You probably have no idea what he looks like, but youâ€™ve almost surely seen his work. Over the past ten years, Maryland based artist Mike Thompson has gone from airbrushing tees, to heading up Eckoâ€™s T-Shirt division, to being featured in Coca-Cola and Infiniti Motors advertisements. With a client roster also including EA Sports, and XXL, Mike T has become one of todayâ€™s quintessential hip-hop artists.
Format: How do you feel about the fact that your work is revered, but most people have no idea who you are?
Mike Thompson: It used to really bother me. Not that I wanted to be famous, but more because I was making other people rich off my work. Now I work for myself and I’m cool with it, I just have to keep doing my thing. I try to make sure that work speaks for itself, so I never have to go back to a “real” job.
Format: It seems like half the successful urban artists out right now, if they didnâ€™t come-up writing graf, came-up airbrushing clothing. Why is that?
Mike Thompson: It’s hip hop, it is our heritage. I can’t speak for anyone else, but if it weren’t for t-shirts, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. Airbrushing tees of Malcom in high school led to printing tees of Spike Lee in college. Fast forward 10 years and I am painting portraits for Puffy and Kim.
Format: How did you initially link up with Ecko?
Mike Thompson: Marc and his partner Seth saw my work and asked me to do a few freelance tees. I guess they went over well, because I got that offer to head their T division the next week. Seth’s offer was pretty funny, he told me they loved my stuff and it would be cheaper for them to just hire me.
Format: What was your first day at the job like?
Mike Thompson: It wasn’t what I expected. Back when I came on they weren’t the multi-million dollar machine they are now. I just remember a huge building with a hand full of people. At the time there were only five artists including Marc at the old South River office. Everyone had high expectations. I remember getting a sketchbook and my computer and thinking, “What the fuck am I going to do now?” It felt like the first day of school, you know how you spend more time playing with your new pencils and lunch box than actually getting anything done? Things didn’t really kick in till Marc told me we needed an entire line of tees for the trade show in Vegas in a month.
Format: What was the experience like heading up the t-shirt division of the company? How did you foster its growth?
Mike Thompson: For about the first year, there was only me in the shirt department. I would design, illustrate and separate the work after brainstorming with Marc. After that the department got a couple of people then started to grow. I brought in people I worked with in the past. I knew they were great at what they did and dependable. A lot of talented cats came and went because they didn’t respect deadlines.
Before coming to Ecko I had headed two other art departments and built up relationships in the screen print industry. Over the years I helped develop new print techniques with our Ink manufacturer which I brought to Ecko. At the time we were doing tees that companies like Adidas and Reebok used as reference.
Format: You were a major part of the Ecko Cube campaign. Who came up for the concept for that and how was it developed?
Mike Thompson: It was Marc’s idea, based off an ad he saw from Europe. We met about it one night and decided that it would be a great campaign. He told me to do whatever I wanted with the art, just as long as it was hot. He brought in hip hop artists like DMX and Fat Joe and shot them from every angle [then] I would go over the pages with the designer. I picked the pics I wanted to use as reference and Andre picked the shots for the ad. Then I painted, Dre put it all together, Marc blessed the layout and you saw them. I hated the first one. I spent a long time painting Buckshot and put a ton of detail in it, too much. When the ad came out, people thought I just ran a filter over the photograph. I learned my lesson and think of it with every job I do.
Format: Why do you think there arenâ€™t more successful urban artists?
Mike Thompson: I think there are, you just don’t hear about them. Before MySpace, I had a great career under my belt, did freelance with companies like Timberland and EA Sports, was featured in a National Coke commercial, and worked with artists like Kanye and the Roots. And people still don’t know who I am. They know guys like Shepard Fairey and Justin Bua, guess I should talk to their PR guys.
I see success as being able to paint because you want, not because you have to. I will get there one day, but for now I have to grind to feed my family. I am fortunate in that I paint what I want and enjoy doing it, so maybe that is success.
â€œUrban is what I am, Illustration is what I do. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure I can paint non-urban work, but I think my work is that much better because I paint what I identify with.â€
Format: How do you feel about being an â€œurbanâ€ illustrator as opposed to an illustrator?
Mike Thompson: Urban is what I am, Illustration is what I do. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure I can paint non-urban work, but I think my work is that much better because I paint what I identify with. If I am working on a Jay piece, that is what CD is playing. I feel like I am channeling his music thru my brush. Without that inspiration, I’m just going through the motions.
Format: When youâ€™re approached for a project, what factors, besides money of course, enter into your decision to take it on or not?
Mike Thompson: Time is the biggest. I don’t like missing deadlines, more than that, I don’t like putting out a bad piece because I rushed. The subject and money are a close second. If I am not painting something I enjoy, it definitely shows. As far as money, I’m not trying to be a “starving artist,” I can’t afford that shit with kids. When I was young I went that route. These days I’ve come to realize that this is a business and so do the people I work with. My art means a lot to me and I refuse to devalue it by giving it away. I can’t stress that enough to other young artists. If a dude is pushing an expensive whip with 24’s, but expects you to sell your blood for nothing, pass.
â€œIf a dude is pushing an expensive whip with 24’s, but expects you to sell your blood for nothing, pass.â€
Format: Who have been your favourite portraits to paint?
Mike Thompson: Probably my Prince Paul and recently my Dre. I like the Prince Paul because it defined my style at the time, kind of hyper-real. Before that piece I was just another artist looking for a style of my own. I like the Dr. Dre painting because it is more of an example of my style today. It’s a little more raw and painterly, but still feels like my work.
Format: Who have been the most difficult portraits to paint?
Mike Thompson: The most difficult portraits usually have the worst reference. The box art I did for NFL Street 2 was a nightmare. EA gave me a dozen pictures of Jeremy Shockey smiling and asked me to paint him with a mad face. I did 20 versions of his face and hated every one of them! I am a big gamer and would take EA’s call any day, but that piece almost killed me. The client liked the finished piece, but I still don’t really showcase it. One thing people don’t really know about me is that, I’m rarely ever “happy” with my own work. I always look at it and see all the things I could have done better. The good thing is that I use that on my next piece, and because of that, I think it makes my work better.
Format: Can you tell any interesting stories about specific pieces, artists, or projects that youâ€™ve worked on/with?
Mike Thompson: Early in the Ecko campaign I was at the photo shoot for Method Man’s spot. It was late one night and we didn’t have any pants that would fit his waist. There wasn’t any time to reschedule and we needed to shoot something. That’s why he is holding a big rhino sticker over his shorts and his pants are around his ankles.
Format: How did Jay-Z approach you for the commissioned works? What was that experience like?
Mike Thompson: Jay saw a painting I did of him a couple of years ago. He wanted to do a signature series of shirts for the Rocawear line featuring my work. It was a great experience. As an artist, you always hope that the person that you paint will see your work one day and like it. When I was with Ecko, even though I painted a lot of Rap cats, I never really got a chance to meet them. So I always wondered, “Do they dig this thing, or did I just piss this dude off?”
Format: Whatâ€™s the difference between working with corporations like Infiniti or Coke, and working with hip-hop oriented companies?
Mike Thompson: The bigger companies have a lot more channels to go through to get approvals. Creative directors usually trust my style and don’t over direct me. If they have to answer to a huge company like Coke or Nissan, the process generally takes more time and goes through a lot more people. On the other hand, if I’m doing a piece for Vibe or XXL, I can get the call on Monday and be done by Friday.
Format: Have you shown in galleries? If so, what was the experience like? If not, how come?
Mike Thompson: I never have. I do have an idea for a show I’d like to do, but only if I can do it big. Like celeb guest list and National tour type big. Of course I would need a backer for a venture like that, so for now, it’s just an idea.
Format: Why do you use acrylics instead of other paints?
Mike Thompson: I can control the medium and move pretty quickly with acrylics. I really like the look of oils, but I just don’t have that kind of time, even with drying agents. Most of my work now is either acrylic, or I also use applications like Painter and my Powerbook when I have a crazy tight deadline to meet. The trick is trying to make sure that you can’t tell what is digital and what is out of the Matrix.
Format: What other avenues of art are you interested in getting involved in?
Mike Thompson: After being filmed for Coke and Infiniti, I have to admit I wouldn’t mind trying a little acting. Or at least another commercial, I kind of got the bug. That sounds kind of corny though, so if you print this, I’ll just deny it!
Format: Talk about the book youâ€™re working on. Whatâ€™s going to be in it? Whenâ€™s it going to be released? Etc.
Mike Thompson: The book is going to be dope. Right now it is in the very early stages. I can’t really talk about it yet. All I can say is it will be the best of my work and probably some of my techniques. I am looking for a publisher, so if anyone reading this knows of a good one, holler at your boy.
Format: Who are some of your favorite artists working right now in the urban realm? Who does Format need to feature next?
Mike Thompson: There are a lot of artists I dig right now. Guys like Dubelyoo, Fuse, Doze, Deseo One, and Fatoe are killing it. In fact I think we all need to come together and form a some sort of League for Justice, just not sure what to call it.
More Info: http://www.miketartworks.com