Joe Simko’s Colors of Horror

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Originally published at on November 27, 2010

This past week, Fango announced a fresh line of official T-shirts sporting designs by horror/punk rock artist Joe Simko. The newest member of our creative team, whose latest book is entitled SWEET ROT, here shares his observations on his artwork, his interests in horror and music and his other recent projects.

FANGORIA: Tell us how your career as an artist began.

JOE SIMKO: When I got out of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I got a couple of jobs doing tie designs, and then I was doing in-house storyboard art for television commercials. While I was working on those in-house studio gigs, I was creating poster art for local bands; a lot of friends of mine were in them. It was low pay because they were friends, but doing those posters led to high-profile acts. They got me a job with the Warped Tour festival in 2006, and things just started snowballing.

FANG: On your website, you have a painting titled “Night of the Living Dead—The Cereal.” Another, “Orlock Pop,” is inspired by F.W. Murnau’s classic NOSFERATU. Tell us about your interests in horror and how it has influenced your work.

SIMKO: It’s stuff I pull from my childhood, as opposed to stuff now. The true inspiration comes from what I grew up with as a kid. I was into a lot of genre movies as a kid. “Night of the Living Dead—The Cereal” came about from me eating a lot of sugar cereal and watching Saturday-morning cartoons. I was also into MAD magazine, which I collected; I have a weird, funny, comic-booky side and a horror side at the same time. I idealize those concepts and merge the two together.

FANG: You turned kid-favorite cereal boxes into “Zomba Crunch,” “Frosted Freeks” and “Chucky Charms.” The artwork in these paintings are colorful and exaggerated. Your sketchbook/fine art pieces are more abstract, drawn with traditional pen and ink. How does style become applied when you begin a project?

SIMKO: Right now, most of the work I do for a job will be more in that pop-art style, not as abstract. The abstract pen-and-ink stuff you mentioned was a lot more from my early high-school days. I was into all that comic-book and cartooning stuff, but it wasn’t influencing me yet. It wasn’t yet nostalgic for me back then. Now it’s nostalgic—all those comic books, cartoons and horror movies, so I’m putting that into my paintings. When I do an assignment for somebody, I make sure it’s appropriate for that specific client. I’ve gotta make it more orientated to them—unless they want something completely abstract, and then I’ll go back to that as well.

FANG: Your painting “Frankenblow,” depicts the Frankenstein monster wearing a leather jacket and blowing bubblegum. The artwork is eye-catching because of its vibrant colors, with strong purple and pink tones. How do you tackle color schemes in your artwork?

SIMKO: A few years ago, I started getting into the whole fluorescent thing. When I originally started painting, it was a really bad color palette; I had a lot of browns and yellows. I knew I wanted to change that, make things more vibrant, so I went totally extreme. I went the complete opposite, to guarantee that I wouldn’t have brown, yellow and muddy green colors. Now, if the job requires, of course, I’ll go to that. But if it’s for myself and nobody asks for a color scheme, I’ll go straight to the fluorescents. It goes back to the Saturday-morning cartoon coloring. The subject matter will be weird and twisted, like the “Frankenblow” panting. It has a cute/creepy vibe, which is pretty popular now, I suppose.

FANG: Over the years, your work has been presented in art shows: Zombies Attack Brooklyn in New York and, recently, I Need Your Skull Show in Italy. What are your experiences like at these shows?

SIMKO: Doing those is great. I recently had a solo show at the Toy Tokyo store; they have a gallery called TT Underground, where they held the opening for my book SWEET ROT. It was a great way of getting known and seen by a lot people. I am represented by MF Gallery, based in Brooklyn, who help out and showcase new emerging artists nationally, but also locally in New York. They offer artists wall space and exhibition time. With most galleries, you need to have membership or you’ve got to be kind of a name. These are new underground artists who are happening right now. It’s a good community of artists. MF Gallery is owned by Frank and Martina Russo, artists themselves, and they have a gallery in Italy. It’s the top tier of the underground, at least in New York.

FANG: You have done album artwork for GWAR, Sonic Youth and Insane Clown Posse. Does their music, like a song or lyric, influence the cover art?

SIMKO: I have to make sure the work I do for clients is appropriate. There are artists out there who sometimes do it as their own art project. I try to make it generally about the band, who will appreciate it because it represents them. The fans who are going to buy it are fans of the band, as opposed to the artist. I can do a whole art piece out of one little lyric. For the GWAR albums, I’ve made sure the art is related: LUST IN SPACE has an outer-space theme, and on their latest, BLOODY PIT OF HORROR, I have them emerging out of a broken-up pit, all bloodied.

FANG: Fans can see your video, “Raiders of the Lost Art,” below, showcasing artwork from your next SWEET ROT book. How did the idea for that series come about?

SIMKO: The whole idea came about 10 years ago, while I was in college. It was about kids living in this town with no adults. All the buildings and all the food is made by kids, which is why it’s really weird and twisted. Each of the Sweet Rot kids has his or her own personality, a specific trait. One is a crazy inventor, another is a little witch and there are dark themes in there, because one of them is a devil worshipper.

The first book tells the story of one of those kids. Pukeboy plays rock guitar, and he’s really bad at it in front of an audience. We follow him on this journey as he talks to the other Sweet Rot kids for advice. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ART is the second book, and the video shows me in a time-lapse, a quick rendering of a sketch that will be in it. This book is about another Sweet Rot kid—a graffiti artist—who is looking for his missing artwork.

I plan to keep the series going because there are a lot of kids. Each book lends itself to an actual character. The second book comes out next fall, but for my part, it’s already done.

FANG: In 2006, a shirt of yours was used in the film NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, and now you have designed the new FANGORIA T-shirts. How did you approach that gig?

SIMKO: Fango is really heavy on monsters and independent filmmakers, the do-it-yourself style of moviemaking. We came up with this idea to basically merge the two subjects; I have a theme going with that. I did three of those shirts, with a couple of variations. We have a bunch of monsters in a movie theater, like the famous GREMLINS scene; instead of Gremlins, we have different kinds of monsters. Another one is a little wacky and cartoony, while the third is on the gory side. It’s a severed arm holding a film camera, with blood dripping down. I tend to make my artwork really juicy. I pulled back on the color a little bit for the Fango stuff—more reds and black. It was definitely fun to work on this.

FANG: Where can people find info or more about your artwork?

SIMKO: I’ve got my website, It opens up to two different pages. One is related to the book, and the other is for my freelance art, which shows all the poster and cover work. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.

FANG: What are you working on now?

SIMKO: I’ve been doing stuff for Topps trading cards, Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packs. They’re bringing back those series from the ’80s, and they’re also doing toys and candy. I got to come up with some prototypes and designs for that. I did a shirt for, one of the largest cyber Gothic community websites, and they have a cool shop down in Avenue A, between 11th and 12th Streets.

I’m also releasing a series of trading cards called CEREAL KILLERS next year, around March 2011. The cards are paintings of mine parodying famous cereal brands and mixing them with well-known horror movies. I’m sure Fango fans are gonna love them!