Theotis Jones Interview
by Matthew J @IamJamesMatthew
A lot can happen in a year, but one thing is for certain, great rewards go to those who put in the work. Example: In 2012, Theotis Jones emerged on the scene and has established himself as one of the internet’s best kept secrets, and as many would say, the best kept secret in visual design’, as well. This self-described, “30 year old, human being who was raised and lives in Virginia”, has been diligently supplying showbills (advertisements) for the popular THE COMBAT JACK SHOW podcast; helping the program build momentum with both listeners and industry-types, worldwide.
He’s no joke! The man’s work is unrivalled and though made for podcasts (the internet?), easily triumphs over the album-art being commissioned by major record labels.
A year later, while still putting in work and showing no signs of slowing down, Theotis Jones took a quick breather to answer a few questions, in this, his first online interview; breaking down the science behind his work, the impact graffiti has on his life, his relationship with the Combat Jack Show, and shows “crew love” to the Loud Speakers Network and all of his INTERNETS/IRL people.
We’ll start with a self-introduction so the people reading this can have some background info as to who you are and what you’re all about. So tell us, who is Theotis Jones?
I’m a 30 year old human being who was raised and lives in Virginia -just outside of DC. I like to make shit that looks cool, and then puts it on the Internets. I realize that’s a really simplistic answer, but at the end of the day, that’s how I look at myself. For the people who have already seen my work, I’m probably best known as the guy who does the showbills (poster ads) for The Combat Jack Show. I’m a music lover, a drinker, a smoker, a loner, and a sarcastic motherfucker who has what polite folk call, “a foul mouth”.
I can’t or more accurately; [I] won’t describe myself as an artist. Although other people have used that to describe me, I have hard time with that because while we could get into a deeper discussion about what art is or isn’t – for me- I don’t know if I can say I’ve made art. I feel as if art has a higher meaning- there is a shamanistic power behind it; it has universality to it; a kind of timelessness, and the ability to comment on the time period in which it was created.
Keep in mind, I do aspire to that higher level, but don’t know if I’m there yet. So rather than calling myself “an artist”, I go with something inelegant like, “a cat who likes to make shit that looks cool.”
Let’s go a bit further with the idea of art and what it is all about: I want you to tell me what your art means to you? Apart from the external acclaim or receiving acknowledgment, what satisfaction do you get from the whole creative process?
Art is just a part of who I am. I think it’s that basic. I hate that it sounds kinda cliche, but honestly, to me, it is just that simple. Art has gotten me through rough times in my life. I do it for fun, as well. I’ve done it to get free drinks at a bar. I find myself drawing at pretty much every available opportunity. Hell, I got myself in trouble as a kid ‘cause I would rather draw than do schoolwork. Let me tell you a story.
I’m in first grade. I have my little black and white composition notebook. I draw this robot character thing, almost like a Mecha-Wing type-of-joint. One of my classmates sees it. He likes it. I draw him one. So the robot drawings go first-grade-viral, and I love it, because people seem to like ‘em and I like drawing ‘em. But then my first grade teacher makes me stop. It is Phonics time. But fuck Phonics, I want to draw.
So I take my composition notebook, and I draw a middle finger that takes up the full page, and I color it in yellow, and I’d hold it up whilst my teacher’s back was turned to voice my displeasure (instead of just holding up my own middle finger on my hand – much easier and less evidence), and voice my displeasure I did. She then voiced her displeasure when she caught me holding it up and I couldn’t close the book fast enough. Of course, my parents voiced their own displeasure, later, when I got home, and they found out about the incident.
If me not being allowed to draw in class because I had to learn Phonics made me do something that stupid/rebellious, I must really love this. Hell, this could partially be a response to your last question, because the love for it motivates my hustle. I’m super thankful and grateful that people would take the time out of their day to say anything nice at all. But if I’m to be honest, at the end of the day, if I decided to just go dark, never tweet; never tumblr, never share anything again, I don’t think I would stop creating. It goes back to the whole selfishness aspect of it – I’m doing it because it is what I like to do. Before any girls came along, this was/is my first love.
You mentioned using the old-school, black-and-white composition books; sketching out images, essentially taking your first steps towards graffiti (the actual sketching). What is your graffiti background like? What got you involved in the culture, and who were some of the writers that inspired you early on?
Let me not sell myself as anything but a “blackbook warrior”, because my one attempt at actually getting up on a wall – I won’t disclose where and when it took place. All I can tell you is that it was bad, man. Hoooo boy. Not good at all. That shit isn’t even toy – it is a piece of a toy. It’s like only the fuckin’ arm of a toy. But ever since I learned what graffiti was, I’ve loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I remember being 12 or 13, riding with dad through DC and I remember seeing what seemed, at the time, to be this 40 or 50 foot tall painting of this iceman-type character (not Bobby Drake, just a figure that was made of ice or crystals) on a wall. In reality, it was probably only like 10 feet but to me it was just mind-blowing. It was one of those moments where everything changed. Just like hearing “Doggystyle” for the first time. Game over!
From that point on, I was fuckin’ voracious. I was buying graffiti magazines at Tower Records whenever I had the money. I purchased “The Art of Getting Up.” I’d practice the letter forms I saw in my magazines and books over the weekends and on nights, and then continue practice during school, in the back of the class. Then, when I was about to graduate high school, an older brother of a friend was going to VCU, in Richmond, and he was actually a dude who got up and shit, so he took me around for a weekend, and we snapped a buncha flicks, and I met another dude who wrote, and we sat around and drank and drew in each other’s’ books.
In terms of influences, for me… you look at someone like a DONDI, that guy was on some next level shit. The sheer amount of names, of styles… the book “Style Master General” is one of the best things I’ve ever read or seen. His commitment, his love for what he did; I can totally vibe with it, and he basically did that shit right up to the end, which is my plan as well. Others like Seen, Daim, Iz the Wiz, Dez, Daze, Kase 2… I just love all the old stuff. The golden era stuff, if you will, when NYC was bombed-out trains all the time. But even more recent stuff – I’m thinking specifically of Rime and El Mac at the moment, even though El Mac is not necessarily the “traditional” graffiti artist – their stuff blows my fucking face off my face. So, so good. But it was that group of 80s writers that really showed me the way initially, and now the progeny that they’ve spawned runs the gamut of pretty much every conceivable style. The culture of art is indebted to those kids who paved the way.
From graffiti you’ve made a successful transition to graphic design where, in 2012, your work and designs have been heavily-featured on the popular American podcast, THE COMBAT JACK SHOW *salute*. I’m a fan of that program and I feel your showbills helping separate [Combat Jack] from other shows. I especially liked the “Full Metal Jacket” inspired piece for the 100th episode. How did you hook up with Combat [Jack Radio] and how has that affiliation impacted your career, thus far?
Firstly, thanks for the compliments on all the stuff I’ve done for TCJS, as well as the 100th episode showbill, the Full Metal Jacket showbill. It is funny you picked that one out, because that FMJ imagery was involved in the first piece I did for Combat. He talks about our working relationship in the foreword to my 2012 Showbills compilation – I’m not saying that as any sort of plug (can you plug something that’s free? Am I making it worse by saying all this?), but just to say that if people want Combat’s view of the evolution of our partnership, that would be a good read.
This is like almost four years ago, but Combat had started blogging on Byron Crawford’s site, and then he started daily-math.com ,and man, I could not get enough of that site! I would check it like 8, 9 times a day to see if it had been updated. I was into it because the industry stories were just mind-blowing, and I just liked the dude’s outlook on things. But as I’m digging his site, with all of the insane writing, I couldn’t get past the fact that its header image is just … not good.
I decided to reach out to him. Now, I’m kinda nervous in doing that, because my life on the internets – and I’ve been on these motherfuckers since the day of pay-per-hour internet, when AOL was king and there were CompuServe and fuckin’ Geocities and shit – time was spent mostly just lurking. So I’m going to send him this email saying that his header image isn’t good, and let’s get real – when I think of people in general and their behavior on the internet; “well-balanced, reasoned responses” are not the first thing that come to mind, right?
I hate it when people muckrake and only say what’s wrong without making any attempt to correct the problem. So I was like fuck it; let me make a couple new header images, send em to him. If wants to use them, it’s a bonus; if he doesn’t, fuck it.
He seemed to really respond to them, and he was totally cool about my feedback (and, in hindsight, worrying that he was going to spaz out on me seems totally incongruous, contrasted with the life outlook his writing put forth). And from that moment on, if I had an idea for something, I’d just whip it up and email him, and usually he’d post it on the site. I felt like, ok, he is giving me all this information and knowledge and entertainment with his writing, I will give him images back and we kinda both help each other out. It’s the whole creative symbiosis thing again. And from there on, he would reach out to me when he needed something.
Then the radio show started and he asked me to do a logo, so I hooked that up. Sometime after that, he hits me and says DJ Premier is the next guest and can I do some sort of image to promote it? He sent along a photo that Primo’s people sent him. DJ Premier has contributed to the soundtrack that comprises my life, and the guy’s a fuckin’ legend, so I was like, fuck I gotta go in. I didn’t have a template since this was a brand new thing, so I just came up with the idea and did what I did, and from then on Combat hits me with the upcoming guests and lets me do my work – I must admit that is one of the best things about working with him. He trusts that I’m going to make him and the team look good – which is the utmost goal with all these showbills – so he has very minimal changes and I get to create fly shit for artists who have provided the music that I associate with certain points in my life (i.e.: DJ Premier).
It’s impossible to put into the words the feelings I get from creating things for a radio show I feel is invaluable to the culture.
I don’t know if I can ever shout out or thank Combat enough, man. He is just a cool motherfucker and he’s linked me up with other cool internets along the way. It still blows my mind – and I’ve told him this multiple times – that with as many talented people he’s worked with, and the guy has worked with and interviewed and interacted with legends, the fact that he will shout me out on Twitter, or on the show, man, is humbling and such a cool experience. Best of all, I’m having fun doing this. I’ve had record labels contact me to do some work for various projects. I’ve had other internets hit me up – after seeing the work I’ve done for Combat – to work on their projects. So the whole exposure thing that is happening now, he is a huge, huge part of that. Salutes to Combat and the whole team; both the personalities on the show and the people behind the scenes, who are helping the keep the Spaceship [Combat Jack Show] moving.
Being affiliated with Combat Jack and the show is great look, career wise. You find yourself in a good place where many (lazy) people would rest on their laurels; sponging off the name-recognition, BUT you are consistently putting out new designs – for both the podcast and other projects, as well.
I want to know, what motivates your hustle? In other words, what fuels your commitment to this work of yours? Artistry isn’t the most financially rewarding vocation; many people quit before they succeed. You’re in a good spot but still pushing forward; what drives to keep reaching for more?
“Artistry isn’t the most financially rewarding vocation…” Man alive, speak on it! As far as I can tell, if my shit is really good, I’ll die penniless, unknown, and unrecognized but then *ironically* my shit will maybe blow up after I’ve been worm food for a few decades, haha.
One thing which truly drives me is what I mentioned in the previous question — just trying to get better every day with every project. So I’m in this insane competition I’ve set up against myself, and that’s to say nothing of all the other people who are – I’m realistic about it – leaving me in the dust from a talent standpoint. But I try to stay away from thinking about competing with other artists and just using it as motivation to hone my own talents further and further. And there’s the flip side of that coin where I can get inspiration from other artists, be they musical, visual, whatever… I see/hear/experience something dope, and it excites me to want to make something dope in return. There is a kinda karmic symbiosis of creativity and invention, if you will.
Another thing is I went through a big slump, a few years ago, where I just wasn’t drawing anything. I wasn’t making anything. I didn’t really have any ideas, and the ideas I did have, I automatically dismissed because I would think, “Yeah, that’s cool…. but I’ve already seen someone else do it.” Or, “I know someone else has probably done this, so why do something derivative?” It has basically taken me up to this point to be comfortable – as comfortable as I can ever be – with the fact that if I want to do something, I should just do it to see how it looks. Yeah, there is plenty of Breaking Bad fan art out there. And when the series ends, if I want to do something, I shouldn’t let what has come before prevent me from making what I want to make. That leads into this whole other thing about how what I’m doing is pretty selfish. Yes, I am sharing it with others, but at the end of the day, I’m going to make what I want to make, and drawing makes me happy, so that’s why I do it. So the hustle is also motivated by my own selfish interests.
Yet another thing is just the people on the internets that I’ve worked with, and the things they are contributing in their own ways, with their talents. I’ve been really lucky to just have some great collaborators, whether it is the guys at Zip Squad Music, the couple of times I’ve worked/interacted with Duck Down, Combat & his radio show and the team, khal… And even things like Dallas Penn and Byron Crawford. I love their writing (plus, Byron has some of the BEST images on the internets, make the word “best” all caps and in a font size so big it breaks the fuckin’ web), so to be able to work with them is fucking awesome. I think the collaborations help encourage a creative community spirit which I love being a part of. I’ve often compared this time right now to the halcyon years of hip-hop, those early years where it was just fun for everyone and it wasn’t a business thing. Circling back to it not being the most financially rewarding vocation; that’s fine with me. My lawyer/manager will hate me for saying this, but I am not in this for the money. Hell, I’m not even in it for the fame. When I was younger, I wanted both those things, but now, just creating and being happy with what I create; inspiring or supporting other people with those images gets it done for me, man. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be able to do this for a living, just do what I do and have people pay me, but the money thing isn’t the top motivator.
Since we’ve talked about both graffiti and graphic design, I want to compare and contrast the creative process that goes into the styles. Obviously, both require a certain (strict) discipline yet allow artistic freedoms so, in your opinion, how do the styles match up to each other?
In both graff and graphic design, there are some very basic elements that are going to work as a foundation for whatever you are creating to be interesting: the color scheme, the graphic tension of whatever design elements you use, and the use of layout to give a certain part more prominence.
But I feel like with graff, there’s more leeway to make it extremely complicated, visually speaking, so that maybe on first glance the average viewer doesn’t get it. And in graff, that’s not only OK, sometimes that’s the writer’s goal. With graphic design… let’s take the showbills. With those showbills, I have to communicate the guest that will be on the program, what the name of the show is and who is part of the show, as well as any URLs or any additional information. Now, I can get pretty loose with how that looks, and ultimately those images are a supplement of sorts in relation to the actual content, aka the actual radio show. But those pieces of information, however I choose to display them, they need to be readable. There’s no benefit in making that information complicated to digest. If I went extra Wildstyle on all the text on a showbill, it would be an overload visually, aesthetically, but from an informational standpoint it would be utterly bereft, and that’s not the point of the showbills.
In the end though, I think the great thing is that both graffiti and graphic design are related, and they can use a shared language to inform and better each other. There are elements of one that can show up in the other. Take all the Vaughn Bode characters that have/do appear in so many pieces over the years. If you look at those Bode comix, yeah, they are comics, but in my view, they are graphic design. Bode’s work had text; he had iconography; he had a certain layout to emphasize one or the other. And writers would take a piece from here and there and fit it into what they made. Similarly, graffiti – and the definition of graff, like art, can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people – but the graff I’m speaking of is what I consider the classical, letterform-driven style. It’s letters. It’s type. Just like graphic design. And I would say that a masterpiece where you have, you know, 5 or 6 or 7 writers all on one wall, that requires just as much “graphic design” as a printed booklet that would fit the traditional definition of “graphic design.”
Stemming from the strength of your work, you’ve been getting some crazy co-signs from Combat [Jack], Dallas [Penn] and the rest of their team – which includes producer, Just Blaze. With those guys praising your work, it’s a no-brainer that industry-heads would be seeking you out for design work. We touched on the topic earlier, but I want to know, in your words, why are so many still people sleeping on Theotis Jones? C’mon, if Pen & Pixel can design all those album covers for No Limit Records, why hasn’t Def Jam commissioned you for a Pusha T or Big K.R.I.T. album cover? I’m just saying; your skill and work ethic are unquestioned, so what do you think it will take for heads are so slow to get at you? What’s up with these slow people?
‘Why are so many people sleeping on me’… are people sleeping on me? I don’t know. I really don’t know how to answer this. If this hasn’t come across in this interview, I’m not the cat to stand up and pound my chest and be like, ‘look how fucking awesome I am!’ That just isn’t my thing. So I’m sure part of it is self-promotion, and I don’t engage in self-promotion as heavily as I “should”, really. I’m on a very limited social media diet. I take my pleasure more so in the final result of the work, and I don’t get anything out of pumping it up beforehand.
I’d also say, my online presence is relatively nascent. The internets are way far and wide, and at this point, kinda old in some corners. Apologies for repeating myself, but I’ve been on the Internets, heavy, for a long fuckin’ time. I’m still discovering new visual artists, new musical artists, new subcultures, new everything, damn near every day. And in that limited amount of time, the work that I’ve done, for the most part, is for a subculture within a subculture. So I’m kinda segmented in that way. And, there are heads out there who ain’t even fuckin’ with hip-hop, so even if they see my stuff and maybe like it, they could give a shit about the subject manner.
At the end of the day, it’s cool as hell that anyone wants to look at the stuff I’m doing. I’m thankful for the exposure my work has gotten so far. Maybe folks will come around, maybe they won’t. In the meantime, I’ma keep doing my best to make work that I think is good. I don’t know if I can ask the universe for any more than that.
Since music is so connected to a lot of your current work, it’s only right to ask a music related question. At this moment, what are some of the album you are playing in heavy-rotation?
Me trying to pin down three albums is damn near impossible. I’m just going to go through a partially-chronological-but-not-really list from when we started this interview to where I’m at now (which is what, like a month or so, in terms of time?): “Reloaded,” by Roc Marciano, “Mic Tyson” by Sean Price, the Face Melting Material mix by DJ Benhameen & Khal, Nicolas Jaar’s Essential Mix on BBC Radio, Timeless Truth’s “Rock-It Science,” “1999″ by Joey BadA$$, the freestyles from “The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs” (Freddie Gibbs is a beast!), “MHz Legacy” by MHz, various “Sidecar Transmissions” via Aquarium Drunkard, “Wrath of Caine” by Pusha, “New Jet City” by Curren$y, the Jamaica to Toronto Soul Funk & Reggae 1967-1974 compilation, Wendell Stuart & The Downbeaters 1970 self-titled LP, “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys, and Beach Fossils “Clash the Truth.” And by the time you read this shit, I’ll probably be on to 5 or 6 other albums, either replaying old joints I haven’t heard in a while or playing something new I’ve found.
What advice, if any, would you give to a person who’s struggling to get their art seen? What would you tell a person who is starting up in graffiti/ design?
This a tough one because there are like a 100,000 fuckin’ books out there that say, “here is how you become a social media guru”? Or, “this is how you become an SEO expert”? But I feel like that stuff is how that particular personwho wrote the book became the “expert”. I think that everyone – and this really applies to whatever you do; art, graffiti, or otherwise – is going to have to go through trials and find their own way regarding what they want to do with life. It’s a rare breed that just gets famous and blows up overnight off design/art/whatever; and much rarer for that person to maintain longevity.
Thanks to the internet, initial blowup is much easier, but so is the number of people you will compete against – that number is stacked. So don’t let yourself get caught up in some: “Why aren’t I better known yet? Why hasn’t my work been received and appreciated by the public, those ignorant fucksticks!” mentality – that way of thinking will get you nowhere.
And I think sometimes the biggest problem is just timing. And I mean that in the sense that life has you in a certain place for a certain reason. I’m no big believer in fate or some kinda grand scheme, but I do think there is some sort of universal energy that is keeping it all even. It sucks to say that, probably sucks worse to hear it if you are in a rut, but that’s just how shit happens. In my experience, creativity doesn’t work best when it is forced – hell, doesn’t usually work, period, when it’s forced. So sometimes you have to wait, but then that moment comes when inspiration kicks in the door, wavin the four-four and you come up with an idea that electrifies your whole body and you can demolish a 40-story building with a single karate chop.
If you are starting out, I would tell you to “go crazy” and try it all. Do everything! See everything! Overdose on fuckin’ inspiration as often as possible. Don’t let someone tell you what you can or can’t do with your art (or ideas). Fuck those people! Fuck. Those. People. If you love creating, do it. Just go do it, for whatever reasons you have, and if you want to show people what you’ve done, there are a million different avenues to get your shit seen online; there’s a niche for pretty much everything. And if the niche doesn’t exist, it is easier than ever to create your own [niche] andyou can then say you were the progenitor of that niche. Whatever you do, put your heart behind it and the rest will take care of itself.
What can we expect for you in 2013?
My overall plan (and this is every year) is just to keep getting better, really. I want the next thing I do to blow whatever I just did out of the water. In terms of actual projects, I’ll have various stuff for Combat Jack, I imagine. I have a few album covers which are in various stages of development/execution and I’ve done flyers for some concerts that will be happening soon. Outside of that, I have stuff that I don’t necessarily post on my tumblr – things like logos and identity branding which I’m doing with friends who are starting/have started businesses; then there are wedding gifts, personal gifts, etc etc. I take a pretty loose approach with “planning” because at any given time someone new might find my shit and approach me with a project I hadn’t thought about. Or maybe I’ll hear some music that inspires some kind of passion project, whether it is another “Lyrics Illustrated” thing (what I call putting an image to lyrics of a song I like, I did a few last year that went up on the tumblr) or some sort of alternate fan boy cover art. Hell, sometimes IRL steps in and I have to put aside the Internetz stuff and deal with that.
I just got a tablet, so my biggest plan for 2013 is to learn/master drawing using that device. Up to this point, everything you’ve seen that I’ve created was done using the computer – drawn with a mouse. I’m the moron who has been drawing with a mouse for goin’ on like 10 fuckin’ years now, not because I didn’t want a tablet, but mostly because it was way too expensive, and because the previous work [I was doing] didn’t require it. For example: the Duck Down Showbill, all those individual beard hairs on Sean Pricetook a solid afternoon of working with a mouse. But will all the ideas I’ve been having and the stuff I’ve been working on – hell, the stuff I want to work on – it makes more sense, at this point, to invest in the new technology. I think I can do it; it’s just a matter of learning the techniques and building from there. Computer shit, in general, has always come somewhat easy to me.
Where can people find you online?
Theotis Jones: I’m currently only located Twitter and Tumblr (theotisjonesdropsknowledge.tumblr.com). I don’t feel the need to be on Instagram because the Tumblr fills that niche and Twitter gives me a way to contact/interact/collaborate with people and vice versa. I also have a little section on thecombatjackshow.com- a page showcasing some of my previous work, as well as a link to the showbills compilation.
Before we go, I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview, Theotis. We definitely need to do another one in the future, in future, for sure. Now, in closing an interview, it’s customary to give the subject an opportunity to “shout-out” some people they feel deserve to be acknowledged and recognized. This is your opportunity to spread the love, Theotis. Who do you want to shout-out?
Well, first, shout outs to you, Matthew. Thank you for taking the opportunity and the time – fuck, especially the time, with these long ass answers – to let me talk a little about myself. It was a real pleasure doing this, and hopefully we can do it again sometime in the future.
My life has this dichotomy of the Internets and the IRL, so let me start first with my Internets people.
Super big ups to: Combat Jack, Dallas Penn, A-King, Premium Pete, DJ Benhameen, Matt Raz, and Just Blaze. I’m so proud to be a part of what they are doing and they are great to work with; great to tweet with, great to listen to. Big Up to all the folks, behind the scenes, who keep that show moving: Chris Morrow, Dwayne Crawford, Alwayz Ambitious, Christina “Shoom” Isaacs, JasFly, and NY Delight.
Additional shout outs to other internets that I read and that inspire me; people like Byron Crawford, Khal, Robbie at unkut. Big ups to all the dudes in Zip Squad – I’m looking forward not only to their music, but hopefully a continued collaboration with them on the album cover tip.
I also want to give just a blanket shout out to everyone who has liked my work, or complimented it, retweeted it, what have you. I realize not naming specific names is kind of cheap, but I would feel worse about forgetting someone. Please know that if you’ve ever said anything to me, a compliment, you passed my work along cause you enjoyed it – that means a lot, and I’m thankful and humbled by the support.
Lastly, my IRL peoples: Love to Walter,Gwen Jetson, Esquire, Jonny, Tony, Jon B, Hath, MG aka Lil Bu, Mefty aka Big Bu, Marita,Troubita, Steffi, Jerry, GRAAAP! (BOPBOP), Kendraaaaaaa!, Han Dogan (aka pretty much the only other visual artist I fux with IRL), Snyde, and Kara. These are the people that hold me down outside of all the work, the ones who are there and have been there before all this started happening. They’ve influenced me as a person, and who I am informs my work. I can’t thank em enough.
Thank you, internets. Stay up past midnight, do drugs and tip your waitresses. Peace!