Brooklyn-based artist James Marshall, better known as "Dalek," the pseudonym he used during his days as a graffiti tagger, has built an increasingly sophisticated body of work around the demented-looking cartoon figures he calls "Space Monkeys." The A.V. Club spoke with him recently in conjunction with his participation in Juxtapoz Magazine's annual group show of "lowbrow" art, taking place this year at Minneapolis galleries Ox-Op Arts and Soo Visual Arts Center. Check out Dalek's website at dalekart.com. See also our interview with painter and ex-Replacements drummer Chris Mars.
The A.V. Club: How did you become interested in art?
Dalek: Pretty randomly. I was super into art as a kid. Most of the stuff I drew in the early days was [from] watching cartoons and reading comic books. A lot of war stuff, actually—my dad was in the military.
AVC: And you moved around a lot because of that?
D: Yeah. My dad was in the Navy, so moved all over, mostly the East Coast. I was born in Connecticut, and we moved up and down the coast. He was in submarines, so we lived in Connecticut, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland. I moved overseas later on—when I was in high school we moved to Japan, then I moved to Hawaii. Those were probably the biggest moves off the coast.
AVC: It's interesting that you lived in Japan, because I can see a Japanese influence in what you do now.
D: Yeah, it's funny. It must be really subconscious because that's the overriding consensus from everyone I talk to, but I don't really look at Japanese animation anymore. I was into it when I was in high school, just because it was sort of the default. It's hard to watch American cartoons, but there were good ones, I used to watch Lupin and Hakuto no Ken. When I was really young, I remember watching Star Blazers and Battle Of The Planets, Speed Racer, Marine Boy, that kind of stuff, although I had no concept that it was Japanese. When you're that young you don't really make those differentiations. But since I started painting, I've been into American animation—Disney and classic Hanna-Barbera and all that stuff. I'm not saying [a Japanese influence] is not there, but it's interesting that it seems to be [what others think of], when I really think visually I refer more to American cartoons. … I think part of it was when Japanimation started getting big, when people started getting into it, I instantly didn't want to be into it anymore. It sort of became obnoxious. But I worked with [Japanese animator] Takashi Murakami, and the main reason I was interested in working with him is because of his studio practice—the way he's able to paint so flat, and the colors he uses. I wasn't necessarily drawn to the imagery he was creating, I just found his technique really amazing. So it's hard to say, maybe [a Japanese influence] is floating around in there and I'm just fighting it. But maybe it's just a healthy mix of the two.
AVC: You went to art school in Chicago, is that right?
D: I went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I wanted to study photography. I went to VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University, before that and studied sociology and anthropology. I started trying to figure out how to apply it, and I was into documenting the subcultures I came up in—skateboarding and punk rock and all that. I loved it but I didn't really see too many photos or documentations of those movements. So I really got into photography, and I ended up applying to the Art Institute with a friends of mine's portfolio, because even though I messed around with art as a kid and in high school, I never really saw making a life out of it. So I went to college and I just didn't even think about art. A friend of mine lent me a bunch of his stuff, and I applied with that and got in. When I moved to Chicago, it was the first real huge city I lived in outside of Tokyo, and the first real big American city. It was the first time I had really seen graffiti like that, and I moved to Chicago in the dead of winter, which is not the best place to be. It was depressing and gray, so I started noticing graffiti popping up as I was taking the train to school. Pretty quickly after I moved there, I started documenting graffiti—how it sits in the environment as opposed to just straight-shooting walls. That eventually led me to doing graffiti, which led me into painting.
AVC: How old were you when you moved there?
D: I was 24 or 25. I graduated high school in Japan in 1986, and we moved to Hawaii. Needless to say, when I lived in Hawaii I didn't do much of anything except go to the beach every day. I worked in a shop and just sort of hung out for a couple of years. As far as graffiti is concerned, I got started doing graffiti pretty late in the game. Most kids started when they were 15 or 16, if not younger. I hadn't really been exposed to it before, and when I was, it instantly appealed to me.
AVC: Was it a pretty natural progression to go from the graffiti world into the gallery world?
D: I guess, just because there was never any expectation. To me it's funny, I still don't see doing art as a job. It is, but if it all dried up tomorrow, I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep over it. I never expected any of this to happen. The whole reason I got into doing canvasses was just because a lot of graffiti writers will exchange canvasses among friends. They like each other's style and they want to have something that they could put in their house. A friend of mine asked me if I would paint one of the [Space Monkey] characters for him, so I did. Another person in our crew saw it and wanted one, so at first it was like a hobby. I started doing it for friends and giving them away. This was probably '96. Then I was in Southern California working for this skateboard shoe company called Duffs, and the art director there was friends with Shepard Fairey and Rich Jacobs and some of those guys. I met Shepard and I was a big fan of what he did. He was very nice, and said he liked my stuff. So that became a motivator for me. Then Rich Jacobs actually helped me get involved in some of the Move shows he was doing out in L.A. So it kept growing and growing and growing, and eventually got to the point where I was spending more time doing that than anything else. So I quit my job at Duffs—not just because of the pay, though it was getting pretty shitty. But when I left I didn't feel like getting another job. I've never been a fan of jobs. So I just started trying to figure out how I could do art full-time and just slogged it out for a good many years.
AVC: The Space Monkey figure is obviously dominant in your work, but is it exclusively what you do?
D: Pretty much, at this point. And this isn't even for the markets, it's for my own personal sake. I learned how to paint on my own, and the nice thing about working with a similar image over and over, [is that] you actually learn how to become a better artist. I've learned how to draw more, how to think about work and creating something a lot cleaner, a lot more precisely. I've learned a lot more about color, space, composition, all these sort of basic painting tenets that some people learn in schools. It's just been this ongoing experiment for me to learn more and more about painting. Everything's sort of like a sketch for me. Because the Space Monkey represents a human figure to me in a lot of ways, I don't know if he'll ever disappear. I'm sure it'll find its path, but just being sociologically and anthropologically driven, human culture and behavior is always at the forefront of my thinking so it's natural for me to interpret these things into Space Monkeys.
AVC: The Space Monkeys all share repeated motifs that show up in each work, but do you view each as an individual?
D: Totally. They're like people. They all share similar characteristics, and at the end of the day, these things are pretty well-crafted using the same formula, yet they all seem to end up having different characteristics. It's not anything I go into thinking "I want this Space Monkey to look a certain way or reflect a certain feeling." There's no pre-thought in any of this. It's a natural expulsion of whatever is going on in my life onto canvas or paper or whatever the hell I'm working on. They all end up taking on their own characteristics, because they develop naturally out of whatever's going on. So because I'm really never the same at any given moment, because everything else changes, they change too. But they do it in a natural way, there's nothing forced about it. And some people see it and some people don't. I get people that see the progression in the work and understand the message that's interlaid in the paintings, and some people see nothing more than a character. Any which way is good. It's never been a goal of mine to try to please other people. I'm just painting, and wherever it goes it goes, and whatever happens happens. Things evolve the way they're going to, and by not putting any expectations or limitations or anything at all on them, I just let it be what it is.
AVC: Why do the Space Monkeys always point to the left?
D: They're on a mission, a journey. Life is chronological. Everything has a logical beginning and an end, so to me it makes sense they're marching in one direction. I go forward, they go forward. They can fall down and hang upside down, what have you, but they're always moving in a single direction to an unknown end, even if it's marching off a cliff. Didn't King Kamehameha do that, march all his people off of a cliff? He marched somebody off of a cliff.
AVC: I haven't heard that story.
D: I haven't heard it in a long time, but I remember from when I lived over there. It all plays into the whole thing that most humans end up becoming drones, and by no means am I subtracting myself from those situations. I think a lot of people, including myself, end up having to battle constantly between living for the moment versus planning for the long-term. It keeps you in this march, looking for the shiny carrot at the end. I like to think about these things in bigger terms, but people can bring their own life to it. They're just on a mission, they were born and they're just trekking through life. I don't see any need to move beyond the monkey, or get rid of it, because it's on its mission. When it reaches the end of its mission, maybe there'll be a logical last painting when they've arrived, but who knows.
AVC: Another thing that comes up a lot in the Space Monkey images is that they're wounded, and often it's a head injury. I've read that as a kid you had a incident with a wooden stake.
D: I've had a number of head injuries throughout the years. Yeah, there's personal aspects to it, there's larger social aspects to it, but again, it's more powerful if [the meaning] is left open, because it allows people to engage it and embrace it in a more sort of personal, human way. It's one of the reasons I never really talk too much about this stuff, because when you start telling people what something is, then you instantly narrow the way they're going to view it. … The beauty of life is that things are always changing. There's this open-endedness to it. The minute you start clamping down and defining things, and try to cage them, then where do you have to go? Then when you look at it there's no more sense of connecting, because now you're going to see it the way I told you to see it. Even if you don't want to. Once you have that information, it's always going to be in the back of your head and you're always going to view it that way. When I first started out, the first paintings I did, I was basically trying to beat people over the head with my opinions, because I have a lot of them. But—and this is part of painting the same thing over and over again—I learned how to be more subtle. I realized you don't need to hit people over their head. You need to respect your audience and realize that they're the same as you, and by doing that, I hold back even on titling. Nothing gets titled. There's really nothing revealed. I love going to openings and hearing peoples' stories about what they think the paintings mean. I think it's interesting if you can take something, especially reducing it—my early paintings used to be super-crazy, and I kept reducing and reducing, simplifying the character, reducing the elements—if you can take something that's fairly simple, and pack a bunch of possibilities and meanings behind it, then that's even more effective. I find the more I paint, the more I simplify everything into little shapes, or what have you.
AVC: You've had a couple of shows at Ox-Op, including the first solo show that the gallery did. Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Ox-Op's founder, Tom Hazelmyer?
D: I met Tom through some people out in California, who he bought a piece [of mine] from. I'd known of Tom because of AmRep [Amphetamine Reptile Records, Hazelmyer's influential punk rock label]. When he opened the gallery, he asked me if I'd send a piece for the first group show, and he was nice enough to offer me the first solo show too. Tom and I just hit it off right out of the gate. We have very similar minds. We ate a lot of red meat and shot guns and had a good old time. The second solo show [at Ox-Op] went really well. Tom and I are working on a couple of other projects right now which are coming along. He's just one of those guys who's always hustling. I can't believe the amount of work that guy does in a given day. He's always really calm and collected about things, just gets things done.
AVC: You've been involved in several of the Juxtapoz group shows in the last couple of years.
D: Juxtapoz has always been a great supporter of mine. Any time they do stuff, they're always calling me up to get me involved. I try to help them out wherever I can, in whatever capacity I'm capable of.
AVC: What are you planning on showing at Juxtapoz this year?
D: No idea yet. Whatever's laying around next month. [Laughs.] As usual, I dug myself into a bit of a hole getting ready to show in England in March and then the art fair here in New York. I'll probably just do a small work on cardboard.
AVC: Juxtapoz Magazine's founder, Robert Williams, coined the term "lowbrow" to describe the genre of art that they focus on, and with which you're often associated. Do you feel that that's a good term, or do you prefer another word?
D: You know, I don't like any terms at all. I think this whole thing a few years ago—it's still going on—with this whole "street art" and all this other crap, it just becomes obnoxious. Everyone got in this whole frenzy for a few years about trying to define everything that was going on. There's common threads—if people want to call it a movement, they can call it a movement. But, again, it becomes limiting. The minute you call something low-brow, does that mean it can't exist outside of what you call low-brow? I don't want to object to [the labels]. I just don't personally use them, and I don't want my work thrown into any category. I had this problem when I first started doing shows too—you get galleries that will show a specific kind of work, and they want to bring you into that. And even though I've kept my graffiti name, I never was trying to be a "graffiti gallery artist." You know, people are trying to create something for themselves to make themselves larger than they are—and I'm not saying that in reference to Juxtapoz, [but] to some of these people trying to coin movements and pretend like they invented something. So no, fuck all that, it's just all pointless.
AVC: To some extent you need words like that in order to explain to people what something is. But it's never perfect, there's never a one-to-one relationship between the word and the object.
D: No, it just gets exhausting. This is the same thing with music—I've been into all sorts of music as long as I can remember, I've consumed massive amounts of music. It gets so obnoxious when people take any minute form of music and make it into a genre. What's the point? What's the point of creating a genre? Yeah, it's one thing if it's trying to be descriptive, but even then, it's obnoxious. This is part of my artwork too, part of why I keep going more and more ambiguous. Humans are obsessed with definition and making things tangible and graspable—defining something it allows people to pet it, I guess, making it docile. Humans throughout the world fear anything they can't comprehend. By defining things, you're making it warm, you're hugging it, like "oh, I understand now, oh it's okay." We're always striving for this organization but the world's just so chaotic, and no one can just stop and step back and realize that while they're nitpicking all the minutiae and bullshit, that the world's just falling apart in front of our eyes. We're worried about coining fucking phrases for shit that doesn't even matter, and people are out fucking murdering each other over shit that doesn't matter. It's absolutely insane the way people divide themselves up. And that's why I'm not having any part of it. No religion, no political group, no music, no art, nowhere, shouldn't be any fucking categories anywhere for anything.
AVC: There's a prominent commercial aspect to a lot of the art centered around the Juxtapoz movement, including yours. You've done some skateboards and statuettes and stickers, stuff like that. Where do you stand on the commercialization of art? Do you think mass-production cheapens art?
D: No. Again, it depends how you define "art." Whether you want to define art as being an original object that someone creates, or if you want to be anything that has some sort of graphic or illustrative quality to it. I don't compare. First of all, people buy and sell art. If you say art isn't commercial in the first place, that's a fucking joke. So in its own nature, art's already commercial. The art industry is a big fucking money-making industry. Here in New York in March, you're going to have the Armory Show and everything going on around it. What do you think is going on? It's a bunch of people selling millions of fucking dollars around art. So in its own nature, art's already commercial. People create this dividing line, like "this is okay but this isn't, and you can do this, but you can't do this." And it's like, go fuck yourself. Why is this legit and that not legit? At the end of the day the reason I got into creating product is because I like product. I grew up in the '80s, which to me seems the first generation of obsessive pop-culture collectors. I collect everything. I have so much crap, I don't have anywhere to put it—toys, books, CDs, records, skateboards, everything under the sun. So for me, I grew up admiring people like Pushead. I saw on skateboards. I admired him. I copied Pushead's shit all the time, I was all into that style. I never sat and thought "well, I like Pushead, but because he has skateboards, that's commercial, and that's not cool." There was never that differentiation. His shit was cool. It doesn't matter what it was on. You know what, I can go out and buy a fucking skateboard for $50 and be stoked. I think the thing that's interesting about product is that by putting product out that's at least hopefully cool and fun, you're allowing people who can't buy original artwork to be able to collect art. You're turning people on and allowing people to be part of a world that was exclusive for so long. It's great when 16-year-old kids can buy skateboard decks or records that you've done work on, and hang it up in their room. If there weren't people like [skateboard designer] Pushead for me in the '80s when I was growing up, I don't know if I would have gotten into art. Or Raymond Pettibon, who was doing all the Black Flag stuff. Skate graphics, punk-rock records, those are the things I was looking at for inspiration. I wasn't going to the fucking Guggenheim. I wasn't going to any museums and looking at art—that was my art, that was my world. It's a natural extension for me to make product, and there's no shame in it at all. The funny thing is, no one's getting rich doing this shit, which I know people are going to sit there and be like, "well, they do it for the money." Especially the limited-edition stuff, there's no fucking money in it. No one's getting rich. If I was moving 100,000 skateboards, yeah, I'd make some money. But you're moving 100 here, 200 there. It's just for fun. I like collecting other artists' products, I have toys and books and things from different artists, and it's great. And I think the people who create hoopla over it just have some sort of personal issues they need to talk to their parents about. The nice thing about the world as it comes together and is globalized, the rules and gloves are coming off. People are branching out to explore all new directions. Have you seen that book Hidden Track? It's a good book, you should get it. It's all about art installation, but it's stuff like hotel-room art. That kind of shit, to me, is great. I would much rather see that in the world than most of the garbage that's out there. I'd rather walk into Toys R Us and see shit that artists have designed and put thought into, as opposed to another fucking piece-of-crap Barbie. That's what's nice about Kidrobot. I like the fact that they're going beyond this exclusive collector market and opening up to the wider world. I don't think there's any harm or shame in exposing the larger world to something positive as opposed to the crap they have to absorb most of their life. … Look, we're consumers. Humans are consumers by nature. There's nothing wrong with embracing the consumer culture. I'm not saying go out and mindlessly consume everything and anything, but is consumption evil? Go to Japan, that's the place I trip out. I go over there and I watch the Japanese consume—that's like some serious, crazy robotic shit. But it's just fascinating.
AVC: Tell me about the Space Monkey character you have in the video game Tony Hawk Underground 2.
D: It's fun. First of all it's skateboarding, and second, I've played that game since the first one. So they contacted me to do it, and I'm like, why not? How much fun would it be to be able to sit at home and play the character of a Space Monkey? But that was before I had done any sort of animated project whatsoever. So I was curious as anyone to see what the character might be like come to life.
AVC: How much involvement did you have with putting the game together?
D: Not much at all. The people at Neversoft pitched a couple ideas, and that was one of them. I sent them some drawings and they 3D-rendered it, and we went back and forth for a week, making modifications to make it look right. They showed me the finished product, and the character was pretty much how I envisioned it. There was some things I thought would be fun for the character to do, but the way the game was set up, that wasn't possible.
AVC: If you had a chance to design a Space Monkey game from the ground up, what do you think you'd want to do?
D: I don't know. It'd probably be a mix between the game Bubble Bobble and the game where you're Jason from Friday The 13th—Splatterhouse. That was a good one. Did you ever play that game?
AVC: No, never did.
D: It's an old arcade game. Essentially you're Jason; you just go through and collect weapons—hammers, machetes and things—and you just go through and kill creatures in these old haunted houses, just nonstop slaughtering. So yeah, I'd like to do something with a lot of death and carnage, but in a very cute, cartoony way.