In 1987 I was a 13 year old fat nerd. I met every criteria:
1.) I was fat (and 13)
2.) I spent all of my paper route money ($134 dollars a month) buying comic books
3.) I only had 1.5 friends (the .5 pretending he wasn’t my friend at school)
Hoping I’d get less insults and/or punches in the hallways, I wore “name brand” clothes. It didn’t work. I still got crap, and punches, from everyone.
One of my pieces of middle-school camouflage was by a brand called Town & Country Surf Designs. In the late ‘80s every popular guy wore their shirts. I wore them too, and would’ve even if they weren’t in style. T & C shirts were simply cool-as-hell. They had comic book style artwork that instantly appealed to me. The characters on the shirts (collectively called “Da’ Boys”) had their own names: “Joe Cool,” “Tiki Man,” and “Kool Kat” were some of them. The star though was “Thrilla Gorilla.” He sported sunshades and surfed. T & C’s product was a true phenomenon: They even licensed a Nintendo game starring the characters, “Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage.” This was probably the first, and only time, a video game was produced based on a clothing line.
My favorite shirt was the “World’s First 3-D Tee!” It wasn’t truly 3-D, but it did have red/blue 3-D style artwork (depicting Thrilla Gorilla in the foreground, with a bikini contest in the background). I scoured the internet for an image. I even looked for it on eBay (a vintage T & C shirt starts in the $50-$60 range). No dice. What I did stumble across was Steve Nazar’s website. I found out that this was the man responsible for the art I so nostalgically adored. Akin to Derek Riggs with Iron Maiden (I wrote an article on that too), Nazar was greatly responsible for the piles of cash collected by the company he worked for. I had to pick his brain.
I emailed Steve to inquire about the 3-D Tee, and also asked for an interview. He sent me a pic of the design (yeay!) and graciously approved time to chat with him on the phone. Here’s what he had to say:
How did you develop the T & C characters?
I was working in the art department at a screen printer in LA, who would occasionally print for T & C. My boss was a bit of an asshole, and I was planning to leave and go back to freelancing. My co-worker told me that T & C was looking for an artist to design cartoon characters for them. I went in and met with the guys at T & C. We hit it off, and they had me do some sketches for them. The first 2 things I showed them were Thrilla Gorilla and Joe Cool. They liked them both. Joe Cool was based on Shaun Tomson, a very GQ looking [South African] surfer. Thrilla’s hat was inspired by a character in the movie Hardbodies, (a truly awful film), and the chick in the Thompson Twins. I was pretty much a ‘70s kind of guy, and just scavenged some ‘80s pop culture elements to try to make the characters hip, or “rad,” as was the parlance of the time. The Primal Urges caveman soon followed. He was based on Ken Bradshaw, another prominent surfer at the time. He was built kind of like a caveman, and was rather hairy as I recall.
Before T&C, where did your interest in art begin?
As a hobby. As a kid it’s something I enjoyed doing. It’s something I could do fairly well. I became the kid in class that could draw. I got attention that way and positive feedback from people, so I stuck with it. I devoured any kind of cartoon artwork: Whether it was on TV or in print, comic books, Mad Magazine, later on National Lampoon Magazine. I was in love with comic art and it’s all I ever wanted to do. I was lucky enough to get a few breaks along the way and have been able to support myself as an artist since 1980.
Was 1980 when you got your first paid gig?
Yeah I got an art job for a little screen printer in Denver. I took a huge cut in pay to take the job but I was getting paid to be an artist. I didn’t care if I was making $4.50 an hour, I was a paid professional artist. I used all my time to spruce up my portfolio so I could land the next gig, and the gig after that. Just stayed with it and wound up doing all kinds of different things in the art field. I was manager/art director for JVC Digital Arts doing computer games.
It hasn’t all been t-shirts. I did quite a stint in the computer game industry. They had a real need for artists for awhile. In the early ‘90s there was just not enough talent. I didn’t know the computer at all but if you could draw, they’d hire you and teach you the computer and teach you how to animate on the computer. Because it was a lot easier to teach people computer than to teach people to draw.
What were some games you worked on with them?
We did one called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” It was based on a Harlan Ellison short story. That was for The Dreamers Guild. And then at JVC we worked on “Iron John Hawk: The Shards of Power,” which never really went anywhere. We shipped the game and that was a big deal. Other than that, children’s educational titles that no one would have heard of. I got out of the field because I don’t play computer games. I think they’re a waste of freaking time.
I can attest to that. I’ll go years without playing a video game; then I’ll dabble and get sucked in for 6 solid months.
Oh I know. I’m the same way. I had an Atari and I squandered so many hours playing that stupid thing. When Alien vs Predator came out, I wound up playing that. It’s best not to have it around.I think it’s deceptive. No matter what’s going on on the screen, all you’re doing is sitting there and wiggling your thumbs.
So I don’t play them. I didn’t have the enthusiasm to be viable in the field. You have to love what you do and if you think video games are a stupid waste of time you’re not going to make good video games. Anyways, I don’t do that anymore.
After high school, what was your educational career path before you headed into art?
I got a degree in art. I went 2 years at Riverside City College, and then 2 years at a school called Hollywood Art Center School that was in Hollywood. They’re no longer there. They were in the Hollywood Hills. Beautiful old-school Hollywood estate and the classes were in all the outer buildings in this estate. I got my BA from there and then went to Animators Training Program. But this is when animation was completely in the shitter. Everything was being done overseas, nobody was doing anything. While I’m sitting there drawing the great ape, they had you repeat a mantra: “There are no jobs here, there are no jobs here.” Real encouraging. I gave up art for awhile and went to truck driving school. Learned to drive the big rigs.
You ended up driving a truck?
Yeah. For 2 weeks. World’s worst truck driver. I was waiting for a nursery and I’d drop off a bunch of plants and then back over them on the way out. I had no business behind the wheel of a semi truck.
Was the next thing you did, after truck driving? Was it your first paid art gig?
No. I always had an interest in stereo equipment so I wound up having a business installing car stereos. A lot of 8-tracks actually, but cassettes were big then too. DVDs, CDs, had never been heard of. I had a business putting in car stereos for these retailers around here that didn’t have an installation department, so they needed somebody that they could send their customers to. I did that for a few years, then moved to Denver. Continued working in the stereo field. Then a guy walked into the stereo shop I was working at and said “Do you need any t-shirts?” And I said “No, do you need any artists?” And he said “Yeah, ours just quit.” I went down and applied the next day and got the job. That was my first art job.
How long was it before you started doing T & C?
4 years. That was in 1980 that I got my first art job. Actually it would be more like 5. Then I started doing T & C stuff in ’85.
How long did that relationship last with T & C?
I’d say about 6 years. It sort of fizzled out at the end. There was a huge schism in the company and sales just fell way off and there was a lot of in-fighting. The people that owned the copyrights to the logo went one way and the people that owned the copyrights—which I sold them—went another way. The characters didn’t do shit without the logo and the logo never did as well without the characters. So they kind of killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
They’re still around as a company, aren’t they?
Yeah, they still have a couple of retail outlets in Hawaii; they still wholesale shirts, just a fraction of what they used to do. They’re mostly a surfboard company. Very well respected. They make great surfboards, that’s how they started out. Then clothing became a sideline.
Did you have any idea, when you were doing it, just how big it was?
No, I didn’t. I started getting a clue when every department store I walked into had my work in it. That’s when the light went on.
At any point did you ask them if you could get a cut of the sales or profits?
It’s funny how that worked out. I thought I was just working on a work-for-hire basis and that they own the copyrights. But that wasn’t the case, because it had never been discussed. Whatever any of our assumptions were didn’t matter because it hadn’t been settled. The guy that I worked with at T & C said “Steve, I’m going to send you a little something for you to sign; it’s nothing.”
He sent me this legal document that was as big as a phone book. It was all about copyright release for all these characters. As the artist, as the creator—until I specifically sign a release of copyright—I own the copyright. I had to sign it away, and I never had. So they had to come up with a sizable cash settlement at that point to get me to sign those because I wasn’t going to do it for nothing.
It always seems like the artists I talk to get screwed.
Oh sure. I’m sure they do. Before I worked for T&C I worked for OP. We were just a bunch of young, eager artists, and we were so thrilled to be working for OP. One quarter they announced they printed 30 million dollars of just t-shirts of our work. 30 million dollars in one quarter. And they would bring tours through the art department and say “This is the nerve center of OP.” But when we got our paychecks we didn’t feel like any nerve center.
I led a revolt at OP. I said, “We’re getting paid peanuts compared to what we should be getting.” There was talk of a strike but they didn’t want it to go to that point so they gave everybody raises and bonuses and flew us to Mexico. We were young and thrilled to be working as artists. That’s the downfall. As much on the part of the artist as it is on the people that exploit them. I’ve had people say to me, “Why should you get paid that much? You like what you do!”
It still goes on today. I talk to young artists, and there’s so many more people trying to get in the art field now. There’s so many schools cranking them out. So many art schools. Nobody wants to be a normal person. Everyone wants to be something special. I can understand that, because so did I. Now everybody wants to do it. Nobody wants to live an anonymous boring life. They want to be…
Yeah. And who doesn’t. But the competition’s a bitch now.
With the internet there’s so many more people looking for notoriety.
Yeah. The internet is a great place for attention whoring, that’s for sure.
Have you still been able make a lifestyle from your art?
Yeah. I still work full time as a freelance artist. I get commercial assignments from people that want artwork for their websites. I still do a lot of t-shirt art, snowboard decks, e-cards, anything anybody needs; buttons and patches for a military supply company.
Beyond that I find that there’s a ready market for my originals. If I do an original painting of the T & C surf characters and throw it up on eBay, those go anywhere from 200 to 700 dollars. it’s a nice supplemental thing, plus I really like doing it. It gets me off the computer and I do an actual piece of art. Which is so much more satisfying than just creating something that only exists in a computer file.
You were talking earlier about cartoons, artwork that inspired you. Were there any specific artists that you found inspirational growing up?
Oh absolutely. My hero was Robert Crumb. I just think he’s an incredible artist. Anyone that worked for Mad Magazine back in the day: Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, all those guys. And Playboy. The cartoonists they had in PlayBoy were phenomenal. I could open up a Playboy and just look at it and tell you who did that cartoon. I was so familiar with their styles.
Like “Little Annie Fanny?”
Yeah, Little Annie Fanny, that was always in the back. Just a lot of great artists. National Lampoon, I really liked Vaughn Bodē. Everybody knocks him off that does graffiti art. He did Cheech Wizard, a trippy little wizard character that was always kicking people in the nuts.
Any advice you’d give to up-and-coming artists?
Yeah. There’s a number of things. 10 years ago I would have said “Oh my God, learn to do art on the computer because that’s what’s going to get you jobs, and that’s what’s going to make it easy to get the work done.” I still believe that’s true. You have to know the computer. But get off the goddamn computer and do actual artwork. Work in real time and space. Don’t do it all digitally.
The number 1 thing: Don’t copy other people’s art. Who cares if you can draw Pokémon? Don’t copy. Make up stuff on your own. I was never a copy artist. There were kids in school they could draw Charlie Brown really good, and Snoopy really good. And people would say “You’re great,” and they’d get all that attention.
There were people who could reproduce a photograph. Take a photograph and then redraw that photograph. I’d always think: “What’s the point? You already have the photograph.”
To me it was always about drawing out of my imagination. It’s like anything else: The more you do it the better you get. So just draw. All the time. As much as you can stand. Draw from life. Sculpt too. Expose yourself as much as you can. Other than that I’d say “screw it” and study finances and become a stock broker.
Another thing I’d tell aspiring artists: Get money up front.
Do you recommend incorporating yourself or do you just have people pay you directly? How do you handle that?
I just have them pay me directly as an independent contractor.
Do you ever have them sign a contract or anything like that?
No. Usually it’s just a verbal agreement. I don’t recommend that everybody do business like that. Like I say, I always cover my ass. I get half the money up front before I do anything. Then I do a sketch and they approve the sketch. And if they want me to finish the art, they pay me the balance, before I put all the time into doing the final art.
I never stick my neck out and hope I get paid. I got burned one time. That was plenty.
Not many people can support themselves doing art.
Yeah. That’s for sure. It’s a lot like being a musician, except being a musician is even worse. It’s brutal and it used to be a lot easier as a musician. I had a lot of friends. I had artsy friends so a lot of them were musicians. There used to be more of a meat-and-potatoes level of being able to make money as a musician. You could be a bar band, you could get paying gigs, you could support yourself as a musician even if you weren’t famous. You could still be playing and getting paid. Those opportunities have disappeared. I don’t know what it’s like to be a struggling musician but it just seems tougher. Everything is tougher.
Do you still live in Southern California?
Yeah, I spent quite a bit of time in Santa Barbara working for Big Dog Sportswear drawing their dog character.
Before we end. I’m going to kill myself if I forget to ask this. That “Worlds First 3-D Tee!”: Do you sell that, or have a print of that?
No. I’d have to recreate the art. I have a test print they do when they print a t-shirt. It’s printed on fabric. It’s just a way to register everything and see how it’s looking and check all the colors before you actually start printing on shirts. So they print on this rectangle of felt fabric. Before it could be reproduced properly, it’d have to be recreated because all that artwork is gone.
It’s funny you honed in on that one. That was not a big seller. I never see that one anymore and I was real happy with the way it turned out. If you use a pair of 3-D glasses on it it kind of works.
[Before we ended our conversation, I mentioned how I was in SoCal a couple times a year to visit family. Steve lives close to where my family lives.] Well, maybe if I’m down there sometime, I could buy you a beer.
Hey, I’d let you!
Check out Steve’s portfolio, and buy his original art, at stevenazar.com.
3 thoughts on “’80s T-Shirt Rock Star: Steve Nazar”
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Thanks for this interview dude!
Great interview! I loved those T & C tees as a kid!