Cartoons have long been the medium of choice for lowbrow artists looking to get their ideas across; an accessible way in to the viewer’s psyche for ideas that aren’t always the easiest to get folks to open up to.
Counterculture artist Joey Mars has been using fun, brightly colored images to convey his psychedelic perspective for decades, a style that he has recently started to merge with a more abstract, fine art approach.
Over his career, Mars’ characters and designs have been used by bands from Aerosmith to the Grateful Dead, on race boats, painted across entire buildings, and adorned lighters, rolling papers, T-shirts, and more.
With a focus on the unseen patterns and energies that lie beneath the surface of our everyday realities, Mars’ work, even at its cartooniest, seeks to peel back the layers of consciousness.
Bizarre creatures amble about twisted, colorful landscapes. Numbers and pieces of barcodes linger, half obscured, subliminally adding weight to dreamy swirls of light.
Quick phrases, often to do with fractal patterns and sacred geometry, glow in the air next to leering dragons with swirling eyes and multi-limbed beasts with graffiti scrawled across their bodies.
“I have always been drawing and doodling as far back as I can remember,” Mars tells me from his studio on Cape Cod, MA. “My father suggested I go to art school. I was accepted at Bentley College as a business major, but changed my mind at the last minute and almost went to cooking school, but I ended up at Vesper George School of Art in Boston.”
It was in Boston that Mars first found himself creating art for others, as he became plugged in to the city’s underground music scene.
“The first art gigs were rock posters and flyers in the Boston alternative music scene in the mid-80s and I painted names on boats at Marina Bay in Quincy,” he explains, adding layers of paint to a large piece as he does. “The rock show flyers turned into paying gigs as the years went on, which eventually led to my merchandise deals.”
A glimpse through Mars’ collection of rock posters is like time traveling through rock history.
Names like the Grateful Dead, Lemonheads, Pearl Jam, the Del Fuegos, Violent Femmes and Death Cab For Cutie are lettered across surreal landscapes populated with fire breathing puppets, aliens, clowns, and TV-headed beasts.
“As simple as it looks graphically, there’s always so much more there beneath the surface,” explains globe trotting fine artist Cassandra Complex, who has collaborated with Mars. “Every artist I know who has heard of Joey just loves him, and his work.”
After years of working in the music world and helping to run an artist’s collective, Mars was approached by Ronnie Hazel, owner of Shop Therapy in Provincetown, MA.
Shop Therapy, besides their destination retail locations, is one of the largest importers of the kind of products one finds at head shops around the country.
Soon, Mars had a huge product line with his work on it, as stoned folks everywhere toked up and daydreamed while gazing at his mind-bending illustrations.
“Shop Therapy has to be about the craziest,” Mars admits. “It’s this mad, mad, pop culture emporium, a huge store filled with treasures from around the world, and a smoke and sex shop to boot. I painted a 13-foot by 30-foot mural for them at their new store. They always give me total freedom.”
Married and with a teenage daughter, Mars lives in a nice, non-descript house on suburban Cape Cod, with no sign from the outside that a veritable counterculture legend resides inside.
Enter through the garage, however, which is packed with spray paint cans and piles of other supplies, and you start to get a clue.
Once you descend into the basement studio, there’s no hiding it. Sheaves of paper with sketches and notes are stacked everywhere, alongside products bearing Mars’ art, CDs, computers, printers, paint, stickers, zines, skateboard decks, and loads of canvases in various stages of completion.
Aptly subterranean, it looks like the sort of place one goes to rip bong hits and get weird.
Mars isn’t shy about his belief in the mind-expanding freedoms offered by psychedelic experiences, though he demurs at commenting on his own drug use.
Since coming to Cape Cod in the 90s, he’s cobbled together a mainstream existence even as his work continued to travel around the world, blowing people’s no doubt often chemically enhanced minds.
And life hasn’t been all hash pipes and sacks of cash, either–a firmly DIY person, Mars has had several before-their-time gallery start ups that haven’t managed to gain traction in Provincetown’s world-famous art scene, and has found himself having to work the occasional side job to keep food on the table between projects.
As he’s gotten older, Mars has broadened his style, delving deeper into the abstract and going from posters to large-scale multimedia paintings on canvases, which he shows in galleries.
Far from the quick and easily consumed cartoons, these pieces take him months to compete, each holding layer after layer of spray and oil paint, pastels, colored pencils, stickers of his own art that he prints himself and applies, then paints over, and cut up pieces of older paintings, all swirling together in an a psychedelic mash up that can come out far darker than his former projects.
Mars attributes this depth to both his growth as an artist and the direction our culture has taken.
“Some of it was by chance as I was working larger with new materials, some was the Iraq war after 9/11,” his deep voice seems to become even more baritone as he reflects. “I got really angry during that time. Everything seemed so up side down and dark, and it was reflected in my work. The work had a more punk feel to it.”
Mars also attributes the stylistic transition to some newfound inspiration.
Discovering the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat through Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic gave Mars “a new freedom to be messy and forceful with the paint as well,” he explained. “I also wanted to be taken more seriously with the themes I was working with. I flip flop back and forth between the styles as needed. I love drawing those cartoons…”
Cassandra Complex agrees.
“I hate to whip out these big names, but looking at Joey’s work now, the more fine arty stuff, is like Basquiat and Keith Haring had a baby.”
With a show in Provincetown opening this weekend, pieces selling off walls at galleries across the country, and a growing following and acceptance from the larger art world, Mars is hoping to place his new work in bigger galleries around the world, spreading his psychedelic message as he goes.
Deep down, he admits, all he really wants is to be able to focus on creating and growing as he does so. And just because he’s getting attention as a “serious” artist, doesn’t mean the weird is over.
"I just did a fun project with one of the craziest rockers of them all in the Boston scene,” he says with a laugh. “Des from the Bentmen, a performance rock band that included Reeves Gabrels, one of Bowie’s guitarists, amongst a cast of crazies is now running an online radio station, and I designed this group of characters from a fictitious band that they use to promote the station.”
With more and more galleries willing to take on his darker, less-animation-themed work, Mars is finding himself in the admirable position of transitioning from countercultural icon to mainstream artist.
“It seems that a new guard has broken through as far as the artists go,” he admits. “A new crop of gallery owners as well. Street art has opened up to the market wider.”
Joey Mars’ show, Bug Brain Sushi, opens this weekend at the Woodman Shimko Gallery in Provincetown, MA.