The following story appears in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 14.
Mark Riddick’s signature style – grim, morbid, black and white pen and ink work – is instantly recognizable, whether you know the name or not. His graphic work has essentially defined the look of underground metal. And, as is the case with many subcultures today, the world of mainstream pop culture is looking to grab a bit of that edge.
There was a noticeable changing of the tides over the past year. Previously niche subcultures and their associated imagery crossed over into fashion and pop in unprecedented ways. Thrasher merch transcended its skate culture roots appearing en Vogue, both literally and figuratively as a wardrobe staple for off-duty models, rappers, pop stars and anyone else looking for a little “edge.” Jake Phelps, prototypical West Coast skate rat and editor-in-chief of the legendary skateboard magazine was not pleased, stating “we don’t send boxes to Justin Bieber or Rihanna or those fucking clowns. The pavement is where the real shit is. Blood and scabs, does it get realer than that?”
When it comes to metal graphics, it doesn’t get realer than Mark Riddick. And we’re not talking Metallica or Slayer: Riddick’s black and white illustrations are the gruesome, confrontational stuff of nightmares. Providing artwork for hundreds of underground metal bands since the early ‘90s, including Arch Enemy, Autopsy, Dethklok, Exodus, Morbid Angel, Skull Fist, Suffocation, Suicidal Angels, The Black Dahlia Murder, and Varathro, Mark Riddick is one of the most respected, well-known and frequently copied black metal and death metal artists of all time. He’s also released books with titles like Compendium of Death, Logos From Hell and Morbid Visions. And he recently worked with both Justin Bieber and Rihanna. The former on the massively popular Purpose world tour gear, created alongside Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, and the latter on death metal logo T-shirts worn by RiRi’s stage dancers during her performance at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.
Highsnobiety caught up with Mark Riddick to talk about his journey from the dark corners of the underground to the bright spotlight of pop, and why he feels he’s stayed true to the extreme underground metal scene through it all.
On discovering underground death metal
I can recall my parents listening to bands like Genesis, Asia, Fleetwood Mac, Styx, Africa and others throughout the early-to-mid ‘80s, exposing my twin brother and I to the major artists of that era. When I was 10 years old I discovered hard rock music and began listening to bands like Ratt, Keel, Def Leppard, Cinderella and White Lion. Soon after I began pursuing heavier bands and quickly graduated to thrash metal acts like Metallica, Slayer, Demolition Hammer, Vio-Lence, Sepultura, Devastation, Cryptic Slaughter and Forbidden.
My infatuation with thrash metal quickly evolved to death metal. I began engaging with bands like Pestilence, Malevolent Creation, Massacre, Death, Gorguts, Deicide and Deceased. In 1991, I discovered the underground death metal music scene when I purchased a demo tape from a local band named Arghoslent. After exchanging some letters with the band, I started writing to other bands and fanzines. Ever since then I’ve stayed connected to the underground metal scene and still maintain some of the connections I had from the early ’90s.
I was a teenager at the time and was grateful to be part of something unique and utterly occult. Having access to music that was shunned by the mainstream gave me a sense of exclusivity, acceptance and belonging: the essentials for any young and impressionable teenager.
This aside, I developed an appreciation for music that pushed the boundaries of conventions and explored unchartered territories. To participate in the evolution of a music genre since its genesis has been a very rewarding experience on various creative levels.
On heavy metal: the voice (and aesthetic) of suffering
The aesthetic of heavy metal culture has been an infatuation of mine since I first saw an Iron Maiden album cover on a record store shelf in 1982. Heavy metal aesthetics are a driving force behind the music, imposing its aggression, rebellious attitude, nonconformity and willingness to draw attention to extreme aspects of the human condition.
One of the reasons I believe heavy metal music has existed on the fringe is due to its bold exploration of themes that aren’t typically exposed by other genres of music. Touching on sensitive topics such as death, disease, war, horror, religious intolerance, mental affliction, political disdain, and the occult is not the formula for a chart-topping hit.
These aspects of the human condition are part of our experience on this planet. While it may appear negative on the surface, I do believe that music is a creative and healthy vehicle for expressing these themes. Most metal fans would be in agreement that their appreciation for extreme music is partly a coping mechanism for them, and likewise part of the solace found within this subculture.
The first truth in Buddhism acknowledges that all life is suffering… heavy metal is the voice of that suffering.
I’ve been very fortunate for my circumstance in life. My greatest challenge has involved being the parent of a child with autism. While it can be extremely tiring at times, it has simultaneously been an enlightening and maturing experience.
On the underground metal scene: then and now
The underground metal music scene in the early ‘90s thrived on a culture of networking through postal mail. Upon my introduction to the underground, I began corresponding through the mail with several bands, record labels, fanzines, and tape traders domestically and overseas. It mimicked the do-it-yourself attitude of the punk scene yet the music was more extreme.
In terms of underground metal as a subculture, I still perceive it in the same way — a group of individuals with a common preference for something that is generally unconventional by popular standards — the only major difference is that it is less visceral than it was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
The internet changed how personable the underground metal scene once was: email versus handwritten letters, computer-driven layout versus cut-and-paste, digital home studios versus analog four-track recorders, illegal downloads versus tape trading, etc. Despite the internet and other technological advancements, a sense of community still resonates strongly throughout the underground metal scene.
On becoming an illustrator and brand
I had an interest in drawing since my youth — drawing things that most boys would find appealing: epic space battles, dinosaurs, robots and medieval knights — but it wasn’t until my early teens that I realized my discovery of the underground metal music scene was the perfect way to channel my creativity.
My first assignment was in 1991. One of my illustrations was prominently featured on the cover of an underground photocopied fanzine called Scavenger. To see my art published for the first time was an overwhelming experience, especially alongside well-respected metal bands like Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death and Assück, whose logos adorned the cover. My interest in music became a vehicle for my artwork and I haven’t stopped since.
I began viewing my work as a brand in 2006 when I launched my website. Making my work more accessible on the internet meant that I had to be even more consistent and protective of how I visually presented my work. The most important hallmark of my brand is my medium — dominated by pen and ink, and my black and white color palette — which is a holdover from the underground days when everything was reproduced on a black-and-white photocopier. And lastly, the “Riddickart” moniker — which has been in use for a decade.
Although I do view my art as a profession, I have a full-time day job as a graphic designer, so my illustration work comes after my obligations as a parent and husband. My freelance illustration work started to become more demanding in the past decade due to my presence on the internet and social media. Requests arrive almost daily now so I have to use more discretion about what kind of assignments I choose to work on.
On subcultural double-standards
Although I’ve now skimmed the surface of pop culture, I still consider myself to be an underground metal illustrator. My process and clients have not changed, nor has my obsession and passion for metal music. Those who follow my artwork on social media had a mixed reaction in regard to the Bieber logo I illustrated.
I do believe that people who belong to a subculture, such as extreme underground music, have a sense of ownership of it. In turn, I believe fans of my artwork feel they have some ownership of what I do and because I went against the grain of the subculture, some took offense.
Whether you declare allegiance to a subculture or not, art and creativity should not be held back by boundaries or by any form of censorship. Anyone should be free to enjoy a work of art or music no matter the genre, style or subculture. In short, all art is free for all to appreciate; taste and preference are the bulk of what makes art palatable, the remainder is left to the objective principles of good design.
From my vantage point, heavy metal has an underlying double-standard in that it is an exclusive club for the outsider. If those who endorse heavy metal held true to this ideal it would have ceased to exist a long time ago on account of its own exclusivity.
I used to have this mentality myself and it wasn’t until I matured that I arrived at the realization that anyone can choose to appreciate and enjoy whatever they like and partake to whatever degree they wish.
Anyone can pass judgment, whether good or bad, but to be an active contributor and creator is where the action takes place, just as Thrasher Editor-in-Chief Jake Phelps expressed in his comment referencing the act of skateboarding rather than everything that surrounds it (e.g. advertising, merchandise, brand names, publications). Those who take action are the individuals who move a subculture forward and essentially work to keep it alive, whether behind the scenes or in the foreground.
In the words of Aleister Crowley, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” and in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.” These are two expressions that resonate deeply with me. In short, do as you wish so long as your wish begets joy.
On Justin Bieber and Jerry Lorenzo
When I received the very straightforward request from Jerry Lorenzo to work on some logo concepts for Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour, my very first gut reaction was to laugh and say, “What the fuck?”
I was initially very confused about why I would be asked to handle this assignment but I saw it as an incredibly challenging opportunity. Illustrating for a pop star with a predominantly female fan base was a far cry from my comfort zone: illustrating for a male-dominant aggressive form of music — death metal. I was very curious where this challenge would take me and whether or not my concepts would even be used. After considering it for a few days I decided to accept the challenge.
Since its inception, heavy metal visuals have adopted the use of extreme imagery; on album covers, merchandise and through stage antics. Shock value has always been an asset to heavy metal, especially in the extreme underground metal scene. Having been in the business of illustrating for the genre for 25 years, one becomes quite numb to the shocking nature of the music and art.
Illustrating a logo for Justin Bieber was a unique way to bring back the shock value aspect associated with my work because it completely undercut all expectations. One of the several functions of art is the ability to elicit a reaction and I trust that was achieved on this assignment.
Jerry had a very unique vision for Justin’s visuals. After several rounds of logo sketches we finally came to a consensus on one of the tamest variations of the “Bieber” logo. It was legible but still had enough heavy metal influence in it to give it a slight edge, reflecting Justin’s growth as a musician.
Another reason for taking on the Bieber logo assignment was because I viewed it as an opportunity to build my network, extend my reach as an artist, and to act as a liaison for underground metal music. Working with Jerry and others within his network has broadened my connections and has already opened doors for other very unique and exciting assignments.
Furthermore, the press that followed the reveal of the Bieber logo has given me an opportunity to be a representative of the underground metal community in publications that normally overlook the importance and value this genre of music brings to the table. Being a voice for a style of music I’m passionate about, and have been such an integral part of for the past few decades, has been an honor for me.
On selling out
My understanding of the phrase “sellout” refers to someone who says he or she will do one thing and then does another for monetary gain. The dilemma of “selling out” is that it infers an invisible contract between an individual and those who support that individual or their shared interest. People mature or grow out of the things that they once claimed allegiance to, or perhaps they take on new responsibilities that require monetary dependency. One must weigh the importance of integrity toward a shared interest or those of self-preservation or responsibility to other new or required goals.
The idea of “selling out” is not one that I adhere to because I believe in free will and accept that people can follow their desires in spite of what others think. The true creative path is one uninhibited and void of external opinions. The true, or “real,” artist carves his own path, not the path others feel he should carve.
I don’t believe I “sold out” when I was asked to work on a logo for Bieber. I was asked to illustrate a heavy metal-inspired logo — no different from any other logo I’ve been asked to create. My process was exactly the same as with any other client. In addition, the fee was the same as with any other client. The only difference in having Bieber as a client is that his music isn’t metal and the logo reaches a wider audience. Meanwhile, I grew and developed my skills and knowledge.
Pick up a copy of Highsnobiety Issue 14 here.
- Words: Steven Fröhlich
- Photography: Mark Routt