1:AM interviews Mark Bode, underground comics, tattoo, and spraycan artist. His show is on view now through July 31st at 1:AM Gallery.
Valerie Leavy: I was doing a bit of research about you and according to the interwebs, you’ve lived in Northampton, Oakland, Manhattan, and San Francisco. You’re in the Bay Area now. So where did you grow up?
Mark Bode: I was born in upstate New York, in a small town called Utica. Utica was kind of a boom town in the 20’s and 30’s, kind of a mob town that blew up the city, and then when the mob moved out in the 60’s, 70’s, it kind of deflated. But I remember it being huge, you know, people bustling in the streets and stuff. It’s not quite like that anymore, it’s more of a suburban town.
VL: So, you and your father have had a real influence on visual culture. Is there anything in Utica that is kind of a monument to that? Any graffiti?
MB: Um, the only famous people that came out of Utica were um, Dick Clark and Annette Funicello. And my father.
VL: (laughing) What a legacy.
MB: Um, yeah, so there’s not a whole lot in Utica as far as art and culture and stuff. But I did a mural at the Children’s Museum in Utica about 10 years ago, not sure if it’s still there. But I did a mural inside, you know, for the children. That was the only museum I could get down with at the time. But, maybe things’ll change.
VL: So I read that your Miami Mice comic was wildly successful; in its first year it sold 180,000 copies. What do you think were the factors that led to the widespread popularity of this underground comic?
MB: It was published by an underground comics publisher, Rip Off Press, and they just lived down the street when I came up with that [Miami Mice]. But there was a black & white comics boom that was spurred by the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and that boom was like, Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and uh-
VL: (laughing) Is that real? Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters?
MB: Yeah, they were real comics, yeah. And everybody was jumpin’ on that bandwagon, tryin’ to get part of that light. And it was, you know, Fish Police, and Hamster Vice, and all these different things. And I came in right at that time and I knew that I wanted to ride that wave. My wife and I were walking through a mall, and we saw a Miami Mice t-shirt and she goes, “Wouldn’t that make a good comic book?” and I was like, “Yeah, it would.” And Miami Vice was huge, it was the biggest thing on TV pretty much. Knowing that you can’t copyright a parody, I knew the Miami Mice t-shirt people were just makin’ money off the shirts and I had a better idea. Well, my wife did actually. And I banged out a comic book in about a month, it was 30 pages. And I didn’t spend much time on the art, I’d just, like, bang it out as quick as I could, get on that wave.
VL: So were you surprised when it was that successful?
MB: Yeah. But we had some warnings, you know, I was hangin’ out at Rip Off Press waiting for the first issue to come in, and we had Chinese speculators calling us.
MB: Yeah. And so we knew that something’ was up. And it’s like, Chinese speculators, wow, that’s something. And so the first print run was 40,000. The second issue went to 60,000 and then it went down again to like, 50 or 40. And then it went to 20 on number four. And I called it quits at that point. I didn’t know any better, but 20,000 is still a really nice print run. But I had illusions of grandeur, that I could just dump it, and go do something that was really cool, more Bode-ish, and get those numbers, and since I did that my print run went down to less than 10. So I kinda lost that gamble, but I didn’t wanna be known for creating a parody of a TV show, so I dumped it. But in a year’s time, we sold 180,000 copies. It was a good run, and I got a first taste of a nice day of it as an artist.
VL: Is there a comic or a group of characters that you enjoy illustrating more than the rest, or that you did enjoy even if you don’t do it anymore?
MB: Absolutely. My father’s work is always… I mean, I was brainwashed as a child, you know, my father taught me that these characters were real, before I knew what reality was. When you’re four or five years old, reality is whatever it is.
VL: Oh yeah, you close your eyes and think no one else can see you.
MB: Yeah. The whole world stops. When you close your eyes. And in fact I’ve contemplated that many times. My father said, “Yes, son. Everything DOES stop.” And you know, I thought that his stuff was real, ‘cause he’d show me the comic, and a day later he’d say, “Let’s go to where I saw Cheech last and wait for him,” So as we’re eating lunch, up on the hill waiting for Cheech, I found myself wondering where he was, and he’s like, “Oh, he’s busy, just hasn’t shown up yet. But at least I can show you the drawings from when we hung out.” So I started envisioning the characters coming up the hill. And that’s what he was doing, he was systematically, in a good way, brainwashing me.
VL: And you DO get the idea that Cheech is probably a really busy guy.
MB: (laughing) Yeah.
VL: So, when I look at the characters- the Cheech Wizard, and the Lizards, and the Broads- I see a kind of a philosophical metaphor, almost. Where we are Cheech, and the Lizards are Others, you know? And of course, the Broads are tantalizing females, beautiful. The Desired. But I get the feeling that Cheech Wizard is kind of like, our selves, and he has desires, and he has indulgences, and is at play. Was that intended?
MB: Yes, very much. My dad, even though he hid Cheech Wizard’s identity, my dad was Cheech. You could never look The Creator in the eyes without going blind. So whenever he’d get under pressure and take the hat off- whether it was his girlfriend, or his Lizard pal, or at gunpoint by the Frog Police- you know, Take The Hat Off, you know- and Cheech would go, “Okay, but I warned ya,” and he’d take the hat off and everybody goes snow-blind. And it’s because you can’t look The Creator in the eyes. I was always the Lizard, the little Apprentice Lizard. He was always trying to teach me things, and would get impatient with the stupidity of the Lizard, and inevitably teach him some kind of harsh lesson, which was like a kick in the balls or whatever it was. But actually, the way the kick-in-the-balls joke happened- and my dad would repeat over and over again- happened because when I was nine or ten years old, maybe, it was like ‘72 or so, we had boxing gloves and we would box on the big king-size bed. He would get on his knees and we’d fight. And every time it got too rough, I’d nail him as hard as I could in the nuts. And my dad would drop. And I’d just be, “YESS! I won again!”
VL: (laughing) I’m surprised he still wanted to play that game.
MB: (laughing) Yeah, he did, he kept comin’ back. But he’s like, “I’ll get you. I’m gonna get you one day.” So, my character, which was the Lizard Apprentice, started getting kicked in the balls all the time, and so forever I am- my character was- being paid back for what I did to my father. And so that’s where that came from.
VL: Um, that’s awesome. So you’re also a tattoo artist. How many Bode characters have you tattooed?
MB: I would say hundreds? I’ve done, probably, aw man, in 16 years of tattooing it’s hard to say how many thousands of tattoos I’ve done. But the ratio [of Bode characters to other tattoos] isn’t that much. I’m very versatile, so a lot of people come to me with really hard line work. Like right now I’m doing Doré etchings on people, and I’m really into the cross-hatching and keeping it exactly the way the original is. So I have the abilities to go really super-detailed, so I tend to get more of that really hard-to-do, Fine Art stuff. But whenever I go on the road, that’s almost all I do is Bode Broads, and Cheech, and the Lizards. Almost exclusively, when I’m on the road, that’s what I get. And that’s okay. If I was doin’ the characters all the time in tattooing I’d probably get sick of doin’ it. And that’s probably a good thing, it keeps it fresh, and I’m still excited when I do one.
VL: I guess I was really hoping there was a story about somebody coming to you with one of these characters, asking you to tattoo it, not knowing that you… are behind them.
MB: Not with those characters. With Ninja Turtles… yes.
VL: That’s so great, so-
[melodic ringtone interlude]
MB: Hello? … I’m good, I’m uh… Can you call me back in about an hour? Okay, thanks, bye.
VL: So. I studied Art History and I love the old Dutch guys. There is more familiarity with, or more of a tradition, of Father and Son working in the same style, it seems, back then. So you have the Bruegels, and the Cranachs, and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. But it’s rare to see that now. And you’re very skilled, and it IS impossible to tell your work apart [from your father’s], especially because you sort of inherited this body of work at such a young age and, working in his style, probably tried to identify with, or just missed, your father after his passing. So just like those artists, you carry on his legacy and expand it. So what has been the reaction of you having such similar work? These painters that I really admire from hundreds of years ago, that was respected. But have you had any comments about it that are counter to that? What are your experiences?
MB: My father, actually, the day before he died, he really knew that I was planning on following in his footsteps. And he said, “Follow me, but don’t get too close. But we’re gonna be Bode and Son. And we’re gonna do great things together.” and he said that the day before he died and I was 12 years old. And he was working on the Lizard of Oz poster- he had just worked on it a week before at a comic convention. So I started drawing what I would do with it. That’s what I was doing right before he died, and that’s when he told me, “That’s gettin’ pretty close, Mark. Maybe you should try to go away from what I’m doing and you’ll have a better time of it.” But he didn’t know he was gonna die, and I didn’t either, so.. I took what he said with a grain of salt and continued to imitate him (laughing). It didn’t stop me that day, even when he died, I was workin’ on it. And I still was like, “Eh, I’m not gonna listen to him.” I liked the characters too much. By the time I was 15, I had pretty much given up my childhood. After my dad died I had decided I wasn’t gonna be hanging with children anymore, I was gonna hang out with adult artists, my mother’s and father’s friends, and I started to get tutored by Larry Todd in particular, my dad’s collaborator. By the time I was 15, I was coloring my father’s work for Heavy Metal magazine, getting paid, and I thought I was pretty hot shit in high school. And I went to comic conventions and they’d be like, “How could you even hold a pencil to your dad? How could you do that, hope to be as good as he was?” And my dad’s voice would come to me: “You can do anything you want, Mark. You can be whatever you want in this place.” I always remembered those words, so it never fazed me that much. Kinda bugged me a little bit that people would keep saying that, but if I thought like that, if I thought that I could never add to the art, then I wouldn’t have done it. I can add to it and finish where he left off. I love keeping him alive like that. It’s a way to defy death. He was -he’s still my best friend, and I still work with him. He’s immortal and I’m mortal, and the two of us work perfectly together. And no one can take that away from me.
VL: Very well put. And I think that, through this unique situation, you have this opportunity to carry on a decades-long relationship with him. In a way.
MB: Yeah. I still have dreams about him all the time where he comes and looks at my art. One dream in particular about six, seven years ago, I was doin’ a strip for While You Were Sleeping and it was my father’s characters, my father’s format, new stories… it was so close. And in the dream my father was in Grand Central Station with me (which was his favorite train station) and he went to a magazine stand and picked up While You Were Sleeping and flipped through it and stopped at my page, and looked at me really seriously, and goes, “Thanks for rippin’ me off.” And I just went totally serious, I mean, he was totally serious, and it took me back, and I said as clear as day- you know how sometimes in your dream you’re like, garbling? You’re talking in your sleep and you can’t talk? I talked perfectly clear to him and I said, “Vaughn, Dad, you are done. Your art is over, your life is stopped. Your art is stopped. You’re one artist. I’m one artist. I’m gonna do what I do, and that’ll be it. And I’m one artist. If I do you, it’s times two for you, and times two for me. And it makes us stronger.” And he just beamed a smile, and gave me a hug, and that was it.
VL: That’s awesome.
MB: I start gettin’ a little choked up over it.
VL: Yeah, me too. (laughing)
MB: But that’s our relationship, so…
VL: So… do you still do spraycan art?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s my new favorite field. I mean, I think I like doing that more than anything. I wasn’t good at it till recently. I always dabbled in it. My first piece was the doors in Spraycan Art. That was my very first spraycan piece and I actually have the doors. My friend saved them because they ended up in that book. He saved them and then sold them back to me so I have my very first graffiti piece on those doors in my studio.
But I kinda sucked for a long time. Like I’d see other people doing Bode characters way better than I could. It was kind of annoying, you know. But I was a late starter, I got started in my 30’s. I moved to SF in 2005 and met Cuba and he hooked me up with walls. And I was still green but
had a huge palette, you know, and I just poured creative energy into it. Low pressure spraycans changed my life, now I can do anything with it. I love going big. It’s better than staying in my studio. Right now I’m doing a recycling plant project. 28th and Peralta, painting the whole compound.
VL: Nice, I’ll have to go check that out. Thanks for doing this interview with us here at 1:AM and we’ll be watching for Cobalt 60 in the movie theaters.
Mark Bode’s “Wizards, Lizards, and Broads” on exhibit now at 1:AM gallery through July 31st!
Valerie Leavy is an art and history fanatic from St. Louis, Missouri, now based in San Francisco and the newest member of the 1:AM team.