— a conversation with James Victore by Leroy James
If you’re a Graphic Designer (a.k.a. anyone with Photoshop) and you’ve never heard of James Victore, then you’ve been sleeping on the greatest designer living today. From his (in)famous “Columbus Day” posters —torn down almost as soon as they were posted around D.C. — to designing for clients like MoÎt et Chandon, Amnesty International, The New York Times, MTV’s Choose or Lose, and Target; to his “Dirty Dishes” (white plates drawn on with big black markers) and now hand-painted surfboards, Victore has gotten his dirty hands into everything a designer can and always leaves his mark. After emailing each other back and forth we were finally able to set up a time to chat.
Thanks to global warming it was an unfucking-believably hot mid-April day in Brooklyn. Then again I might have been sweating my ass off during the two mile walk from the Pratt Institute’s campus to James Victore’s because I was wearing a sweater (I swear it was cold when I left my apartment). On arriving at Victore, Inc. I saw Mr. Victore roll up on a bike in a light jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots — which I found out later he bought in Austin. After spending a few minutes trying to set up some cheap recording equipment I’d borrowed (“You going to play some music for us?” he joked, seeing the dinosaur of a tape deck I had with me) we sat down and talked. Only after our interview did I realize when transcribing that none of our conversation was recorded. So weeks later after doing a ton of coke and shots of Jäger to jog my memory, here’s the conversation as I could remember it:
WTF: Hey Mr. Victore how are you doing?
JV: (Points to my glasses) Are those Converse glasses?
JV: Those are cool. Where did you get your sweater?
WTF: Oh I made it.
WTF: Anyways I guess I’ll just start with the first question here, it’s sort of a big one: Some of your strongest pieces were your most political, but I’ve read that you don’t focus that much on political work these days, how would you feel about designing a poster for a candidate like Shepard Fairey did for Obama?
JV: I don’t know; that stuff has to come from McCain or Hillary or Obama. If the call came from whichever camp I’d be willing to do the work for them but as it stands I’m too busy at the moment to worry about it. You know? Who has time for the news? I’m a three-job-George-Bush-American working hard to feed my family.
As far as what Fairey’s doing, it’s just stupid. He’s turning Obama into a poster boy, literally, which is going to be a big problem ’cause how will anyone in the Midwest take him seriously?
WTF: Where were you when you heard that Johnny Cash died?
JV: We actually don’t listen to the radio or have a TV here, so I think it was a few days after he passed that a friend mentioned it to me. I don’t have some story like “I was in the shower and the news came on the radio and I started sobbing in the shower…” or anything like that.
Why the Johnny Cash question?
WTF: I heard you were a big Cash fan. I don’t remember hearing about his death either but I remember James Brown dying on Christmas.
JV: James Brown died?
WTF: But yeah, Cash has been a big influence on me I’m sure as much as on you.
JV: Oh yeah definitely, it’s like I always say there’s four guys I always listen to to remind me why I do this. It’s Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, Neil Young, and…and…uh, shit who was the other one?
WTF: George Michael.
JV: Yeah George Michael, “Faith” really helps me get through the hard times. (Laughs) But yeah there’s four guys, (laughs) the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
WTF: What makes a client sexy, and how would a young designer like myself go about finding a client like this?
JV: Honestly, there are a lot of pieces that leave this studio that I’d rather not have my name attached to. You know, I hope that every project that comes to us is so amazing that I sweat blood from the forehead, but there’s the jobs for God and the jobs for money. I approach everything like it’s a God job and eventually, depending on the client or whatever difficulties come up it turns into a money job. I just put it away in a file cabinet and don’t ever look at it again.
The worst thing a client can do is come to me and say “Oh we have an idea”. You know, cause then it’s just “Oh we just want your name attached to this” they don’t really want me. I’m just a puppet they just want my left hand. So I look at my left hand and say “Ok hand, we’ve got a job to do”.
WTF: So how many pieces would you say you’d put out a week?
JV: I dunno, it varies, maybe I could probably put out one thing a day. Like I said, I’m just a three job American trying to provide for my family.
WTF: Grapus were badasses, what was it like to meet Pierre Bernard?
JV: So I had heard Pierre Bernard was in town and met with him for lunch. We ended up spending a good six hours together talking. You know the great thing about Pierre and Grapus was that they were serious about having fun. They wrote poetry on everything, painted on everything. They always worked their asses off but it was fun. Recently me and my family did see Pierre in France and hope to back soon to see him again.
WTF: You once said everything a person needs to know about design he/she has by the time they’re 11. Picasso said something similar, everything he needed to know about art he knew by the time he was 5. Anything extra that designers should be learning in those years?
JV: Yeah, I think what it was is that Picasso was watching his kids draw and said something to the effect of, that by the time he was seven he could paint like Raphael but he’s spent the rest of his life trying to paint like a child. There isn’t anything else you need to learn from that to become a designer. I tell my students all the time, “Don’t be a designer”. All designers dress the same, think the same, talk the same. There are people who go on trips to Jamaica and spend their trips taking pictures of signs. (Laughs) Read poetry, work with your hands, stop trying to spend so much time with Photoshop.
WTF: So what did you mean when you said that you make no distinction between what’s beautiful and what’s ugly?
JV: Oh that comes from Henryk Tomaszewski who was asked to make something beautiful once, or how he would describe beauty. He threw up his hands and said “Agh, beautiful? Ugly? What’s the difference?” So I work hard to not try and differentiate between what’s believed to be beautiful or ugly. Or I try and push my ugly marks so far into ugly they become beautiful.
WTF: So what’s the story behind you saying you’d go into comedy after graduating high school?
JV: (Laughs) Ok, so the story behind that actually goes that when we graduated we had to fill out this card that said what we’d do after high school. So I simply wrote “James Victore is going to pursue a career in stand-up comedy”. It was nothing really that serious.
WTF: So who are your favorite comedians?
JV: Oh, Steve Martin because of the surreal of his comedy. That was a really big influence on me, and Eddie Murphy, cause he taught me how to swear. (Laughs)
WTF: How about Richard Pryor or George Carlin?
JV: Not so much Richard Pryor but he’s funny. George Carlin definitely, especially his “Seven Dirty Words.”
WTF: What’s your favorite piece by Banksy? Is he a fan of your work as well?
JV: (Smiles) Ooohh there’s no way I could narrow it down. The great thing about Banksy is that he really has a message and he can just execute it so sharp. I was actually in LA recently and a friend of mine turned me onto this French artist Blek le Rat, and when I saw his work at this gallery my jaw just dropped. This is the guy Banksy took his whole style from! The stencils, white paint, everything!
WTF: And the rat.
JV: Right, le rat. Anyways, back to your question, honestly Banksy’s on a whole ‘nother salary than I am. So I don’t think he really knows about me. (Laughs)
WTF: Where’s the best surfing in New York at?
JV: I prefer Rockaway. It’s a little closer to here, but my friends prefer Long Beach.
WTF: Ever surfed with David Carson?
JV: No, but you know, like Banksy, David Carson is on a whole ‘nother salary like I said.
WTF: I’ve read that you said that the best place to eat in NYC is your place, so when’s a good time to come over for dinner?
JV: (Laughs) Well…(sits back) we usually break out the wine about six.
WTF: Alright I’ll be sure to bring some friends over then.
After our conversation I sent Victore a thank you e-mail, later that day he then sent me this response after remembering the name the of the Fourth Horseman:
JV: BOB DYLAN! How could I fucking forget!