The Gonzo Artist: Behind Ralph Steadman’s Most Famous Work

Inside the mind of Ralph Steadman, the legendary artist and provocateur known for ghoulish humans, ink splatter marks, and distorted Polaroids of historical figures and celebrities.

Courtesy Ralph Steadman

Step into a gallery space on West 18th Street in New York City and you’ll find a room filled with ghoulish, misshapen humans, ink splatter marks, and distorted Polaroid pictures of historical figures and celebrities. These are the works of Ralph Steadman, legendary artist and provocateur.

Of course, the exhibition—coinciding with the premiere of For No Good Reason, a new documentary about Steadman’s life and career—is just a brief snapshot of what the British-born artist has accomplished in the last 40 years. In that time, he’s created art for classic books like Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm, released illustrated biographies for such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud, and, most famously, collaborated with the late great Hunter S. Thompson on numerous articles and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Attempting to boil down any artist’s life into a coherent narrative can be frustratingly impossible. For Charlie Paul, the director of For No Good Reason, it took 15 years to compile Steadman’s work into something that properly captured his career. The result is a film that depicts Steadman’s evolution, from small-time political cartoonist to raw, unfiltered artist.

While Paul’s documentary is an overall portrait of Steadman’s life, it leans heavily towards his work with Thompson—and fittingly so, having played a foil of sorts to the godfather of Gonzo journalism, going on adventures with him to the Kentucky Derby, America’s Cup, and the Rumble in the Jungle. But of course there’s plenty more of Steadman’s creations to dig through and discover. I sat down with Steadman—along with Charlie Paul, an expert in all things Ralph—to ask about the stories behind a few of his most famous illustrations, Thompson-related and otherwise.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson Portrait (1970)

Ralph Steadman: “[This] is another version of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas work, only the idea of the passenger could be me. You see, the one holding on with his teeth, gripping the driving wheel. So he’s doing that with Hunter.”

Charlie Paul: “I would so not get in a car with Hunter. It must have been a scary experience.”

RS: “No I didn’t mind. He was completely in control. I tell you what he would do. He would turn the wheel like this [Ralph mimics turning the wheel using his arms and elbows] and he would have a beer, and he would have a bit of whiskey, and that’s how he drove. I just thought he was a master at work.”

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, Scanlan’s Monthly (1972)

RS: “That’s the first [project Hunter and I did together]. The reason it says ‘Sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick by Ralph Steadman’ was that I used those very things. The then-editor of the newly formed Scanlan’s Magazine said ‘Come have dinner with us before you go get your flight to Kentucky.’ And I left my bag with my inks in the cab. So I didn’t have anything [before I traveled to the Derby]. His wife was a Revlon representative, and she had a whole load of these eye shadows and pencils and things that I could use. So that’s what I used to do these pictures. We just didn’t mention Revlon. [laughs]

“Some of it is very risqué, showing the horse’s genitals and the owner’s genitals. We tried to match up genitals. An owner of a horse, they become very close with the horse. It’s sort of their appendage.

“When [Hunter and I] met he said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for three days.’ And I said, ‘Well I’ve been looking for you.’ And he said ‘Well he said to look for somebody with a weird growth on their chin’—I had a little goatee beard—‘They said you were weird but not that weird’ [laughs].

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Alice in Wonderland (1973)

RS: “This is the courtroom scene. That was our prime minister, Harold Wilson. All the characters were pulled from politicians at that time. That is Fanny Cradock. Fanny Cradock was a cook.”

CP: “It’s amazing for me, after 15 years of hanging out with Ralph, I still learn every day. So I have never actually gone through it and actually talked about the characters that are in here. Who’s that?” [points to character in the bottom right corner]

RS: “Nobody. That’s just a fogey. And the use of the [lines at the bottom], I had been a technical craftsmen. That’s what I was going to be, I was going to build airplanes, but I didn’t want [that] life. I was drawing little scribbles on the side of the technical drawings. I was doing two jobs at once.”

The Lizard Lounge from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)

RS: “That’s supposed to be blood, you see. ‘The blood-soaked carpet,’ that was what [Hunter] says. But you see, he’s only got to say that. But saying it is one thing, how to draw it, that’s interesting. So that could be a deep red color.

“I think [Hunter] finished the book and he sent me it. And I think I spent about nine days working on that. And I sent him about nine pictures, which I think was the whole set of pictures in the book. And the tube went to Rolling Stone in San Francisco—you know one of those tubes with those [stoppers] at the end—and it got there and apparently everyone in the office stood around to open it, and they pulled out the thing and opened it up, saw these pictures and they said ‘Holy shit!’ They said it was just amazing, it’s given the book its life—although I didn’t go with [Hunter to Las Vegas]. If I had gone they might have been nice pictures of us pretty people. He took a Samoan lawyer with him, Oscar Zeta Acosta, and he took him because he thought he would be responsible. He was a lawyer. I was considered, but he felt I was too crazy. But I am not crazy! I am a nice gentle person.”

Rumble in the Jungle, Rolling Stone (1974)

*Ralph and Hunter travel to Zaire to cover the George Foreman—Muhammad Ali fight

RS: “This is when we went to in Kinshasa in ‘74. I had just arrived and [Hunter] said, ‘By the way, I gotta tell you, I sold our tickets.’ [laughs] ‘What?!’ Well I said ‘OK Forget it.’ I remember sitting in the room rolling a cigarette.

CP: There is a whole set of beautiful Polaroids of Hunter in the room. They’re great. It’s just you two hanging out waiting for this thing to happen. Of course there was mayhem there; the whole fight was delayed.

RS: “Hunter wanted to hire this airplane. He said ‘Oh Ralph, if we could do that it would be a real joke to play, this whole thing. These two [fighters] beating the shit out of each other and then we have an airplane flying over saying ‘Black is Weird.’

CP: “I am so glad you didn’t do that [laughs]”

Sleaze Friendly, The New Statesmen (1997)

RS: “Now this is how I feel about politicians. A pig wouldn’t be seen dead in that, as that pig in [this cartoon] says. It was filthy. And as far as I was concerned, politicians were scum, and they were eating scum and wallowing in scum, and that’s how I thought of drawing them in a trough, bums in the air. And it became sleaze frenzy there. That’s what politics is, a sleaze frenzy. People didn’t really like it because they weren’t being portrayed. Well they were, but they couldn’t identify asses.” [laughs]

Bill Clinton (1998)

RS: “You know [the book] Gray’s Anatomy? Well I used pictures from there and made photocopies and used pieces of them. I used anatomical [parts], the correct ones, rather than redraw them exactly; it stultifies the process I go through. It’s best to just go to Gray’s Anatomy and photocopy it. As I was doing at the time, and still do, I utilize what I can of technology. I try to use a bit of both. I use the technical bit, and then I will enhance it with all sorts of movement. You know an office copier? You put it on there, as it’s going through, you go like that [Ralph twists his arm] and it distorts it. So then you use the technology. See the tongue? That’s where I stretched it out. It’s organic.

“[The bottom of the image] is a piece of machinery from an engineering book. That could be the mechanics of politics. It’s the base from where the rest of it emerges, like a production line. That’s the machine mounted at the bottom, standing on the American flag.”

The Suicide Bomber of Baghdad (2002)

RS: “I think [George W. Bush is] one of the lowest forms of life that I have ever seen in politics, and the idea [for this piece] is that he really strapped the world to his own stupid body and set fire to it. Down there—that’s New York in the background—[he’s] crossing the Nile. What was that Biblical story? There was the parting of the waters. Then there’s another one about crossing the Nile, and it’s Pharaoh I think, in Egypt. And [Bush] had gone to the Middle East. So there he was, with a missile. And there, [in his hand is] another piece of an anatomical joint. As you can see, it’s just rather clumsily attached to it. He’s a made-up man. He’s a complete fabrication of politics in a way that ‘My father has been [President] why can’t I?’ So he’s strapped the world to him. He was going to take it all down.”

Early Cartoon, The Evening Standard (1956)

RS: “Oh wow I don’t even remember that. I will tell you something about this. Here’s an example of how I used to do my signature. It was ‘Stead.’ And my mother said to me ‘But your name is Steadman! Are you ashamed of it?’ I said ‘Alright Mom.’ So half-heartedly I put the ‘-man’ on there.”