Introduced to the arts at a young age, you could say that David Barnett was destined for a creative career. With an artistic father and a profound love for comic books, Barnett’s passion for illustration has lasted him into adulthood. Today he resides alongside Roc-a-Fella pioneer Dame Dash as art director and designer for Dame’s DD172 media company. Well known for his iconic album artwork, including album covers for Curren$y’s 2010 Pilot Talk series, we chatted with David about his favorite comics, his artistic influences, and where he’s taking his art to next.
I’m interested to know what compelled you to become an illustrator and graphic artist?
Well, I’ve always been into drawing and design. I come from an artistic family. My father was a painter before he began working in offset printing, so I grew up around all kinds of art. When I was a kid my Dad used to take me to his office in the city. It was a big, old-school Manhattan printing company. I was exposed to a lot of great advertising and commercial work there, it had a big impact on me.
Did you know back then that you wanted to become a professional artist, or was it just something you were interested in and aware of?
It was something I definitely thought about at a young age. I designed logos for my first design company when I was still in elementary school. Then I kind of drifted away from it for most of my teen years, only to come back to it after I graduated. But I was always into comic books and visual storytelling, and tried to incorporate that stuff into other projects I did over the years.
What about comic books interested you?
Mostly how crazy good the best artists were! When I was a kid the style of comics was changing a lot, guys like Joe Madureira and J. Scott Campbell were bringing in more anime and pop-culture inspired styles. I was really drawn to that stuff. I just thought the way comics were laid out was so cool, and the physical printed product was such a great object. Later, I got into more alternative books – Chucks Burns, Clowes, Hernandez Bros, etc. Those guys were doing things with line, usually just black and white, and layout that was so impressive. I was into the fact that they wrote and drew their own stories.
Pencil Illustration by Joe Madureira
Right. I feel like some of those early influences still come out in your work today.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the graphic design industry? I take it back then, everyone was taking pen to paper to create their work. How do you think the digital age has influenced the industry for better or worse?
I think design has gone in some really interesting directions in my lifetime. Although my taste is more for vintage, pre-digital age design, I consider myself lucky to be working in the age of Illustrator; it’s a great tool. But like any other, it shouldn’t be overused, and I typically try to use the computer to do things I could do by hand, but am able to do faster with the PC. I’m generally not a fan of work that looks overly computer generated, although it does have its place like anything else. Printing itself and screen-printing in particular have had a big effect on the way I use the computer to design. Because I have a background in that area, I’m always thinking of graphics in terms of flat color blocks, things that can be made on the PC, but output to film and then reproduced in print.
Interesting. How did you initially get linked up with Dame Dash and DD172?
Well, I had been designing and screen printing posters in my friend’s bedroom with a couple of other guys. We were doing work for local bands and venues around Brooklyn. A really gifted promoter named Ariel Panero had commissioned some work from us. He was running a venue in this crazy loft in the West Village which later got shut down. The next time I heard from him, he had linked up with Dame and was running the basement concert space Under 100 at Dame’s spot in Tribeca. They wanted me to do some graphics and stuff for them, but when I came in with my work Dame actually offered me a full-time gig at DD172, and I’ve been with him ever since. This was back in 2009. After a few months, Dame and I partnered up and we moved our whole print operation into the basement there. By then I had my hands in all sorts of projects, doing art direction for Bluroc Records and their magazines.
Aw man, Dame Dash.
Yeah, he’s a legend for good reason.
Did he help facilitate your collaborations with Curren$y?
Oh definitely, I met Curren$y (as well as Ski Beatz) through Dame, it was kind of like, predetermined; when I got there, Pilot Talk and 24HRKS 1 were both already in the works, so from the get he had decided that I should do those LP covers. He wanted me to bring that 60′s rock and roll look to these projects, even though they were hip-hop records.
One thing that stuck out to me about the Pilot Talk series was the fact that Curren$y insisted that his face not be on the cover, which as you’ve mentioned is sort of rare for hip hop albums. Why do you think an artist’s image is so intertwined with the promotion of their music within the world of hip hop?
I don’t know exactly. I think rock and roll covers developed in a similar way; in the early days it was always just pictures of the artists but as time went on some designers began to get more creative with their covers and others followed. Now, you almost never see a rock cover with a band’s photo on it. Maybe the same thing will happen with hip hop, or maybe not. Either way, it’s dope that Curren$y had the idea to break that mold, I think the result was a lot more fun.
Definitely that, the artwork is part of what draws you into the music. What are some of your favorite album covers?
Oh, there’s a lot. I love the psychedelic classics. King Crimson Court of the Crimson King, Cream Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire, Big Brother and the Holding Company Cheap Thrills. Then stuff like Duran Duran Rio, Peter Saville’s work for Factory records, The Dead Kennedys and their crazy photo collages, and even goofy stuff from my youth like Green Day’s Dookie.
I also apprenticed with a really brilliant Croatian artist named Mirko Ilic. His posters, comics and LP art were a big influence, as well as all of the out-there Euro stuff that he exposed me to. Also, Raymond Pettibon’s illustrated covers for Black Flag. LP art in general was always something I’ve obsessed over.
Another question I had was in relation to the artwork for Pilot talk II. The mansion depicted in the work, sort of resembles a contemporary interpretation of the Playboy Townhouse, illustrated within the pages of Playboy back in 1962. Was the Playboy Townhouse an inspiration to you at all when constructing that imagery?
The original inspiration was actually the ’80s poster “justification for higher education” that was illustrated for the liner notes of Part 1. I had drawn that for Spitta and he said for #2, he wanted to see what that house would look like from the inside. After a few bad starts, I remembered these old children’s books that showed a whole story happening inside a house by making the fourth wall transparent. I applied that approach and it worked, so we went with it.
Interesting. Are there any other artists you are eager to design album covers for?
I’m a big fan of the band “Future Islands“, and would definitely be down to do something with them.
What universal truths have you learned in regards to design over the years?
Wow, that’s heavy… I guess for me, it would be that if you can understand a production process like print, it will always give you insight into designing for that medium.
Where do you see your artistic career heading in the future?
One of these days when I have a year or so to burn, I’m going to write and illustrate a graphic novel.
For more information on David and his work, visit his personal website.