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He created iconic surf and skateboard art. Now, he's the focus of a documentary premiering in Santa Barbara

Jim Phillips created iconic surf, skateboarding and rock music poster art for decades.
Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips created iconic surf, skateboarding and rock music poster art for decades.

Jim Phillips provided many of the logos and images associated with surfing and skateboarding for more than four decades.

 You might not know his name, but you've probably have seen some of his art. Jim Phillips created some of the most iconic surf, skateboarding, and rock music art of the last four decades.

Many of the works are wildly imaginative, sort of like crossing Disney animation art with Mad Magazine. Now, a new documentary, Art and Life: The Story of Jim Phillips tells his story.

Phillips says he spent part of his youth in Santa Cruz, where he embraced surfing, and skateboarding. But, he admits his artistic skills developed almost out of boredom.

"It was natural to gravitate towards the ocean, and I did a lot of skimboarding, body surfing, then surfing and skateboarding," said Phillips.

"The drawing came when my father was in the Army. We went to Army bases, and I went to eight different schools by the second grade. There wasn't time to learn anything. I just got shuttled through, but I resorted to drawing. They give you paper, and pencil, and they want you to be quiet, and nobody bothered me." 

Then, opportunity struck.

"In the early days of surfing. they had a surfboard shop t-shirt, and stickers. That was it...that's all they had," said Phillips. "That's where the real market was."


Jim Phillips at work on one of his pieces.
Art and Life: The Story of Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips at work on one of his pieces.

In the 1980’s, Phillips was asked to do a logo for Santa Cruz Skateboards, and his career took off. The artist talks about his inspirations.

"Wally Wood and Bill Elder from the old Mad comic books. It was the first satire I saw. It just really grabbed me, plus the art from these guys is just outstanding," said Phillips. "Walt Disney, everything he did....those are probably the main ones, and then you throw in Salvador Dali, and even Picasso."

Perhaps nothing is as iconic as a work Phillips created that’s become famous around the world. It’s called the Screaming Hand. It’s an image of a hand with a mouth in the palm, looking like it’s screaming. He said the idea started from watching a surfer, and then he pictured a hand sticking out of the water.

Then about 15 years later, he was working on a project and he looked at his clenched hand, which he said looked like a mouth. Phillips said unlike some of his other work, there were no first drafts. He nailed it with one drawing, which is the image we know today.


The iconic Screaming Hand image created by Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips
The iconic Screaming Hand image created by Jim Phillips


His career was a roller coaster. A one point, he ended up closing his studio. But, he revived his career as a rock poster artist. He did work for everyone from Neil Young to Willie Nelson.

Documentary producer John Makens says he became a fan of the artist, and his often abstract work when he was just a kid.

"I grew up as an 80's kid, skateboarding, and Jim's art was everywhere," said Makens. "Some of my first skateboards, and the magazines. I was practicing drawing a lot of Jim's art.

Makens said a few years ago, he needed a logo for a company he’d created, and went to Phillips. It tuned into a friendship. The filmmaker interviewed him for some online videos, and realized there was a bigger story waiting to be told.

"He had all these amazing stories, and I had the idea right there," said Makens. Why isn't there a movie about this guy? He was so influential."

The result is the new 90 minute long documentary Art and Life: The Story of Jim Phillips. The filmmaker says it has a simple message. m"Never give up on what love doing, and just keep doing it, and things will work out."

 Phillips retired more than a decade ago, because he was battling cancer.

While he’s excited that his story is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, he’s got some else to celebrate this week. Doctors just told him after his long fight, his cancer is in remission.

Art and Life: The Story of Jim Phillips will be shown at the Metro 4 Theater in Santa Barbara Friday night, with an 8:40 p.m. screening.



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