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Junior Tomlin

Flyer life

2020 Jul 25     
2 Bit Thugs

With a book of his artwork about to go to a second print run, iDJ meets the man behind all those iconic 90s rave flyers

No matter what era or genre of dance music you came in on, there's no doubt you’ll be familiar with the work of Junior Tomlin. With a near-30-year body of cover and flyer artwork to his name, the Ladbroke Grove artist’s fingerprints can be felt across the rave continuum. 

Often described as "the Salvador Dali of rave," in many ways Junior set the blueprint for many of the aesthetics and visual motifs that are commonplace in dance music visuals. A slightly psychedelic fusion of sci-fi, futurism, afrofuturism, satire and humour, his flyers for seminal raves such as Dreamscape, Telepathy, One Nation and Slammin’ Vinyl and covers for the likes of Renegade Soundwave, The Scientist, Grooverider and Wishdokta (to name but a few) captured the raw, vibrant essence of the future just as much as the music did. And he has done ever since. 

This summer sees the launch of his first book. Junior Tomlin: Flyer & Cover Art is a collection of some of his most striking, influential and subversive pieces. With a second print currently in motion (including a gun-shaped flyer he discusses in this interview) we called him up to discuss his work and to ask for a few of his own personal favourites…

Do you often look back over your old stuff? 

"Yes, some of the record covers. I revisit them whenever I go through the collection. When it comes to flyers, I keep them in books, which I do go over to find little elements or get ideas from old things."

Yeah, there are motifs and tropes running through a lot of your stuff. Little references to previous works, like a signature….

"I've mentioned this before but the best thing I was ever told was that the real way to make money is to sell one thing many times. So if you got an image that you can reuse, reuse, reuse then that’s three or four pay days."

It creates a story or a kind of narrative thread for anybody who's paying attention as well…

"Yes. And then there comes a time where you say, ‘Let's, let's create a new face’. So that gets added to the bank of artwork which you can use again and mash up with the other pieces. That's the beauty of it. You’re taking images here and there and putting them together to make something new. 

Like you’re a DJ. An image selector. You mentioned faces – female faces are a big theme for your work aren’t they?

"They are. I consider myself a feminist. I don’t think women have been able to tap into that magnificent power they have… yet. People say it’s a man’s world but it’s not. It’s a woman’s world because they created everybody. Every man has a male and female side to their psyche. I feel men who basically don't tap into their female side end up in a life of nonsense."

Totally. Another theme of yours I noticed are candles. Time plays a consistent role in a lot of your work, doesn’t it? 

"Yes, because time is always ticking down. The second you light a candle it’s just marking the passing of time. Like people’s lives. But the lovely thing also with a candle, is that it can be stopped at any time. And when you do that, you’re suspending the time of the candle."

And we don't know how long our own personal candles are, do we? 

"We don’t. And there are elements of our body that aren’t as old as other bits, too. We constantly move through time in different stages of our life. It's all a journey from A to B, really."

What I like about your journey is that you didn't actually come from raves, yet your style lent itself so well to rave culture….

"Well, before I was doing cover art I used to do a computer game artwork. That's basically when I got my teeth into airbrushing and trying to work my own visual style which was semi-fantasy /semi-science fiction. Always futuristic, really. Nothing set in this particular plane of time. The relationship between these two things was so clear when I first heard the music. I mean, how many times have you heard a sci-fi song in the music?"

All the time! Blade Runner alone has a lot to answer for! 

"All those sounds. Like the sound of a lightsaber being turned on, or that incidental music from Alien 3, when they get the clone of Ripley from the prison. I hear that so many times. I first heard it on a Kemistry & Storm album. You hear it everywhere."

Ideas on the future change with age. You grew up with very positive sci-fi in the 60s and 70s… 

"Yes, when we grew up thinking everything in the future would be silver. The suits in Buck Rogers were silver. Or they have silver faces like in Time Tunnel. You could have the most futuristic boots ever but they had to be silver." 

Ha ha. You subvert a lot of that, though, especially in terms of Afrofuturism. There weren’t that many black roles in a lot of the shows were there? 

"A few minor roles. But you always remembered them. There were a few in Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. Funny thing was, when they introduced a new black character we’d be like, ‘Oh, they’ll die first then’ when we watched it. And nine times out of 10 we’d be right, too. But with Afrofuturism I wanted to project a view of black people moving into the future. Sci-fi is wonderful but it’s very European-centric, so it’s my own Afro-Caribbean interpretation or contribution to that."

Let’s look at some of your own personal favourites over the years. The first one you’ve chosen is a Dreamzone flyer….

"Yes. I did a few sketches of this one before it ended up like this. I wanted to have someone who’s dreaming in that REM state. The backdrop at the bottom is basically like Stonehenge and I wanted that serene look on her face. She's wearing a crown and from the fiery part we see Neptune. This is one of one of my favourite pieces. I have it on my wall. 

"The thing is, when you're an airbrush artist, the aim is to get things like human faces as photorealistic as possible. That’s the holy grail for a lot of artists and I felt I’d achieved that, or as close to that as I could at the time, with this one."

It’s interesting – artists have to learn so many disciplines during their career. In your book you mentioned you had just one purple pencil at one point growing up. Then over the years you’ve adapted as an airbrush artist and then, much later, a digital artist…. 

"Yes, but they’re not as a different as you think. What I learn as an airbrush artist, I can do on a computer. In terms of shapes, stencils and adding details. Obviously there’s so much more detail than you might ever spot on a final version of a flyer, because at the design stage they're almost always A3."

It's beautiful to know how much work went into a lot of those early flyers. A real craft. How long would that take?

"I always tell the clients about five to seven days, because you always have to allow a bit of extra time just in case it all goes wrong. But I'm lucky enough that when I was airbrushing I never had to throw a piece away and start from scratch. I always had the plan inside my head because I've had a sketch, I know what colours I wanted and where everything is going to be. I tend not to start something unless I know exactly what I want."

Let’s talk about your next favourite. This isn’t a flyer, just a political/satirical one, isn’t it? 

"Well, we’ve all got a sweet tooth haven’t we? People love sugar! But it’s so addictive. And if you turn back the clock and think about who made the sugar and the conditions the people who worked in the plantation lived in, this sets the story up. Like it says, it’s granulated death."

Totally. Sugar plantations would have been cruel, horrible places where people were exploited for the benefit greedy white Europeans…

"Exactly. And it’s also really harmful to you. It’s awful for your health and very addictive. So on the side of the packet it lists the harmful effects sugar has. It’s crazy. We live in this type of society where sugar and salt, two things incredibly bad for your health, are used as preservatives. Can you see the little ovals in the design? They're gravestones." 

Did you display or exhibit this anywhere? 

"I displayed it here and there but I did it for me and sold a few prints. I’ve done a few over the years. I did one called Milk For Cows, too. I think about them for a while. You know, when you see something, and it just basically sits in your head until it permeates into an idea."

Are you working on anything like that now? 

"I am, yes. I’m thinking a lot about a piece that addresses police brutality, systematic racism and the murder of George Floyd and how black people have been found hanging from trees over in the States. My idea is to have a tree and all the ropes will be hanging the negative words we need to hang. It's still it's still in my head but it’s only a matter of time. I want to find the right contextual imagery from the past that will make people research, understand the history more and get the message." 

That sounds incredible! So let’s go back to your favourites again. Talk about to me about Slammin’ Vinyl and this piece. I get serious Judge Dredd/2000AD vibes from this…

"Do you?

Yeah man. Stylistically but also his burliness. You wouldn’t fuck with this robot would you?

"You definitely wouldn’t! I used to read 2000AD, but did you know I did colouring for them?"

I knew you did colouring for Marvel, but I didn't know you worked for them, too. Was that around the same time? 

"Much later. I first worked on Judge Janus from the Psi-Division. That was a lot of fun. I used to buy those thick books of ABC warriors. There was one particular character that I really liked the look of, Hammerstein. You know, a robot with a hammer for a hand. How cool was that? So I went through this phase where I just got really into big blast ‘em up robots and this guy was one of my favourites. 

"He actually came from an album cover I’d done for Slammin Vinyl – Rushing On Pink Champagne. But that was just the side of his head – this one is much more of him. I'm happy with it. Of course there’s always going to be bits that you would like to change. I'd make his forearm a little bit longer, and put his trigger finger a little bit further out."

Talking of robots and what you said about the realism of airbrushing. The Terminator Slammin Vinyl one must have been a proud achievement? 

"Another one of my proudest, absolutely."

Have you had issues with copyright or legal stuff? 

"No, I’ve never flagged anybody's attention. But then there's always that fine line. But what I tend to do is draw it from a reference image. It’s my interpretation. You see other ones which are straight out of a book. I’ve seen ones where they’ve even left the original artist’s name on it!"

You’ve got be a lot cleverer when you reference something. There needs to be some subversion or twist on its repurpose or it’s cheating. 

"It is. I've had my some of my stuff jacked. It was the Seduction flyer, which had the naked man on it. They’d taken out the man but the background sky and the squares were totally ripped off. You do have to be cleverer because every artist can recognise their baby. But, cool. I hope their rave was a success."

You don’t strike me as a man to spend time on legal wrangles…

"No, no. But sometimes you’ve got to track someone down, introduce yourself, ask how it’s going and all that, explain the situation and just, you know, give me a credit." 

That's all it takes, right? Imitation is the highest form of flattery I guess…

"You know, I'm not out to be there to give bad vibes. Just talk to me like an ordinary person and I’ll always give my blessings."

Talking of bad vibes, let’s chat about your next selection – the gun. This isn’t in your book but it will be in the reprint, right? How come it missed the first edition? 

"I’ve only got this one copy and it got lost around the flat until I looked at an old sketchbook. The night was called Gunsmoke, in Zurich, and yeah, they wanted a gun-shaped flyer."

This just wouldn’t have happened in the UK, would it? 

"No. The night wouldn’t have got the go-ahead from the local council if they saw that was the type of thing being promoted. But they wanted a gun so I gave them a gun. A Colt 45. A golden Colt 45."

What’s cool about this is that it’s a Swiss promoter calling up a UK artist to do the flyer. This was pre-internet so there’s some proper effort going on here. You were already renowned less than six years into flyer work…

"Ha! It was quite interesting. Like ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve broken into Europe.’ But they never gave me another job! I had fun though, it was different and it was something you’d never get in UK. It’s not a message anyone would want. Guns kill people. Well, people with guns kill people."

Amen. Let’s check the last flyer from your selection – Dream Odyssey. Is this the return of the female face we’ve seen in so many variations. 

"No, it’s actually Danny from Renegade Soundwave."

Oh wow.

"I did three record covers for Renegade Soundwave and in-between they gave me promotion material and one was this picture of all three of them. So I did a pencil version and then I decided I’d take one of the sketches and make it full colour. That's how this one came about. I had it around and a promoter came to me looking for a flyer but didn't have any time to actually produce one. I introduced them to this one. They bought it, used it, I got paid and I was laughing!"

Brilliant. So let’s finish with your all-time favourite piece… The Dark Side II: Jungle & Technology, an album cover for the legendary React label. 

"Yes. It’s a funky dread in space. It was before I was doing the Afrofuturism so it’s still a European format, I but enjoyed that so much. The whole idea was very natural and had a life of its own. I did these sketches and I was thinking, ‘Why don't you change the dreads into tubes?’ Then what else can I do? Yeah, I’ll put him in these crazy hi-tech goggles and then we’ll have metal tubes going into the head as the neck and it just went on from there. I had a lot of fun with that one. And of course, he’s in space…"

Where you’ve spent much of your career!

"Almost all of it. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way."

Words: Dave Jenkins Flyers: Junior Tomlin

Junior Tomlin: Flyer & Cover Art is out now, published by Velocity Press – more info here

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Tags: Junior Tomlin, rave flyers, club artwork, album sleeves, Velocity Press, design, Dreamscape, Telepathy, One Nation, Slammin’ Vinyl, Renegade Soundwave, The Scientist, Grooverider, Wishdokta, Kemistry & Storm, Reat