Ken Taylor: The So What! Interview
Ken Taylor might come across as a rather quiet, unassuming fellow, but by the end of their conversation, Steffan Chirazi became convinced he might well be some sort of lupine-human hybrid.
Yeah, yeah, you’ve just read that introduction and thought, “What a load of bollocks, typical over-the-top guffery from the hyperbolic ol’ British buffoon.” Except you didn’t see what I saw 25 minutes into my zoom call with Melbourne-based artist extraordinaire Ken Taylor. We discussed our mutual appreciation for An American Werewolf in London. (He did an excellent poster of the Tottenham Court Road tube station platform with the aftermath of the werewolf’s work on a man. Well, either that or the poor bastard had imploded waiting for a direct train to Neasden.) Thus we got to talking about the brilliant werewolf transformation.
“I used to wonder whether I could change into one,” Taylor pondered, “my shoulders are double-jointed, see?” At which point his t-shirt was off enough for me to see his shoulders clicking and clacking into contorted shapes that shoulders shouldn’t – unless you’re a Rick Baker werewolf. As he threw his shoulders around the screen, he tossed a glance in my direction. I swear I saw a red twinkle in what had been previously a fairly normal eye. And what appeared to be – by human standards anyway – an unfeasibly large incisor (aka fang) peeking out from a quietly malevolent grin. I was assuaged by the fact that it was morning in Melbourne, and as such, he most likely would not be able to protrude his snout, enlarge, and stretch his hands into paws with claws, or for that matter, reach me…
Look, again, you can chuckle and titter and write this off as nonsense. But I’d implore you to take a look at Taylor’s latest offering to Metallica: an unnervingly raw, feral “Of Wolf And Man.” Then consider that perhaps this visceral offering to The Black Album poster series was a case of Taylor depicting the man in the mirror instead of a werewolf from imagination.
He chuckled wryly, offered a few quiet pleasantries in response, and on we moved. Ken Taylor wasn’t about to fully out himself to So What!, but as I said, that shoulder circus was insanity.
Before this revelation of Ken Taylor, the possible werewolf, there had been a conversation about Ken Taylor, the artist. Because there once was a young Ken whose shoulders were an unknown entity, whose only focus was on art.
“I’ve been obsessed with drawing ever since, well, ever since I can remember,” he’d said quietly. “I remember my mum telling me that teachers were just going, ‘This kid is obsessed.’ We’d have to write like a little story,” he’d grinned. “Mine would be this tiny little story and then a big illustration of a fucking truck jumping over a sand pile. I was into The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fall Guy, and all those ’80s TV shows. I don’t know if you guys had it in the US, but there’s a TV show called Mr. Squiggle. Basically, it was this puppet with a big pencil for a nose, and there was a blackboard which was also like a puppet. There was a lady who was the host of the show called Miss Jane. And this Mr. Squiggle puppet would land in the studio in this kind of rocket; it had a hole where its pencil would come out of the rocket. Miss Jane would open up the rocket, and then basically, they would pull up a drawing sent in by a viewer, which was a couple of random lines. And Mr. Squiggle would turn it into an illustration of some description with his nose. I watched that show from when I was three or something, however old I would’ve been to comprehend the idea and to start copying it.”
The young Squiggle-loving Taylor would morph into a graffiti-creating, hip-hop-loving youth in high school. The love of graffiti has never left him.
“I grew up to be obsessed by it,” he’d explained, again very calmly, “and obviously graffiti goes very much hand in hand with hip hop. So the idea of a union between art and culture, whether it’s music, emceeing, DJ-ing, break dancing, graffiti. The idea of art and music together was something that naturally found me. A lot of my friends and my sister were all in bands in Perth, and I guess my own ego wanted to get my artwork out there. It’s the same as graffiti; it’s all about getting up, getting it out there, and getting known. I love music, and I love art, so [it felt like] the fusion of the two could also help me get my art out there. And that became the seed to doing this kind of thing. So, parties, little record covers for friends’ bands, all that kinda stuff. My music tastes certainly expanded around the time I was in college, and I would always listen to music while I drew. I would draw pictures not just because I needed to for some kind of ‘job,’ but more just that I enjoyed doing it recreationally.”
I had already noticed that much of Taylor’s work – whatever the genre – carried a wild, untrained, animalistic sensibility. I wondered (out loud, as you do when interviewing someone) what the reason behind that might’ve been?
“I’m not really sure, to be honest,” Ken had said with a slightly bemused expression. “At the same time as this poster will be coming out, I’m doing a frigging Dave Matthews Band poster, which is revolving around a girl. And it’s really beautiful, with lots of patterns and all that kinda stuff. I like the idea of being able to release ‘Of Wolf and Man’ and a Dave Matthews Band poster and for them to be completely different. But I agree with you. They’ve all got a certain look, a dark element to them. I guess I like getting lost in detail. And I don’t really care if that detail is the contents of someone’s ripped open stomach or the intricacies of flowers and birds’ feathers or something.”
“The contents of someone’s ripped open stomach,” words which rolled out of Taylor as if he was informing me what breakfast had been earlier…which perhaps…? Well, anyway, I had proceeded to ask Ken if he was an “outdoorsy” sort, as his work indeed suggested he might be.
“Well, I live in a forest area, so I go for a run every day through the forest,” he’d said, again slightly bemused by the question. “The garden here is quite big and has lots of trees and flowers, so that’s a real reference point for me.”
He’d suddenly dropped into deeper thought, and his brow had furrowed slightly.
And I do feel like I look at things differently. It’s weird; I can see it coming through in my own kids now. A really, really early memory is looking at the front of cars, and even the side of cars, where a wheel latch goes over a wheel, and that would trigger a face for me. Not the two headlights and a bumper bar. The side of a car! I was reading about it by chance, and that’s an actual thing. The article was almost describing it like it was a bit of a defect in the brain, but I’ve always relished the fact that I can look at things, and [others] can’t. It’s like looking at a cloud, and you’re going, ‘Oh, I can see a dragon,’ but on a whole new level. I can look at a cloud, the bark formation in a tree, things like that, and they can remind me of other things. And my daughter, particularly the youngest one, has said exactly the same thing.”
We’d then moved on to discussing music, in particular how Ken came to Metallica’s tunes.
“It’s a funny story, actually. When I was in year ten English class at school, we had to interpret a song and talk about it. My music tastes expanded a lot when I got older, but at that time, I chose ‘Angel of Harlem’ by U2, and regrettably so,” he chuckled. “But these other kids in the class chose ‘One’ by Metallica and played the video. I’d never heard it before, and it fucking just blew me away, and also the whole story behind that song, the video, I just thought it was amazing. And so much deeper than fucking ‘Angel of Harlem!’ And so, from that point on, I always had an appreciation for metal and, in particular, Metallica. With regard to The Black Album, I mean, that was just huge when I was in high school in Perth.”
I’d wondered whether he had selected “Of Wolf And Man” himself or another song to illustrate?
“Yeah, they had asked me to do a different song, but I liked the idea of ‘Of Wolf and Man.’ I feel it sounds a bit more like an old-school Metallica song. Like it’s not trying to be too, sort of, I don’t know, conceptual. It’s like a fun sort of metal song rather than super deep about this and this and this. And I just really liked the idea of drawing a werewolf. And I liked the idea of having the thistles in front of it, spiky and ‘it hurts you,’ but at the end of the day, it was not overly conceptual. I just wanted to do something that was really punchy and strong and fun to draw, like I really enjoyed making that a lot.”
It was around this time that the quiet Ken Taylor had started to show his hand a bit more. Earlier, we’d had entrails invoked. Soon, snakes in the undergrowth of a human chest would become part of the conversation.
“You know, I did a poster last year for a [show that had to be postponed]. I feel like it’s the best art I’ve done for Metallica, but no one’s seen it,” he said with a controlled frustration. “It was basically a forest grave scene with a snake kind of winding its way through the ribcage.”This became a natural moment to ask about just what had influenced the stupendous wolf in his piece, the one which had made me think of An American Werewolf In London.
“I feel like it’s actually a little more like The Howling rather than An American Werewolf in London,” he stated (and I wasn’t going to argue with such stating). “Both of those two movies really moved me as a kid, and the whole werewolf idea just really fascinated me.” He’d grinned and revealed his aforementioned, nearly transformational talents and told of his attempts to mutate into a werewolf as a child.
I believe in the power of confession in these circumstances. No one will convince me that between the blades, the eyes, and that hint of fang, Ken Taylor wasn’t trying to tell me something.
Again, look at that wolf in his work and tell me that isn’t something straight from the belly of a beast.