Interview: Greg “Craola” Simkins
Greg “Craola” Simkins has a nickname to set him apart, but maybe that’s not needed: his versatility is enough to separate him from others. With a career that includes many years as a graffiti artist, a painter of beautifully rendered fine art pieces, and one who keeps his fingers in a variety of commercial art pursuits, including clothing, animation, toys, and album art, Simkins might well stand alone as a success on many artistic fronts.
“I don’t know if I hold on too tightly to my adolescent insecurities, or if it is this wiring that actually pushes me forward in trying to get better at my craft, but I have come to terms with it over the years and have developed a saying amongst some friends to help us cope with these feelings and ground what we do: ‘We aren’t curing cancer.’ That way, I don’t take myself too seriously and I can just enjoy the process of making paintings and drawings and release some of the weight I throw on my back.”—Greg “Craola” Simkins
Julie Winters: You started college studying veterinary science, yet you eventually switched majors to art. Tell us how that transition happened.
Greg “Craola” Simkins: It was my freshman year of college. I started courses at a junior college over here called El Camino College, which is in the South Bay of Los Angeles. The courses I had prepared myself to take were all pre-veterinarian courses as well the basic requirement courses one needed to graduate. I made sure to add Beginning Art 101 to my list of classes because it was always an obsessive interest of mine and I was already doing small freelance jobs with my art on the side. As things go, two of my science classes were full and I wasn’t able to add them, so I was stuck at school with math general courses, a large break in between classes and art class. I did what I always did and just found a table and drew in my black book during my break. It was always a mixture of characters and lettering trying to perfect my style of fonts for my graffiti name, “Craola.” Every once in a while other students would see this and sit down with me and we would start up conversation on our shared interests in art and graffiti. These are the years that I met my friends Mayhem, Tron, Brad Hess, Circus, Cenema, Kazuko, and Havok. These other students had a great impact on me switching my major over to art. My first art instructor, Bihn Ngo, was also a big help, as he asked why I wasn’t focusing on art. At the end of that first semester I was asked to do a big illustration job through a portion of the summer on a kids’ game called “Pogs, ” which paid pretty well and helped me to convince my parents that this might be a viable alternative for me. I was hooked and pursued art full force from there on out. I was always doing it, but so many factors just pushed me in that direction from there on out. It was graffiti, the punk rock music scene of the early ‘90s, which I did lots of band merch, fliers, and covers for, illustration jobs for streetwear and skateboards, and just obsessive creating of art pieces to push myself.
JW: Your paintings feature elements that are complex and multifaceted; are your paintings fully formed in your mind before you start them, or do they evolve as you go?
GS: Some of the pieces are fully formed in my imagination, but I believe it is in my “sketch-life” that all the working out occurs. I keep small sketch books which hold all my random thoughts, as well as a notepad file on my phone which has pages and pages of story ideas and thoughts and phrases that spark images for pieces. Between these two tools, I am able to compose an image so that when it comes time to transfer and execute the painting, there is a lot figured out. But all the hard work is done in books and on paper. I always leave room to allow new elements in each piece, having gained an understanding over the years that once the painting begins, it often tells me where a new element needs to exist. A lot of interesting new storylines and rabbit trails have occurred because of this allowance.
JW: Is there a particular moment when you felt like you’d really “arrived” as a successful artist?
GS: No, and I still don’t feel that way. I don’t understand the concept of “arrived, ” as the bar has been set so high by so many amazing artists before me and I always feel just out of grasp of what I want to achieve with my technical skills. I feel like a fraud some of the time and like I am about to be found out as this fake artist who didn’t even make any of this artwork to begin with. I don’t know if I hold on too tightly to my adolescent insecurities, or if it is this wiring that actually pushes me forward in trying to get better at my craft, but I have come to terms with it over the years and have developed a saying amongst some friends to help us cope with these feelings and ground what we do: “We aren’t curing cancer.” That way, I don’t take myself too seriously and I can just enjoy the process of making paintings and drawings and release some of the weight I throw on my back.
JW: I read in an interview that you noted that graffiti is illegal, so when it’s commissioned, it becomes something else, i.e., a standard mural. What are your thoughts generally about graffiti being featured in galleries and getting acceptance as something more mainstream?
GS: I believe that it is important to recognize that graffiti artists in general were putting their life on the line, be it through fines, incarcerations, being beaten up, or even dying to make their art. And in my generation and the ones before it, it was not about getting a gallery show or even making a ton of money. It was for a variety of reasons, from just mischief making, being seen, some ego, making a statement—political and other—or just pushing your own limits to see what awesome creation you could make on a wall with a spray can under the various pressures surrounding the activity. I was driven by the first and the latter. But it was the graffiti artists who through their hard work inspired what has become “street art, ” which has taken the world by storm but also which has forgotten a lot of who paved the way. It’s just different now, but a lot of amazing street art is going up in the world, beautiful pieces by amazing artists, a lot who began their journey as graffiti artists. I just get a little annoyed when some college students develop a “street campaign” purely for the reason of getting a gallery show or making fast money, where that is the only thing that drives them to do it. In the beginning, it was a talk between the artists; now the public has been let into the conversation, and they all have an opinion with no knowledge of the history.
JW: I’ve read that you learned a lot about color theory and perspective in your early days doing graffiti. Was there any discrepancy between what you learned in your formal art studies and what you learned doing street art, and if so, how did you reconcile any such differences?
GS: Trial and error. Making so many mistakes along the way and trying to fix them is the best path to learning. You don’t get any better without doing the work. So many people want to be handed all the answers on their path, every step of the way. I found that just picking up the paints and noodling around with them gave me a relationship with the mediums that I have today. Moreso acrylics than anything else. The more I used them, the more I understood what each tool could do. Of course, everything else you learn lends back to the other mediums. Pencils, markers, inks, computer programs, acrylics, charcoals, water color, spray paint, house paint, you name it (I still have yet to dive into oils, mainly for fear that it will take over; I have been told I won’t go back, but I am having too much fun getting to know my acrylics all these years). Anyway, I would have to figure out perspective for some of these larger walls we would compose and how to create atmosphere and make things looked pushed back in order to put emphasis on the key elements on the wall. It just happened over time, and I have photos upon photos of horrible work that I made that were my path way to creating the stories that I do now.
JW: Between the skills you gained as a graffiti artist and those you gained working in the video game industry, which would you say (if either) have had the biggest impact on your painting?
GS: They both tie in, hand in hand. I can’t give one more credit than the other. Painting walls is physical and messy and tactile, while painting in Photoshop and Illustrator was sterile and precise and allowed for corrections. Both instructed me in different ways that landed back in my lap with brushes and paint.
JW: Even as you’ve been consistent in making art over the years, you’ve worked in a lot of different jobs that have been more people oriented. I’ve read that you miss, to a degree, working with people on a daily basis. Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extravert, and how does that affect how you do your work?
GS: I am a bit of a clown around my friends and enjoy the sarcasm and camaraderie that occur amongst my various groups of friends. Joking around, serious talks on life and whatnot are what really drove me for years, but when it comes down to composing a piece, it is like writing a story or a song. You need complete concentration and a big swath of uninterrupted time. I have to introvert myself for these moments or I’ll get nothing done. I love this part of creating and find it the most important. Once I get the idea fully composed, I can get back to the conversations and find the actual painting part very mechanical and satisfying.
JW: Tell us about the stop-motion film you’re involved in, I’m Scared. How did that project come about, and what is its current status?
GS: I was approached a few years ago by two friends on separate occasions about the topic of making a stop-motion short. One was Robyn Yannoukas—this an Oscar and Emmy award winner for her work—and the other was Dan Levy, who has been in the business via Robot Chicken and other projects. I found out one night at one of my shows that they knew each other, and we all got to talking. Dan enlisted our awesome director, Pete Levin, and they got together planning a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funding to make this animated short. Towards the end of the process, we were stoked to have our talented and supportive friend Mark Hoppus, from Blink-182, join the team to score the piece. The short has played in multiple film festivals at this point, and the fulfillment of the story book (or Mook, as we call it) are being mailed out along with the exclusive download as we speak. We wanted to make sure that all our backers were able to see the short first, before it was released to a larger viewing public. That is where it is at right now. The second toy sculpted by my friend Kevin Pasko and put out by 3D Retro is about to be released also, which I am very excited about.
JW: How’d you come up with your website’s name, IMSCARED.COM?
GS: I tell various stories about it, but I was working at Treyarch/Activision and we had a programmer who worked on various assets named Cody Fletcher. He was savvy with websites and such and showed me how I could put one together on GeoCities. This was around the time of Friendster and just before Myspace. I tried to buy the domain name GregSimkins.com, but it was taken. Various forms of it weren’t available at the time as well (although these days, gsimkins.com will take you to my site as well). I wanted to have something memorable and something that reflected my work and me as an artist at the time. My work was creepier back then, and I felt something along the lines of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton would be super fitting, so “I’m Scared” it was. It was fitting and rolled off of the tongue. It was a little phrase as well when we were surfing and bodyboarding. Our friend Doug Disante was a pro body boarder who was younger and smaller than all of us, and when we were all surfing larger waves, he would be the only one dropping in and taunting us from the wave in a high-pitched voice, “I’m Scared! I’m Scared!” So it was kind of just in the ether for me as well.
JW: You’ve said in the past that you want to stay true to what’s in your head and not paint something just because it will sell. Is there much of a push-pull for you between what you feel driven to paint and what you feel will be commercially successful?
GS: I try not to think about it. It stresses me out. If I think too hard it will muddy it up. The fact is, if I like to paint something and it is commercially accepted, then I battle the thought, “is that why I painted it?” No, I just wanted to paint it, and it ended up that way. I tend to brush that thinking aside and just work. I like to let it sort itself out.
JW: Merchandise featuring your artwork indeed seems a natural outlet, but how did you end up selling a custom acrylic set?
GS: My relationship with Trekell Art Supplies has been one that I love since day one. They are so supportive and so dedicated to making good products that I back them 100%. From the beginning almost 12 years ago, just talking with them about brushes, likes, and whatnot, to developing my own brush line to even having an acrylic set and now seeing the pro team develop, it has all been satisfying. A lot of it is due to my wife’s relationship with them as well. She brought up the first sponsorship between them and myself, and we have naturally grown together ever since. I never in my foggiest imagination would have imagined having art supplies with my name on them. It still blows my mind. Such a great company!
JW: I was intrigued to learn that your work has found expression even in the form of toys! Please tell us more about that.
GS: I have done a few toys over the years, the first being a Dunny and then a bunch of work with Strangeco and Upper Playground. Then we backed off from toys for a bit, but because of the stop-motion project, I am very pleased with what 3D Retro put out in the form of “Ralf” and “The Orcow” (Stair Monster; coming out soon) (both sculpted by Kevin Pasko).
JW: I understand that you keep a fairly rigorous schedule for painting. Do you ever have times when it feels like your creative well runs dry, and if so, what do you do when that happens?
GS: If I feel dry, I look through nature photography, go to the library and browse various books, sit and sketch stuff from life, make studies and whatnot, or my favorite, walk around antique shops. It is kind of rare that the well feels dry; there are always too many ideas and not enough time to do them. I feel like a slave to the clock and wish I had control over time.
JW: Is there anything that surprises you about the art world right now, either in general or in terms of your own place in it?
GS: I don’t think I am surprised by too much in the art world these days except for the fact that I have a little toe in it. It is hard to follow too much of it for me, as I am busy raising my kids and making pieces. I find myself a little bit tuned out to what the ebb and flow is in the art world. I catch on a bit here and there and try to stay the course with what I do and what interests me, which still ends up being animals and creatures and worlds and discovering rabbit holes to fall down. It has been that way my whole life, regardless of what the trends are in the art world.
JW: What does the beinArt Collective represent for you?
GS: The beinArt Collective has always been a place where artists who have strayed off of the traditional path of making images have found a place to belong. The dreamers and story tellers have a welcome place to exist amongst each other because of this outlet. 🙂
JW: Do you have anything you’d like to share with our readers about upcoming exhibits or other projects?
GS: I am happy to announce that my first large-scale resin sculpture in collaboration with Silent Stage Gallery called “Beyond the Sea” is about to be released. It stands at close to 2 feet and is sculpted from the painting of the same name. I am very proud of this piece and the work that Silent Stage has done with it and hope it leads to more, larger sculpted works in the future. Seeing these pieces in 3D is how I have always imagined them in my mind, so I am very interested to seeing where this road leads.