By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in the Swindle "Icons" issue)
When Raymond Pettibon says, “Joan Jett has a bigger dick than Hulk Hogan,” he means it as an insult to Hogan and a compliment to Jett, not the other way around. His proclamation comes after I tell him that Hogan and Jett may potentially share the pages of the Swindle “Icon” issue with him. He follows up by explaining that while Hogan may have won the hearts of many fans, he is not respected in the locker rooms amongst those who take wrestling seriously. And Raymond should know: he wrestled professionally in Mexico and Japan.
This is a startling revelation, especially from a guy who moves and speaks in as low-key a manner as possible. Even though I am there to discuss Raymond’s art and career, I end up spending a solid 15 to 20 minutes pestering him about the details of his Lucha Libre days. He politely accommodates me and I learn that he was inspired to jump into the ring in an effort to impress a circus acrobat. Unfortunately, she was dating the dog-faced boy, so his love for her was unable to thrive.
Perhaps it was this unrequited love that led Raymond to take on such dark subjects in his artwork. His comic book-style pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings are fraught with violence, despair, and depraved sexuality. Even when he draws Gumby, it’s still a little unsettling.
Most people assume that Pettibon’s work gained its earliest exposure when it was used on flyers for punk shows and as cover art for numerous albums by Black Flag. Being a “punk artist” in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s however, wasn’t the rose parade it is today. “Punk rockers don’t buy art,” he points out. “They never did. I could’ve asked for 50 cents for any drawing, it would’ve been too much.” And, he reminds me, in the punk world “any of the most disliked things would be prefaced with art, [or called] ‘arty.’”
Despite the fact that the work may have been difficult to sell, and despite its association with a music movement that at the time was maligned and shunned by the mainstream, it is undeniable that Pettibon’s art has since had an impact on the punk subculture. Well, undeniable by anyone other than Pettibon himself: “I don’t have any delusions of how important my work was in the context of punk rock…if my work wasn’t there not that much would be missed.”
He’s wrong, of course. Or maybe just modest. But if Pettibon hadn’t been associated with Black Flag, it’s likely that I would not have had the opportunity to be deeply disturbed by his drawing that the band used for the cover of their “Police Story” single. It features the frightened face of a cop with a gun being shoved in his mouth. A speech balloon has the faceless gun-holder saying, “MAKE ME COME, FAGGOT!” The image still rattles me, despite having been desensitized over the years by TV, abrasive music, and real life. It’s not shock value: shock eventually wears off. It’s something deeper. Darker. Deadlier. And it’s that intangible that eventually took Pettibon’s art beyond the punk scene and into exhibitions at prominent museums around the country and earned him such distinctions as the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Bucksbaum Award.
Still, Pettibon shrugs off the idea of being termed an “icon.” “It’s kind of like getting your commemorative watch when you retire. It’s kind of after the fact. But I don’t have a problem with it.” When asked whom he would list as icons, the talk turns back to wrestling, and he salutes Terry Funk, Freddie Blassie, and Roddy Piper.
And also to Sirhan Sirhan. Pettibon explains, “After all these years, he’s still a political prisoner for something, yeah, he did, but the world should be glad he did.”
I soon discover that Pettibon’s politics are as discomforting as his artwork. He adds Lee Harvey Oswald and Squeaky Fromme to the icon list. And when he suggests Sarah Jane Moore, he adds, “Some motherfucker should’ve taught her to shoot.” As our talk delves into other political matters, he offers up other controversial viewpoints as well:
“I voted once in my life, I’m against voting…I’m more for bullets than ballots in general.”
“I don’t support the troops. I support the insurgency…I feel bad about American troops for being there and for dying when they do. [But] you can always leave. Get the fuck out of Iraq, Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii…”
“My values are relativistic and I’ll give a cop the benefit of the doubt. If that’s me with my gat—my gat’s larger than the one depicted [in the ‘Police Story’ drawing]…we can have a discussion, and he can answer me just as well with my .357 barrel in his mouth, or on his cheek, or on his adenoids, or down his throat. I’ll listen to his whimpering cries.”
And, perhaps most radical of all: “I’m a complete pacifist.”
This last statement fits more than it may seem with the rest of his viewpoints, but I had read that Raymond raises pit bulls for dogfights, and this seemed incongruous with the practices of a pacifist, let alone someone who is an accomplished artist and, from what I could gather, not a total fucking asshole. He tells me that he raises the dogs as part of a charity. The pit bulls are given to at-risk youth who train them and teach them to fight. It offers the kids a sense of responsibility, discipline, and accomplishment. I ask him how any charity that involves an illegal activity could be officially recognized and Raymond says he doesn’t do it for the recognition; he does it because it’s something he believes has a positive impact.
As I wrap up the interview, I point out that I’m having trouble understanding his nature. Every word he has uttered has been in a calm, mellow tone of voice. No sudden movements. No outbursts. When he walks, he shuffles at a slow pace. I tell him that I’m having a hard time reconciling his tranquil manner with his former career as a pro-wrestler and his current hobby of training dogs to fight to the death.
It turns out he was fucking kidding.
And at that moment I realized that Raymond Pettibon is not only a brilliant artist, but also a true dyed-in-the-wool punk, and quite possibly the most underappreciated comic genius of our time. In love with the dog-faced boy?! And I fucking bought it?! I wasn’t angry in the least; I was simply stunned by the fact that he was able to think on his feet so quickly and to so deeply commit to a joke! He said that I was too nice a guy to let me keep believing the joke about the dogs, but I honestly believe that if I’d ended the interview 15 minutes earlier he would’ve let me go home and type up an article that characterized him as a pile-driving dogfighter. And, in fact, he encouraged me to do so.
He assured me, however, that he was very serious about the numerous political and artistic issues we discussed, and I expected no less. His art says it all, but Raymond says it himself just as well:
“If the pen was actually mightier than the sword, I would have a field day. It would be a fucking bloodbath.”
After that, we went out and he bought me onion rings.