Underground death metal illustrator Mark Riddick has spent close to three decades dealing with the shadow side of art and music.
His work doesn’t whisper, it screams. You can hear the melodic brutality from the bands he designs for (everyone from Arch Enemy and Dying Fetus to Morbid Angel and Warbringer) leaking out his illustrations.
Drawn to his distinctly gruesome black-and-white style, we joined dark forces with the artist to create our newest designs: Infernal Eternity, Reaper, Sanctus and Vanquish.
Kindly, he took the time to talk to us about his inspiration, how his process has evolved, unlikely collaborations with Justin Bieber and Rihanna, what metal albums he’d take to a desert island with him, and, naturally, death.
Which came first for you - the death metal or the art?
My sincere interest in art began around age six. I recall drawing robots, knights, dinosaurs and comic book characters, collaborating on various creative endeavors with my twin brother. It wasn’t until 1986, at the age of 10, that I took an interest in heavy metal music, which led me on my death metal path a few years afterward.
In 1991, I discovered the underground death metal scene, which involved tape trading and corresponding with several fans, bands, music distributors, record labels, and fanzine editors around the world via mail.
It was essentially a worldwide subculture of extreme music fans that existed before the Internet. As a teenager, I found this to be a valuable outlet for my art and took full advantage of my dual passion for drawing and metal music.
Where do you go for reference images? Do you have a dungeon full of real skulls? Or is it all from your dark imagination?
Typically, I seek out the work of other metal music illustrators when looking for inspiration. I do have a few replica skulls and some poseable figures that I utilize - and I reference from anatomy drawing books in my collection or various anatomy apps on occasion.
Most artists have a visual language that can be mentally referenced when filling in the gaps of a creative piece, such as particular iconography or repeated elements that make an appearance across a broad swath of illustrations or paintings.
I think specific repetitive visual elements (icons, symbols, colors, subject matters, media) expressed in each artist’s work is part of what makes their vision distinct. All art is regurgitated - it’s up to the artist to translate the world around them in their own unique way (I believe this is coined by the term, originality).
Let’s play a game of death metal desert island discs: which eight tracks, one book and which one luxury would you take to a desert island?
The luxury I would take with me would be a water purifier, the book would be God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late and great thinker, Christopher Hitchens. It’s difficult to narrow down eight specific tracks but here is a list of eight albums I’d love to accompany me:
1.Pestilence “Consuming Impulse”
2.Death “Scream Bloody Gore”
3.Gorguts “Considered Dead”
5.Agatus “The Eternalist”
6.Septic Flesh “Mystic Places of Dawn”
7.Sacral Rage “Beyond Celestial Echoes”
8.Dead Can Dance “Into the Labyrinth”
How did you develop your style?
My artistic approach has been shaped by my nostalgia for old school death metal. I often try to emulate the demo tape and fanzine covers I poured over in my youth during the early 90s, preserving that look and feel through my illustrations.
Black and white has become a very integral part of my visual brand as an artist - a holdover from the early 90s when demo tape inlays and fanzines were do-it-yourself cut & paste endeavors reproduced in black and white via photocopiers. In fact, I still use photocopy (or printer) paper to do my drawings on - the only improvement I’ve made is that I’ve graduated from using Bic ballpoint pens to high quality Micron and Sakura brush pens for my ink work.
In terms of my illustrative style, I employ a variety of inking techniques, to include cross hatching, stippling, contrasting lines, and thick/thin brush strokes.
Is there a thought process behind the symbology in your illustrations?
I’m ultimately attempting to convey the message that death comes for us all, in the most grotesque, putrid, and decrepit way possible.
I believe it’s a vital part of our humanity to pause and ponder our inevitable end at some point in our lives - it helps us understand our own human value and the value of others around us. Realizing our own temporal limitation opens the path to doubt, introspection, philosophy, humility, science, reason, and wisdom... among other things.
As well as hundreds of underground metal bands, you’ve done design work for pop artists - looking at Rihanna and Justin Bieber in particular! How the devil did that happen?
Although I’m most comfortable illustrating in the realm of extreme metal, I’m not opposed to opening my abilities up to challenges outside of my preferred genre. I’ve managed to accept a variety of assignments in various industries including television and film, auto, food and beverage, fashion, and other styles of music.
The Justin Bieber commission came from Fear of God fashion designer, Jerry Lorenzo. Bieber is a fan of Jerry Lorenzo’s style, so Jerry was asked to provide some stage looks for Justin that could also translate to a merchandise line in support of his “Purpose” tour. I’d worked with Jerry previously on an assignment for some Kanye West merchandise, which ultimately went unpublished, so he was already familiar with my work and asked if I could come up with some “Bieber” logo concepts on a tight deadline for the tour. I obliged and after several rounds of sketches, settled on a few that were published on merchandise and branding materials in support of the tour.
A few weeks later, I received a request from Willo Perron’s office, an environmental designer. He asked if I could come up with t-shirt illustrations for a 2016 MTV Video Music Awards performance. I didn’t find out until later in the process that they were commissioned for Rihanna. I ended up illustrating three pieces that were worn on stage by her dancers during one of her performances at the awards show. Coincidently, my counterpart, Christophe Szpajdel - well known for the thousands of metal logos he’s illustrated - was also involved with the collaboration for Rihanna.
What are your thoughts on metal aesthetics drifting into the mainstream? Whether that’s music, art or fashion…
I believe metal aesthetics is a fashion statement, a bold and influential one. I don’t have any problem with metal aesthetics drifting into the mainstream or any other subculture. Creative individuals will do what they want to express themselves, even if that means borrowing, being inspired by, or paying homage to other cultural movements.
There’ll always be good art and bad art, or tastefully appropriated art and poorly executed appropriation. Although aesthetics rest in the eye of the beholder, sound design principles, if carefully followed, can make art pleasing, enjoyable, and utilitarian.
How do you deal with negative opinions towards your art? Do you ever get outraged feedback from the wicked gruesomeness in some imagery?
I’m not very concerned with how people feel about my art.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful when someone has something nice to say about my work, but it’s up to me, as the creator, to decide if I’m comfortable with my own creative output.