Artist: James Flames
Asheville, NC, USA
James Flames is an illustrator and a screen printer who learned his craft in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY before moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC, where he currently works and resides. His artwork has been featured in galleries all over the world as well as on beer bottle labels, album covers, magazines, and comic books. He also creates gig posters for some of the top touring bands. Flames prints his posters by hand, in his studio tucked away in the woods.
Mark: You’re unique in that you’re an illustrator and you screen print you’re own work. How did you get into this art form?
James Flames: Illustration is the fancy word to use now that I’m a professional. But basically I draw. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t draw. My mom kept this really detailed book when I was kid… noting things that I did, very meticulous. She gave me this book a few years ago. So I was reading through it and right at about 16 months old, or so, she writes something like, ‘Ernie is his favorite on Sesame Street and he seems to like to draw and he likes Cheerios. ‘ It was kind of a throwaway comment, but then every month after would be the same thing about drawing. So it’s funny how that’s really where it all began. But it was always all around me anyway. My mother was an artist, my uncle was an artist, and my grandfather was an artist.
Mark: Sounds like it was the family business.
James: It was never a business though. That’s kind of the interesting thing. It was what defined everybody in my eyes. But it wasn’t what they did for a living. I knew all these people in my life as artists, like my father was a musician but he didn’t make a living doing it. Nobody did. They did other ‘normal’ things for their jobs. But to me they were defined by the art that they did. I always considered that the same for myself. It’s what I do best; I draw. But it never occurred to me that it could also be my actual business in life. It wasn’t until about 8 years ago that I said I’m going to try and make some money being an artist. My brother is an artist and he was going to college at that time studying to make a living at it.
Mark: So the realization of making a living at this was seeing your brother in school or was there some other influence that led you to think ‘I can be a professional at this?’
James Flames: Well, it’s not like I lived in a bubble. There were comic book artists I loved. I watched Disney movies. So I knew that there were people who drew this stuff and that’s how they made their living. But for me it just seemed like a far fetched thing. Like being an astronaut. My younger brother was at SVA (School of Visual Arts in NYC) and I would kind of latch onto him and he would teach me some of the things he was learning, and that really turned on the lightbulb for me.
Mark: Is your work all hand drawn, do you paint? And did your brother teach you to do your art on a computer?
James Flames: Everything was always hand drawn, but I was never a painter. My mother, uncle and grandfather were all painters but I was into comic books so it was all drawing with ink and pencils. Neither of us really draw on the computer. That was never really part of the growth. I’ve used computers for art for many years now, but that’s never where the work originates. It’s just another tool in the process.
Mark: So screen printing and gig posters, how did you get into that? I’m surprised you didn’t become a comic book artist?
James: That could have been the plan. When I was a kid I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could be a comic book artist. I used to draw my own comics all the time and pass them out to my classmates and stuff. When I was a kid in 5th or 6th grade and even high school people liked me because I could draw, not because of my personality, haha.
Mark: Art has that way of linking people and you can really make friendships through creating it.
James: It is amazing how people love watching other people draw, and I include myself in that. I love watching people draw. It really is like watching magic happen right before your eyes.
Mark: I have family friends who are artists and screen printers with a studio in their house. It’s fascinating to hear them talk about the calendar they create each year and to watch them at work.
James: So you were exposed to that early on in life for screen printing as a thing?
Mark: I didn’t really make the connection of watching this family create these cool screen printed images and my love of collecting screen print gig posters and movie posters later in life. It was only when I saw this book about 9 or 10 years ago with Jay Ryan and Leia Bell’s work, I had an ‘aha’ moment. I started collecting with those two artists. That led me to gigposters.com.
James: I think gigposters.com was the gateway drug for most people. That’s kind of how I got into this. I’d fall in love with a band and I’d go on Ebay and see if there were any posters for them. ‘Cause I wanted to put it on my wall or something. Eventually from that I found Gigposters.com – I assume that’s how it happened for most folks. If you’re into rock n’ roll you just end up stumbling into it. I was a musician for many years and I always made the flyers for my bands. I called them flyers because early on I didn’t know anything about posters. This was in the mid-90’s. So the popular culture things I would reference were like Kozik’s Nirvana and Soundgarden posters, but I didn’t know it as this ‘thing’, like what it is now.
Mark: Sure, I remember seeing those.
James: Walking in the Village in New York City back then, there were flyers everywhere on every lamppost and in front of every club. So I wanted to make our band’s stuff stick out. It was just black and white stuff that you photocopied. I never thought of it more than just a way to get people to come to our show. But I also wanted the people who didn’t come to the show, who just happened to see the flyer up, I wanted them to think we were cool because of the imagery on the flyer.
Mark: Did you save any of those early things?
James: I have everything. From a certain point I have all that stuff, even the comics I made.
Mark: The thing that first led me to your work was a poster I bought on Ebay. I don’t remember the band, just the image of a shaved section of a head with the name.
James: Yeah, it was a poster for a band called the Moaners.
Mark: Yes, that’s it.
James: They were playing at the Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina. That’s one of my first screenprints. Basically that was the shift from the early ‘flyers’ to the real ‘poster’ stuff. Eventually I realized “Oh, there’s a scene”, and “Oh, there are people that do this and they are fucking awesome and I want to be like them!” And then: “Oh, and they are screen printed… now I’ve got to figure that out.” That became a long testy process of making bad prints at first on my kitchen table in my apartment. That Moaners print was probably after about a year into it.
Mark: So you are self taught?
James: Yes, self-taught in the way that I never took a class. Back then gigposters.com was such a community. It was more than what Facebook is now. Everybody would get on there and the message board was just insane with everybody talking all day, every day. So many threads talking about process, and ‘how do you do this’ and ‘how do you do that’. If you were genuine and asked good questions, boy you could learn anything from that site. Everybody was cool to share what they knew. And the real beauty is that all that information is still there! Anyone can still read all that stuff and figure things out. There were also some videos I watched on you tube. One with the guys from Aesthetic Apparatus printing a poster for ‘The Shining’. I Think I watched that thing about a hundred times.
James: Noting every tiny detail of the process. “Oh, they did this”, “Oh, they did that”, “So that’s how the paper comes!”
Mark: You posted you own process video at some point right?
James: Yeah, I did that for the same reason. I learned so much from that video that I figured maybe I can teach someone else something. Now I look at that video and it’s so old and I don’t do anything that way anymore.
Mark: Your pieces are much more involved now. That one was a pretty simplistic image.
James: The process had to get more complicated to get the work to be more complex. And besides, the process is always evolving.
Mark: That was very cool of you to post that video to hopefully teach someone. The community of artists that do this, I find for the most part, are a truly amazing community. It attracts really cool people. Lots of people willing to share and support other artists.
James: That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t exist in many areas. We are technically competing against each other but it doesn’t matter, everybody’s like “you want to know how to do this?, sure here’s how”.
Mark: I’ve been to a number of these group gallery shows for screen print artists and this sense of community really shows when artists gather. The atmosphere feels more collaborative and supportive than competitive.
James: Yeah, exactly, but it’s strange. Where else do you have that? People are competing for a sale, which is where they make their money; but yet everybody’s like ‘let me share with you how I did this so you can try that out next time.’
Mark: True, where else does that exist? It’s pretty unique. Back to comics, have you been asked to do a full-up comic? Wasn’t there a small Mondo project a few years ago?
James: Yeah, it was more than a few years ago. There was some movie that came out and in order to promote it, Mondo made a comic book for NY Comic Con. I got to draw it, it was like 12 pages. It was really fun and cool to do. It was the first comic I had done in so many years and it felt so natural to do, which was really great. It’s like this language I’ve been speaking my whole life and I don’t get to speak it that often. I also did a poster for the Secret Panel recently that turned into a comic cover for issue #2 of the new Grant Morrisson comic “Nameless”. And I did a cover for Marvel last year but the comic hasn’t been released yet – it’s kind of in limbo at the moment.
Mark: I remember seeing that Secret Panel piece you did. They have a nice group of artists doing their posters. The work is for Image Comics right?
James: Mostly Image Comics that they have been doing stuff for.
Mark: Delicious Design League did some cool stuff for them as well.
James: Well, Delicious is Secret Panel. I hope I’m not letting the cat out of the bag on that, but pretty sure that’s public.
Mark: I didn’t know that.
James: Billy and Jason from DDL are two of the three people that started Secret Panel
And all of the posters are printed at DDL. It’s like their side band.
Mark: I should have guessed that, since Graham Erwin does work on it, too. So you do a lot of different things with your art; gig posters, Mondo Film Posters, product label design. Is this mix of projects where you are headed and do you have another path you’re looking to do?
James: That’s the billion-dollar question. It’s hard to say. There are so many factors. This is how I make my living. There is a business model that exists for me drawing things for people who want it. Sometimes it’s bands, sometimes it’s beer companies or whatever. So everything is firing on all cylinders right now. It’s really nice. And what’s also really nice is that I have choice over what I do. It’s a significant thing to me that people are coming to me for the thing I do the best. But in terms of the future, it’s hard to say. I’m always trying to strive for better work, better clients, better budgets, better everything so that the work just gets better. The market tells you where things are going. Movie Posters are popular and gig posters and art prints are somewhat popular. Also Blu Ray covers get custom artwork. So that’s what I’m doing. Now, if I had benefactors and I could do whatever I wanted, I’d probably change my style drastically, take different turns and see where it took me. But in the meantime, I’m happy to stick with what I’m doing and let it evolve naturally.
Mark: I do know that even with private commission work, people are still coming to you with an expectation that you’ll deliver an expected style from something they’ve seen applied to their piece. They don’t want you to think out of the box.
James: Well sure, and that’s kind of expected. I mean, I don’t know many people who hire somebody and not know what they are going to get out them. For instance, I wouldn’t hire a landscaper and not know that they are going to dig up my whole yard and put blue grass down and make a mess. Why would I hire them and not know what they were going to do? I would research and find the landscaper I wanted based on their previous work. Same goes for me and my clients. You wouldn’t hire an artist and just say make anything. I’ve spent my whole life trying to have some kind of an artistic identity, so I’m glad it’s evolved to the place where people seek it out specifically. The way I actually draw has developed over the years. I don’t know if you could look at something I did 20 years ago and say that looks like James Flames. If I can give them what they want, but a step better then that’s cool.
Mark: I’m curious about what you said about going back and looking at your work and comparing it to now. I’ve been following your work since I bought that Moaner’s print, was it about 10 years ago?
James: Yeah, it was like 2007, so 8 years ago.
Mark: That piece didn’t look anything like the really bold colors and graphic work you did a few years later, like your Circa Survive work, or the the more detailed work you are doing currently. Can you peg a particular piece where the switch came to your more evolved current style? Was there something that made you go into more colors, more detail, more complicated images?
James: Yeah, I can tell you exactly how that happened. When I became a little more comfortable with screen printing after a few years I thought I had to find out, ‘what’s my voice as an artist?’ You hear a lot of artists talk about their ‘voice’ and what it’s going to be. So I figured that’s what I had to do. And for those middle years with all the bold graphic stuff, I was just feeling things out, testing what it’s like to be a ‘designer’. Which I consider very different from my standard instinct of being an ‘illustrator’. I tried a lot of things out. But eventually I got to a point where I just became more comfortable with me. And this is beyond just artwork, like this is with real life. Things started to settle in for me and my world, and my life presented itself finally to me and said ‘Oh, I’m done’… Well, not really done, but now the foundation is finally set and it’s time to dig in and really have at it. So that comfortability lead me back to illustration, with a new mindset, and some new things I learned along the way, and it just kind of became what it is.
Mark: I think you’ve developed a style that is uniquely your own. I can clearly recognize when it’s a piece by you. Often in the world of gig posters you see people aping off each other.
James: Which is what I used to do. That’s really what it was for a few years there. Which is fine but at a certain point someone else is always going to do it better, ‘cause it’s them and not me. But sometimes you need to do the thing that you’re not to realize who you are. I love that you’re able to see that. I sit here in somewhat of a bubble, in a little room in the middle of the mountains, drawing pictures. To hear you pick up on the threads and anomalies and similarities, it’s incredibly flattering and it’s gratifying that it makes sense to somebody else. It’s kind of cool.
Mark: By the same token it’s fun to be surprised. I recently saw an image that I thought might be yours but wasn’t sure. It was for a BluRay cover for ‘Taxi Driver’. It was a little bit of a left turn, but there were recognizable elements that told me it was yours. Was it a concept thing or actually used?
James: It was for Sony and it was part of a series for re-releases of some of their classic films. That was something where I got to experiment a little. It’s fun when something is printed only digitally so I can use more colors, more tones. Instead of the restrictions of screenprinting. I don’t have to limit myself to certain types of techniques. But I don’t want to experiment too far on someone else’s dime, so I still kept it in my world. To me, I was very much in control of the piece, so it wasn’t like I was out in left field, just a small step to the side. It’s weird that you looked at it and saw threads but not be really sure if it was mine. You had a feeling it’s mine, which means there’s a thread there; but it’s a little bit of experimentation.
Mark: Which is exactly what it felt to me looking at it.
James: Good, cool, excellent. I’m glad it didn’t look too far out and weird.
Mark: Are you allowed to reproduce that image?
James: No. I‘ve had a lot people ask me, “Can you make a poster of that?” and sure I could if I never wanted to work for Sony again. It’s like most licensed things, you have the license for what it is and beyond that is forbidden. Which is only fair.
Mark: I know other artists who run afoul in this area winding up with C&D letters.
James: I made a strong decision years ago to not do non-licensed interpretations. You know those ‘inspired by’ shows and stuff like that. If I don’t have a license I don’t even mess with it. I want to develop my own world vs. spending time on worlds that other people already created.
Mark: So when Marvel comes to you and wants you to do a cover vs. you just doing an inspired by piece it’s got to be so much better.
James: That day I was walking my dog and my phone lit up with an email from an editor at Marvel who says ‘I love your work, I’ve following it for years and I’ve got this project and I’d love for you to bring what you do for a cover for Marvel.’ I thought ‘that’s it, done! That’s all I needed to hear. ‘
Mark: It’s bucket list item right? Do a Marvel cover. Check!
James: Without a doubt, that’s 100% exactly what it was. It wasn’t like I spent the past 10 years drawing Spider-Man and sending them pictures of my Spider-Man, saying please hire me. It was me spending all my time doing my own work and then they came to me and said ‘we want what you can do and bring it to us.’ It is was a really significant moment for me and so gratifying.
Mark: Do you have something else along those lines that you really want to have happen?
James: You mean like future bucket list things? Good question. When the Marvel moment happened I didn’t really know that I had so wanted that to happen. I wish I could go back in a time machine and tell 12 year-old James that this was going to happen. But other bucket-list things… most people I know when you ask them that question, they know the answer. But I don’t really have that all cued up. I could make something up (laughs).
Mark: You don’t have to. No pressure.
James: Well, you know, if the Jonathan Levine Gallery in NY called me up and said ‘You can have a solo show and do anything you want,’ that would blow my mind (laughs). But I think things will just happen to me and I’ll look back and say, how can I have ever lived without that happening?
Mark: You’ve done the solo show thing before, maybe not on the scale you just mentioned but…
James: I did one solo show thing four or five years ago in North Carolina.
Mark: Was that Amplified Art?
James: Exactly. That was a real cool experience. I got to make some really fresh pieces. I put a mural up on the wall. It was a really good experience. But the artist that I was then, and the artist that I am now, are not even close.
Mark: It would be cool to get you back to Brooklyn for a solo show. Maybe Tara McPherson’s place?
James: Yeah, The Cotton Candy Machine, sure.
Mark: In my house, I have your Brooklyn print. It would be kind of circular to get you back here in Brooklyn to show your latest work.
James: Yeah, it is circular that I can now make a piece of art about a place where I used to live.
But honestly, my first reaction to a Brooklyn show is ‘I can’t believe anybody in Brooklyn would give a flying shit about me!’ (laughs) I don’t know, I’m sure there are people that would want to go, but…
Mark: I used to have the Brooklyn piece in my office and anyone from Brooklyn who saw it amongst my other art, always asked who did it and remarked how special it was. It looks at the city in such a magical light. People just love that image.
James: That’s so awesome to hear. Brooklyn is such a special place to me. I lived there for 29 years. I see this magical side to it. There’s not many people who know it like the natives who’ve been there their whole lives.
Mark: I want to ask to you about your Phish prints. Some of those triptychs you’ve done are so amazing. I missed getting the “Secret Set” from Randall’s Island. That was a beauty. Or the Hamptons, Virginia show with the moon and the rooftops.
James: Thank you.
Mark: I would like to think that people are buying those prints not just because they are fans of the band, but because the work is so extraordinary.
James: I’d like to think that, too. And I want to honor that by doing my best work. I don’t want to take for granted that any Phish fan will just buy any Phish poster and I don’t have to work hard for it. In fact, I’m going to work even harder. That poster was probably the hardest to draw last year and to bring it to life.
Mark: So do you have anything coming up in the next month or so that you can talk about or tease some images?
James: A lot of the projects I work on, they are like ‘don’t say anything till we announce it,’ which I understand, but it sucks. I work all day on these things and I just want to share them, but I just gotta wait. I have Widespread Panic, Primus and Dave Matthews posters coming up. I’m putting the finishing touches on a Mondo poster but I can’t say anything about that obviously. And then a poster for literal rock n roll royalty. Really excited about that. That’s the near future.
Widespread Panic April 21st show
Mark: One last question James. Where did the name James Flames come from? I know it’s not your given name. Did someone tag you with that or did you come up with it on your own?
James: People always ask me this, and I really need to come up with a good story.
James: When I do shows like Flatstock people come up to me and ask me if it’s my real name.
I want to say yes. I want to have a great anecdote.
Mark: I’ve never meet an Italian named Flames before!
James: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. My grandfather’s name wasn’t Papi Flames! No but seriously, I was in bands for so many years and my real last name just isn’t rock n’ roll. And I’d always come up with a moniker or something, but they were always dumb. One time I was making a record for this punk band, I was recording their album for them. We had to make liner notes and the band had all these cool names. So I’m thinking I gotta come up with something better than just my name, because this will be fucking stupid. I went online and I remembered the Garbage Pail Kids. Do you remember those things?
Mark: Of course
James: So I couldn’t remember who the “James” Garbage Pail kid was, so I googled it. Lo and behold it was James Flames. It was a picture of a baby who had just eaten some hot sauce and he was flying out of his stroller. Flames coming out of his nose something like that. I said that’s perfect. And I had tattoos of flames on my arms also, so it kinda fit already.
1987 Sticker Art
Mark: By pure coincidence.
James: I was like, ‘How did I never think of that before?’ So I told the band make it say James Flames on the liner notes. And from then on, it basically stuck. I think the name really helps me because it’s memorable. I think there were a good amount of jobs that I got, because mine was a name that was easy to remember.
Mark: You’re right. It’s memorable. Artists use all kinds of tools to have that cool factor or air of mystery. I think you nailed it. You have a cool story; you don’t need to invent one.
James: Maybe I could just say that my parents were Garbage Pail Kids.
Mark (Laughs) That’s the short and sweet version. Great to talk to you, James. Thanks so much for your time.
James: My pleasure. Thank you Mark!
Social Media for James Flames
Poster Spy profile: https://posterspy.com/profile/jamesflames