Justin Bartlett

Interview with master ink artist Justin Bartlett

The Black Ink Warlock, a.k.a. Justin Bartlett, applies boundless visual style to depictions of the arcane. His developed portfolio representing clients of various trades exposes an illustrative language often derived from the occult, where theology and religion meet strife. Here he has mastered visual manipulation of his equally imaginative clients within several genres of extreme music. With pen and ink, Bartlett renders visions unseen by the naked eye, awakening apparitions as ambiguous as those creatures created by Edgar Allen Poe or ideas fostered by Aleister Crowley. Self-taught, the illustrator/designer has developed a style that's equally recognizable as it is versatile. Bartlett's work has been selected for worldwide exhibitions and his illustrations have cloaked the pages of Vice Magazine and he has been featured in Illustration Now! and 3X3 Magazine.

HMA: Welcome Justin Bartlett to Heavy Music Artwork as new May artist of the month.

Justin Bartlett: Thanks for having my work featured, I am a little bummed out today since I heard of the passing of one of the best guitarists ever, Jeff Hanneman.

HMA: Really sad news indeed, he will be surely missed!

First off… what is you background and how did you style developed?

Justin Bartlett: To be honest, I never really took my art all that seriously in the past. I used to just draw all the time when I was a kid. But even though I was an illustrator on my high school’s annual, I only took one actual art class in my last year as a senior. I didn’t really like the structure of the class and even though it was the “advanced” art class, I didn’t feel challenged all that much. So after that I went to college as a biology major - and then ended up with getting a degree in graphic design. To make a long story short, after many years of neglecting to develop any of my hand drawing skills - I just picked up a pen one day and started drawing again after being inspired by a lot of album artwork and feeling a need to reconnect or maybe just feeling bored with doing digitally based design. I don’t really think there was a lot of effort put into developing a new style all that much, it just came out as it did.

HMA: Your name goes by “The Black Ink Warlock”. Is black ink your primary method of drawing and how would describe your technique?

Justin Bartlett: Ha, well it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek description. I definitely can see humor in most things, even if it’s blaspheming religion through artwork. Yes, you are correct, my primary medium is black ink on paper … err... I mean rancid raven’s blood on goat skin parchment. Technique, or lack thereof? In regards to this question and the above, I’d say how I draw now compared to a few years ago, is that it’s less precise. When I started, I definitely drew more using dots (stippling), but I felt that being so precise got a bit boring. It was just a slow change and I didn’t really make some conscious decision. So now, I create my pieces with a lot of tiny scribbles and hashes. I think now my art is even more detailed than it was before actually. It probably doesn’t look like it, until you see the drawings in person or with an extreme close up, but some of my drawings took 200-300 hours.

HMA: The Occult, religion and theology are the prime characteristics in your work? Did you developed these interest in search for inspiration or were already part of your persona?

Justin Bartlett: Both actually, but oddly enough I have no belief in the supernatural. I do find religious and occult beliefs to be very interesting and intriguing from a sociological perspective. I went to a Lutheran-Christian school from pre-school to third grade, but my parent’s weren’t exactly religious - so I was exposed to a lot of concepts such as evolution, science.. RATIONAL THOUGHT growing up. Oh, and of course a lot of science fiction and horror films! Learning a lot about the bible as a kid at school and then going home and reading books on neanderthals or marine biology created a lot of cognitive dissonance in my head at a young age. I guess I just realized after a while that the bible is simply a bunch of ancient myths compiled by people living in the desert. I could talk length on atheism and my views on religion, but to sum it up, it definitely inspires me because I disagree with most of it.

HMA: What other topics help create and compose your artistry?

Justin Bartlett: Politics, strange atmospheres in science fiction, horror films, and music of course. But - really, as an artist, it’s just part of who I am, so pretty much life in general influences me.

HMA: You cited “Nick Blinko” and “Michel ‘Away’ Langevin” for inspirations. Do you have any specific dead masters that have left an impact in your creativity?

Justin Bartlett: To be honest with you, I am definitely not the most well-informed person on artists. I am so fucking retarded when it comes to remembering names of people. Some of my favorites that I have discovered mostly by accident over the years who are influences stylistically:  Austin Osman Spare, Wayne Barlowe, Francis Bacon, and Zdislaw Beksinski. I also enjoy artists that are very different from my style such as Syd Mead, Moebius, Killian Eng, and Mark Whalen.

HMA: I believe you have been involved in exhibitions and art shows? What was your experience and is it something that Heavy Metal art will have more of this type of exposure? 

Justin Bartlett: Yeah, I’ve been in a decent amount of shows. I could probably do more if I actively sought it out, but all of the shows I have been involved with were from people asking or inviting me to participate. To be honest, they’re a lot of work and financially not always the best in terms of being compensated. Although I have sold a lot of original drawings and prints, it’s really more for the experience and having people enjoy my work rather than a money making opportunity.

There’s a lot of art that gets called or tries to pass itself off as “heavy metal art”, but really, it’s just pop art with skulls and goats. In terms of my own style, a lot of people enjoy it, but it’s definitely a niche audience due to the fact that some of my material is a little questionable (black slime coming out of vaginas... Jesus’s corpse being probed by tentacled goat penises) and that it’s usually monochromatic. Most of the artists that have achieved more popularity and more exposure such as Skinner and John Dyer Baizley (who I am fans of) simply have a style that is a bit more easily digestible when it comes to finding fans outside of the metal world. I feel that type of art will be more in the public eye as compared to things a little more obscure looking.

HMA: Also, you have been graded numerous awards and recognitions. What are the next challenges? Any ambitions that you like to share?

Justin Bartlett: Hmm, well other artists like my work, so it’s good to get an award here and there - but the two I can think of were because of my role with the Anti Sweden jeans company. It’s great to be recognized but that didn’t necessarily put food on the table.

I was a freelance illustrator for 3 years and barely got by financially. It was a huge struggle because there’s just not a lot of money working within music. Actually, I take that back - if your illustrations take 100-300 hours to finish, there’s not a lot of money! My only ambitions would be to work in other areas such as film and entertainment, which I have done to a small degree. Really,  I don’t know sometimes anymore about what I want to do with my art, I think I definitely pushed it as far as I could go in the metal/underground music world. I am kind of on a break from being an album illustrator as I have a pretty decent career in the corporate graphic design world, so I can take a break and figure out what I want to do without worrying about my checking account.

In hindsight, I can’t complain about the projects I worked on, or the bands or people I worked with - but I definitely burned myself out working 80 hour weeks and doing the whole starving artist thing. In terms of ambitions, it’s a bit unclear to me as to what is next.

HMA: There is a sense of morbid beauty in your work. Executed with icy and passionate precision. What are the voices inside tell you?

Justin Bartlett: Ha, well when I was actually drawing all the time, it was usually - DON”T STOP! It needs more ink! I believe that is called an obsessive personality disorder.

HMA: Europe and most of the Christendom does not suffer from religious tyranny as much as it was in times gone by. Still however there is a strong sense of hatred for organized religion. Heavy Metal shows this contempt creatively and with gusto. In your opinion why is this a prime subject?

Justin Bartlett: Youthful exuberance mainly? I’ve been listening to “extreme” metal for a little over twenty years and I can tell you that when I was younger I thought that somehow you could make a dent in religion by wearing Morbid Angel or Celtic Frost shirts. But as I got a little wiser, I realized that most bands anti-religious views boil down to essentially performance art. Going to shows and being involved in a scene or even drawing pictures of Jesus getting fisted is pretty much just preaching to the choir.

If you really want to show contempt - pay attention to politics, be aware of special interest groups and how they influence elections and who they support, VOTE....or I suppose you can go burn down a few churches.

HMA: What is your philosophy as an artist?

Justin Bartlett: Being an artist, or specifically an illustrator is a huge privilege. You are being paid to be yourself, so take that opportunity to actually be creative instead of rehashing popular culture references, or even acceptable heavy metal iconography.

HMA: How do you develop your concepts? Are bands involved?

Justin Bartlett: If it’s for an album, typically I take an album’s title, or song titles, and mash them up with existing ideas in my head. Or I’ll have something I want to draw, and then maybe adapt that a bit to fit the overall message of an album. The last album cover I did was for a band called Gravetemple, which has Stephen O’Malley from SUNN O))), Attila from Mayhem, Oren Ambarchi, and I think Matt from Sadistik Execution (not sure if he’s on this album though).. but anyways, so the general idea was conceived by Attila, the band leaves it up to me to take that and draw it in my own way. Usually that is the most direction I receive.

HMA: Something I always curious to ask… what are you working at the moment?

Justin Bartlett: Right now? Not a damn thing. I just finished that Gravetemple piece which is pretty awesome, I’m also going to draw a shirt for a fashion company called Mishka from NYC. A couple months ago, I was asked to work on the movie poster for the IMAX release of “OZ the Great and Powerful”, but it fell through and all I completed were some concept pieces. As I brought up earlier, I am kind of in a weird spot when it comes to my art. Time will tell.

A poster that I did for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is going to be in a book about underground movie posters, I’m in another Taschen art book, and also this mobile phone app featuring metal/hardcore album artists.

HMA: Thanks for this interview and for your interest in Heavy Music Artwork.

Justin Bartlett: You’re welcome, and thanks for showcasing my artwork.

"It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out." — Carl Sagan


Copyright 2013 © Alex Milazzo, Heavy Music Artwork. All rights reserved.

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