From being shot at while writing graffiti in a concrete-lined river bed in Compton, California, to painting large-scale acrylic paintings found in the collections of famous musicians and actors, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s Turn the Page artist, Greg “Craola” Simkins, has bridged the genre gap with the help of fellow artists and friends, childhood books, and the brief but intense Pogs game fad.
Simkins started out painting graffiti in the early 1990s in Torrance, California, just south of the city of Los Angeles. He soon began meeting other writers from nearby Compton and South Gate who had witnessed his work, and they brought him to their own spots to letter, painting in riverbeds and under freeways off of the 405 and 710 highways outside of his home area. He exchanged black books, a graffiti artist’s prized sketchbook, with other writers, adding detailed tags of his own to theirs, a routine in which he became highly sought-after.
Before long, Simkins started wondering what more could be done with the letters he was painting, so he began to add characters and backgrounds to his graffiti work and not just to the black book sketches he was trading. In doing so, he was introduced to writers who painted with acrylics and who influenced and encouraged him to do something larger than just graffiti writing; established writers such as Axis, Nato, and Plek.
“Axis showed me what to use and how to use it, and I still respect that guy so much,” Simkins says. “Nato pushed me from just painting throw-ups and bombs into doing productions in illegal yards.”
The art became larger, and Simkins and his new friends began challenging themselves to spend a couple of days rather than a few hours lettering, but with backgrounds and characters added.
“[We were] making a point that we were there,” Simkins declares, despite the risks of being caught by the cops. Sometimes, they were chased out of the yard in which they painted and were even the target of gunshots at least once in a river bed in Compton. Still, it was worth the risk to Simkins and his friends to spend the extra time and effort necessary to paint the bigger, better productions they were on a mission to create.
Once Simkins put the pieces together between creating more detailed work he had been sketching in black books and larger productions he had been pushing himself to produce and learning to pick up a brush and use acrylics, he found a medium for bringing to life the characters and stories he had been drawing since he was a kid.
“Once I did and I picked up a brush finally, it opened up every single door that was kind of closed in my head,” he details. “All these little stories made sense because I could finally start fleshing them out.”
Still, the thought had not yet occurred to Simkins at that point in his life that painting for a living was within the realm of possibility. When he was 18, he began studying pre-veterinary medicine at a junior college but continued drawing on the side, whether by designing promotional flyers for punk bands or by creating skateboard designs for small surf shops. One of his friends, Mark, who, under the name Earl Liberty, was a former bass player for legendary punk band Circle Jerks, invited Simkins to work for him for a couple of weeks at a baseball card company in San Diego. There, Simkins used his street scene skills to design the graphics printed on Pogs, the glossy, flat game pieces of the milk caps game that became a briefly intense fad in the mid-1990s.
“For about two weeks of work, I made ten grand,” remarks Simkins. The realization of job potential, although not necessarily career potential, came to him then. “And I was like ‘Holy crap, you can make money off of art,’” he said.
“I had one art class in college and [Mark] said, ‘Why aren’t you switching your majors? You’re really good at it,’” Simkins remembers. After being encouraged by his friend and talking it out with his parents, Simkins swapped his single art class and pre-vet focus to work toward a major in Studio Art from California State University of Long Beach in 1999.
He admits that college was still not his main concentration, even after switching his area of study.
“[I was] just doing the bare minimum so I could go out and do graffiti. I wanted to hang out at the beach, go to punk shows, and do graffiti,” he lists. Through the graffiti and working with punk bands, he pushed himself to make more art. He contends that he became “the background guy” for some time. He worked on video games and painted on the side, painting whatever he wanted until someone at the gallery he worked with urged him to consider creating art for a living. Back then, he would go home late at night and paint until the early hours of the morning — something he says he would not have been able to do if he had had children then, but that was twelve years ago.
Although he still goes out with his friends to paint on a wall every once in a while, since 2005, Simkins has worked as a full-time pop surrealist artist. He is not even sure if he fully understood the pop surrealism genre when he became a part of it, or how many people the movement would influence over time, but he weirdly and somewhat surprisingly felt that he found his place there.
“I just said, ‘Oh, I fit into this,’” Simkins says. “This is where I belong. And I had a lot of friends and peers that we all kind of met around that time. And they all had similar backgrounds. And it just fit.”
Today, Simkins spends his time breathing life into characters from pop culture and eliciting creatures from his own deeply active imagination in paintings, some of which can be found in the collections of celebrities such as Josh Duhamel, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Joel Madden, and the late Robin Williams.
“It’s like an introduction to what’s going on in my head,” Simkins explains of what he hopes audiences can glean from his paintings. “If I have this idea in my head, why not put it on canvas?” Simkins avoids establishing rules which would prevent him from painting the oddities in his mind and even those from the strange worlds of some of his favorite children’s’ books.
“There was an old line from the book The Phantom Tollbooth, and he’s talking about opposites and it says, ‘He thought of birds that swim and fish that fly’ and I thought, ‘What if that did exist?’” Simkins says. “It’s got to be a place like Phantom Tollbooth or Oz or Neverland. Where you’re free to use your imagination, and it’s not going to make sense over here.” Those are the foundations of “The Outside,” which is the world Simkins says he fashions through his paintings.
While he admits that both his graffiti and paintings were once aggressive, darker, and even maniacal at a younger age when he found such themes more exciting to bring out, he now draws some of his artistic inspiration from being a father to his two children.
“Something snapped and said ‘I don’t think this is the message that I want to tell. I don’t think it’s really my story,’” Simkins says of the change in his art over time. Despite his website’s name, Imscared.com, he in now inclined to believe he likes to paint objects and characters which are beautiful, intending to use the imagination he has been given in a positive way. He focuses more on story-telling because of his kids, too. In fact, his two sons are now frequent occupants of his imaginary art world, especially his older son who often poses as the white knight character found in his paintings. He has also created stop-motion short films based on his kids.
When asked if he hopes his kids will also become artists like himself one day, Simkins said, “I hope they’ll become what they’re supposed to become. I don’t care if they become artists. I just want them to be good men.” He says he has many friends who had a rough time because they did not have a father figure in their lives. “That’s one thing I have on my side. I’m going to be there for them every step of the way. That’s the game plan. And me and my wife, we have a good relationship, and we just keep focused,” he remarks.
In September, Simkins made his first ever trip to Virginia Beach to give a master class and special live painting demonstration for the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s Turn the Page exhibition, which declares itself as “An unprecedented retrospective featuring 51 artists from the first ten year history of Hi-Fructose magazine.” Simkins, who was featured on the front cover of the California-based magazine on issues number 14 and 41, found himself at the exhibition in the midst of acclaimed artists he has looked up to throughout his career.
“Just to be invited and be amongst these artists was a big deal. I was really excited. [There were] all of the people I looked up to in this scene when I was coming up,” Simkins gushes. “My friends like Jeff Soto and Jeff Lewis are in the show so I see a lot of my buddies walking around.”
Simkins contends that the Hi-Fructose Turn the Page show is one of the best and most professional he has ever walked through, from the layout and hanging of the art to the atmosphere thick with talent as so many incredible artists exist and share together in one space. However, he finds live painting sessions, such as the one he participated in at Turn the Page, to be somewhat intimidating. He admits that he has a bit of difficulty with painting in front of an audience in the same way he would in the privacy of his own home, getting lost in his in-depth illusory world of white knights and cartoony animals.
“I’ll do a spray paint and then add acrylics to it. And do just, like, quick gestural stuff. I thought I would bring something more detailed out this time, and it’s hard to really get going working on little, small sections of areas,” Simkins explains. “It’s a whole other beast.”
Another familiar face for Simkins at Turn the Page was the artist, Attaboy, who co-founded Hi-Fructose with his wife, Annie, over ten years ago. Simkins recalls perhaps first crossing paths with Attaboy at an art show in the past, but he believes the two met at Baby Tattooville, a surrealist event held annually in Riverside, California. In a weird twist of small-world chance, Simkins also says that Attaboy was his old studio mate’s college roommate in New York.
Simkins says he was at first unsure of how Hi-Fructose would fit into the space of art magazines which was already inhabited by the defining publication Juxtapoz. In the end, he says that the competition between the two seems friendly.
Since our interview with Simkins, his “I’m Scared: The Movie,” one of the stop-motion short films about his two kids, was released, and a children’s book — Simkins’ first — version of the movie has since had a “soft” release with the help of a robust Kickstarter campaign. His first sculpture, a resin cast, with Los Angeles’ Silent Stage gallery also recently came out. At the end of September, Simkins took part in the Life is Beautiful “Crime on Canvas” group exhibition in Las Vegas.
When it comes to the rest of his future plans, Simkins simply tells us, “Then working on the next show, working on pieces; it just never stops.”
For more information about Greg “Craola” Simkins and his pop surrealism artwork, visit his website www.imscared.com.
Interview by R. Anthony Harris
Words by Jill Smith