“Advertising for me, it’s just corporate graffiti… It’s all about placement, different styles; there’s so many parallels it’s pretty funny.”
Since he settled down in Charleston a few years ago, Karl Zurflüh’s stylized characters have been popping up in murals and paintings around the area. However, he tells us his style hasn’t always flowed as well as it does now, so we visited him at his home studio West of the Ashley to learn more about his artistic development.
What were you up to before moving here to join us in Charleston?
I was living and working in LA. To start from the beginning, I grew up in Tacoma, Washington. It rains a lot there, so I spent a lot of my childhood indoors drawing. I was really inspired by comics, games, and cartoons, so I initially wanted to get into animation. That was the first inspiration for pursuing art as a career.
I moved to Seattle after high school and I studied fine arts at Cornish College of the Arts. I stuck around there for about two years, until I figured out it wasn’t really the technical training I wanted. From there I moved to Florida and went to Ringling College of Art and Design where I got my bachelor’s degree in illustration. When I was graduating they had pretty much just given us one computer class and I knew everything was changing; all the jobs were looking for computer experience. With the new home gaming systems that were coming out, I knew that I still wanted to do animation but I was switching my focus more to games. After 5 years in Sarasota I moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts where got my MFA in computer animation.
You’ve really moved around for your education. Where did you end up working at that point?
In NY I started working for Nickelodeon but after two years with them my opinion about the animation industry changed. I worked on a TV show called Little Bill, where I was a designer and moved up pretty quickly in that department. When I first got into that job I was an animation assistant and did a lot of setup for the animators. Eventually I tried out for the animation department and I didn’t get in. New York was just too damn cold for me and I wanted to get into gaming. At that time a lot of the gaming stuff was in San Francisco. I was sending my portfolio out there but was getting no response.
Little Bill got cancelled, and then we all got laid off, so the way I paid the bills was advertising. I was doing an advertising gig up there and they had an office in Los Angeles so I figured if I transferred to that office, it’d be a lot easier to get a job in San Francisco. Once I got out to LA I found the place I work for now, Petrol Advertising. 90% of the advertising we do is for video games, and at that point I stopped trying to get a job in game development. Petrol Advertising is the agency of record for Activision, one of the largest publishers for video games, so we’ve been doing the branding and print for a lot of the larger titles. This scratches my gaming and design itch.
Do advertising and your personal artistic endeavors tie together?
Yes and no. Advertising for me, is corporate graffiti. Everything I learned when I was a teenager writing my name on walls, all of those things apply to advertising. It’s all about placement, repetition, different styles; there are so many parallels it’s pretty funny. Banksy had a great quote about all of his favorite graffiti writers getting caught up in the advertising world.
“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
That is a pretty impressive collection of Montana Spray Paint in your garage. With the graffiti influence, what has the progression of your own work been like?
It’s an on going process. Back in the 90s, graffiti wasn’t cool, there was no such thing as street art, and I didn’t even tell my family I was into Hip Hop. I had so many job interviews where once they found out I was doing graffiti the door just slammed shut.
College/post college I was trying to keep all of these separate identities, so I kind of got a little schizophrenic and style confused. I had graffiti separate, illustration separate, graphic design separate, and my fine art separate. Kerz, KBob, KZ, and the Karl Zurflüh, I had them all as different identities, these different personas going at the same time. I had a resume & portfolio for each one. I was like ‘Oh, you have a job? What are you looking for? Okay I’m going to show you this one.’
Eventually it bit me in the ass as an artist. It wasn’t until I moved here that I was kind of like ‘fuck it’ and let them all merge. Now I’m allowing all of these different influences to start affecting my work to come up with a singular vision. It took me a long time to let that happen.
How do you balance your day job and your personal work?
Since I am out of the office I have more creative time, so my work is finally starting to go somewhere. For a large part of my life I’ve been pursuing commercial art, I just had to find the job to pay the bills, and now that I have a job that I love, I can focus on my personal work.
When I was in NY & LA, I wasn’t trying to showcase my own work. But once I hit my 5th year mark at Petrol I felt pretty secure in my job so I started doing commissioned murals again, I started pushing my paintings at galleries, but my time for all of that was still pretty sporadic.
What caused your styles to fragment?
Ha! Art school. I’ve always been obsessed with the human form, dimensionality, lighting and perspective. So that is a common theme running through everything I do. When I moved to Seattle I was introduced to hip-hop culture and I got really into graffiti. I got way into exaggerated forms; I started playing with graphic shapes, and really started playing with letters.
Then Cornish introduced me to fine art, but I don’t think it really stuck because I was bringing my graf & animation styles into fine art. At that point one of my really good teachers said, “Don’t do a style, don’t put yourself in a corner by having a style.” I think that was good advice, but at the time I didn’t really take it too well. I was like ‘so that means don’t do the graffiti in your class,’ and that’s when I started fracturing. I think what he was trying to say is, because I was so young, don’t put yourself in a style and all of a sudden get stuck. Try to leave yourself open to everything, I see that now, but I didn’t see it then.
When I moved to FL and got into traditional illustration I started doing more of an editorial style, more like BusinessWeek, Newsweek, where it had a narrative and was very structured. By my senior year I was so tired of all the structure I wanted to break all of the rules, so I developed KBob, a style where I did everything that was “wrong”. I’m going to tear the paper, I’m going to spit on it, spill ink on it, just make a mess, and so I developed a portfolio for that.
When I moved up to New York it was ‘let’s get back to animation.’ But it was 3D animation, which was still very, very stiff as opposed to traditional animation. Then when I worked on Little Bill I had to learn to draw in Little Bill style
All of this became advantageous when it came to advertising.
Now my daily assignment is: here’s the photo shoot, how many different comps can you create in a day? 5-7? How many different styles can you do? Make each one have a unique look, just crank them out, and that’s great for branding. However when I get done with the day job its like “Who the fuck am I? What am I going to do for my work?” So it’s nice now that I’m out here [in Charleston] I can start to figure it all out.
You split your creative work between your garage and designing concepts on your computer in your studio. How does this balance out?
[In the garage]
This is my workbench; sometimes with the larger paintings I’ll just prop them up and paint. In summer and winter at its very hottest and coldest I’m not out here; I have an indoor set up, but spring and fall I’ll be out here a lot. All the prep work for paintings, like building stretcher bars, stretching canvas, priming & finishing, goes on out here. I just started mixing spray paint into my canvas work so I’ll just open the garage door and take it outside and spray away.
[In the studio]
I get on the computer to rough things out. When it comes to personal work and I don’t have a deadline that’s actually tough, because I don’t really know what I’m doing unless I’ve decided on one particular concept. But when I do have a deadline I’m pretty focused on ‘okay, this is what I need to do’, ‘so I’m going to be doing this on canvas…’
I’m doing all of it after my day job so I lay out a schedule for myself like a list of what I need to do or how many hours per week to work to make deadlines. I try to take an hour or two a day to draw, which I usually do in bed. If I have a deadline I try to do about 3-4 hours a day. There’s no consistency. Weekends are when I am most productive.
What is an example of your process for some works?
It always starts with sketches; I like to draw out the idea numerous times before I find the right composition. Then it goes into the computer for rough color and lighting.
[About his paper airplane pieces above]
I did the blue with the spray paint, then glued the paper on it and then painted with brushes on top of that. Mixing mediums is a new thing for me too, with the different styles I use to keep the mediums separated too. I tend to collect things until I find out what to do with it. A lot of it just seems to come together. I’ve got a lot of odds and ends lying around. When inspiration hits I just start sticking things together and see what works.
Are you ladies familiar with The Alphabet Squad? So what I did with my friends, Dave, Curtis, Mark and Shane, I say: once a week, we’re going to do a letter, you can do it any style, any medium, anything, we’re just going to do the whole alphabet. Just go and have fun. Everyone did their own thing. I chose to do mine in gouache, I had never done gouache before, but I wanted to push myself. I did it on my wall scroll, a continuous paper roll hung from the ceiling, so I’d be able to animate it when it was done. I started with Z and worked my way backwards, so when I shot it, it would be in order
Finally, do you need a trained eye to read graffiti?
Yes. It’s a game. It’s not for the general public, it’s meant to be camouflaged, for writers, who are going to go and look for the name. Once you start down that path, you can really nerd out. Some pieces I can’t read, some of them are too much, but that’s part of the game.