Joe Petagno interview

This is a interview I did to K.K. Downing´s Steel Mill together with my fellow Millworker Kassu Kortelainen. You can read the original interview from here: http://tinyurl.com/2cededh

Joe Petagno

All work copyright J.Petagno


Besides Motörhead´s brilliant album covers and extremely popular ”Snaggletooth” AKA “War-Pig” character Joe Petagno has a honourable history as a graphic designer and artist. Working also with bands like Led Zeppelin, Nazareth, Pretty Maids, Sweet and Pink Floyd he has created uniqe visual images for the world of music. Joe stopped by in the dark cellars of Steel Mill to chat about his past, present and future of art.

Hi Joe, nice to have you here at the Steel Mill. You have a long career behind you, at what point did it become clear that you would be an artist? Was it already the dream job of little Joe at the age of 6?

Hey Guys, nice to be on board the Mighty Steel Mill! Yeah I guess you could say that, crayons and pencils were my favourite toys, I started drawing about 3 or 4 years old and haven’t looked back since.

What and who have been the biggest influences in forming your own cool style?

Early comics like Steve Canyon, Blackhawk and Men at War, they got my blood boiling. My Uncle Blackie was an avid collector, and when I saw these scenes coming to life in full colour, I was hooked….big time …there was no going back. Later it was the work of the symbolists, and classic painters like Velasquez, Moreau, and lastly but by no means least…the surrealists especially Dali who left a very deep mark on my soul.

What are the working hours of a heavy metal art-machine? Have you ever come up with an idea in the middle of the night and just been driven to finish it by the morning?

I stick to a tight regime, usually from noon to 6 developing ideas, rummaging around the antipodes, searching, sketching and painting.

I’m an art-aholic…once it gets in your blood you’re hooked. Sometimes I get an idea or a solution to a problem in the middle of the night, I keep a note book close at hand for such moments, and dream time can bring solutions to problems you were struggling with during waking hours.

Mostly I get ticked off by things that happen on the world stage, the World Trade Centre incident or the Iraq war, fuelled many pieces, Satan’s Host’s  ‘Great American Scapegoat’, Angelscorpse’s ‘Exterminate’ and Motörhead’s ‘Inferno’ cover which was a direct comment on the Iraq war –  I even painted it in Oil  – which I rarely do.

The current economic recession provoked me immediately to hit the brushes (petagno.dk room 2 no.32 ‘Annuit Cæptis’ -he favours our undertaking) done in one night as a direct response to corporate greed and stupidity. The one and only weapon we have as artists is the brush and it can be mightier than the sword, if wielded well with truth to back it up.

What kind of techniques, software or equipment do you use?

I am totally ‘old school’ and proud of it, gouache, water colours, acrylics, or oils applied with a brush, usually on aquarelle paper, sometimes on canvas.

I do use Photoshop for t shirt designs and logos etc. simply because you can get a staggering amount of variations from a single design quickly, which can sometimes be advantageous commercially speaking.

In the creative field you can sometimes manage well without any formal education, are you self-taught or have you studied in art schools?

I’m mostly self taught, I did major in art in high school in Los Angeles, but this ‘self taught’ label has a stigmata attached to it that I don’t care for, a lot of people look down on it…which is ignorance, if one is dedicated and does his groundwork well, he will usually find his way, without help or guidance from an institution, which as we know, more times than not, will only brand you with a recognisable style or school.

I went looking for strange fruit and found it in my own garden.

Can you name piece of your artwork you are personally most proud of?

Motörhead’s ‘Another perfect day’. This was over and beyond the Snaggletooth motive and it stands today, 27 years later, as a testament of my powers of innovation and difference in repetition.

More recently, Satan’s Host’s ‘Great American Scapegoat’ and Sigh’s ‘Scenario 4 Dread Dreams’.

What do you most enjoy/hate about being a graphic artist?

I enjoy everything about the creative process from start to finish, it’s the best job in the world, if you can call it a job…it’s really play.

The ‘business’ end of it can piss a guy off, as a creator ‘business’ thinks they can get a shovel under you, and they will try anything to achieve this…I could tell you stories that will make your toenails fall off, luckily creators have rights to protect them from the aggro’ it creates, which, when properly channelled, can in itself be a major creative force.

Finding ideas might be difficult sometimes and designers have different ways to find them, what is your secret?

Ideas are easy, I have never had a problem with that end of it. Finding the time to execute them all is the problem…to quote Dylan – I got a head full of ideas drivin’ me insane.

You have worked with artists known world-wide. If you could choose freely, are there any bands or musicians you would like to work for in the future?

That’s a long list, I think everyone should have a piece of Petagno art to grace their musical opus.

But to name a few: Behemoth, Masterdon, Machinehead, Metallica, Iron Maiden, and last but by no means least, Judas Priest could all do with a lethal dose of Petagno.

In your opinion, what is the state of graphic design and art in music business nowadays? How much has the industry changed within 10 years or so? And how do you see it change in the future?

Today there are a lot of small independent labels and artists themselves can press and distribute their work as well, which means that budgets are generally smaller for art work, on the other hand there is a greater variety of alternative genres to choose from and work with.

I started out in California in the heady 60s designing black light posters and underground comics, which eventually led me to the music business and LP sleeves in the early 70s working with the likes of  Alice Cooper, West, Bruce and Lang, The Hollies, the Kinks, Graham Edge, Ginger baker, Pink Floyd and the mighty Zep to name just a few – those were halcyon days for musicians and for us sleeve artists/designers, large companies with large acts and budgets to match.

Those days are probably gone forever, but as an artist, you have to adapt – anyone who doesn’t is doomed to extinction. I think the future, with downloads and smaller and smaller image formats or perhaps no image formats, will result in a very sterile environment with little room for innovative and creative design solutions, at least from a point of purchase view.

The music business as I / we knew it is defunct. Where it will be in 20 years time is anybody’s guess. Either way, with some 250 sleeves to my credit, I’ve had my share of fun over the last 4 decades.

Yesterday will not be called again.

You´re perhaps best known for your work with Motörhead, starting when you met Lemmy in the late 70´s. How did you two meet and what memories do you have from that time?

I met Lemmy in ’75. I had just finished the Swan song logo for Led Zep, and I was working on some sketches for their formula car which I was to paint.

He had just fallen out with Hawkwind, whom I had worked with earlier that year, and he asked me if I would help him out with cover art for his solo project ‘Bastard’.  I genuinely sympathised with him, he was down and out…this was back  in another universe, on another planet, in another dimension.

I have a lot of good memories from those days, times change, unfortunately some people do too.

Snaggletooth has became a figure that even people who don’t know Motörhead’s music are familiar with. Can you tell us about the birth of this particular monster? How did it get it’s now legendary shape?

Da Snag’ was created in ’75 released in ’77 (due to problems finding a label) on an unsuspecting world.

Peace and love was giving way to hate and war, it signalled the beginning a change. Later the same year ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ hit the streets and punk culture heralded the new age.

I went to the Chelmsford library (I was residing in Britain – Braintree to be exact)  looking for animal skulls taking my key from the Hells Angels skull. I made a hybrid gorilla /wolf skull with over dimensional boar’s teeth or horns.

When the band saw it they freaked, believe it or not you couldn’t get a decent hotel room wearing a Snag’ shirt in those days, it signalled trouble!

Why has it become so immensely popular?

A combination of music and graphics, mostly the graphics, after all, Da Snag’ is a graphic entity which always kept pace with the times and tendencies of the moment.

It’s no easy feat to breath life again and again into an inanimate design from your imagination until it takes on a life of its own, far beyond the music it was created to represent, it takes a good deal of innovative smarts to accomplish that over 30 years and some 20 sleeves. A feat I am very proud of.

Today, 3 years after my and the Da Snags’ departure from Motörhead, thousands of fans and supporters worldwide purchase my Snag’ shirts as fast as I can design them.

Da Snag’ was made to last… It’s the ultimate anti everything symbol.

When designing a mascot for a heavy metal band, what do you feel are the key qualities for the creature to help it stand the test of time, reappear strong on the album covers again and again and ultimately become a globally known icon of its kind?

It boils down to having an inherent sense of where the world is at the time or maybe you even have to be 5 minutes ahead of the world.

As a creator you’re always on the look out for tendencies under the surface. Once in a while you find them and then Carpe Diem.

Besides the album covers, you have also created a lot of other kinds of artwork, from book illustrations to playing cards and so on. Are there any notable differences in the process of creating these kinds of things, as opposed to the album art?

With book covers you get a book to read and then you have to Illustrate it visually, at least within reason. With music you get a rough mix, maybe some lyrics or an album title, so it’s a lot more fluid. In other words you have more freedom to be extravagant.

What are your other main hobbies when you´re not designing?

Spending time with my family, travelling, reading, live gigs, movies, buying CDs, keeping whiteline rollin’ down the road and painting – always – painting.


What is the thing with you, genitals and censorship? ‘Sacrifice’ has a great illustration by the way…

Ha…I just like to mix it up a little, provoke the status quotient.

I have no idea why people are so upset about a genital or two, especially in today’s media circus where sex and violence are the rule rather than the exception.

With ‘Sacrifice’ it seemed like a good idea. We all bleed / pray at secret sacrificial altars and utilising sexual symbols (yoni / lingam) is one way to depict this…and the mouth being an erogenous zone – why not twist the truth …tongue and cheek – so to speak.

There are several young graphic artists out there who want to grow up and be respected designers. What´s your advice to them?

Just keep pushing it thru’ the ups and downs. You may never be rich materially, you will however, if you endeavour, be rewarded with riches that money cannot buy at any price …but be prepared to sacrifice …to quote William Blake “One road is paved with gold the other is just a road” I would add – But what a road!

Finally, what do you think would happen if our Steel Mill monster Mill Bill would fight against Snaggletooth?

Da SNAG’ would rip his head out his ass!

Thanks a lot for the interview, the Steel Mill wishes you all the best in the future!

Joe Petagno: www.petagno.dk

Merchandise: www.petagno.dk/merch.html

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