By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Agit-pop artist Ron English is lying low. For someone whose biggest hobby is a second-degree felony, it's probably a wise move. English, a renowned culture jammer and artist whose anti-corporate artwork has illegally graced more than 1,000 billboards across the United States, is taking a breather, focusing on the recent release of his latest book Son of Pop, a creepy, fascinating collection of his notorious paintings, many of which portray famous bands and musicians. The book has a general musical theme consisting of portraits of his children as members of KISS and other bands, plus an included CD with songs written and performed by English, his kids and their uncle Brandon Jeymeson of the Sutcliffes.
We caught up with English to chat before his book signing at the AllGood Café, at which the Sutcliffes will also perform.
So when did you get interested in art?
I was just always interested in art. I remember being 4 years old and being obsessed with art. I was digging holes and calling them earthworks.
Where did the political motivations come in?
That kind of came from other people. I moved to a house in Austin called the House of Commons when I went to graduate school, and it was all vegetarian nudist political activists. They saw me doing the billboards and [politicizing it] was kind of their concept—if you're going to go and do these billboards, why not have some kind of message, instead of some kind of surrealist thing to confuse people?
Up to that point, I was just putting up my art on billboards. The idea was that you would look at them and you wouldn't understand what they were supposed to be. I had ads for fake products, or Squirrel Squirt Beer, things that didn't make any kind of sense, that would take people out of their doldrums of understanding what everything is supposed to be and where it fits in.
Squirrel Squirt Beer?
Squirrel Squirt Beer. It was a good one, because it had a big squirrel, and he was really ugly and had a big penis. There was a rope that came off his penis, a yellow rope, and it came down to the street and then I had a big piece of plywood that was painted yellow and had sculpted a little splash on it. And then I screwed the rope in, so it went up to the billboard and then down to the street. So it's coming out of the squirrel's penis, and it's, um...you know, good ol' Squirrel Squirt Beer. Squirted by squirrels that drink 100 percent pure Rocky Mountain spring water.
There are people who say that you're largely responsible for the death of Joe Camel as a logo.
That's probably not true. I think what happens is there's a cacophony of voices that comes up against something. Probably it was more lawyers that really took him down. I think when a movement happens...it usually doesn't come down to one person. But at the same time, it's great to have visuals to support a movement; it's great to have music to support a movement. I think it energizes the converted.
So you see your art as playing that role?
Yeah. I just think it helps to have good visuals. All great social campaigns have had great propaganda, you know?
Why do it? Why do you think jamming is important?
I think societies can turn very totalitarian very quickly, and especially when you're in the climate we're in now, where a few powerful people are buying up all the media. There always has to be a porthole to get the other side of the story out there. There's always been graffiti. I'm sure the Jews wrote graffiti on the Roman walls when they were being oppressed by them. Graffiti is the outlet of the oppressed.
Have you heard of [guerilla stencil artist] Roadsworth?
Oh. I've seen that, yeah, yeah. See, I think [his arrest] speaks ill of society. I see some of these graffiti kids, and they're giving them a year in jail. It just shows something...a society that doesn't know how to absorb its artists has a problem, as far as I'm concerned. It's almost like we have a pave-over-the-flowers mentality, and the flowers keep growing where we don't fuckin' want them. Maybe we have too many parking lots and not enough flowers, you know what I mean? Maybe that's the problem. Because these people, God made them a fucking artist, you know, and they can't help it. It's something from beyond coming through them, and they have to do it, you know?