If you are a gamer or just have any basic knowledge of pop-culture, chances are you’re familiar with the work of British artist Stephen Bliss. For 15 years, Bliss has worked with Rockstar Games as a Senior artist and helped design one of the most controversial and successful video-game franchises ever: Grand Theft Auto. Bliss’ highly illustrative work for GTA has made it one of the most recognizable video game graphics in history. But after that, Bliss still wanted something more. Feeling his own mortality and internal clock ticking, Bliss left the video-game world to pursue his own creative endeavors full-time. His art work features subject matter (somehow) slightly more depraved than GTA; things like female biker gangs, suicide cults, nefarious Easter bunny pimps with pin-up girls, and unnerving family snapshots all can be found hanging out in his recent body of work.
We were able to chat with Bliss about career advice, finding inspiration, and how life is treating him post-Rockstar.
For those that may not know who you are, could you give our readers your story in a nutshell?
I’ve been a professional artist/illustrator/designer since 1986. My most recognizable artwork is the Grand Theft Auto artwork that I painted with Rockstar Games (up until GTA V), and the Massive Attack x Mad Professor: No Protection album cover.
You were at Rockstar from 2001-2016, what were you doing before that and how did it lead to such a long-run with the company?
After studying Graphics at Brighton University I moved to Japan to work full time as in-house artist at the fashion label Hysteric Glamour. After four years working there I moved back to London and worked as a commercial artist specializing in cartoon style illustration. I made a living doing editorial illustration, freelance work with Hysteric Glamour and Mambo (Australian surf/fashion label), writing and painting comic strips for Deadline comics and Sonic the Comic and painting syndicated comic strips (the Pink Panther, Space Academy and Biker Mice From Mars) for British newspapers.
I eventually gave up commercial illustration, started a t-shirt company called Steroid, started doing fine art, had a few gallery shows in London and Tokyo… then in 2001 I was offered a job as Senior Artist at Rockstar Games in New York. My first brief at Rockstar was to paint the front box cover and develop an art style for a game called GTA III, followed by GTA Vice City, etc. Being part of the evolution of the company for 15 years was an amazing experience. The long run at Rockstar was probably because I proved to be versatile: painting in various styles, designing logos, designing both game and non-game lifestyle merchandise, making a mean cup of tea etc. During my career pre-Rockstar I’d had to learn to adapt my illustration and design skills to survive; I’d had to take on commissions I didn’t think I was capable of doing and adapt my skills to make it work. I’d learnt to paint in a few different styles both with acrylic paint and digitally so I was able to invent (alongside the brilliant Anthony Macbain) new styles of illustration, to suit the look of each new game. I also think the company trusted me to come at each challenge from an unique angle.
With such a long and interesting career in design, what have been some high points?
Getting the job at Hysteric Glamour and working with the excellent head designer Nobuhiko Kitamura. Living in Japan, which was an intriguing and insane experience. Working on the Massive Attack cover with Robert Del Naja.
Getting the job at Rockstar was mind blowing and being part of the company as it grew to be such a creative and commercial behemoth was astounding. Painting the Debbie Harry mural at Miami Art Basel last year: learning the technique of spray painting from the master Tristan Eaton, hanging out and working next to Hush, Cyrcle, Maxhaus, Drew Merritt etc. for a week was really inspiring and great fun. Making the art for my solo show in LA (at the Monorex), getting totally absorbed in the process of making art, getting into the zone (many times), finally seeing the work on the walls of the gallery and getting the really positive response from people and press.
I see that you lived in Japan for a while and I noticed a Manga feel in both the work you did for Grand Theft Auto and your other creative pieces (specifically your mural at Miami Ad School). Are those two things connected or is it purely coincidental?
While I was living in Japan my friends would show me obscure Manga and it was certainly an influence but DC and Marvel comics were a much bigger influence. I grew up copying the art in Daredevil, The Hulk and Spiderman comics, then made my own comics about a football team called The Tigers, and stories about me as an American detective (I’d always wanted to be American). The style I derived from superhero comics as a kid, and years of filtering the style through 1960’s underground comics, Punk, Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and 1980s Raw comics, was channeled right through into the Grand Theft Auto illustration style. It’s a default art style and the same influences came through in the Debbie Harry mural at Art Basel and the Miami Ad School mural.
From your work with Rockstar and your comic book style artwork, is it safe to say that video games and comic books were an early inspiration for you? If so what in particular?
Yes, comic books were my biggest influence. Rockstar’s video games have been a huge influence because I was around them almost everyday for 15 years. We (Anthony MacBain and I) had to continually reinvent ourselves stylistically to match the increased level of detail in each new GTA game, we also had to develop art styles for RDR, LA Noire etc. that were different to other Rockstar titles but still looked immediately like a Rockstar game. Working at Rockstar was always a huge challenge and it was an excellent way to develop new illustration techniques/drawing skills and to force my mind to stretch into creative realms that I wouldn’t have reached if I hadn’t worked there.
I noticed that your pieces range in materials and some piece are more narrative while others are more abstract. Is diversity in materials and style important to you?
I see the whole process of making art as experimentation with no boundaries, so I work with as many different styles and materials as possible. My life right now is very much about, “what if I did this… what would happen… what would it look like…” The pieces in mine and Monorex’ I, Frankenstein show are the culmination of two years of experimentation. The common thread throughout the collection are the canvases that I made from ripping posters down from boardings and walls around NYC.
I started seeing my overall life as a slow sprint towards death and had an overwhelming urge to make my own personal art before it was too late.
Initially the art was purely abstract, I wanted to reflect the beauty that I saw everyday in the streets of NYC: there was so much accidental abstract art being formed on the walls created by people ripping down strips of advertising posters and leaving exposed layers of graphics and colors underneath. There were also tons of outsider art paste ups, insane scribbled messages, sprayed tags and stickers plastered over each other, layer on layer, ripped and decaying, the sun bleaching colors, the rain softening the wheat paste so parts of the posters would fall off. It was like a random unconscious artistic eco-system of illegal posting, art and vandalism.
I’d take the huge chunks of ripped paper back to the studio and re-compose the pieces together, trying to create rhythm and structure, it became a meditative exercise; concentrating purely on creating a harmonious composition from the chaos of the walls in the street. I got to the point with the work when I thought how would the abstract pieces look if I started painting characters over the top of them, so the art became more figurative and narrative.
What led you to leave your job at Rockstar to pursue fine art?
I started seeing my overall life as a slow sprint towards death and had an overwhelming urge to make my own personal art before it was too late. Even though Rockstar gave me huge creative freedom and allowed me to paint what I felt inspired by, as long as it complemented the Rockstar DNA, I was obsessed by characters/themes/paintings that I wanted to create for myself but that wouldn’t have fitted with the Rockstar DNA. I wanted to create without any restrictions and commit to making my own art full time.
Your recent show at Start LA was titled I, Frankenstein, and it features collaged pieces that have been “Frankensteined” from street posters. How did you collect the poster pieces? And how long did it take you to amass your collection of materials?
I’ve been replenishing my stock of ripped posters everyday for years so I now have huge boxes of the stuff. Three years ago I started photographing close up details of the walls I was seeing around the city. Then I wanted to make my own versions of what I was documenting. On the way to the Rockstar office I’d take detours around the backstreets of the Lower East Side looking for posters that might be hanging from walls or boardings. I started collecting smaller pieces of paper from ripped posters and would take them home after work to make art. Over the years I’ve become more ambitious with the size of poster and now use a large wallpaper scraper to wedge in behind, loosen the layers then use my whole body weight to aggressively wrench the load from the boarding. Some areas, especially Mid-town NYC, have layers of posters two inches thick created by years of continual pasting. I need a van to move those pieces. Passersby look at me like I’m mental, some commend me for cleaning up the city and others get confused and think I’m making a mess of the walls.
Could you walk us through your process when you started creating for this body of work?
For the ink paintings, the more figurative pieces, I’ll usually work out the image on the Mac, do some ‘Frankensteining’—playing with found images, placing heads on different bodies, paper wigs on the heads, juxtaposing graphics, hand painting typography, collaging together the disparate elements and finally drawing into the images to make the overall collage consistent. I draw the digital image onto the hand made ripped poster ‘canvas’ with ballpoint pen and paint over with black acrylic ink. The color comes from the appropriated posters underneath.
For I, Frankenstein what is the story you are trying to tell? What are you trying to convey through your art?
I feel someone else might be in a better place to tell me the story they think I’m telling. Other people see things in my work that I hadn’t perceived before and it opens my mind to what I might be trying to say. I started out two years ago with no concept and it was holding me back from creating the art, so I had to abandon the search for a concept, get on with making the pieces and hope that some greater meaning or story would uncover itself during the long process of making the art.
I came to realise, after a year of working on the show, that my motivation for creating art was to tell my personal story of the transformative power of art and how the process of creating helped me endure a very dark period of my life. The figurative black ink drawings show many of the frivolous or dark distractions that saved me, the abstract pieces show the more harmonious moments of realising I was free.
If the punk rock DIY aesthetic can be defined as an art movement (which it should be) then this was my greatest inspiration, it was a life changing influence.
With the more figurative work, a lot of the time, I’m making references to parts of pop culture that have intrigued me consistently over the years: subcultures, cults, cartoons, criminals, movies, music, girls, desire, love, hate, irony, humor, etc. I have an intense need to work with these themes and get them onto paper; they’re all elements of what makes up my cultural DNA.
Also, I hope a detail in one of the paintings will encourage someone to go and look into a subject they weren’t previously aware of, and in the same way I hope that the more abstract ripped poster work will inspire people to see their environment differently; to see a wall of decaying ripped posters as a beautiful piece of accidental abstract art. Art needs to both entertain and change how people perceive their lives and environments.
Looking at your pieces I get a Dada meets punk vibe. Was there any particular art movement that inspired you?
If the punk rock DIY aesthetic can be defined as an art movement (which it should be) then this was my greatest inspiration, it was a life changing influence, especially Jamie Reid’s artwork for the Sex Pistols and the overall DIY collaged flyer culture. I formed bands, organized gigs and painted the posters to advertise the gigs—it was my introduction to design and showed me how art could be political and confrontational. Punk changed me from someone who would probably have ended up in the navy to someone who was passionate about making music and art.
As for Dada, I like the humor, the sarcastic and subversive criticism of what defines a piece of art. I guess the influence of Dadaism on my work comes from making art from found materials. It’s not a conscious nod to the movement, it’s more about how the Dadaists opened the boundaries of what could be considered art and that influence became a normal part of the creative language.
My work has also been compared to the 1940s/50s New Realist movement. The main artist of this movement was Mimmo Rotella, an Italian artist associated with Ultra-Lettrists who created décollage with ripped street posters. I wasn’t aware of him when I started doing my ripped pieces but found his work later on in the process. His work blew my mind and confirmed that what I was doing was valid. Actually, when I saw his work I thought, “oh fuck someone else has already done this ripped poster thing!!” but I came to realize that collaging appropriated ripped posters was just another medium for creating art. Ironically, becoming aware of Rotella’s work may have been one of the major reasons I started painting onto the abstract collages – I realized that I needed to make my version of décollage distinct from what had been done before.
What are some of the advantages and drawbacks to creating fine art compared to creating commercial art?
Most of the time with commercial art I’m working with someone else’s idea, so there’s a lot of compromise. Fine art allows me to work on exactly what I want, to take risks and experiment. The need to make an image can be overwhelming, in a very positive way, and having to put that aside to do a commercial piece can be irritating. Saying that though, if the commercial brief is interesting then it’s fun to work with someone else’s idea. Working with a team outside the confines of the studio allows human contact, which can be lacking when locked away, feverishly working in my garret. And of course there’s the money—making art doesn’t necessarily guarantee great riches, commercial work pays for the baked beans and terrible dates.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’ve just finished a show in LA and my next show is in London at the Westbank Gallery. My long term plan is to work a lot more with galleries and exhibit my work as much as possible. I have many different pieces, exhibition themes and ideas planned out and I’m eager to get immersed in the process of creating them. Apart from the paintings I’m going to be doing some cheaper screen print editions, alongside t-shirts, stickers and other more affordable merchandise.
I’ll be doing a lot more murals also. The next mural is on the Westside Highway in Manhattan, a 65 ft. beast. If I fall from the wall I’ll fall directly into the Hudson, which will be softer than concrete and I get to swim, have a bit of exercise. There are a couple of really interesting, more commercial projects on the horizon—both in the early stages of development, which I probably can’t talk about just yet. One of them is… no I can’t talk about them…
Aside from these aforementioned projects Miami Art Basel is approaching, which is a week of art and culture with a light touch of Spring Break partying (without the toplessness). I’ll be schmoozing down there for a few days and getting inspired.
Any words of wisdom to our readers that would like to pursue a similar career to yours?
During your career there’s probably going to be many times when you think your work is awful and you’ll want to give up. That’s the Universe’s way of saying, “Ok, you’ve done a bit of good work, you’ve enjoyed a few days of thinking you’re a genius, now it’s time to get better… Take your despondency, survive it, work out why you think your work is shit, how can you make your work better? Improve… If you can’t handle feeling like the worse artist to walk the planet then piss off and wash dishes…” If you, as an artist, don’t feel like this sometimes then you’re doing something wrong, it’s a normal part of the creative process. There’s going to be a lot of knocks, you’re going to need a lot of endurance. Enjoy the successes and learn from the failures. Eat your greens and be polite.