Before our sit down interview, I was only familiar with the works of Travis Louie, not the man. Given the aesthetic of his art and involvement with burlesque-esque art shows (and his... uh... *ahem* "anglo" sounding name) I naturally assumed Travis Louie was some buffalo-plaid wearing rockabilly doofus you'd see pounding quarters on a table top at some crummy dive bar in Long Beach every time "The Wanderer" played on the jukebox. You know, the kind of guy who still owns a chain wallet with an 8-ball embroidered on the front because he thinks it compliments his Rottweiler tattoo.
Much to my surprise, the man that actually showed up to our building was a stout, well dressed Asian gentleman with a killer ponytail and a cartoonish Brooklyn accent. During his visit, I was able to squeeze in a few interview questions while he was signing his limited edition wood print that was going to be available at Beyond Brookledge.
POW: We're all familiar with your vintage styled monster portraits, but what I'd really like to know is how your artwork looked like before you settled on this particular style. Where you always painting monsters?
TRAVIS: Yeah, in one way or another. I think my work, like a lot of other artists, is about identity. One of the reason why I paint these monsters is because it's sort of like a veiled take on racism. Instead of making my artwork really political and putting people of color or of other ethnicities, I chose something that could represent everyone, which would be these unusual characters and their stories. Most of the characters are immigrants. It's sort of like... you ever see that TV show Taxi with that character Andy Kaufman played?
TRAVIS: Yeah! Latka Gravas. He's not even from a real country but we accept it because we know that before World War I, that part of the world was many countries. Many little countries that were changing constantly, then all of a sudden *BOOM*, this one's gone another one's here. Just like that. They just made up a country just like I made up these monsters, these characters, and they would have the same problems that anybody would have if they were different. As human beings we gravitate toward people that are like us, right? That's why we even have racism in the first place. It wasn't always just full of malice, at first it was more like a protection thing. That's why a zebra knows that "Hey, that's a lion! It doesn't look like us. Stay away from the lions, they've eaten us.". Same thing, just not exactly.
ZOMBIES by Travis Louie
POW: I was watching an interview that when asked about the biographies that accompany some of your portrait pieces, you said that you spend a lot of time writing about your characters before painting them. Has there ever been an instance where you spent more time writing than you actually did painting for a particular piece?
TRAVIS: Sometimes. It's funny, I just have notebooks full of, sometimes simple descriptions, and some of these things never become paintings. I'm always people watching wherever I am and I spend a lot of time in Chinatown, in Queens, and through parts of Manhattan looking around at people, especially during rush hour.
It's best when it's the summer. When it's 98 degrees outside and I'm just kind of watching the subway, it's amazing. People look just so... defeated, but some people don't. They're like "Hey man, I'm not working now! This is great!" you know, freedom. So I always try to imagine "What did that guy do for a living?" or "Where did he come from? What is that person's story?" I think we all kind of do that don't we? You do that don't you? You know, you'll be at like a McDonalds or something and some guy walks in and he's got a gimpy leg and you think "I wonder how that happened? Was it always like that?"
POW: "Maybe he was a pirate?"
TRAVIS: Yeah, you see what I mean? You always just try to imagine these things. So then I write these little stories because I imagine somebody sorta/kinda like that. Also, a bunch of the characters are based on people that I actually know that have little quirks, and I expand on those.
POW: Touching on that... does anyone you know ever sort of bother you and ask "Oh, hey! Draw my picture!" or "I've got a cool idea for a painting.... me!" ?
TRAVIS: It happens. I think that's kind of normal. It's like your on Facebook and you post something and your friends will respond like they're your friends, but every now and then you get someone who will respond where it's always about them somehow and you're like "I didn't even talk about that." People are like that, they can't help it.
FLOWER SISTERS by Travis Louie
POW: When I look at your artwork, I'm immediately reminded of Felix Nadar's photographic portraits. I know people like to ask "who's your biggest influence" in terms of artists, but is there a specific photographer you would say that inspired your current style of painting?
TRAVIS: A guy who lived across the street from me. His name was Elliot Schierer, he was a photo-retoucher who worked in the 1950's. I used to go over there and watch him when I was a little kid. The guy was terrific, and I think he had the most influence on me. It was a different time back then, computers didn't exist, so he would do his retouching right on the negatives. I mean, who does that anymore? It was pretty remarkable, the stuff that he did, and I learned a lot from him. That's probably the biggest influence in terms of photographers.
As far as a visual style is concerned, it's more about everything that I've ever seen from that time. It all started with those Julian Margaret Cameron photographs I saw years ago as well as all these numerous cabinet cards that I would see in peoples houses. Photographers who were like that was just their job, anyone who would just take portraits. Back then it was more complicated, but it was a way that anybody could get a portrait done because it wasn't as expensive as hiring a painter. Getting a portrait painted was a big deal, it still is today. Most people didn't have that kind of money, but photography was the great equalizer, so a lot of people could just get that done. That's been quite of an influence on my work.
MONTYS DAY OF THE DEAD by Travis Louie
POW: I've read that you said you settled on this style of imagery 6 years ago. As an artist, where do you see yourself 6 years from now? Do you still think you'll be continuing this theme by then?
TRAVIS: I don't know. Things evolve, or devolve, who knows, things change. I see the stories expanding. I also see more complicated paintings with more figures in them than just one or two. I'll probably be doing less paintings at that point because of the time it takes to paint that many characters. I always wanted to do a painting like a Bruegel painting. There's one really great Bruegel painting called Children's Games. It's not a gigantic painting, but throughout the painting there's all these wonderful little old games that we used to play in the streets. There must be a hundred kids in this painting, it's pretty amazing!
THE AMAZING MORT by Travis Louie
POW: You recently reached out to POW to produce 100 limited edition wood prints for Beyond Brookledge, an event you'll be attending. Could you tell us a little bit about this event, your limited edition print, and the connection between the two?
TRAVIS: The connection is through Baby Tattoo and Bob Self. He's the publisher of my book and I always participate in the Baby Tattooville project, so I consider this event as a sister or brother to that. As far as the image chosen, we wanted something that was a lot like what Beyond Brookledge is. To me, Beyond Brookledge is like Vaudeville. I just imagine all these jewish families getting on buses or getting in their cars and traveling to the Catskills in the 1940s to stay at one of the resorts so they could see Henny Youngman, or... who else was around back then? Shecky Greene, George Gobel... they were these stand-up comics that showed up in the early 1950s.
But it was more than just that, you could see many kinds of variety acts, and that's what this is like. You got people that are doing magic, you got people that'll be doing a mime act... I mean, a mime! How cool is that!? Where do you see a mime? It's a great mime! It's Billy the Mime, and he's amazing! Have you ever seen The Aristocrats? That's him, and that's pretty awesome.
POW: How would your fans be able to get one of these?
TRAVIS: They got to come here (Beyond Brookledge). They got to participate and become part of the show, then they can get a print.
POW: Cool, thanks Travis.
TRAVIS: No problem.
Unfortunately, Beyond Brookledge has come and gone. (I was too busy designing the booth for Dwell to post this interview.) Those of you who were able to get one by attending, congrats! As for the rest of you... there's always next year. ;)
For more information on Travis Louie, please visit: http://www.travislouie.com/
For more information on Beyond Brookledge, please visit: http://www.beyondbrookledge.com/