February 23, 2012

'STUCK-UP' spotlight: Thomas Billings 'TV Skull'

Back in the early 1990s there was no internet, photographs were shot on film that had to be developed, MTV showed nothing but videos, and Thomas Billings' tv skull owned Wicker Park.  It was everywhere and on everything.  You couldn't get a beer or take a piss in that Chicago neighborhood without seeing the tv skull staring back multiple times over the course of your evening.  And the skull's reach extended well beyond the Bucktown / Wicker Park art hipster scene.  You were as likely to stumble across the image in a Wrigleyville sports bar or a downtown museum as you were in an underground gallery or a coffee shop.

Fast forward to 2012.  Thomas Billings has returned to Chicago, and with him has returned that tv skull.  The image, currently reconstituted as a sticker, was included in Maxwell Colette Gallery's show 'STUCK-UP: A Selected History of Alternative and Popular Culture Curated By DB Burkeman.' where it was featured in a site specific installation.  Recently we sat down with Billings and asked him about the origins of the tv skull image.

So lets get straight to it. When did you start doing the television skeletons? 

In the 80s when I was living in Chicago. The idea for the television skeletons came from Gunter Resse, a tattoo artist who did time in prison. He had a bunch of prison tattoos that I thought were really amazing. All of his tattoos were done by using makeshift tattoo gun constructed from a Sony Walkman – these were common ways to give tattoos in prison back then. So I asked him to give me a tattoo and I just came up with that design. 

How did you meet Gunther Reese? 

I was in an art show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and we were both staying with the same friend. That is when I became intrigued by his brut tattoos. 

That tattoo that Gunter gave you is the source of the image you are known for putting all over Chicago.  The versions I remember seeing were done with a custom made rubber stamp, but initially you did them with a black crayon? 

Yes... everything I did then was hand written, which evolved into the stamp. I drew the television freehand from 1985 to 1995 and put it on practically every parking meter in Chicago and places you wouldn’t normally see like underneath toilet bowls. In 1995 it became my signature stamp on other artwork I created. 

Besides being your personal signature for your fine art, it also was incorporated into graphics that graced the cover of publications like New City and was later used by  Burkhardt Leitner Constructiv in Germany as part of their 'ART-stamps' program.  Before these sanctioned projects appeared, where would one have found your skull tags?

Edges of doors, cop cars, bars – everywhere really...  I think Ed Pachke’s studio still has a stamp. You might also be able to find some still at the MCA in NYC and the MET. 

Television Skeleton 'ART-stamp' from Tom Billings' archive.

So way before Bansky decided it would be fun to put a guerilla installation in a museum you were already doing it.  And you’ve seen how everything has changed through the years. There is definitely a larger community routing for street art – unsanctioned specifically.   

Street art and graffiti art evolved in a way because now people want it more, they accept it and it is recognized. Back then I think street art had more of an impact because less people were doing it. My work [then] was never about being a pioneer for graffiti or street art yet people used to cut the dry wall around my stamps [to remove them] from public spaces. 

So it had basically become a sentiment of their own nostalgia? 

Yes. This kind of art is just like any other. It becomes a timeline for people... 

DB Burkeman and Tom Billings sitting in front of Billings' installation for 'STUCK-UP'.  Photo by Sophia Nihal

If you would like some Thomas Billings 'Television Skeleton' stickers, email us your shipping info and we'll send you some.  The one thing we ask is that we'd love to see where you end up sticking them...

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