"If you made it red, it's blood. If you made it yellow, it's kind of uriney. There's no real rule book — it could be blue or orange, and it would still work. I don't know. Green's just like the official, universal color."
That's Santa Cruz graphic artist Jimbo Phillips. We're talking, of course, about snot. While all of us have firsthand experience with boogers and other bodily discharges, Phillips has had the privilege of considering the visual characteristics of mucus, including its hue, more than most. In fact, as a designer for Santa Cruz Skateboards, getting gross right is often the name of the game.
"That's kind of what my job is," he says, "to come up with rad images that kids will get stoked about putting on their skateboards. You're actually more celebrated for coming up with things that really push the boundaries, you know?"
On any given day, Phillips is pushing a lot of boundaries. When we spoke recently, Phillips was juggling four new pro-series deck designs for Santa Cruz Skateboards, a poster project for a Santa Cruz reggae-rock band called The Expendables, and a shoe design for Puma. "They did a Frank Kozik shoe," he says, "and they've done some other limited-edition artist shoes, so now I'm designing one for them, which will be cool. I haven't really done anything like that before. It's got the classic Puma stripe on it and everything, kind of a skate-cut shoe. I think it should be good. I have a pair of the Koziks on right now, and they're pretty comfy."
Phillips, whose boyish features makes him look younger than his 43 years, came by his craft the old-fashioned way, learning at the hand of his father, artist Jim Phillips, who was the art director for Santa Cruz Skateboards in the 1970s and '80s.
"I used to draw all the time because I didn't have any brothers or sisters, we didn't have video games or anything like, and there was nothing on TV. My dad was always drawing so I just found myself drawing quite often to amuse myself. Some of my friends were into drawing, too, so I would also draw with them. Yeah, actually I drew a lot when I was young."
The elder Phillips would give his son projects to push and give focus to his natural abilities. "He would kind of coach me along," remembers Jimbo, "like the time he got me to do a little comic book. It was about a little alien guy, mostly pictures, about four or five pages long, with one drawing on each page. It was a lot of fun. I was probably about seven, or something. We laid it out and even got some of them printed. That was cool, to kind of go through that process. I think my mom still has a copy of it."
In general, Jim didn't impose ideas on Jimbo. "It was more like how to do shadowing and tricks like that," he says. "The subject matter wasn't as important as how it was drawn, you know? It was more like how to draw an apple, or whatever, with the shading at the bottom, the light at the top. Stuff like that. Those were always the best pointers."
With his father busy creating creatures like Slasher (whose green blob of a body is mostly eyeballs and teeth, and whose skateboard is a bloody Bowie knife), Jimbo naturally gravitated to the work of other extreme artists, including Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Stanley "Mouse" Miller, who was designing fantasy hotrod model car kits for Monogram (featuring characters such as Fred Flypogger) well before he and his eventual graphic-design partner, Alton Kelley, appropriated a comparatively tasteful Edmund J. Sullivan illustration of a skeleton wearing a crown of roses for a Grateful Dead poster.
"I always kind of cite the old masters as my main inspiration, 'Big Daddy' Roth, Mouse, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams, a lot of those cats. They are older than me, more accomplished, and all that, so that's what I strive for, the level those guys reached."
After high school, Phillips took some art classes at Cabrillo community college in nearby Aptos ("life-drawing, color and composition, stuff like that") but his real training, beyond drawing at home, came at the age of 18, when he went to work full time for his dad. "My dad always told me not to be an artist. He said, 'You should be a dentist and make some real money.' I remember when I was a kid, just watching him work and going, 'Whoa, I don't know if I can draw for that long.' Watching him put in hours and hours. Man…." Fortunately, Jimbo ignored his father's advice and followed his example; since 1990, he's been grinding it out as a freelance graphic artist.
To hear Jimbo tell it, it is not the laid-back Santa Cruz lifestyle you might expect, with daily trips to Pleasure Point to catch a few waves, followed by a quick stop at the local dispensary to see if that latest crop of OG Kush has come in. Instead, Jimbo spends most of his time like the rest of us—working through a lengthy to-do list. "There are always about 20 things on my monthly list," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes I get all of them done, but usually I get at least the top 10 done. Some of them keep getting kicked onto the next list, and the next list."
Phillips is also old-fashioned to the extent that he still draws by hand. "I ink everything," he says. "I usually draw it in pencil on paper and then ink it. I scan the image into the computer after that, but at least it has that hand-drawn feel to start with. Lately I've been using these Faber-Castell Brush Tip pens. They wear out real quick but they're nice for a kind of brushy style. I use Microns for fine-point details and stuff like that. Sometimes Sharpies, too. It just depends."
Having one's studio in one's home, though, can be a mixed blessing. "For the most part, I work during business hours, 9 to 5, but sometimes, you know, I don't get started 'til later, or I have to run errands or whatever, or I'll work at night because it's quiet and everyone's in bed and no one's calling. So the hours are definitely flexible. Which can be nice, but a week can also go by and it's like, 'Oh man, I gotta get something done!'"
Fortunately, at this point in his career, Phillips has plenty of experience with deadlines, and snot is just one of the many arrows in his quiver. "Skulls, of course," he says, ticking off some of the others, "girls are always good, and fire and hellish demon-type stuff are cool. But I also like to do a lot of ocean stuff, waves and cliffs and things like that. And animals are fun because they're colorful, and if you relate a human quality to the animal, it gives them a new perspective. So there are a lot of go-to themes I use."
Obviously Phillips is not the first artist to play around with skulls, and he thinks he knows why skaters and rock-poster fans alike like them so much. "Well, for one, they're just cool, badass I guess you could say. But everyone has a skull, so I think people relate to skulls for that reason. Then there's the death quality, which people are kind of intrigued by to different extents. It's kind of a natural part of human existence. You die at the end, you know? If you lived forever, maybe you wouldn't cherish your life as much."
For skaters in particular, skulls also have a talismanic quality, as if these symbols of death could somehow help ward off the disaster so many skaters spend so much their short professional lives flirting with. "I don't know if many people think about it that deeply or not, but I've always thought it was kind of like that," agrees Phillips. "Other people say, 'Skulls are played out, skulls are done, don't put skulls on things anymore,' but I don't think skulls will ever really disappear completely because it's part of being human. When people stop drawing human beings, maybe they'll stop drawing skulls," he adds with a laugh, "but I don't think that's going to happen."
Girls, as Jimbo often calls the depictions of females that end up on the sides of ski helmets, the bottoms of skateboards, and in his rock posters, are also a favorite motif, one that may have actually saved him from a life in dentistry. "When I was a young teenager, I drew women a lot just to keep my juices flowing for art. There was a time when I wasn't really focused on art, but drawing girls and female figures always kept me interested, and it was kind of stimulating at the same time."
In case you are wondering, Jimbo's wife, Jennifer, is cool with that. "I've been doing it for so long, she's pretty used to it," he says. "Once in a while I'll ask her to pose for something when I need like a certain look, so sometimes I can kind of incorporate her in there a little bit."
The ocean also has deep roots in Jimbo's work. "I grew up on the ocean, I've surfed since I was little, so it's always kind of been a place of fun and entertainment and inspiration. I've always liked drawing waves, and then you've got the whole worlds of real sea creatures and mythical sea creatures, too. There are mermen, which are always like these powerful, Neptune-like images, and mermaids are good, octopuses—all that stuff is fun to draw. Sometimes, though, I'll just go down to the beach and look at the ocean and it kind of helps clear your mind a little bit."
In recent months, Phillips's to-do list has kept him off the surfboard more than he'd like. "Lately it's been few and far between," he admits, "but I usually try and get out once a week, which is kind of the minimum requirement to maintain your surfing abilities." Just as importantly, if you want to keep surfing at Pleasure Point, as he's done since he was a kid, you have to keep up appearances with the other surfers who also call this popular spot their home break. "Yeah, once a week," he laughs, "otherwise they're like, 'Who are you?' I've definitely gotten the looks, but I grew up in this town so I never feel like I have to explain myself to anybody."
Another thing Phillips wishes he had more time for is to make more so-called fine art. "I'm so busy with graphic art, I haven't had a lot of time to delve into gallery shows, but I've done a few. I just did one recently in Canada. Earlier this year I went to Argentina and did an art show there. Last year I did a couple in Europe. So I've been doing a little traveling with it, getting it out there to different countries and stuff. That's been fun."
If Ed Roth and Mouse are his graphic-art heroes, Todd Schorr and Robert Williams are the artists he admires most when it comes to painting. "Schorr mixes this world of fine art and crazy cartoon art together. He's pretty much a master of it, his stuff is just insane." Williams is the crossover, the guy who works with the sort of images that are Phillips's bread and butter, but does so on a scale and in a medium designed for art galleries. "When I first saw Robert Williams's paintings," Phillips says, "that really inspired me because I didn't realize people were doing stuff like that, mixing the fine art with radical imagery. I think that would be cool to do, even though I haven't really strived for it."
Meanwhile, a third generation of Phillips artists is waiting in the wings in the person of Jimbo's son, Colby, who, at 11, has been joining his father at rock-poster shows for the past few years. Lately, he and his dad have been selling their collaborative doodles (full disclosure: I own two…). Will Colby follow in his dad and grandfather's footsteps?
"I think he's interested, but he also realizes it's a lot of work. I remember feeling the same way looking at my dad. But if you just keep chipping away at it, you get better and better and build up confidence. I think as long as he keeps drawing and having fun, it's there for him."
But would Jimbo even wish such a life on his son? "Pretty much all I knew how to do was draw and ride a skateboard or surf," he laughs, "and making a living at either of those is really tough. Art seemed like the least dangerous path."