At the Capitola Mall, in a corner of an apparel/gift shop called Artrageous, there is a portal into the world of Jimbo Phillips. You’ll know instantly if it’s a portal where you belong. It’s a world of blood and sweat, of saliva and mucus, of distended eyeballs and flapping tongues, of impossible-to-ignore saturated color.
It’s not for those with delicate or highly refined sensibilities. The art of Phillips is not a Bach minuet; it’s a chaotic punk jam. But it’s not scary or threatening. In fact, it’s goofy, garish, and grotesque. And, for many locals, it is the visual signature of Santa Cruz.
It’s here at Artrageous, for instance, where you can buy a pair of “statement socks” to top all statement socks. The socks show a close-up of a face caught in mid-vomit, snot leaking from his nose, his bulbous eyes red and veiny. Out of his mouth, through a line of swollen gums and broken teeth, is a green Niagara of puke, inside of which is a variety of ridiculous items — a razor blade, a fetal pig in a jar, a woman whose hair is on fire. If you know the art of Jimbo Phillips at all, it’s instantly identifiable as his. It can be from no other artist.
In the realm of Santa Cruz-based surf/skate graphic arts, Phillips is not merely a prominent figure. He’s royalty. His dad is Jim Phillips, certainly one of the most successful artists to ever emerge from Santa Cruz, the man behind both the Screaming Hand icon and the “classic dot” logo of Santa Cruz Skateboards. Jimbo, 54, grew up in his dad’s world amid a perversely exaggerated aesthetic forged out of the underground comics of the 1960s. But if Jim Phillips captured something essential about the boomer generation, Jimbo was purely Gen X, a typical Santa Cruz surf kid coming of age in the 1980s to a soundtrack of fun-loving punk and ska.
Obviously, growing up the son of a well-known artist and following in that artist’s line of work within the same arena — even carrying the same name — is both a privilege and a burden. And as a working graphic artist, Jimbo Phillips knows quite intimately about that challenge.
“The funny thing is,” he said at his Live Oak home studio, “my dad’s Screaming Hand is so world-famous. And I have a similar name, almost identical, to my dad’s. So I’ll get a lot of requests, ‘Hey, can you throw a Screaming Hand in there somewhere?’ Well, no. No, I can’t.”
Phillips is quick to point out all the advantages and privileges that have accrued to him because of his family name and his dad’s ongoing support for his art. “I’m so lucky to have grown up with all that,” he said, “just in terms of feeding my creativity, and my dad just paving the way and encouraging me to do it as well.” He’s even carrying on the family tradition — Jimbo’s 21-year-old son, Colby Phillips, is the third generation of Santa Cruz-bred graphic artists in the family.
Jimbo has been drawing since he was a small child, and apprenticed by his dad’s side for years as a teen and young adult. In the early 1990s, he broke out on his own as an independent graphic artist intent on developing both his father’s artistic influence and his own distinct style.
These days, he markets a wide variety of apparel and other goods that fit with the spirit of his comic, borderline-outrageous imagery — T-shirts and ballcaps, obviously, but also skateboards, figurines, Halloween masks, socks, stickers, posters, prints and even a signature hot sauce. All these products carry the unmistakable look of the Jimbo Phillips aesthetic. Bold comic book-style lines, exaggeration for comic effect, the sweet spot of gross-out humor that never slips into the repulsive, a style you might call the “pleasurably disgusting,” a vibe always near and dear to the heart of any 12-year-old on a skateboard.
“My dad always called me the ‘wave master,’” he said, referring to his talent for rendering ocean waves in his art. As a lifelong surfer, he knows how waves look up close and how they behave.
Phillips stays away from the Screaming Hand — that’s his dad’s creation, plus it’s the commercial property of NHS, Inc., the parent company of Santa Cruz Skateboards. But if he has a kind of Screaming Hand-like go-to image, it’s the “Pizza Freak,” a drippy, gooey slice of cheese pizza with a screaming or leering face.
“That was just one of those things that kinda took off,” he said with a laugh gesturing to a small figurine of Pizza Freak on his desk. “And there’s other characters in this universe, too.” Indeed, “Taco Freak” is coming on strong in the Jimbo world of drooling, googly-eyed, over-the-top characters.
Gore, violence and sex are, of course, the three largely forbidden zones in commercial art, but working in his signature style almost demands that Phillips walk right up to those lines without crossing them. In fact, he’s developed a sophisticated gut sense of what works and what clearly does not. He said, for example, that he would never make light of topics such as gun violence, and though his characters are often monstrous and freaky, they are almost always chill, not at all menacing. Gore is part of the package when you step into the Jimbo portal — bodily fluids and exposed organs are everywhere — but “it’s not realistic at all,” said Phillips. “It almost has a cartoony feel to it, and so you can get away with a lot of crazy stuff because it’s not real.”
As for sexual imagery, Phillips said that since he was a kid, he “really loved to draw girls.” And he said that for years, he’s drawn often exaggerated images of women’s bodies, usually in a kind of beauty-and-the-beast context alongside a monsterlike male figure. But that kind of thing is not as tolerated as it once was and, as an artist, he has had to refine his sensibilities accordingly. Still, when it comes to gore or sex or other potentially objectionable material, “I’ve done things that some people might not have liked, or maybe pissed off a couple of people. And maybe sometimes that’s a good thing.”
At Artrageous in the Capitola Mall, Santa Cruz musician Terry Spann stands before the Jimbo Phillips corner pointing at the various T-shirts, identifying how many of the designs that he owns. “I have that one, and that one, and one of those …” He said he often wears Jimbo designs while performing. “A lot of this stuff glows when I play under black light, so it’s really cool.”
Spann, born and raised locally, said he loves Santa Cruz and does everything he can to promote local artists; the Phillipses, both father and son, are particular favorites. Spann even said that he owns a Colby Phillips hoodie.
Jimbo Phillips earns an extra income doing graphics jobs for other clients in posters, logos or other advertising. He was also part of the highly publicized “Sea Walls” mural project, painting the outside wall at Lenz Arts in downtown Santa Cruz. The mural with an ocean wave, a surfer and a wild-eyed sea creature serves as a kind of greatest-hits sampling of his work.
But he’s also always trying to expand the horizons of his own work, a challenge in the modern digital age when original artwork is cheap and plentiful. He’s often trying to figure out where to go with edgy original art after Pizza Freak and eyeballs and skulls have all been played out. And as much as the world of art can seem finite in a nothing-new-under-the-sun kind of way, the brand of psychedelic art that he and his father (and now also his son) engage in always seems to find a way to renew itself.
“I love the psychedelic influence,” he said. “To me, when you get into the psychedelic stuff, anything can happen, anything can pop up, anything can be added to the mix. And that just really opens your creativity. And, as an artist, that’s fun because there are no restrictions.”
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