Perhaps you know of graphic artist Todd Francis as the creative force behind skateboard brand Antihero’s iconic eagle logo. It’s possible you’re familiar with his illustrations for Penthouse, which display everything from Donald Trump as a bloated, urinating dog to whimsical sketches of frozen yogurt made out of dog feces. Then again, maybe you know him only as the “pigeon guy.”
Regardless, once you’ve encountered Francis’ artistic style, you won’t forget it anytime soon. A Los Angeles native who started his art career in San Francisco, Francis has been creating memorable designs since he first entered the skateboard and art scene in 1993. His work combines morbid humor and brightly colored drawings to portray a vision of the world that is bizarre, yet blithe, startling, yet thought-provoking. His art has been featured by skate companies like Stereo and Element for a number of years now, and he has collaborated on design projects with brands such as Vans, Nike, and HUF.
In advance of “Worst of the Worst,” Francis’ upcoming retrospective at the Growlery, SF Weekly spoke with the artist — who, coincidentally, was a former illustrator for this paper — about the comedy of tragedy, avoiding “empty” work, and how to have an unselfish sense of humor.
Catch “Worst of the Worst” on Saturday, June 24, from 7-10 p.m., at The Growlery, 235 Broderick St. Free.
SF Weekly: Tell me about your creative process. Are there eureka moments or is it more painstaking and slow?
Todd Francis: Well, usually I’m under pretty strict deadlines so I don’t get to kick back and let things slowly come to me. I’m pretty structured with how I work. I have so many things that I have to get through that there’s no real eureka moment. I just sit down and do it. I would say that my day usually starts with reading a newspaper, then I just sit down and start working and it pretty much usually always comes to me then.
SFW: So it’s something you churn out because you need to?
TF: Exactly. I don’t really have the luxury of doing two pages a year where I can sit around and pretend like I need some golden moment to conjure up the next earth-shaking concept. I’ve been doing this a real long time so that I kind of have more control. You either have it or you don’t.
SFW: That’s really interesting to me because as a non-artist I would have no idea where some of your concepts come from.
TF: I think there’s a lot of artists that I’ve known or read about where they talk about how they need some sort of harmonic convergence where the stars need to align and they need to be right and perfect. I don’t really believe in any of that — you either do it or you can’t and you should be able to turn it on or turn it off. It’s not like I’m working on a construction site where there’s a jackhammer going on at all times and I’m horribly distracted. It’s really not that hard.
SFW: A lot of “Worst of the Worst” showcases a pretty dark, deformed view of the world, but there’s also a lot of comedy and insight embedded into it too. How do you consider the balance between comedy or tragedy when you’re working? Or is it a “you either have it or your don’t” sort of thing?
TF: I guess it sort of just comes down to your sense of humor. Like, the Antihero sense of humor is dark and deformed and maybe sort of unselfish, and that’s the sort of stuff that I always thought was funny and so that’s always made us a good combo. And the work I do with Penthouse and my studio work is kind of an extension of that. It’s always been my sense of humor and it’s always been Antihero’s sense of humor. Julien Stranger, who runs Antihero, he and I have always laughed at the same things.
SFW: Can you elaborate a little more on what you mean by an unselfish sense of humor?
TF: It’s generally sort of political. It’s more about the world around you rather than your own personal struggles. I don’t know, like look at Mel Brooks’ movies, you know, like the good ones. Blazing Saddles is about racism — like my favorite funny stuff is usually about something horrible. And you can make a lot of really great dark jokes about racism and the Holocaust and all these horrible subjects. But in the right hands, hopefully you can say it the right way and make some people think and also make some people laugh.
SFW: So would you say your art is a reflection of the world we live in or a parody?
TF: I don’t know if that’s up to me define. I guess I haven’t really given a lot of thought to those kinds of definitions. I’d rather just leave that to people like you who are better with words.
SFW: What do you hope people take away from your exhibit?
TF: I hope that they laugh and I hope that they think and I hope that they don’t forget it anytime soon. Generally, my stuff’s not particularly empty or decorative. There’s millions of artists that do amazingly empty, decorative work and they’ve got that covered. I’d rather try and do something else that maybe sticks to your ribs a little longer.
SFW: Yeah, we don’t need another picture of a skyline with palm trees or whatever.
TF: Yeah, or another picture of a pretty woman’s profile with flowers and pine trees. There’s plenty of that going around, and everybody’s seen the people who did it first and everybody’s seen the pretenders who copied it and it’s all a big blurry mess. Hopefully, my stuff’s original enough to not confuse it with anybody else’s.
SFW: Do you ever think about your own legacy as an artist? Because you talk about wanting to stand out and differentiate yourself, so do you think about the mark you’ll leave behind?
TF: You know, it’s funny because I’m not particularly young anymore. You would think that I’d think about my legacy and all these terms, but I haven’t thought about it at all. I think because I’m always on a deadline and I’m always trying to do good work and get it in I wind up being a lot more in the moment. Like the thing about this show is that it gives me a chance to look back on a lot of my stuff and, you know, be proud at times and that’s not a luxury I’ve had too many times in my life. I don’t have a lot of hindsight necessarily. I just, I don’t know, I try to keep generating work that is unpredictable and not boring.
SFW: You grew up in the Los Angeles area right?
SFW: Right now I am a college student in L.A., but I grew up here in the Bay Area. I’m wondering how you think the two locales compare and if you have a preference?
TF: It’s funny, there’s a lot of similarities. I think San Francisco’s changes are extremely severe. Los Angeles is obviously much more sprawling and the changes that take place here are more gradual or a little more watered down, but they’re really similar. I live in a similar neighborhood compared to where I grew up in around Venice. And Venice reminds me a lot of San Francisco’s Mission District, which is where I lived in San Francisco in the ’90s. And the Mission District now is unrecognizable. When I lived there, you couldn’t walk up the street without someone taking a swing at you, and now you walk up Mission and it looks more like North Beach. It looks like a fraternity and a sorority are having rush week. And Venice is a variation of that for the same reason, with the tech surge and the money that’s pouring in. And because everyone wants to live close to that now means that Venice is a very safe and very expensive place, and in both places in San Francisco and Venice they used to be places where people went where they couldn’t afford anywhere else. They’re really similar. They’ve taken place at different times — I think San Francisco has had a little bit of a head start — but the end result is very, very similar. It’s a bummer. But I guess at the same time when you are getting older, change is inevitable. Of course people wanna live in these great places and raise kids and stuff, so I guess you can’t grumble too much about whatever else makes this progress.
SFW: Is there anything else you want readers of San Francisco and beyond to know about your retrospective this Saturday?
TF: Right, this is the self promotional time. I’ve got this show this week in San Francisco, I’ve got the Los Angeles leg of this show — it opens in August in L.A. — so I would encourage people to try and come out to one of those two shows and we’ll have a good time. And they can just keep looking out for my work with Antihero because I’m constantly generating new stuff for them and I’m in the pages of Penthouse every month so they can look for me there, or they can just find me on Instagram.
Todd Francis (Credit: Mehring)