Jim Phillips: The Screaming Hand Is Still Making Noise
I’m often asked where I got the idea for the Screaming Hand… like I had a store where I could get images. Sometimes an idea just pops in my mind, and I’ve trained myself to be receptive. Screaming Hand dates back to high school where I liked to spend my time drawing epic surfing and skateboard pictures and give them to my friends...
Portrait by Joe Brook
I’m often asked where I got the idea for the Screaming Hand… like I had a store where I could get images. Sometimes an idea just pops in my mind, and I’ve trained myself to be receptive. Screaming Hand dates back to high school where I liked to spend my time drawing epic surfing and skateboard pictures and give them to my friends. In typical surf scenes, I would draw a big wave and a goofy surfer with sight gags like circling shark fins or a clenched hand sticking out of the water like a drowning guy. That intrigued me after I saw a drowned guy at the beach, snot coming out of his nose after some men tried to revive him, the first dead person I ever saw. Stuck in my mind, I drew the clenched hand on my book covers and notepads. Fast forward, and NHS is forming a wheel line and asked for a logo for Speed Wheels. As I sat at my drawing table and clenched my left hand, I penciled a sketch, thinking about how powerful the hand is, how artists have used it in gestures to express emotion. Then I thought about it being even more expressive if it had a mouth right on the palm, and how much more if it was screaming! I got pretty worked up and knew my drawing would make a cool logo, though it took some time to talk the manager into it. We made stickers and T-shirts, and soon the Screaming Hand proved itself as a powerful icon that certainly earned in its own way. —Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips' Screaming Hand
Oakland-based Skinner is one of 51 artists who interpreted the screaming hand for the upcoming traveling tribute show opening in July. He jumped at the chance to interview Phillips at his studio in Santa Cruz.
Skinner: Just sitting here and gushing about you, everything you’ve done has sparked a fire of influence in me. Where are you at now as a creative being?
Jim Phillips: Well, I got bone cancer four years ago, so that made me realize a lot of things, like my own personal time is more important. So, I retired and I enjoy it so much. I’ve done some art projects, a little painting and my landscaping work, which I like to do because it’s outside. All my work life has been indoors, at the table. While everybody else is out there skateboarding, I’m inside drawing pictures of it.
Yeah, everybody’s outside skating and surfing, chicks are watching, cheering them on and you’re inside illustrating the cool graphics on their boards, living the California dream.
It’s amazing to have a worldwide following, due to the popularity of skateboarding, of course. But I’ve always been shy of galleries because of the scene where you can’t exhibit unless you’ve exhibited at all these other places. This is my gallery, on skateboards. There’s not many vehicles where you can take your art into the world.
You were at the very birth of all this culture, experiencing the growing pains. “I’m an artist, what are my rights, what can I do, how can I get paid?” Did you ever share notes with Rick Griffin or other artists?
Well, no, because art is so different and for so many purposes. The biggest thing I learned was to get some money in advance from the client. Otherwise, you’re screwed! I had my little plaque on the wall that said 50% advance; that way I’m not singling out any one person, it’s on the wall.
Everybody has an idea about just getting this guy to do graphics for their band! I sort of idealize the ’60s and ’70s as this place of ideas.
It was the beginning of everything. It reminds me that, in skateboarding, there were no standards or parameters; you decide the style and feeling for the art. On one hand, you didn’t know where it was, so you grope; on the other hand, you could nail all these great designs. Even with the psychedelic era, where do you go with the squiggly lines and stuff? You discover things along the way. In the skate industry, the skateboarders give their feedback so it enables you to grow in different directions.
Did you have any idea that your art would have a lasting effect on skate culture?
I never thought skateboarding would grow to be anything. When the wheel came in, I was into surfing, everything I wanted to do was surf related. And here comes skateboarding, surfing’s ugly little cousin. I needed to feed my family so I did my best for each client, and it turned out to be valuable.
Being an artist is a lot of time alone, just trying to get something done, picking up pieces of inspiration along the way. This goes hand in hand with skateboard, comic book and surf culture, all things enjoyed and loved by blue collar people, like regular people. It’s not high up with pretentious fine art galleries; it’s accessible. You have affected all my friends, like, we can’t be a fancy boy up in fine art mountain.
Well, you know where that comes from—every person, plumber, electrician, all the solar guys. They see this stuff and go, wow, that was my first skateboard! All of a sudden, I’m Mr. Phillips!
When I started, I fell into the trap that I’m gonna try really hard to get into a gallery and do this insane installation, bust my ass to get my art into a space. I still do gallery shows and I’ll sell paintings, but not the idea that it’s only fine art if I’m in a fine art gallery. You blazed trails for other nerds like me to come along and try our best. It comes full circle, and now I get to hang out and ask you this stuff.
My art career really started when I met my wife. If I wanted to keep this together, I had to get started, and that incentive stayed even when we made money. You build on that, because now you’re stoked on the reception of your art, what you’ve been able to do and it’s exciting! I should show you what I did for 50 dollars! My wife was a motivational force. I was a surfer pothead! I go to her when I can’t decide on things, so she has a lot to do with my art. I always tell people, if you like my art, you should really thank Dolly! I trust her the most, she won’t BS me. Sometimes you just don’t know and can agonize over something, so I go to her and she helps it gel.
Were you inspired by Wallywood and EC?
I always enjoyed Bill Elder but I was the guy who loved Wallywood! Bill Elder is kind of the everyman cartoonist, kinda drawing these guys, and that’s all there is to it! Wallywood is just so charismatic. They started working for Playboy, which I thought was a mistake because they took it out of the hands of kids. They’d had racks of comics in the supermarkets in America.
Kids gravitated towards comics because they were innovative and wild.
I looked at Disney, but Carl Barks was the stuff I loved as a kid; then you grow up and you meet the artists doing adult matter, with satire. It was all like comics code. I went in my own art studio by comics code. You know, The Hand would have never made it! Adult matter, like Tex Avery brought dynamite into cartoons that were for kids, and we loved that stuff! Now you can’t find it, they’ve wiped it out.
I found it a personal risk to step outside of my comfort zone and create art, opening myself up in a vulnerable way. But I never really worried about what anyone else thought; I just did it and moved on. Was there ever any point in your life where you had to address the feeling of being an artist or step outside of your comfort zone?
Right at the get go. I was about five and I colored this page in a coloring book, and went down to my mom and said, “See!” She looked at it and said, “See what?” So I went back upstairs like, “I’ll show her!” My whole secret was that my dad was an army officer, so we traveled constantly before we moved to Santa Cruz. I went to eight different schools by that point, and got so far behind that I’d just sit in the back and draw, not bothering anybody. I just drew all the way through high school. I didn’t graduate, but I had more experience than anybody. Experience is everything.
I know a lot of people who are like, okay, I’m gonna graduate high school, go to college, get a degree in art, then get a job as a graphic designer or art director. And I’m like, okay, I’ll see you on the other side of that!
So then when they become art directors, it’s their turn to tweak the artists around! ’Cause they got it, now it’s their turn. I became an art director of a studio, but we had total control. I made the decisions, and that was great.
What about the technological aspect of art? Do you think that there’s still something to be said about having a clean sheet of paper and a pencil, bottle of ink and a brush? I’ve tried to do digital things, but I don’t like looking at a computer screen!
The powerful part, to me, is that I still draw with a pencil and ink, and I started with a pencil and paper, doodling. I’ve found that the public is skeptical if you didn’t really paint it or draw it. I like to make images where there’s no way you could get a photo of that—it’s for sure drawn.
I try not to judge technology too much. I try not to make too many mistakes with my art, because what I’m doing is permanent. Though on a computer, you can make mistakes and just go back and erase! I just nervously try not to mess up!
I’ll do about 80 hours in 4 days. I was doing a poster for Leftover Salmon, so that’s working day and night. In the early days, we didn’t have CDs or any memory. You couldn’t back up! So, I had the poster almost done, cropped the bottom and I made the mistake of “save” instead of “save as”. I had the sketches and I had to go back and do the whole thing over—but I made it on the deadline!
With having to work many hours to make enough money, we don’t really do enough leisure stuff, which is living a life of balance. There are artists working 16 hour days, then get older and end up wanting to kill themselves, like Wallywood, who did. In the initial years, establishing yourself, you don’t really get time to chill.
Being freelance, you wind up with feast or famine. I was doing stuff that never even saw the light of day, but you just had to be doing stuff. There was no stress to it because you don’t have any money riding on it! Now, I tend to do what Santa Cruz Skateboards is doing, they’ve been so good to us. We retired on the Screaming Hand! If something does come out, they’ll often license out the whole deal for me. I can just give it to them and don’t really have to worry about legalities.
That must be nice. Artists worrying about legal stuff is insane.
When I began, it cost 50 cents to get started—a bottle of ink and a pen. And now, you need to know everything about a computer. It’s required if you’re going to be an artist. If someone hires you, you have to own all this stuff… so when you get hired, you need to make money because you made a big investment. I got the first Mac when it came out!
So, in the early days, you had to endure the evolution of technology.
In those days, to get enough to do the color with limited memory, no CDs or anything, it was $8,000! Back in the ’80s, that was a ton of money! But then they came down to $400 and everybody had them. When I did the posters in San Francisco, I figured all of those guys had computers. None of them did! I showed ’em how to do everything, and not one of them thanked me! So yeah, it was an edge at first, and then it just became a handy tool everybody had. But it resulted in everyone not needing the artists. It’s kind of what photography did in the ’20s and ’30s when all magazines were illustrated. Guys like Norman Rockwell were making 30k for a LIFE magazine cover! But then, why pay these guys that when we can just pay a photographer? Now, with computers, they can just pick the image. There’s so much stuff out there, and people get jaded.
A style of art becomes super popular, and maybe there’s a look, a particular style of aesthetic, or brushes or paints they’re using. Then you get 15 people who see it and start to emulate that. They’re doing kind of a less potent version, and then 20 other guys start doing it, so then you have this really polluted version of the original.
Everything becomes a mishmash of itself. But, like King Solomon said, “The eye never has enough of seeing.” So it’s just gonna want the next thing. But it’s faster. So with kids texting, not doodling anymore, where does the art come from?
With everyone an artist now, what does it take to become a notable one?
It’s a near impossible challenge. Instead of the Big 3 companies in skateboarding, you now have 100 companies. Each one of them is churning out designs, spitting them out and throwing them away. It’s more transitory. There’s some really great art, but it’s like scrolling through the phone. It comes and goes. Our job is to just do it in a different way.
When I posted a photo of my interpretation of the Screaming Hand, it got the most excited reaction that I’d ever gotten on my Instagram in months. It’s not even the original, it’s my version, and people are losing their minds! In this world of quick, easy thinking, that icon still totally demands attention.
For more information about Jim Phillips, visit jimphillips.com