Lowbrow art is a raw, frequently unpolished graphic style that grew out of the underground comix, punk music, and hot-rod scenes. Often it focuses on sex, drugs, and anything that might be considered taboo. Its aim is to violate social norms and slap polite society in the face with the dirty and calloused hand of reality. It’s rough, it’s real, and I love it!
I grew up in a working class family, in a working class neighborhood, in a very conservative Christian community — Lynchburg, Virginia to be exact. It was the hometown of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. You couldn’t drive more than a mile without passing some sort of church. That was the setting for my childhood.
My dad was a mechanic and truck driver. He drank and smoked and didn’t care much for the churchgoers. My mom worked as a secretary, didn’t drink or smoke, and dragged my sister and me to church every Sunday. It was a house divided. Both of my parents were capable artists and musicians. My mom painted portraits of cats and played gospel tunes. My dad drew naked pictures of my grandmother on my stomach and howled out Hank Williams songs. Through this cultural dichotomy, I found my own appreciation for the honest, unpretentious beauty of the working man’s artistic creations. Whether it be in music, cars, or art, it connected with me and grabbed my attention.
When I grew older, I gravitated more and more toward graphic art. I learned to appreciate the skill and time it took to create respectable works of art — the ones people flock to museums to stare at. I too would visit the museums, when I had a chance, and study the paint strokes, the compositions, and the subtle details hidden beneath carefully applied layers of paint. It all not only impressed me, but also motivated me to learn and further my own artistic abilities. At about this time I experienced the loss of my father unexpectedly and, in response to his death, my mother threw herself even deeper into the church. In the same period, my uncle began to bring me bags full of comics from his job at the local paper mill.
Years earlier, my uncle had lost one of his arms when his hand became stuck between two giant rollers at the paper mill. The rollers would’ve pulled him in and crushed him but, to save his own life, he tore himself away from the machine — ripping his own arm off in the process. It saved his life, but left him with only a stub below his left elbow. From then on he always wore a hook, and the paper mill kept him on as a security guard.
In his capacity as nighttime security, he would walk through the same building and past the rollers that had forever changed his life. There, he would gather hundreds of tattered and torn comics and magazines slated for destruction — many of them missing covers, many of them duplicates, a few of them ADULT ONLY! But, no matter what he managed to gather with his hook and one remaining hand, he would place them all in bags and bring them to me.
As I perused the discarded periodicals, I encountered all sorts of images from artists I didn’t recognize at the time but would later grow to admire. Thomas “Tomi” Ungerer, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, R. Crumb, Gahan Wilson, Wil Eisner, Rich Corbin, Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, S. Clay Wilson, Virgil Finlay, and Howard Nostrand were just a few that now come to mind. I devoured their illustrations in everything, from the four color E.C. horror comic reprints to the glossy Heavy Metal magazines, and everything in between.
The carefree days of my childhood were filled with the twisted, torn, and sometimes soiled works of talented artists and storytellers that dared to offend and entertain at the same time, while my developing sense of self was firmly engulfed by a continuous shroud of death and horrific injuries. See, in addition to my dad’s death and my uncle’s industrial accident, I also had an unusually large number of friends and neighbors that were either killed, committed suicide (once I even heard the gunshot), or suffered some form of accidental amputation (mostly fingers and toes).
As I came of age, I was keenly aware of the finality of life and the ever present shadow of death. In fact, it was this awareness that made lowbrow art all the more appealing to me. It wasn’t labored over to achieve some artificial standard of beauty that doesn’t exist in the real world. It was pure. It was real. It was messy, just like the world it sprung from.
Lowbrow art, in all its forms, captured what people were really thinking, what they were really talking about, and what they were really doing. No Night Watchman holding his lantern high to light the streets here. No, these streets were littered with needles and trash, where hookers and dealers claimed the corners and junkies puked in the alleys. And artists recorded it all in cheaply reproduced comix and on punk rock posters.
Lowbrow art could be found everywhere, but only if you knew where to look for it – in the headshops, record stores, and eventually even on movie posters and in advertising. Lowbrow art started as a form of free expression and protest, but now it permeates across popular culture too. That led me into the subculture of zines and mini-comics, where many published artists continued to contribute their talents, and where many of them had begun.
For me, it became the totally unrestricted creativity that I craved and allowed to captivate my imagination. These artists could, and were, doing whatever they wanted. They weren’t being driven by how many issues their comic or zine would sell, and they weren’t being reined in by an editor. They were all doing their own thing then as they continue to do today, and it’s awesome!
Warren “WEE” Elliott is a freelance cartoonist and comix creator. He publishes his own comix under the Almost Normal Comics imprint and his cartoons can currently be found in Hustler Magazine, Hustler Humor, and Penthouse Magazine.