Fergus Purcell: The Graphic Equalizer
Fergus Purcell (a.k.a. Fergadelic) is a psychedelic chameleon and a cosmic wizard of the graphic arts. Though his work can take many different forms and embrace many different mediums, a deep, real love of pop culture saturates everything he does. He helped form the identity of the legendary pop art fashion brand Silas and took his neon punk vision into higher states of consciousness with his own much missed label Tonite. His new project, Aries, looks set to launch things even further into the cosmos. He agreed to act as our spirit guide and lead us on a journey through his mystical, magical mind.
What's the first drawing you did that you can still remember?
Fergus Purcell: I started drawing when I was five years old and lived in Sydney Australia for six months. The new environment was really stimulating and exciting to me. We lived by the harbor and I started drawing the boats, especially the big industrial tugs and tankers. The first drawing I remember is of a diver working on repairing an aquafoil ferry.
Can you pinpoint the moment when you first embraced popular culture in some way?
Yeah, like so many people it was through music, through what was on the radio. The first big musical thing for me was Prince. I loved the music, but was also really enthralled by the whole package and the visual presentation. Like all great bands, Prince and The Revolution had created this integrated Universe all their own. The sound, the record covers, the lyrics, the costumes, the videos, the stage show, etc. Of course, I didn't belong in Prince's universe! I was a spotty teenager! It was a few years later, getting into hardcore and Thrash via Anthrax and Metallica and also getting into skateboarding where I found a youth/pop culture experience that I could really participate in. This movement was super important to me and still shapes my attitude and aesthetics
What was the first T-shirt you owned that meant more to you than being just a T-shirt?
I discovered skateboarding when I saw the Zorlac shrunken skull sticker, designed by Pushead. It blew my mind! My mum bought me a plain white T-shirt from the market and some fabric paints and I made my own shirt with this design on it. It was my first excursion into T-Shirt making, something that would become a big part of my career.
Wearing a T-shirt used to mean a real commitment to a point of view, now it often means the opposite. How do you perceive the evolution of the T-shirt and as an artifact of modern culture?
I was rather confused in the late '90s when the big trend (in London, at least) was for ironic T-Shirt wearing. Everything turned upside down. To wear a Def Leppard T-Shirt was to say "I don't like Def Leppard." Things have moved past that, I'm glad to say, but that phase of pure irony means that everything since is seen in a different way. Irony still a part of T-Shirt language, so reading what people are wearing, what they're saying about themselves, has become more complex and interesting. What seems to have happened is that people can now wear very strong or confrontational statements without any risk attached. Maybe it's just because printed slogan T-shirts have been so ubiquitous for so many years that people have become saturated and simply stopped reading the statements? I love looking at T-shirts, still. Perhaps more than ever. There are more tees to see, after all. They are everywhere.
You have many, many tattoos (many of them home made). What was your first and how long did it take for you to commit to it? What drew you to tattoos generally?
My first was a realistic style portrait of Sitting Bull. I was 21 when I got it & it had taken me a year to decide on that design. I was drawn to tattoos for the usual bad boy/cool/weirdo reasons.
What's the strongest reaction you've encountered to one of your t-shirt designs and one of your tattoos.
I used to have a sweat shirt that I designed for Hysteric Glamour. It featured the Lennon/Ono slogans "Stay In Bed" (on the front) and "Grow Your Hair" (on the back). For some reason that used to really wind people up! I'd always get (negative!) comments when I wore that. A friend of mine used to work at Donna Karan in New York and she wore it and Mrs. Karan apparently said "I don't get it." I thought that was pretty good. For tattoos... I don't know. The last time was a bunch of rude boys who got stoked on my home made tattoo of Otto from The Simpsons.
You became known a Fergadelic, did you have other names before you settled on that one?
Yeah! I was Uncle Ugly for a little while and then I was Super Punky. Pretty silly... but actually no more ridiculous than Fergadelic.
You originated a typographic style for you fashion company Tonite that was endlessly copied and whose influence is still being seen today. I never see you getting the credit you deserve for that. Does that bother you?
I'm glad you noticed! I'm always pleased if people acknowledge the fact that it was my design, but I'm not upset or bitter about how much it was copied. It was my Pop Art moment! As a fan of the Pop Art phenomena, it was amazing for me to create something that was so desirable and that could have a life in culture beyond anything I'd intended. To be copied that much is a compliment! Also, I got a good living for a while from my Tonite brand, so I have no complaints on that score.
Tell us a bit about your new clothing company Aries. How does it differ to things you have done before?
Aries is a brand that I've started with my friend Sofi, who used to design the Silas stuff. It's women's wear at the moment, so that is a new thing for me. It's not very graphic heavy, so I'm doing textile prints, for example, which is a fun new thing to explore. We are thinking of adding men's T-Shirts in there, too. The whole thing is a bit of an experiment to see what happens. It's also different from what I've done before in that I'm trying to create the visual strength of a brand, whereas Tonite was done T-Shirt-by-T-Shirt, each T was a random thing in it's own right. With Aries I'm trying to make the feeling of a solid coherent whole. Of a brand in the classic sense.
Can you talk about the brief period that 'magic' mushrooms were legal in England. Was it a golden age?
It was beyond golden! It was The White Light Of Cosmic Conciousness! Thanks to a loop hole in the law, The Portal was opened and I took full advantage and stepped through into the other side. It was seriously life changing. My quintessential trip was in a flotation tank listening to Ween! I came out a different (better) person.
You used to do a lot art that could be perceived as 'erotic' but ended up moving in other directions. Was there a reason for that? Is it something you are still interested in exploring?
I think I drew that stuff so much because I wasn't getting any! I still love the fetish drawings of Crepax and John Willie & Hajime Sorayama (etc., etc.!) and that sexiness of image is still with me & I hope something that's sublimated into my artwork generally, wether a Logo or a landscape. I'm obsessed with trying to evoke cinematic landscapes in tiny drawings at the moment and I will explore that quite a lot further I think... but it's likely that I'll return to more explicitly erotic drawings in the future.
Have you ever considered presenting your work as 'fine art' instead of 'graphic art?' What separates these things? Does it bother you that most of the great graphic and comic artists and illustrators will never be accepted by the fine art establishment.
The fine art world is so blinkered, it constantly amazes me. Look at how terribly designed most fine art magazines are, versus their equivalents in fashion, say. It's bizarre, no? I find that totally paradoxical. My friends in Australia do a label called P.A.M. and they got Mike Kelley to design a soft toy that they manufactured. How rad is that? Unfortunately it was just ignored by the fine art world. I find that complacency and smugness a bit revolting! However, I love a lot of artists who've managed to exist in that world — I went to see an excellent Raymond Pettibon show recently and I love Jeremy Deller's stuff... Keith Haring and Warhol are total heroes. Commercial art — whether a straight-to-video '80s trash movie, a death metal LP, an underground comic, a sci-fi novel — finds a huge audience of its own and let's face it — doesn't need the stamp of approval from the art world. Fine art and commercial art exist as satellites of one another. The trick is to get the best of both worlds. You can consume art in that way and also produce it in that way, where you can enjoy both things and there is a conversation between the two.
What was the last great comic you read?
Been reading Crying Freeman, which is killer.
Favorite horror icon?