Billy Tackett has been dubbed “The Creepiest Artist in America,” and it’s not just because he grew up in Kentucky. In addition to being creepy, he’s also pretty damn talented. Wherever he goes, he’s followed by hoards of moaning, drooling, shuffling fans, but he’s much more than just a zombie artist.
Here is our interview:
D. A. Adams: What is your first memory of painting, and then when did you realize that you wanted to be a professional?
BILLY TACKETT: I’ve always drawn but the realization that I was different happened around the age of 11 or so. And then it was because everybody started telling me I was good. To me it was just what I did. I’m not sure what really happened around that time, it could have been that my skills took a great leap or that I started putting my art out there more. I’m leaning towards the latter because I recently found a book I had as a kid in which I had attempted to recreate the front cover inside the front cover. And it wasn’t too bad!
During my teenage years I started seeing all this great album art from groups like Iron Maiden and Megadeth as well as book covers like Lumley’s Necroscope series and it clicked; People actually get paid to do cool stuff like this! That somewhere out there there’s somebody that will hand over cash to draw the same stuff I was drawing at the time. And it was a little after that time that I also realized that drawing was quite possibly the only thing I was good at so I really had no choice.
An author and screenwriter by the name of J. Neil Schulman gave me my first opportunity as an illustrator doing covers for his company Pulpless back in 1999. I haven’t looked back!
DA: What kinds of materials do you use, and why did you choose them?
BILLY: I have given most traditional mediums a try at some point in my career. I have pretty much settled in on oils, pencil and ink. I also use Photoshop a little but that is primarily for design work and a few specialty projects. I think as an artist you really don’t choose the medium but that it chooses you. I feel as though I had fumbled around trying different things for years and finally got the nerve to give oils a try. I should have tried them years earlier! It all just clicked. I feel as though each piece of art is a problem to be solved. If one chooses to use watercolors to solve the problem it requires a certain mindset whereas if one chooses oils as the means to solve the problem the approach is different and so on. For the problem to be solved successfully the medium must match the artist’s mind. I know it’s pretty esoteric stuff but it’s really the only way I can explain the connection I feel with some mediums and not others.
DA: Can you describe your creative process from the moment of inspiration to the completed piece? On average, how long do you spend on a piece?
BILLY: Since I do a lot of commissioned illustrations the inspiration usually comes from a brainstorming session with the client and sometimes the ideas just hit me and sometimes the ideas are like pulling teeth! Once the idea has been established I’ll do a really rough sketch exactly as I see it in my head without giving it much thought. I’ll take the idea and ask myself how I can take this and make it interesting. Moving stuff around, zooming in, cropping, creative lighting, more action, less action etc. After I’ve gathered all my reference photos I’ll do a semi-finished drawing, scan it and then transfer it to the actual size I’ll be rendering it. The semi-finished drawing allows me to work out any problems I hadn’t thought of in the rough sketch phase. From there I’ll either complete the drawing or I’ll begin painting. And the entire time the creative process is a fluid thing. I can’t let myself get attached to one part of the piece because as I move along I may have to alter it or remove it if necessary.
DA: Some of your most popular pieces involve taking iconic images from Americana and re-imagining them through a Zombie filter. Where did the inspiration for that motif come from? Was there a specific moment when you began doing that or was it a gradual process?
BILLY: The original piece, the black & white ink rendering of Zombie Sam which can be seen all over the internet now, was originally done for a publication called Fleshrot which was an anthology style graphic novel type book. I really don’t know where the idea came from. I just needed a one page zombie image and I probably just thought it was cool. It became pretty popular and I Zombie Sam would be a good candidate for my new found oil painting skills. He was completed for my very first convention appearance. After a few shows his popularity had grown so much that I decided a companion would be a good idea. Thus was the birth of Fannie the Flesheater, my zombified Rosie the Riveter. And the I decided to do another. Since I’m very patriotic I decided to stick with the American theme came up with the name Dead White & Blue. With the positive reactions the paintings have been getting I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon!
You can even look forward to Dead White & Blue graphic novel later this year as well as other cool merchandise.
DA: Who are your biggest artistic influences?
BILLY: Artistically speaking Norman Rockwell, horror artist Basil Gogos, Marvel cover artist Bob Larkin, legendary Gene Colan and Jack Kirby, pulp fiction artist Norman Saunders, Iron Maiden’s Derek Riggs and the one and only Bob Eggleton.
DA: Outside of art, what else has influenced and/or inspired you?
BILLY: The spoof magazines Mad, Cracked & Crazy, old horror flicks (especially low budget ones!), 70’s comic books, 70s and 80s rock n roll, and cartoons. When I think back these are what comes to mind first. I think the Mad Magazine type publications is where my sense of humor came from. I never realized until recently that my Dead White & Blue series draws direct inspiration from this form of literature and art.
DA: You spend a lot of time on the Con circuit. Can you describe what a Con weekend means to you? What’s your favorite aspect of fandom and what could you live without?
BILLY: A con weekend is stressful. The week before we have to get prints and other merchandise re-stocked and get the van packed and travel reservations confirmed. Actual travel is pretty good. My wife Heather usually sleeps and I always have an audio book to listen to. Then we get there, usually late, and we have to set up. Our display and inventory keeps getting bigger and bigger as does the set up headaches. After that it’s great everything’s great. Always meeting interesting people. We’ve been doing this so much that now it seems no matter what show, no matter what city we’re always meeting up with old friends. Getting to hang out after hours is quite possibly my favorite time of the show.
I think my favorite aspect of fandom and my least favorite aspect is the same thing. Our society seems to be so fad oriented that it’s hard to find anyone that is truly into one or two things. We are very ADD and we’re always on the look out for that next big sparkly thing to latch on to. But I meet so many people that are so passionate about one or two things, be it as general as zombies or sci-fi or as specific as Star Trek or X-men, and they love what they love so much. And talking to them is amazing because this passion shows through. It’s hard to find that sparkle in peoples eyes out on the streets.
On the flip side of that coin people can get so wrapped up in their own little corner of fandom that they can miss out on a lot of other cool stuff. Or worse, they may regard everything else as irrelevant and silly. I have had people at horror cons dismiss me because I don’t have a lot of fan art from horror movies. Or at sci-fi/fantasy shows they may think that I do only zombies and refuse to see all the other types of art I do.
Fandom passion: good. Fandom closed mindedness: bad.
DA: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your fans? How can people find you and your work online?
BILLY: I’d just like to thank you guys for digging my stuff. I’m very blessed that I can do what I love and make a living out of it. And that’s because of you zombie-lovin’ freaks out there!
My website is www.billytackett.com. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and all that nerdy stuff. Links to that are on my homepage. That’s where you can also find the listing of where we’ll be for the rest of the year. We’ve been given the opportunity to be guests at shows in Toronto and Seattle later this year so that will give us the opportunity to zombify whole new groups of folks! And keep your eyes peeled for my book For The Love Of Monsters that will be available in a couple months.