Alright, I’m just going to come right out and say it: Jason Cruz is one of the best artists working in the scene today. Hell, if it’s still confessional time, I’d go so far to say he’s one of the greatest artists the scene has ever known. Yea, pretty bold statements (and what does my opinion matter, right?), but if his work doesn’t sway you by the end of this interview then… hell, I don’t know. Try and convince me I’m wrong.
“Fuck… ME!” How many times have I heard something said to that effect after someone checks out Cruz‘s work? Fuck if I know. If my brain could retain that much information I’d be far away from this snow, sitting on a beach somewhere counting all my money. There’s a bunch of reasons why his work gets such a reaction. For one, it’s the staggering level of craftsmanship on display. Cruz is shoulder to shoulder with the artists he idolized. Another reason is his ability to capture a truthful moments that so many of us can relate to. Moments that bring us back to a certain time and place (far-off distant planets included). But the big reason for me is… well, I guess it all boils down to this: when I look at his work, I’m yanked outta my chair and dropped right into the picture. His work is full of stories:
It’s a beautiful day, but this dude’s bike is fucked. Thing’s are really starting to get uncomfortable, ’cause as he struggles to get her going (without that damn tool he left on the bench), his girl’s really getting pissed off. She hasn’t even opened her mouth yet but, scratch that, here it comes: “Every fucking time… I thought you said you already fixed this thing… ” Blah blah blah. Man, I wish there was something I could do to diffuse this situation, but I can’t ’cause they’re only god-damned drawings! Cursed to live out my scenario forever. Good luck, buddy.
Whoa, is that the time? Geez, this interview is about to get started! I haven’t even mentioned yet about how Cruz can jump back and forth between styles without losing a beat, or how he gracefully tips his hat to the old masters with his badass collages. Wait, WAIT! What about that time I found myself standing on this alien world, gazing down at this smokin’ hot chick all stretched out on the grass? Dude, she totally wanted me, but I couldn’t choose between her or that sexy chopper sitting just a few feet away! Hold on… gimme a second! How ’bout that insane painting with the axe-wielding reaper flying his trike through the air? Whoooaaa! I was so fucking ripped when I first saw that! Swore to anyone who’d listen how Frazetta faked his death and was back and better than ever! Oh yea, and what about…
You were exposed to bikes and hot rods at an early age, with Easyriders Magazine in particular making a huge impression. Can you recall any moments from back then that helped steer you towards a life-long pursuit in kustom kulture?
My Uncle used to have Easyriders on the toilet tank at my grandmothers house when I was between 5-10 years old. I’d flip through the pages of bikes and naked chicks and focus on the cartoony style of the Dave Mann illustrations. Around the same time, my dad was taking me to the World of Wheels car shows at McCormick Place where they sold Robert Williams posters. Both artists had a very colorful and illustrative style of story telling in everything they did, and as a kid, that appealed to me. I also had an older cousin who for some reason had the “Wild Angels” album and I used to always pull it out when I went to visit him and just stared at it while listening to Jan and Dean records and racing our Hot Wheels cars. It trips me out when I think of how little things like that really tapped into my psyche at such an early age. Ironically, I didn’t draw a car or bike until the age of about thirty five. Go figure.
Who were some of the artists back then that blew your mind?
Well, I just talked about the first two. Around 8th grade, I started getting into graffiti and my inspirations changed to the early graff. writers like Seen, Lee, Scheme, etc. I was into that scene up until my early twenties but never really felt like I fit in because I wasn’t Johnny Hip Hop. I managed to get into M.S.K. and used to paint with Fate, Dame and Bus right before hanging up my spray cans (which I still kinda regret). I remember doing a Coop devil head in an alley in Compton just after his first show at La Luz De Jesus Gallery around ’92. I made it clear that it was a tribute to him and thanked him for the inspiration on the wall. I still have a pic of it somewhere. Coop‘s work at that time really hit me hard and I can’t emphasize enough how enamored I was with his stuff back then because he was doing everything I was hoping to develop with my own work. He had a tremendous impact on me back then because he was really the only artist out there creating the exact imagery I had in my head and doing it with a skill level that I still can’t touch 25 years later. He came to say “Hi’ to me at this past Born Free show and I pretty much shit my pants. Nowadays, there are so many talented dudes doing cycle art, it’s hard to name them all. EZ, Adam Nickle and Gorgeous George are truly amazing dudes and keep me on my toes.
The art you create often includes elements of fantasy and science fiction. Did you grow up digging dudes like Frazetta and Vallejo, or read stuff like Heavy Metal Magazine? Underground comix?
Definitely, I used to go to 7-11 and read the old Conan The Barbarian comics and Heavy Metal, but the one that I really gravitated towards was Cartoons Magazine. They had an artist by the name of Shawn Kerri who was super young and insanely talented. Another artist that I still can’t hold a candle to 25 years later. She also did a bunch of eighties punk album and band art and created the Circle Jerks slam dance character. She mysteriously stopped working and there are endless rumors to her being dead or a crippled junky etc. Sad story.
Oh, wow, thanks man. It’s not so much that I’m trying to keep it interesting but more that I get an idea and go in that style or direction. I’m fortunate that I’ve worked for a ton of different companies with different needs and styles. It’s forced me to be diverse in my work and as a freelancer, it’s become a commodity. If you were to ask me to do a big body of work in one style, I’d probably get bored after the third piece and lose interest. As far as a preference, I’d have to say painting with any wet medium truly makes me the happiest. I honestly don’t paint very often due to the fact that I love napping and playing Xbox while drinking whiskey more than just about anything else. I look at guy’s like Burrito Breath, Dirty Donny and other prolific artists and admire their drive and work ethic. I’m a lazy artist man! On one side I hate that about myself. On the other hand, it’s just who I am and I can’t really aspire to be someone I’m not. Whatever, I have a good time.
The cover you created for issue 25 of DiCE Magazine is one of my favorites, and the series of builder posters you put together for them is epic! How did those projects come about, and would you consider that work to be the stuff that got you noticed?
Thanks again! Matt and Dean were very instrumental in my introduction into the scene. I met them at a van show in Pasadena and we hit it off right away. They really have the most influential magazine of the past ten plus years. I wanted to be a magazine centerfold artist since I was a kid, unfortunately, magazines are a dying breed and it doesn’t have the same impact it did fifteen years ago. . After our first hang out, I created the “Vantasy” piece and proposed to them the idea of me doing centerfolds on a regular basis. They were into it and I gave them a list of the six dudes I wanted to illustrate first. My intent was to create a series of posters that historically documented the current scene and gave props to the guy’s who really were the forefathers of the vintage cycle scene revival. In that list was Chopper Dave, Shinya Kimura, Scott Craig, Jason Jesse, Max Schaff, and Cole Foster. They decided to switch out a few of those dudes so it wasn’t all about the California builders. I was a little bummed because as far as I was concerned, in 2006 or so, they were the most influential dudes out there regardless of their location. I had never worked in Illustrator before but wanted a very clean look to my images so I built that series completely in illustrator and hand drew the figures and then colored them in Photoshop. It was a super long process that was very technical and I just didn’t enjoy creating work in that style. It was an exploration into developing my personal style and vector art of that caliber was unique at the time. Funny thing is, I had those prints for sale at Born Free a couple years ago and didn’t sell one.
You’ve gone on to create such iconic pieces for Loser Machine, Heavy Clothing, Love Cycles, Factory Metal Works, Old Gold Garage… hell, even stuff for Harley Davidson, Hot Wheels, and Jesse James! Were there any projects that turned out to be really challenging, or just a whole lot of fun?
All of them are challenging for one reason or another but the ones that are the most fun are the ones I more or less create for myself and pitch to the company. Pieces like “Lay Don’t Slay”, “Hell Rider” (reaper on the trike), “Home Grown”, for Loser Machine as well as the Wrench Magazine centerfolds were the most rewarding. The DiCE cover is such a personal favorite of mine due to the impact it had on my life and the fact that it was really the first time you saw a space scene with a bike and a chick since maybe Dave did it back in the day. Nowadays, it’s pretty much the standard for cycle illustrations and that puts a lot of pressure on me to do something that’s outside the box. We all pull from the same reference box now and with every cool image ever created over the past 50 years posted a hundred times on the internet, it’s forcing us all as artists to dig deeper and be more true to ourselves as far as inspiration. Overall it’s a great thing because I think all of us (including myself), were getting lazy about creating truly unique art based off of our own creativity.
Yep, quit trying to get your name out there. Focus on finding yourself instead.
You’re also a founding member of the Vandoleros Van Club, which, from what I understand, grew out of the guys in southern California who frequented the Long Beach Cycle Swap. How’s the club doing these days, and do you all have some cool stuff lined up for the new year?
It’s been five years now since we started the club and the club is stronger than ever. It’s gone from being anyone interested in vans and bikes, to a family of close knit brothers who love each other dearly. The vans are secondary to our friendship and that has honestly made us a legit club vs. a club that focuses on the vehicle over relationships. We have no leadership or hiearchy. Everyone in the club is a unique individual capable of being a president or leader in their own regard. I’m really proud of the fact that our club is full of individual thinkers and craftsman. We are probably the only club in history that really has been a hybrid of the biker culture and the hot rod scene. We don’t really fit in with either crowd but are welcomed in both. It took awhile for car guy’s to get into vans, it really grew this time from the cycle scene instead of the surfer/hotrod scene. Now the traditional hot rod guys are buying vans and the seventies aren’t looked at as the ugly stepchild of hot rod history. That’s really what we set out to achieve and it’s come to fruition. Nowadays, we aren’t concerned with trying to get people interested in vanning. We have nothing to prove anymore so we just enjoy ourselves.
My daily driver is a shitty ’96 Honda Civic that looks like it’s melting from the back due to an accident and a shitty tint job. My van is a ’74 Ford Econoline with all the hard to find seventies goodies. My bike was built by L.A. Speedshop for another dude and is in the process of being completely redone. I ran out of money after Born Free and it’s kind of been in limbo since July, but I’m back on track with it now and hope to have it done for BF7. It’s a ’79 Ironhead.
What are you drawing next? Any upcoming projects you wanna share?
Well, I took a full-time gig at Hot Wheels this September doing packaging so my personal art is kinda taking a back seat right now due to my full-time job and spending time with my family. I have a four year old daughter so it’s tough to come home and work more. I’m still doing stuff for my clients like Loser Machine, Harley and Factory Metal Works as well as random stuff that pops up each month. I’m really anxious to do more painting for myself as that really seams to be the stuff that propels me creatively. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I’d like to do but I can’t complain. I’d love to just have some time to sit and build some vintage van and chopper models (which I collect), and indulge in the finer things in life like doing nothing.
I’m extremely nostalgic and miss my past, so part of me really want’s to go back in time and spend it with the many friends and family I’ve lost throughout the years. The other part of me wants to transcend space and time and live eternally exploring the outer reaches of the universe with a consciousness of my past, present and future. What fun would it be if I couldn’t be mind blown while flying through the sun of a distant galaxy or being able to look in on my great grand kids lives. Sounds over thought and like I’m reaching for something cool to say but it’s the truth.
I’m right there with ya! Thanks again for setting some time aside for this interview. It’s been a blast and a real treat having you on here, and I look forward to seeing all the amazing stuff you don’t know you’re even going to draw yet! Take care, man!
Thanks so much for caring about my work, you truly asked me questions I hadn’t asked myself. I’m very humbled!
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