By Ben Marks, Senior Editor, Collectors Weekly
Tyler Stout was born under a bad sign in a crossfire hurricane. Raised by a pride of pumas in the Chilean Andes, Stout learned draftsmanship from a seven-fingered alien, who found himself stranded in the Southern Hemisphere after being lured there by the lines and symbols scratched into the nearby Nazca Desert. As it turns out, the marks were a cruel prank on Stout’s multi-digit mentor, perpetrated by a rival race of three-thumbed creatures known as slurgs, who were mostly into sculpture. To this day, Stout hates three-dimensional art.
Or not. But if you talk to the artist, or just trade a bunch of emails with him as I did recently, you get the strong sense that while Stout is ultimately a generous individual (he looks disarmingly like Ron Howard), he’s also a person who values his privacy, hence our email exchange rather than a telephone call. It’s as if, to paraphrase the song, he doesn’t mind being a painter where everyone comes to look, but he’s squeamish about doing anything where his life’s an open book.
Personally, I think it’s because his fans are so damn crazy. Stout can’t even make an obvious joke about retiring from posters, as he did following a rare public appearance at Mondo’s Austin, Texas, gallery, without having his rabid fanboys take him seriously. For his part, Stout took the troll-driven kerfuffle that resulted on ExpressoBeans.com seriously enough that he posted a subsequent clarification on his blog. In short, he’s learned to be careful about what he says, so much so that in a video shot for Mondo, even Rob Jones couldn’t get a straight answer out of the affable artist.
So here’s what I think I know about Tyler Stout. He was born approximately 35 years ago (“I don’t feel a day over 50,” he quips), roughly between Portland (where the hipsters live) and Mt. St. Helens (yeah, the volcano). “I grew up in Brush Prairie, Washington, USA,” Stout says. “My great grandfather had 14 acres, my grandparents built their house here, and my parents built their house here. It’s a somewhat rural area, tractors driving down the road, that sorta thing.”
This does not sound like childhood landscape of an artist who is known for his illustrations of South Korean movie monsters and blood-soaked posters for Quentin Tarantino films, but to hear Stout tell it, there was menace even in the idyllic surroundings of his youth, as a response to a boilerplate question about his earliest childhood memory suggests.
“Weirdly enough, it was being on this hill covered in daisies,” Stout recalls. “There was a fence and this road, and I just remember it being really sunny. I think we actually had like a picnic lunch, my parents and us,” by which he means his two sisters (one older, one younger) and his younger brother. So far so good, but then: “And I might have been bit by a spider and had an allergic reaction, or that could have been another time; the memories just swirl together. Maybe it was of my great-grandparents’ house burning down. I was four, I think.”
Stout’s dad was a truck driver, first for Bowers Trucking then Yellow Freight Lines. “My mom was what they used to call a ‘desktop publisher’ but now would just be called a freelance graphic designer.” Perhaps that’s where he got his license to draw. “I wasn’t very good,” he allows, “but like most kids, I drew all the time.”
A child of the ’80s, Stout found one of his biggest inspiration in Disney afternoon cartoons, shows like Rescue Rangers, TailSpin, and DuckTales. Later he graduated to comics, but not the usual Marvel fare. He preferred “Garfield,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” and “The Far Side.”
Two years at Clark Community College (go Penguins!) in Vancouver, Washington, earned Stout an associate degree “in something weird like graphics and design,” then it was off to Western Washington University in Bellingham, where he completed a bachelors in new media. “I remember liking the big lecture classes because I could sit in the back and draw, and sleep. My least favorite class was math. I am the worst at math.”
Sometime around 2001, Stout started creating flyers and posters for small shows in Bellingham (The Showoff Gallery), Seattle (Graceland), and Portland (Berbati’s Pan). “I screenprinted my early stuff like ‘Showoff or Shutup,’ then eventually just did posters for venues who would outsource to different printers, like Brian Taylor of BLT.” While Stout made posters for bands like Mars Volta, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Shins, he was mostly into hardcore punk bands like Botch, Harkonen, and Akimbo, “I am in no way musically talented,” he adds, “but some people say I have the voice of an angel.”
Stout’s first big break occurred while he was still in Bellingham, where he was asked to contribute illustrations of Jack Black and Kyle Gass for a poster advertising a Tenacious D show at Higher Ground in Winooski, Vermont. “A guy named Joe Peila, who had graduated from Western Washington, was back visiting and saw my stuff. He was working on that Tenacious D poster in Vermont and asked me to do some stuff, which I did.” Peila was creating the poster for Jager Di Paola Kemp Design (JDK) in Burlington, Vermont. In 2002, Stout moved to Burlington to work for JDK, for whom he illustrated, among other things, the official screenprint for the 2004 music festival at Bonnaroo and an album cover (“Undermind”) for Phish.
“We had a couple different versions,” Stout recalls of the album cover, “some with cartoons, some with sketches. I believe they gave us a bunch of photos and the final result came from drawings of those. Originally, the portraits were going to be on different layers, in different colors, with each portrait combined with a letter (or letters) spelling out Phish. Many factors prevented that from happening, but they liked the portraits.”
In his spare time, Stout produced posters at Iskra Print, which he describes as “kinda a screenprinting-collective-type deal in the basement of the JDK building.” From Burlington, he also designed his first images printed by Steve Horvath and D&L Screenprinting in Seattle for shows at Berbati’s (The Incredible String Band, with support by Joanna Newson, 2004) and a Portland club called The Meow Meow (Explosions in the Sky, also 2004).
In 2005, Stout moved back to the Pacific Northwest and also began his relationship with Mondo, the Austin-based movie-poster publisher, whose fascination with Quentin Tarantino and monster movies mirrored Stout’s pop-culture obsessions. “Rob Jones contacted me and asked if I wanted to do a poster for a film festival the Alamo was putting on called QTFest. I wouldn’t say I was ready to give up on rock posters; I was young and looking for poster work and this came along and it worked out.”
Indeed. Since 2005, Stout has created several dozen images (not counting variants) for Mondo, most of which hew to what the artist loosely describes as his “people/face/action-type collage” format. The roots of that style can be seen in posters like the one he did for a 2003 show at Graceland for Les Savy Fav. “Sure, that’s probably correct,” he agrees. For some, Stout is only a movie-poster artist, but he never gave up on the gig stuff. From 2005 through 2007, he continued to produce posters for shows at mostly smaller venues in Portland, as well as art prints, including the glow-in-the-dark gem for Copious Creative.
But his career really took off in 2008: The number of assignments he received from Mondo increased, he produced his second album cover for Phish (“At the Roxy”), and then there was his relationship with Flight of the Conchords, for whom he created 10 different posters for the band’s summer 2008 U.S. tour, as well as a handful of others the following spring. One was a riff on a Beastie Boys album cover (May 14, 2009, Portland), another suggested the look of his movie posters (May 30, June 1, 2008, Los Angeles), and one even predicted the bucolic look he would give to his first Phish poster (April 19, 2009, Kent State).
“That was a challenge, definitely,” he says of his 2008 work for Flight of the Conchords.” I think it was the only time I’ve tried to make a whole series like that. I’m not sure why I’ve done so much work for them. It just worked out that way. You find people you enjoy working with and they come back and ask for more and you keep doing it. They’ve asked me more than Phish has, for sure.”
But Phish did ask, and Stout’s first poster for the band’s June 19, 2009, show in Noblesville, Indiana, remains one of my favorites by the artist. In it, Stout melds the loose, cartoony style of his college days with the almost color-by-numbers graphics of his Mondo stuff. The band’s name dominates the top half of the poster, imagined as a kind of patchwork sign that might have been cobbled together from scraps of lumber and discarded shingles found in the scene’s ramshackle barn buildings below.
Are we looking at the old homestead back in Brush Prairie? “My parents were kinda hippies back in the day,” he says. “They bought a farm out in the middle of nowhere and raised us kids pretty freely. We were outside a lot from a very young age. I guess that could have translated into ideas for Phish posters, but the person I work with at Phish headquarters is also pretty good about a free exchange of back-and-forth poster ideas, so it’s probably a mix.”
By New Year’s Eve of 2009, Stout had been tapped to create the posters for the band’s four-night run at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. But instead of individual images for each show, Stout produced a quartet of variants, known in the trade as colorways. Today, variants are a staple of poster artists, sometimes being the only way they can make any real money off their work. Stout freely admits to their monetary benefits, but for him, colorways are also an important part of the process to find out what an image can be.
“I think my very first poster I ever printed had several colorways,” he says, “printed on different types of paper. It’s always fun to play with the printing process and try out different types of materials, different colorways, discovering which colors you prefer as you print. When I started working with Alamo, Rob Jones encouraged me to try a few colorways, and we ended up doing two for my first Alamo job, QT6, a yellow colorway and a pink colorway. People seemed to like having the option of choosing which colorway they preferred, I was able to see which I preferred, and it kinda grew from there.
“Part of the reason I still do them now,” Stout continues, “is tradition, sure, but part of it is that I’ve just spent several weeks or more working on a piece and am finally ready to screenprint it. I could put all my eggs in one basket and say ‘print it this color, I am 100 percent sure about it,’ or I could do two colorways and have the ability to chose which colorway I like best after it’s printed. I feel like I’ve put so much work into something, I’ve earned the right to play a little bit with colorway options. Ultimately I do this sorta stuff for me, trying to create that one perfect piece. So variants are part of that process, part of me trying to achieve that goal.”
In recent years, Stout’s most sought rock posters have been for The Black Keys and Pearl Jam, crowned by his ‘versus’ collaboration with Jeff Soto for a Pearl Jam show in Belgium. “We were paired by the guy who organized the series, Chris Siglin, which was a real pleasure since I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s since college. He is one of the greats out there right now, and I definitely tried to let him take point. He’s the master; you have to listen to the master. He fought for the diecuts, the printing on the back, the works.”
Other than the Soto collaboration, a poster for Phish, and a pair of images each for The Black Keys and Mondo, 2012 was a relatively quiet year for Stout, so much so that some of his hardcores began to wonder if something was amiss. “Ah, the tough questions come out,” he says. “2012, what a year. Two posters did get moved back to 2013, so that might be part of it. Plus I had sad, real-life things that posters had to kinda take a backseat to, just getting things right in my life. I believe (and I am probably wrong) that things are better now, and I’m hoping 2013 is a good year. I’ll probably be hit by a bus tomorrow.”
A few days later, when asked in a subsequent email to clarify his remarks, Stout reconsiders them instead. “It’s completely uninteresting,” he asserts. “I don’t want to come off as mysterious. I should have phrased it this way: A few prints got pushed back to 2013, and a few prints got cancelled. Hopefully 2013 is a bit better of a year, a bit more productive.”
For what it’s worth, I liked his original colorway better, but I totally get why he wanted to try out a second answer to that question, just to see what it looked like.