SpearTalks: Tavis Coburn

Posted on November 23, 2007 Under Art

Tavis Coburn is kind of a big deal. Not just because we're writing about him twice in a week, his (unknown) stance on the use of Sex Panther or his inevitably discerning taste in sneakers — but because Nike, the NFL, Time Magazine and the Discovery Channel are just a few of the companies and publications knocking down his door to commission his deliciously retro artwork. When the opportunity for us to interview him arose, we couldn't really resist asking him about his shoes, nightmare clients and having him make a playlist for us, so maybe we could channel some of his pure badassedness into our own.

JoshSpear.com: You're a little bit of a mystery as far as Google is concerned. Give us a little background on you; who you are, where you went to school, what kind of shoes you're wearing right now"¦

Tavis Coburn: My name is Tavis Coburn and I'm an illustrator and graphic designer. I'm 32 years old, live in Toronto, and I'm obsessed with anything from the 1940s – 1960s. I'm not wearing shoes right now bit I just kicked off a pair of Red Wing Originals. An ice storm just hit Toronto so my babied, limited-edition kicks are safely in my closet. As for schooling, I spent a semester at the Ontario College of Art & Design and then spent four years at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, completing my Bachelor of Fine Art.

JS: What do you consider to have been your "big break," so to speak?

TC: My big break occurred at the very beginning of my career. Art Center was awesome about bringing students and possible employers together, in an effort to help get their work seen. An art director for A&M records met with me and thought my work was really original. He offered me a CD promo cover gig right on the spot. This job led to a slew of other jobs for L.A. record labels. Soon after, the New York magazine world began to call in my portfolio. The art directors were shocked that a recent graduate had such a thorough book. My first magazine job was a feature-opener for Entertainment Weekly. I've been lucky, because the phone hasn't stopped ringing since.

JS: We've all had what could be described as nightmare jobs and nightmare clients "” what's been your most frightening work-related experience to date?

TC: Although I REALLY want to name names, I'll protect the identities of the guilty. A production company, who hired me to create an opening title sequence for a well-known horror film franchise, stole my ideas after I spent months designing a super-cool title sequence. Believe it or not, I was still in the process of creating the opening sequence, when I came across the film's trailer on Apple's Quicktime site. There, scrawling across the screen, was almost an exact version of my custom, animated type. I was horrified; I knew I had been screwed. They changed my designs by about 10%, which protects them from intellectual property-based law suits. I was neither paid, nor credited for my work. I'm still steaming from this one, but I learned my lesson. I'm now completely obsessed with copywriting my work.

JS: Walk us through a typical day for you (if such a thing actually exists.)

TC: My days are long. Sometimes really long. Often one day seeps into the next and I barely realize it happened. Emails, sketches, comps, edits and revisions, more edits and revisions, Red Bull, repeat. Thank God my girlfriend knows when to break the cycle or else I probably wouldn't leave my studio.

JS: You made the move from screenprinting to digital composites a little while ago. Tell us about your process, from start to finish now, as opposed to your original methodology.

TC: My original work was really time-consuming to produce. Each piece contained hand-painted gouache images, digital images, and was silk screened by hand. Funnily enough, most people didn't realize that the prominent images in my work, from "˜98 – "˜06, were actual paintings. They assumed it was a photograph or a digital image. This was tough to swallow, because I put so much time and energy into each painting. Now, due to the miracles of modern technology, I've discovered a way to digitize my process. In lieu of painting and silkscreening, I save an extraordinary amount of time, mimicking my original method, using an extensive digital toolbox. I now sleep more than three hours a night.

JS: What are you working on right now? Anything you're particularly excited about?

TC: I just finished a combined project for Nike and Footlocker that was really cool. I created three extra-large art pieces, each promoting the re-release of a classic Nike shoe, that were displayed in the front windows of all U.S. Footlocker locations. I designed most of the type, which is a real passion for me. I love type. I love fonts.

I also had a great time working on a series of DVD box sets for NFL Films Classics. It was fun to create iconic images of modern-day gladiators for company whose reach is vast.

I'm about to start a couple of motion graphics projects. I'm psyched to be building this discipline into my portfolio.

JS: It's been a while since we've done this one: what's heavy in rotation on your iTunes right now? Care to throw together a playlist for us?

TC: Oh, man that's going to be tough to narrow it down. My dream job has always to be a world class Tech-house and Techno DJ. When I got super busy with all of the illustration and design work, that career path faded. I still try and play a "set" once a day, now unfortunately because I've been so busy it's more like once a week. I buy vinyl religiously, not as much as when I was playing gigs, but a couple times a month for sure. I've never counted, but I probably have about 2000 records. I don't like mixing CD's or MP3's. There is something completely satisfying about listing to a vinyl record really loud.

Okay so the playlist, well it's pretty eclectic. I'm definitely a music lover. So here it is"¦

  1. "Fans" (Kings of Leon "” Because of Times)
  2. "Son of Raw" (Dennis Ferrer "” Ibadan Recordings)
  3. "Wasted" (The Donnas "” Bitchin' )
  4. "Stay Cool" 9Induceve "“Dubsided Recordings)
  5. "Paper Planes" (M.I.A. "” Kala)
  6. "Don't Sweat the Technique" (Eric B. and Rakim "” Gold [Remastered])
  7. "1000 More Fools" (Bad Religion "” Suffer)
  8. "All I Want" (Future Beat Investigators "” Sonar Kollektiv)
  9. "Stop, Look, Listen" (MC Lyte "” Eyes on This)
  10. "I'll Mean You Harm" (Bradley Boy "” Home)
  11. "Ring of Fire" (Social Distortion "” Live at the Roxy)
  12. "Kickstart My Heart" (Motley Crue "” Dr. Feelgood)
  13. "All Hell Breaks Loose" (The Misfits "” Walk Among Us)
  14. "Eazy-er Said Than Done" (Eazy-E "” Eazy-Duz-It)
  15. "Bounce" (Speaker Junk "” Dubsided Recordings)

(The artwork featured here is from the projects Tavis just completed for Nike and Footlocker, as well as the NFL Films Classics box sets. You can also purchase much of his older artwork right here, at his online shop)