At various times, Frank Kozik's art emulates children's books, old war propaganda, E.C. comics, pop art, and much more. But there's no mistaking his unique style, which has graced countless album covers and concert posters, as well as a handful of ad campaigns. Frequently combining bright, playful colors with disturbing images, many of which involve familiar-looking cartoon children and animals, Kozik's work has found acceptance among punk bands, in art galleries, and at mainstream ad agencies, even finding its way into a Nike campaign a few years ago. His fondness for punk and doing album art even led him to found his own label, Man's Ruin Records, though his best known work in the music industry is probably his cover for The Offspring's Americana, which depicts a child wearing a leg brace, sitting on a swing and cradling an enormous insect. Kozik recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his source material, his success, and being associated with one of the worst records of the '90s.
The Onion: Do you run into sampling issues the way rappers do?
Frank Kozik: Not really. A lot of stuff that looks like it's ripped off actually isn't. It's influenced by something, but it's usually redone to suit my purposes. When I do directly lift stuff, I'm always trying to make sure that the source material is, like, either European or from 1920s Russia. I've got a big collection of arcane materials, and I try to draw from copyright-free sources or bizarre foreign sources or stuff that's so old or obscure that no one can possibly give me shit. The one time I did my little dance with death was with the whole Hanna-Barbera thing, but that was actually an inside job. [Several popular Kozik pieces involve members of the Flintstone family mixed up in drugs, punk rock, Nazi insignias, and/or bondage gear. —ed.] The president of Hanna-Barbera was a really cool guy, and he enjoyed toying with his own legal staff. So he would give me the nod to do a piece, I would get cease-and-desist orders, I'd give him a call, and he'd go down there and run riot amongst the bureaucrats of his own company. He's kind of this perverse cat, this sort of weird, rich art-collector guy who just ended up running that company for a while. That was the only real time. Most of the stuff is a gray area. I flew invisibly for years because it was so obscure, but I've had some pretty high-profile press over the years: Rolling Stone, Newsweek, People. Millions and millions of reproductions are out there now—there are probably 100,000,000 reproductions floating around—but I've never really had a problem. These days, there's more money, so I actually get my own photographs taken, shit like that. Even the photo stuff for the last couple years is all stuff that's either ultra-generic or stuff where I've actually done creative direction and paid photographers. It's not quite as punk-rock as it used to be, you know what I mean? Plus, the way I look at it, if anybody ever had a major beef, I'd blow it up into some huge fuckin' deal and go, "I'm a social satirist, I'm not trying to sell this as a Fred Flintstone toy, I'm using what I consider public-domain imagery to make a social point," that kind of thing. So, even if it got ugly, it would just generate a lot of hoohah; I think that argument actually stopped people from proceeding with proceedings back in the day.
O: But there's a whole realm of stuff you don't really mess with, like, say, Disney.
FK: That's the thing, I'm not suicidal. Plus, fucking with Disney stuff is just so obvious. To tell you the truth, I'm amazed anybody likes the stuff I do, because it's strictly done for my own amusement, and the stuff I'm into is relatively obscure in American culture. I'm constantly amazed that people actually respond to my stuff the way they do. I mean, with the obvious things, like I say, I'm not suicidal. I've never gotten grief over content, even though some of the stuff has some pretty psychotic implications going on, because I don't really need to show the pussy or whatever; I'd rather just imply it. I don't have to actually show an act of pedophilia; I'd rather just imply it, which is always a lot richer, I think. To tell you the truth, the only times I've been actively censored or berated have been by the Left. The only people, especially out here in San Francisco, who ever actually give me shit and hassle me are the supposedly liberal alternative types. With the right wing, I have overwhelming success; no matter how much fun I have with them, they love it. It's really strange.
O: Are you ever mindful of going too far, where something becomes empty nihilism for nihilism's sake? I've noticed that there's not, for example, a lot of violence against women.
FK: There's stuff I do for other places where I absolutely won't allow it to be disseminated in the U.S. because nobody here would really understand. I'll give you an example. I do a lot of sort of high-end stuff in Japan with this group of people who own lifestyle kind of businesses. They maybe have got a store, and they're hooked in with sports and clothing, but it's just weird intellectual sort of stuff. A lot of the older cats were beatnik types back in the '50s and '60s. There's no ageism over there, so I work with a circle of people in Japan where they're all super-cool, but they're from 17 to 65 in age and they all work together as a big organic family. It's a really cool scene over there, very intellectual. It's also extremely fucking anti-everything. So, for example, we do super-fancy designer stuff where you take Klan imagery and twist it toward making fun of Japs. Like, I did a whole series of ultra-fascist Nazi stuff, but it's all because they like to look at it and it's not really Nazi stuff. It's kitsch, almost. Does that make sense? You take this bizarre power imagery and turn it on its head. It's a really complicated process for an American to understand, so I don't let that shit out over here, because people would flip out. That stuff, over here, would be considered psychotically wrong and transgressive by everybody, but it's fun to do. Unfortunately, the most evil people always have the most striking graphic images. There is that sort of stuff, which I would be retarded to do over here. The only way I can ever get away with it is sometimes I do kind of fine-art gallery shows where I can do this drawing of a masturbating Hitler or whatever, and people are like, "It's art, it's okay." I mean, once in a while I do stuff like that. I used to be really out of my mind like that in the punk-rock days. I'm pretty reality-based, and things are pretty good now, so my stuff is probably getting more boring. Now, I'm just sort of fascinated with making stuff look really nice and exploring photography and more purist design stuff. Once in a while, I'll whip out something totally absurd and nasty. I mean, the weirdest I get for America is a series of images of really cute children and animals that have been sort of brutally amputeed. That's probably the most grotesque stuff I do for the States. The Japanese stuff is a different sort of realm; it's really purist weirdo shit that doesn't make a lot of sense over here.
O: We've talked a little bit about artistic influences. It's pretty obvious that pop art, comics—
FK: Everything. Every fucking thing I've ever seen. I just collect massive amounts of all that shit. I'm a big paper-goods collector. I just sort of scour the book shows and find stuff that freaks me out and makes me say, "Oh, I want to copy that."
O: Do people ever commission you to do album covers or posters for bands you hate?
FK: I've only done… One time I owed somebody a favor, so I did a Bob Weir poster, and I hate that shit, all right? That was maybe 15 years ago. There have been a couple of things where, if I hadn't stiffed them for triple the normal amount, I wouldn't have done it. There's been a couple… Like, for example, that Offspring thing. Dexter [Holland, the singer] is an okay guy, and I know him from a long time ago. I was really hesitant about that. They really wanted me to do it, and I actually had a phone call with him. I go, "You understand that people are gonna give me shit, so I've got to charge you, like, 75 grand to do this." And he was like, [grudgingly] "Okay." So, I figure, I'll take a few angry letters in return for 75K.
O: I almost bought a copy of that piece as a silkscreen poster in a gallery seven years ago.
FK: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing, too. I told him that the thing has been around forever. It was originally a poster for this really cool band called Ritual Device out of Nebraska. I used it as the cover of my first book [1997's Man's Ruin: The Poster Art Of Frank Kozik]. He's just in love with that image, so it was kind of like, okay, old image, lot of money… I've really got to stick it to Columbia Records.
O: I'd have been super-pissed if I'd bought that particular print, though. That album is the worst.
FK: It is the worst. I told him, but… Yeah, of course, I'm not Jesus Christ. Someone comes along, I'll whore myself, sure. But it's few and far between. By and large, what I do is take that money and blow it on the label, so I get to put out Fuck Emos records and shit, which I adore and nobody buys, so karmically I think I'm in balance.
O: What did you do for Nike?
FK: That was a real weird random thing. That was four years ago. Basically, there was a guy at the design firm that handles all their advertising, or did. He was a fan, and they had some sort of new shoe. Over here, they did the William Burroughs thing, so my campaign was for Europe and South America. They picked these four athletes to represent the shoe, and they just gave me photos of the athletes. They were like, "We want you to do eye-catching designs in your style." With three of them I just did the distressed thing—Xerox it out and put wacky backgrounds on them—and the fourth thing I turned into an illustration. They went up on buildings and every magazine and billboard in Europe for a season. The best part is we did do some animated spots with little evil cartoon things and stuff, and those were cool. But they never used any of that stuff here.
O: How's the label doing?
FK: Pretty good. I mean, it's a lot of complicated business crap and stress, but the label has been doubling in volume every year without having to compromise the quality of the music, so I'm pretty happy.
O: Is there a Sony deal?
FK: No deal with Sony; it's just a big rumor that's going around. I'll give you the straight skinny. It doesn't involve the label at all. Man's Ruin Records is completely independent, owned by myself. I formed a joint venture, a partnership, with this guy Danny Goldberg. He's this music-industry bigwig since back in Led Zeppelin days.
O: Yeah, he's a big one.
FK: Right. We have a partnership. He has an entity called Sheridan Square Entertainment which owns a label called Artemis Records, which is trying to be a major label. He gives me money, and I get money from him to do with as I please. In return, I turn him on to the bands I like, because some of our bands have gotten popular and signed away with other labels. So, basically, he gives me all this money, I spend it on my label, and I approach bands going, "Hey, I can get you a better deal if you sign this thing that says Artemis can come in and give you even more money if things start heating up." And, of course, all the bands love that; it's a really good deal for them. Once in a while, when one of our bands peeks up above the fray and is up for signing, he's got the first foot in the door. In return, part of the deal is that a few records a year go into his distribution channel, RED Distribution, which used to be owned by Sony but was sold to a private individual from Germany about six months ago. So I don't have a deal with Sony; I have a deal with Danny Goldberg, which involves routing some of my releases through his distribution system, which used to be owned by Sony. Does that make sense?
O: That does make sense.
FK: That's the entirety of the thing.
O: So River City Rapists will not come out through Sony?
FK: No, no. The bulk of my material is either distributed independently by myself overseas or through Bayside Distribution, our biggest customer. The bulk of our stuff is still independently distributed.
O: You don't really meddle much with recordings, do you?
FK: I don't touch them at all, man. My policy is, "Here's your paltry budget, give me a finished record, and we'll release it as it is." I think you get better stuff that way.
O: Have you given any thought to a line of Precious Moments-style figurines?
FK: My dream. I'd love it.