The painter/illustrator/toy designer known as Skinner is a one-man design studio that specializes in nightmares. After spending years with his head down, drawing the scary, disturbing visions that permeate his anxiety-ridden brain, the self-taught artist has developed an impeccable technique for creating twisted, menacing monsters that come alive to haunt you when you sleep.
It should be shocking to no one in today's world of blockbuster horror movies, television shows and chart-topping metal albums that Skinner's detail for the horrific has brought him success, both critically and financially. But what is surprising is that Skinner's newest book, Forbidden Activities for Neglected Children, is a coloring book that both kids (ones that are not scared easily, of course) and adults can enjoy, despite the fact that it's practically impossible to color.
Full of creatures that would give H.P. Lovecraft a case of the vapors and occasionally accompanied by hilarious statements/questions to lighten the mood -- on one page, six ungodly monsters line up in two rows under the command "Choose A New Dad" -- Forbidden Activities for Neglected Children is like a coffee table book for Millenials. The illustrations demonstrate that even when he's limited to black and white, Skinner can produce images that burn into your retinas. Combined with its packaging and affordable price ($10), it's a collection of art that any stoned college student can purchase and have pride in owning.
But a book that provides high quality art in an affordable package is just Skinner's MO. Being blue collar is an important part of his identity; he and his sister grew up in the tiny Northern Californian town of Auburn, raised by a single mom on an office administrator's salary. It's these humble beginnings that developed both his aesthetics and his drive. Skinner didn't have a babysitter and would spend hours drawing on long stretches of dot matrix printer paper while waiting for his mother to finish work at a gynecologist's office. A fan of '80s cartoons like He-Man, and movies like Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster, Skinner says that what started as simple illustrations evolved into fully detailed battle scenes full of monsters and gore.
"When I was young, I'd draw draw draw for hours and hours to keep to myself, because I didn't want to feel like I was in the way," says Skinner. "I was always afraid that if I was needing something, it was like I was going to get in trouble and be punished or whatever. Artwork was my way of staying out of trouble. 'I didn't do anything wrong; I just sat here and drew Batman for 10 hours!'"
Skinner never grew out of his love for illustrating monstrosities and losing himself in mythical fantasies. And as his love for such imagery grew, he expanded to painting murals and later, designing commercial products such as t-shirts, album covers and skateboard decks.
The success of his design work and dissatisfaction with his job teaching art to children with developmental disabilities led Skinner to become a full-time artist in 2008. Choosing a time of economic collapse wasn't the best moment for someone to take the plunge into an art career, and this was obvious to Skinner right away. So he eschewed his social life and hustled for any kind of work, be it design or installation; and drawing scary monster after scary monster, sometimes going for 24 hours straight to produce something as simple as a t-shirt design.
"Part of that was also not enjoying life," he says. "I don't think people realize that if you want to be an artist -- I think even today -- you have to sacrifice more than what most people ever would."
And the investment into his craft paid off. By that following year, Skinner had shows at galleries around the world (Germany, New York) and was the subject of several articles in notable magazines. From there, the work continued to snowball, leading to amazing opportunities like designing the cover of Mastodon's Once More 'Round The Sun.
"It literally has paid off. I can take off entire weeks if I want," says Skinner. "Which is ironic, because I don't want to take any time off. I'm doing what I want."
Skinner also expanded his work vision into an even more ambitious territory: toys. A perfect product for his artistic ethics -- high art that anyone can afford -- he jumped in head first, both collaborating with toy companies like Mutant Vinyl Hardcore and Unbox Industries and even investing his own money in some of these products. The gambles have paid off; many of the products have sold out completely and his designs have even led to several nominations in the 2014 Designer Toy Awards, including Artist of the Year.
But Skinner is just glad this art thing has worked out for him, because he can't see himself holding a regular job.
"I was just thinking about it the other day -- if I went to a job interview, that would be insane," he says. "They would ask me, 'What have you been doing?' And I'd answer, 'Smoking pot, listening to Black Sabbath and drawing dicks for like five years!'"
Skinner will be signing copies of his new coloring book on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 1-3pm at ZeroFriends (419 Haight Street in San Francisco). He will also be at a signing at Issues (20 Glen Avenue in Oakland) on Friday, Aug. 29, from 6-9pm.