Recently named one of metal’s 25 Most Important People by MetalSucks, Mark Riddick has become one of the genre’s standard-bearers for visual art. His instantly recognizable artwork has graced countless covers both within metal and without—Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Kanye West have all tapped him for logo and design work. He’s also been making extreme music since the early ‘90s, giving him undeniable metal bona fides.
2016 was an especially busy year for Riddick. His solo project Fetid Zombie (Riddick plays everything except drums) released Epicedia, a work of unrelenting, classic death metal. His other death metal project, Macabra, in which he handles all instrumentation, released the pummeling …to the bone. Both works feature layout and design by Riddick, showing off his grim, often monochromatic aesthetic.
We talked with Riddick about the metal scene how his artwork and music fit into it.
So, I wanted to begin by talking a bit about ownership. You worked on a project for Justin Bieber. I would love to know what that experience was like and how you were treated/looked at by his team.
Yes, earlier this year, I was asked to come up with some logo concepts in support of Justin Bieber’s 2016 “Purpose” world tour. I was contacted by, and worked through, Jerry Lorenzo—owner of the Fear of God clothing brand and fashion line. Justin’s stylist, Karla Welch, reached out to Jerry to assist with some of Justin’s stage looks as well as a merchandise campaign for the tour, because Justin happened to be a fan of the Fear of God brand. Jerry in turn reached out to me to assist with an edgier look for Justin’s visual branding for the tour. I came up with numerous sketches, and they ultimately decided on the “Bieber” logo stamp that seemed to suit the vision they had for Justin. In essence, I was a subcontractor, and I treated the entire experience the same way I do with any underground metal band I work with—that is, the same fee and the same interaction. It was a very straightforward process. The only difference is that my logo was reproduced on a larger scale, showing up on billboards, building facades, in pop-up shops, and in retail stores.
Same question goes for the Rihanna backdrop, as well as the t-shirts for her dancers that you designed. Is that experience, or seeing your work in that capacity, surreal, humbling, or special in any way for you?
A few months ago, one of Wilo Perron’s team members reached out to me for some illustrations in support of Rihanna’s 2016 MTV Video Music Awards performance. Wilo Perron handles video and stage production for various pop artists. They were looking for an extreme metal theme for one of Rihanna’s stage performances during the event, so they hired Christope Szpajdel, who drew the Rihanna logo variations (the one that you referenced appearing on a large screen backdrop) and hired me to come up with the T-Shirt illustrations worn by her stage dancers.
Christophe is extremely well known in the metal community. He has illustrated logos for thousands of metal bands. I featured Christophe’s work and interviewed him for the Logos from Hell book I published through Doomentia Press in 2015. Anyhow, Christophe and I have had our work coupled together for several death and black metal band merchandise products since the ‘90s, but this time, it happened to be for a top-selling pop musician and airing on MTV. It was an unconventional client, just as with Justin Bieber. However, the entire process was identical to my typical workflow process illustrating for metal bands. Unfortunately, Rihanna’s staff was very controlling of the art, so I was unable to release or share samples of the finished illustrations on my website or social media. They turned out well, nonetheless. I’m pleased Christophe’s Rihanna logo gathered some media attention, though; it was very well executed, and being a fellow underground artist, the extra exposure and recognition of his talent has been long overdue and much deserved. The entire experience was indeed humbling, and I’m glad Christophe and I could share the opportunity together.
It’s become increasingly popular these days for artists (e.g. Lady Gaga) to throw a touch of punk, hardcore, or metal into their videos, be it on a jacket, t-shirt or tattoo. The reactions from the metal community are, to say the least, mixed on the topic.
In my opinion, creativity has no limit—whether aesthetics are cross-pollinated or not is up to the artist. Everyone is entitled to an opinion about art, but ultimately, people’s opinions don’t matter to an artist, because he or she creates at will without regard for ethics, opinions, etc.
In terms of the mainstream’s recent adoption of heavy metal aesthetics, it can have both positive and negative outcomes. In my perspective, heavy metal aesthetics in the mainstream reinforces the validity and importance of the visuals associated with extreme music. One of the many functions of art is to act as a bridge of communication—like a pop artist’s attempt at expressing him or herself in a grittier or more aggressive fashion. Heavy metal aesthetics in general are much akin to the music in its abrasive and rebellious approach, its unconventional attitude, and its willingness to test the boundaries. These ideals may be endorsed across cultural mores and even music genres; our innate aggression is part of the human condition, something civilization can relate to on a primal level.
That’s a pretty positive take by you. Do you generally feel positively about what some people might call scene appropriation or cross-pollination? Does it help us grow the underground scene?
Another positive outlook on the appropriation of heavy metal aesthetics in the mainstream is the possibility of creating new fans of the genre. Perhaps things have changed a bit since the onset of digital music, but it was the album covers on record store shelves, and the cover art or band logos on demo tapes, that initially attracted me to heavy metal. In fact, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I had never witnessed the captivating Derek Riggs painting on Iron Maiden’s Killers LP in 1981. I can’t help but think that a young pop music fan seeing Lady Gaga wearing an Iron Maiden shirt, or perhaps seeing it in a retail store, might inspire them to give Seventh Son of a Seventh Son a try.
There has to be a dark side, though.
Well, seeing someone wear a metal shirt cues another devout metal fan in to the fact that there is a shared interest between them.That really isn’t the case if the person wearing the shirt is only wearing it to be ‘fashionable.’ I get that popular culture wants to appreciate the heavy metal aesthetic, but why not take a moment to go beyond just the visuals and to the source—the music.
So who really ‘owns’ this imagery?
I don’t believe anyone in particular has ownership of the heavy metal aesthetic; it simply exists as a visual representation of the ideals it embraces. There is an elitist mentality in heavy metal music that is inherently hypocritical. It is human nature to want to belong to something greater than oneself, and I firmly believe that heavy metal music fills this visceral need for acceptance. All heavy metal music fans, at some point in their lives, were not fans. Something or someone turned them onto the subculture of heavy metal and they became converts. If the metal community closed its doors to outsiders, it would cease to evolve as a genre. When the subculture of heavy metal feels threatened by something unfamiliar, it follows human nature and acts in defense.
So is there some level of exploitation, or is this just the evolution of art?
Some might perceive pop culture’s interest in heavy metal aesthetics as exploitative, and this could very well be the case in some instances. It’s important to weigh whether or not pop culture’s intent to be extreme is sincere or not. But it’s also important to note that all art is recycled, creativity is dependent upon outside influences that are regurgitated in new ways by its creators, all of whom have their own worldview. When an extreme subculture like heavy metal exists, it becomes a font of information, influence, and inspiration to those who wish to emulate it. Although much of pop culture’s borrowing of heavy metal aesthetics has been strongly frowned upon by the metal community, there was a sincerity in Bieber’s and Rihanna’s approach in that they decided to work with me and Szpajdel—two long-time veterans from the underground metal scene—versus an uniformed amateur who might not execute the heavy metal aesthetic in an authentic way.
Building on imagery, I want to talk about brutality in art. A lot of the historical paintings, particularly the religious ones, tend to have some pretty violent, horrific imagery in them. How do you think that relates to death metal art, and do you find any contradictions in the outrage over the brutality in metal imagery?
Religious art was intentionally brutal because the churches who commissioned the artists wanted the artists to depict Hell and sin in the most extreme way possible, so as to proselytize without words but rather with visuals. Death metal music adopts this approach similarly as a way to reach consumers. Death metal embraces the reality of death in various forms. The subject matter is a difficult one for many to accept, but the genre fills this intrinsic curiosity about dying. The brutal imagery associated with death metal is an amplified expression of what the heavy metal subculture projects—shock value, extremism, and aggression. In terms of the level of brutality in the art, it can be as extreme as the artist wishes to make it—ethics are null and void when it comes to unfettered creative expression. The line can only be blurred or crossed when fantasy, subjectivity, and imagination become confused with reality, objectivity, and truth.
I want to ask you about being ‘important’ in metal. You recently landed on a 25 most important people in metal music list. The focus tended to be more on your artwork than your music.
Although it was an unexpected honor to be publically recognized for my past and recent illustrative contributions to the metal music scene, it is important to note that the list was subjective. I can think of several other artists who do what I do and have valid reason to be acknowledged for their great contributions as well. I did notice there was no mention of my musical activities, but it’s always been overshadowed by my artwork endeavors.
What changes have you seen in the metal scene since your initiation back in the early 1990s?
The greatest change in the metal scene was the introduction of the Internet as well as the onset of digital music. Upon my initiation to the underground death metal scene in 1991, every communication took place via hand-written and mailed letters. I purchased demo tapes and records based on cut & paste fanzine reviews, or printed flier descriptions. There was a lot of risk in purchasing music, because you relied on the opinions of others, or acquired underground compilation tapes or second-generation duplications of albums via tape traders. The underground metal scene was a worldwide community of like-minded fans looking for extreme music that the mainstream had no access to or interest in. It wasn’t until independent labels like Earache, Peaceville, JL America, Relapse, Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Roadrunner secured better distribution through major music distributors such as Caroline, that death metal became a little more accessible. The Internet essentially changed the underground scene, even though I know there are still some maniacs out there (myself included) who trade music and sometimes hand-write letters. But much of the communication now takes place via email, webzines have now become a source of metal-related information, and tape traders have been replaced by digital music sites.
Does that change how you create, or absorb music?
Although I’m certainly a fan of these conveniences, I still buy releases without previewing the music first, because I want a band to surprise me with their art and music. It’s obviously a hit or miss exercise, but it gives me a sense of nostalgia. When I find a gem, it is incredibly rewarding. In regard to the current status of heavy metal music, I do believe it resides in a strong place today. Although the scene is quite oversaturated with bands from all corners of the world, it is indeed a sign that the genre is very active and being productive.
We both recall metal actually being mainstream back in the ’90s. Are we looking at a bit of a metal resurgence, or is it merely an appropriation of imagery?
I’ve seen a resurgence in death and thrash metal music in recent years—a more nostalgic and revitalized approach to the style. I don’t think the mainstream, or its appropriation of heavy metal aesthetics, has played a crucial role in this metal revival. I believe the resurgence is much more a result of young musicians looking to the elders of metal for inspiration and guidance and in some cases old bands reforming or revisiting their musical roots.
You’ve been around for a while, and playing music for about just as long. What are the differences in how you approach artwork and Fetid Zombie? What’s it like having total control over the music and graphics of a band? How does that allow you to drive the vision and where do you want to take things?
In my approach toward Fetid Zombie, the artwork and the music have always gone hand-in-hand. I have a strict adherence to the black-and-white visual aesthetic, hence creating a uniform look and feel to the Fetid Zombie discography. In addition, much attention is given to the layout and overall packaging of my releases. I also mail fliers, promo cards, etc. with all orders placed so the consumer can have a more authentic visual experience before they even press play on their CD player or cassette deck. Having the ability to create both the music and visuals for Fetid Zombie allows me complete oversight of the visual branding—something that’s very important to me as an artist. Furthermore, it’s convenient to handle both aspects of the band, as it makes me fully responsible for seeing a release through. Some of the duties related to Fetid Zombie have been relieved a bit since signing on with the record label, Transcending Obscurity (India). Kunal Choksi—Transcending Obscurity’s label manager—handled the publishing of Fetid Zombie’s most recent full-length effort, Epicedia. Kunal has done a great job promoting the album and securing distribution, both of which are very time-consuming endeavors outside of my abilities due to other obligations such as my wife and kids, day job, art, and writing/recording music. In terms of Fetid Zombie’s future, I have some short term goals in place as I write and record new material for releases coming in 2017. I do believe that Fetid Zombie has been an ever-changing endeavor in terms of style but it is finally becoming more refined and finding its stride.