Toys in the Attic - Frank Kozik

Published: 30 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

In every city, around every corner, talented folks with interesting tattoos and compelling stories to accompany them are just waiting to be pestered by Skin Deep staffers. Designer toy revolutionary Frank Kozik is no exception.

Born in Madrid, Spain, but calling the United States home since the age of 14, Kozik is credited with reviving the lost art of concert posters – he’s worked with the likes of Pearl Jam, Neil Young and Sonic Youth – as well as with being a driving force behind the explosive designer toy movement, which started in the ’90s. Big achievements for a completely self-taught artist.  

“I can remember being maybe five and spending a lot of time copying maps with coloured pencils out of an atlas. I drew a lot of typical kid stuff, ships, airplanes, animals and so on, then went on to try and copy stuff by graphic novel artists like Moebius in the ’60s and ’70s. Once punk hit in like ’79 I got into doing crude collage work and that was pretty much the start of my ‘career’.”

Although Kozik left the music business and his gig as poster designer and manager of his own record label, Man’s Ruin Records, in 2001 – “I had been in that world for a good 20 years and was kinda tired of it; rock art is a ghetto of sorts”- it was a successful concert poster that solidified his desire to turn his artistic skills into a full-time profession.  

“Around 1987, I won Poster of the Year in a local newspaper for a Butthole Surfers poster I had for a local venue and I figured this had to be good for something – I was driving a truck for a living at the time. So on the strength of that recognition, I lied my way into a production art job at a local print shop, even though I knew nothing. I learned pretty quick on the job and after about a year I went full-time independent. Been doing it ever since.”

It’s A Toy’s World

Since jumping into the designer toy world, Kozik has created some of the most sought-after characters, including the Smorkin’ Labbit, and is also infamous for his busts, such as Dead Che.

Oftentimes collaborating with Kidrobot, one of the world’s biggest toy producers and retailers, Kozik also maintains his own company, Ultraviolence, for the stranger things up his sleeve.

“Often, it’s not economically realistic for a large company to take a chance on an expensive and unproven large-sized weird ‘art piece’, so I do the Ultraviolence releases on my own since the risk for me is minimal. This way the toy companies can concentrate on proven types of items and I can still experiment.”

As for his relationship with Kidrobot, Kozik started out as a fan and, being asked to be a collaborator, was glad to accept, following an inkling that something special was bubbling up.  

“When Kidrobot first set up their online shop, I started buying stuff from them. After a few orders, their founder Paul Budnitz called me and asked if I was the same person who had done the toy releases in Japan and he asked if I would work with them. I was ready and it really worked out well. That was about nine years ago.

“As far as it being a ‘movement’, I had a gut feeling. I really liked the first ones I saw and figured it just had to be. Apparently, quite a few people ended up feeling the same way. Also, who doesn’t like a toy? It’s a good excuse for an adult to play with toys. I mean, ‘art’.”

But if you think there’s a secret to churning out one iconic piece after another, you’re wrong.

“Some happen easily and do well, others take years and maybe don’t. It’s a mixed bag and there doesn’t seem to be any formula for success. You have to be willing to adapt and go with the flow, but still do odd things at the same time. It’s difficult to explain rationally, I sort of don’t think about it too much and tend to go with my first feelings. It’s worked out well, I seem to have some success in the field.”

The Smorkin’ Labbits Are Coming

Perhaps one of Kozik’s most beloved and iconic characters is the Smorkin’ Labbit whose existence, it just so turns out, was a bit of a lucky fluke. But aren’t all great things?

“Literally drawn on a beer coaster in a bar in Japan. I had been over there quite a bit doing weird artsy stuff and had developed quite a Hello Kitty obsession; this was around 1996. My Japanese friends did not understand. To them the Kitty stuff was trash, so they said I should do my own version, hence Labbit. He smokes, drinks, fucks… he’s not a real nice character. The misspelling was a happy accident. It was supposed to be Smokin’ Rabbit, but on the first production toy, the Japanese firm had mislabelled the boxes Smorkin’ Labbit and it was just too genius not to steal and rename the character as that.”

With new limited edition versions coming out regularly, including the most recent Bondage Labbit, the damn things have been taking over my home for years, which is precisely why Kozik doesn’t let them set foot in his house.

“Zero tolerance in the home environment! The studio is, of course, hip-deep in Labbits and toys of all sorts. Bit of a nightmare, actually.”

Kozik Ink

Although he hasn’t had new ink in years, Kozik’s collection of tattoos is top-notch. Clocking in at over two dozen, he has come a long way since “a crappy heart with a knife through it in ’76 or ’77 from a tattoo and airbrushed T-shirt stall at a flea market by a dude called Spider Webb. $15 I think it cost. Long covered up!”

However, every time the itch for something new came along, the process of settling on a specific design was anything but easy. “I would get the idea, then obsess and draw it a million times on paper and stand in front of the mirror and all that, so one second of inspiration, months of obsession, then the tattooing. I hate being tattooed, actually. The smell and noise make me feel ill. Doesn’t seem to hurt too much, but it’s that smell!”

So what did Frank Kozik end up with after enduring all those smelly sessions? Here goes…  

“The chest piece is two eagles fighting over a sacred heart; it is about the Spanish Civil War. I grew up in Spain and my family was divided by the war, fighting on both sides – it was still a daily subject when I was a kid in the ’60s.

“The family was bitterly divided between hardcore fascists and hardcore communists, so this piece is sort of a tribute to that. One eagle holds the fascist symbols and a banner with the war slogan ‘Todo Para La Patria’, which means ‘Everything for the Fatherland’. The other eagle holds the communist symbols and the banner ‘No Pasaran’, ‘They Will Not Pass’, which was the Republican slogan for the siege of Madrid where both my grandparents, who were communist officers, were captured and subsequently executed by fascist forces.

“On each wrist there is a black sparrow with a skull worked into its back. One has a banner with ‘Mournful’ and the other ‘Remembrance’. I am a big Edgar Allen Poe fan and this is a tribute to him.

“On my inner forearms are very large traditional black panthers… they are wrapped in banners that read ‘Empty Pleasures’ and ‘Desperate Measures’, which is a slogan I came up with that represented my mindset back then.

“On the outside of my forearms is a pair of crude daggers that bear Masonic imagery, which I am somewhat fascinated with. One dagger says ‘Eternal Vigilance’ and the other ‘Forever Renewed’. For me the symbols and placement of the daggers, as well as the slogans, represent awareness and protection from harm.

“Spider webs on each elbow are from my lifelong motorcycle thing, and on the inside of each elbow there is a large spider, vaguely Japanese looking, which is about my time in Japan.

“On each bicep there is a large serpent wrapped around an anchor. The snakes symbolize strength and the anchors perseverance. These two designs also contain a life and a death symbol. A skull and crossbones and a ‘13’ on the left arm, the sinister side, and a 1920s-style sailor girl on the right with the word ‘Peqoud’ on her hat, that being the name of the ship in Moby Dick, which is a favorite book of mine. The anchors also incorporate the American colours and stars and stripes in an archaic shield of Columbia form, representing my adoption and love of the USA as my home.

“They’re all sort of anchored to a very large abstract tribal stripe that extends from one wrist, up my arm, across my shoulders and down to the other wrist. This was done in pieces and remains unfinished – laziness.”

What’s In The Future?

Since the ’80s, fans have been turning Kozik’s designs into tattoos, no arm-twisting required.

“Seems fine, a lot of my stuff is fairly flash-looking and works OK as tats. A lot of times when people show me a tat of my work on them, I tell them that this means their soul will serve me in hell. Freaks some of them out!”

One can only hope that flash will be the next thing to come out of Kozik’s studio and with “tons of vinyl and clothing, more limited art-type junk, posters, paintings, the usual” lined up for the future, it just might. But whatever the case, it’s safe to say this is one artist who’ll carry on designing stuff forever, always staying true to himself.

As he puts it, “Frank Kozik is an asshole who is obsessed with his car and his cats.”

Kozik on Canvas

I get all sorts of urges, and since the fine art work actually carries the least amount of risk, financial or critical, I feel free to use that medium just to fuck around and do whatever weird thing I might feel like trying. Not my main field of endeavour though, I’m a horrible painter, but it’s fun once in a while. And, oddly enough, all the paintings have sold. About 100 by now I think.

Cirque du Soleil Collaboration

I was approached by some more ‘edgy’ art guys that where running the campaign for Cirque [and the Zumanity show]. It went smooth for me as I was isolated from the Cirque itself. I have seen a couple of different performances; I like the stagecraft of it. The intellectual content seems minimal.

Mixing Influences

As a child I was exposed to a lot of classical art and learning, to European graphic comics of the late ’60s and ’70s, as well as real propaganda art since we lived under Franco. When I came to the US, I completely got into trash culture and exploitation art and I believe that some of my work blends the two.

Frank Kozik
1488 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA  94103 USA



Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Frank Kozik