AJ Paglia (@ajpagliadesign) Interview: The Man who Swims with Swissarmysharks

Do you think designing t-shirts is difficult? Have you ever tried going beyond the thread and getting your hands dirty to make other types of art? If not, then step aside and watch our main man Swissarmyshark put some blood in the water. Also known as AJ Paglia, this Rhode Island native is no stranger to many mediums on and off the computer. I sat down with him to discuss 10 pieces that he feels embodies important aspects of his work. This is what it’s like to have a well-rounded portfolio and get your hands off the mouse, and into the mouse trap.

Hey AJ, thanks for taking the time to share your work with us. You’ve been a longtime RIPT Apparel artist, starting way back in our first year. You’ve also always had a pretty diverse body of work. Tell us where you came from, your schooling, and where you are now.

Born and raised in Providence, RI, USA. My first design job was a t-shirt for a friend’s hardcore band, back when I was a freshmen at Rhode Island College. I was paid for it with a scramble eggs combo at Denny’s. After that I just fell in love with graphic design, worked doing ads for the college, layout and graphics for the school newspaper, graduated in ’07 with a BFA. I worked for a large company for a handful of years, while doing freelance at night, majorly for SnorgTees.com, and drank a lot of coffee in the process. Right now I’m an art director / designer at an ad agency that specializes in non-profit clients, while still doing freelance all night, and still drinking a lot of coffee.

Have you always expected art to be a major part of your career goals?

I did. I was that rare kid in college that knew exactly the major he wanted. I grew up in comics, and I even have the handwritten letter I wrote to Marvel when I was 8 years old that told them I wanted to “draw for them”.

About how many shirt prints have you had since you started working in this shirt-a-day universe?

RIPT 14, Teefury 16, Various others 5, and then Snorg Tees 300+

Some fans of shirt sites may forget that artists can do a great deal of other types of work than just t-shirts. What other non-tshirt applications have you done in the past?

Just about everything 2D: posters, billboards, packaging, beer labels, websites, video/sound editing, mobile apps, tattoos, painting, logos. In our industry it’s important to be versatile, because if you can’t take on a job, then someone else will.

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We Can Slay It

This design was printed at RIPT Apparel. Clearly we have our heroine taking the place of Rosey the Riveter, a classic piece of WW2 Americana. Was there anything unexpected that occurred during the process of translating these two characters together into a successful mash-up?

I realized how simple the actual imagery was once the initial design was made. I looked it over and found all I did was recreate a cleaner Rosey with blonde hair and holding a stick. I knew immediately I couldn’t just sell that to Buffy fans. So went back in and added a handful of wicked subtle references to the show in the details. Things you’d have to buy the print just to see, and things Buffy fans could appreciate.

Where else has this piece been printed?

I think just Teefury, but I also had it limited printed for a local comic shop to sell at a convention. Nerds, love’em!

Were the prints identical at the end of the day?

Never, 3 reasons. 1: every screen printer is different. Some like bold colors, some like single passes, they’re visual personalities. 2: I like to say things are “limited” and tweak designs for each venue. It adds a bit of originality to a very copy&paste industry. 3: on the RIPT sale the design had too many colors so we half-toned the blue.

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Sketches and the final storm trooper helmet

This looks to me like a day of the dead styled helmet from the sci-fi realm. Why put smash these two icons together?

At the time it was October, and Halloween is big in New England. I remember seeing all the trendy sugar skull imagery all around, and just doodled it to a stormtrooper helmet one day during my morning coffee. After the sketch I thought “hey this could actually sell”, and booyahkasha off to the computer for color, and sold.

The sketch you have to the left shows a pretty solid aptitude for hand-drawn pieces. Do you always start with pen and paper? At what point do you move the computer?

Always, even if I don’t need to create a starter illustration, there’s always at least doodle of layout. This one in particular needed a hand-drawn approach to give it some grit.

Do you have more digital “sketches” floating out there in the ether, or more physical pencil on paper type of sketches?

Not really, only reason being is no one seems to ask. Sometimes I’ll post a pic side-by-side on my instagram (@swissarmyshark). Clients and customers just want the finished illustration to hug and love. There are a pile of scanned sketches next to my scanner, sometimes I’ll dig through and frame them for quick gifts.

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The Sesame Six

I feel like this mash-up is pretty straight forward. Again, I see a pen rendering in the montage here. What’s interesting about this design is that although you may have initially illustrated it in the visual positive, those outlines eventually were knocked out of the image and used as the shirt color (the visual negative). I think you pulled it off beautifully here on the final composite. Can you detail that process and maybe explain how that became your final result?

This was another start from a casual doodle. Usually, there are 2 initial sketches, one for idea, one for scanning. But due to my unhealthy love of Muppets, I knew what every character already looked like without having to research. I had full intent of using the outlines as their own color while I was inking it. When I got it into the computer, I found it looked a lot better on a dark background, the navy blue giving it a vintage feel, plus the design was way pushed on colors already.

I feel like I’ve seen this design before, but sometimes it’s hard to know if it was online somewhere else, or in our submission queue. Was this shirt ever printed, and if so where? Were you happy with the results?

Sold on teefury and another shirt-a-day page that I can’t remember. Sales were great. Initially to promote the sale I posted on a lot of Muppets and Sesame Street fan pages, but I was shocked to find a majority of buyers were straight up comic fans. Not sure if I submitted it here, probably, either way its always available!

Please excuse my lack of comic knowledge, but is this design invoking a particular piece of comic book cover art? Something iconic to the original series maybe?

These Sesame Street characters are reenacting the classic Fantastic Four #1 cover. Usually when I do a parody I take the layout as gospel, and recreate the composition identically, however when I drew the idea I like the layout so much I didn’t feel I’d improve anything by mimicking Jack Kirby’s art.

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Long ago, in a Klimpt painting far, far away

Here was have a classic Klimpt piece given a pop-culture subject matter. To me, Gustav Klimpt is one of those artists that only art school kids know about. Would the sales of this particular design lead you to say that conclusion is flawed?

No, speaking as a former art school nerd, Klimt is not a house-hold name like Da Vinci. HOWEVER, The Kiss is a print that many know, recognize, and even own, without ever knowing who created it. Just a bout every girl in my college dorm had a print of it either hanging on their wall, as a laptop skin, desktop wallpaper, etc. Imagery has a way of becoming its own entity. Everyone knows and recognizes the Statue of Liberty, but how many can tell you who designed it? So I took advantage of that image’s popularity and gave it a new story using every nerd’s favorite lovers.

Is putting your own spin on a particular artist’s style difficult for you, or does it come naturally?

It’s. The. Worst. Recreating someone else’s style, or the style of a specific time period, is the boot camp of every designer. You have so much research to do ahead of time, you’re constantly second guessing yourself, afraid that the art won’t be fluid with the idea… but after everything, all that work pays off.

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Vote for your favorite!

This appears to be a series of election style vote signage for various groups one would probably never actually vote on. Each one seems custom tailored to the fictional group it’s targeting. What did you use this series for, or what are your plans?

This was for Threadless during the 2012 election, they were released all 5 at the same time to the public for sale, and they ran a contest separately with their staff being the leaders of these “teams”. Pandas won by a landslide.

How does a series like this come about? Do you have one idea, which leads to another then to another, or do you conceptualize the entire group of images at once?

Originally this was just Vampires and Zombies, I liked the idea of releasing 2 shirts for the election and having a vote-by-sale contest, playing off the 2012 election. Threadless actually liked the idea so much they wanted more than just the 2, which added the Pandas, Ninjas, and Robots (trendy fashion memes). The 3 took me all night on a tight deadline, but boom then there were 5.

Does any one piece of this series seem to garner more interest than the others, or vice versa? Which are the stand out pieces and why?

Pandas did extremely well. The European and Asian markets love Threadless, so the Pandas were the instant favorite. It had a look that was slightly trendier than the others, and won the animal fans. It was my favorite of the tag lines as well.

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The Avery

What is this particular piece for? It appears to be some sort of branding for a drinking establishment, is that correct?

Yes, the Avery is one of my favorite bars in Providence. It’s a tucked away gem, with no sign, and filled with good people.

It appears that you drew from an art deco pool of imagery. Was this your plan or was this a commissioned piece?

The interior of the Avery is covered in art deco carvings that lend to a classy 1920’s feel, and also use female figures on a lot of the branding. So when I was asked to do their uniforms/merch, I knew I needed to deliver what the Avery was in a neat package. I parodied a classic art deco print for the female, and created the crest based on a lot of research. The goal was to show the Avery as sexy, classy, and hidden, and the client was very happy with it. The bartenders are wearing them now!

As far as doing commissioned work, do you find that you work differently on a design for someone else rather than your own personal creation? What do you prefer, if you had your way?

As much as I love the freedom of being my own art director, the structure of working for a client keeps a designer “fit”. With a client I have deadlines, expectations, edits, goals, etc. Some hate it, but I find it a challenge I love tackling.

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Lovecraft attacks!

From the photographs, this appears to be a very large charcoal illustration that is currently hanging up in a local restaurant or coffee shop. About how big is this piece?

It’s black paint on torn canvas, 76x54in. No frame, thank jebus.

Does working on a canvas that is so large come naturally to you?

Yes, one of my first design jobs was creating signs just a fraction smaller than this, so I find it a natural fit. I knew the space it was being used in, and knew it needed to be seen from across the room. Its only difficulty came when I attempted fit it in my Hyundai Accent for delivery.

Would you recommend changing mediums every so often to those that might spend most of their time on the computer?

Absolutely, yes, affirmative. In exercise they have a thing called “muscle confusion”, where you occasionally change your workout, avoiding monotony, to improve your muscle growth. Designers need the same, to step away from the desk every once in awhile to throw paint at a wall, take photos, bake a cake, whatever. It revitalizes you, and as a skilled designer, you grow.

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Music posters

So what’s going on here? Half of these musicians are no longer with us, so was this a personal project or for something specific?

I was commissioned by Fete Music to do a poster/card series of famous music icon illustrations that ranged through every genre of music. These are a few of about thirty.

What is Fete Music?

Fete is a local music venue in my town that’s attempting be a concert/event location that bridges interest across genres. One night is a hip hop show, the next could be rock, followed by pro wrestling show, and a marching band convention. The posters introduce Fete to the public, giving these famous faces the familiarity Fete needed to open their doors and get attendance to their shows.

You have a good mix of musical talent depicted in these illustrations. How did you come up with the accompanying color scheme for each poster design?

I thought about genre, time period style, and individual. Mos Def colors were based on a hip hop/reggae style, light accents on a newsprint-esque look. Morrison was based on the mellow tones of the 70’s tee shirts. Cobain has a very “paper bag and denim” palette which was typical of most grunge era bands. And Bjork’s loud eclectic but dark style was translated into loud and dark colors.

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Talib Kweli comes to town

This looks to be a legit concert poster for Talib. Is that correct?

Yes, it was used for both shows Kweli did in Providence, screen-printed at 11×17, and stolen from just about every telephone pole it was hung on.

How did you end up getting the chance to make this poster? Was it for a local show?

Yes it was a show at Fete, who I had done the icon illustrations and some merch. If clients are happy, 9/10 times they’ll use you again and again, just because they’re comfortable and familiar with you. “Yeah that new breakfast place looks awesome” but in the end you’ll go to the same diner you’ve known and love.

How were you able to develop you technique for illustrating well-known faces in your own personal style?

My style is breaking down a billion shades of color and shading, into 2 colors. I also look at the most important features that create the character and highlight just those. Cobain for example is just a few shapes for his hair/eyes/nose, but his beard is a million little lines, a look which was important to the grunge fans who this needed to appeal.

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Providence Kickball

This is probably my favorite of the designs you have showcased for us today. Was this design actually used by a kickball team?

The kickball league actually. I’m part of the Providence Kickball League, and this was one of four pieces made for the annual merch apparel, all the proceeds going to bring in funds for the league for better equipment, field necessities, and fun.

I think it’s fair to say that any team that was to use this design will be the best dressed ballers on the block, no?

I think so! I created the design, had 100 printed at a local screen-printer, and sold out within 10 days.

Is this a reference to Forbidden Planet?

Yes, directly parodying the Forbidden Planet poster. Our league is made of a lot of different types of people, but we’re all consistently nerds. Teams have different themes, costumes, gimmicks, so although everyone has their own style, they’re passionate about something for its own sake. So when I was connecting merch designs, I knew I needed to create something that appealed to the geekier demographic. Forbidden Planet is a classic original sci-fi movie with a poster composition that’s iconic to all nerds. Parodying it fit to the buyers appeal perfectly. It merges the fantastical sci-fi universe with our kickball league, a dream of any true nerd.

Thanks for sharing some of your work with us, and we hope to see more from you in the future, AJ!

Thanks, my pleasure!

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