Fun in the dark
Kepi Ghoulie's art puts the punk in painting
For the past 25 years, local pop-punk singer Kepi Ghoulie has carved out a niche distinctly his own. His songs—both with the Groovie Ghoulies as well as those released during a prolific solo career—all share the distinct characteristics of being fun and simple with themes that often embody ghosts, goblins and other monsters.
These same attributes are also evident in his artwork, which he’s been actively making since 2000, and which he sells at his shows as a way to make extra money.
His art features—no surprise—a lot of the same characters that populate his songs: werewolves, zombies, robots, aliens and other horror-show and B-movie creatures. All possess the sort of childlike, minimalistic style reminiscent of the artwork of Daniel Johnston.
Now, Stardumb Records has compiled more than 500 of Ghoulie’s paintings for a new book, The Art of Kepi: The Rise of Kepiland 2000-2012. Ghoulie will host a book-release party on Saturday, May 11, at the Naked Lounge Downtown (1111 H Street), where he’ll have books and paintings for sale and will also be playing music.
The Art of Kepi is structured in a way that groups Ghoulie’s characters together, so readers can see, for instance, how his bigfoot paintings have evolved over time, or how all of his Lizard King depictions sport the same big eyes.
The pieces, he says, embrace the same ethos as his music.
“My art is like punk rock in that it has that DIY-anyone-can-do-it mentality. It’s like my visual version of the Ramones or Chuck Berry,” Ghoulie says.
His inspirations, he adds, are simple.
“I was weaned on Disney movies and Warner Bros. cartoons, but I think I just draw the things that I like—I like bigfoot and bats and chupacabras,” he says. “I guess punks and outcasts always relate to Frankenstein, the guy who never fit it. All my characters are happy outcasts.”
Ghoulie paints these characters endlessly, with some featured hundreds of times in various settings. This book contains only a fraction of his output, he says.
In keeping both with the punk-rock spirit of songwriting and an inherent personal restlessness, he’s often working on several pieces at any given time.
He credits the output to nothing short of hyperactivity.
“I can bounce around while one dries and work on another, or do color of the same layer on a different piece,” he says. “I like to stay moving and just paint.”
All of his pieces express a sort of cuteness or innocence that might conflict with some people’s notions of art as something that should be serious or provoke profound social criticism.
Stardumb Records owner Stefan Tijs says he’s drawn to their “naivety.”
“There’s this famous Picasso quote that goes, ’It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,’” Tijs says. “It seems like the latter comes all natural to Kepi.”
For the artist, the purpose is just to make people smile.
“I describe my art as bright and simple art for a dark and complicated world. I think you can find some real emotion in there somewhere, some love or a smile,” he says. “The fact that my art—or music—makes anybody happy makes me happy. The fact that it [makes] several hundred to several-thousand people [happy] blows my mind.”
As an independent musician, selling art has proven to be a financial lifesaver, he adds—particularly in more recent years, as CD sales have declined. Selling $50 to $100 a night worth of paintings, in many cases, means being able to afford gas and food on tour.
It helps, he says, that he keeps the prices in line with the punk community’s grittier ethos.
“I’m glad people like my art and want it. It’s cheaper than a gallery, but it may also have a ding or a scratch, but that’s punk.”
Ghoulie’s painted for as long as he can remember. Once in the ’90s, he took an art class at a community college. There, the art teacher mused that Ghoulie’s cartoon style wasn’t “real art.”
“The teacher laughed at me for painting Godzillas and said that you can’t make a living doing this,” Ghoulie says. “Now, I’m trying to make a living doing this.”
The teacher’s critique wasn’t a big deal, he adds. He simply switched to painting abstracts, but after the class was over, went back to drawing vampires.
As a fixture on the punk scene, Ghoulie was already quite familiar with this idea that people believe that one kind of art is “real” while others are not.
“It’s the same: ’What is art? What is punk?’ It’s pretty much the same. … That conversation will never cease,” he says.
What was once just a hobby eventually evolved into a more serious pursuit. It started in 1999 when Ghoulie decided to give his paintings as Christmas gifts to friends. Then, in 2000, he advised an artist friend in need of money to make one painting every day for a month. If he sold each piece for $100, Ghoulie calculated, he’d walk away with $3,000.
To help, Ghoulie approached the owners of the now-shuttered True Love Coffeehouse to see if they’d put on an art show for his friend. Instead, they offered Ghoulie two exhibits: one for his friend and one for him.
And so Ghoulie took his own advice and also painted one piece a day for a month. At his showing, he sold 17 paintings, and within the next month, two other galleries had asked to exhibit his work as well.
Since then, he says, art has been a major part of his creative life.
“I was, and still am, totally excited,” he says.
Now, he’s gone from simply selling art at his shows to doing more bona fide exhibits. For the past three years he’s also participated in an annual art run, where he and other artist friends tour Europe, playing music and showing art at galleries, on the street or where ever they can.
The one area of art that Ghoulie avoids? Creating covers for his own records. It may seem like a natural fit, he says, combining his two main outlets of expression. Instead, he says he commissions his artist friends to create his album art.
“My friends understand me. Visually they get my music easier than I could express it. I love doing art, but I don’t know if a record cover is sacred to me or if I truly believe that the record cover should tell you what’s inside,” Ghoulie says. “I just think my friend’s art [can] express that better than my own.”