com!

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