by RS Frost
German artist Karmazid has been gracing album covers, merchandise, tour posters and the like with his finely detailed illustrations and sigils for the better part of a decade. He is responsible for some of the most iconic pieces within the extreme metal underground in recent memory and has worked with a daunting number of bands.
Having spent a considerable amount of time exploring Karmazid’s work, I was eager to learn more about the drive behind such an abundant artistic output and what goes into this many-lined maelstrom of shape and form.
- I've been drawing all my life, but there was a pretty long phase in which I didn't really have the patience or motivation to sit down and work on my skills. I started getting back into it around my 30th birthday as a direct consequence of changing some fundamental aspects of my life. But I never thought something would come from that, I'm a bit dumb when it comes to social media but I uploaded some of my doodles to Instagram and from there I slowly gained a steadily growing audience, thanks to early Patreons like Jim from URFAUST.
Speaking of Urfaust, you were responsible for a particular sigil of theirs which was created as a commemorative gesture to THE DEVIL’S BLOOD. How did this project come about and what were your feelings on being involved?
- I was approached for this one in 2016 by Jim and although it terrified me a bit, I was very excited, for the same reason which is TDB being one of my favourite bands. I had the original sigil tattooed on my wrist shortly after Selim’s death and it is still one of the most powerful sigils of any band out there. When I started out, working for TDB was a great dream of mine and this commission was what came closest to fulfilling it, alongside the artwork for HERETIC’s ‘It’s On’ cover. Although it’s only really a mashup of two wonderful pieces by Jinx Dawson and a Dutch or Belgian guy I don’t know the name of, that thing means a lot to me.
After speaking with a fewartists who work with extreme and more underground-leaning bands, namely VLADIMIR CHEBAKOV, ADRIAN BAXTER and DEHN SORA, one of the most interesting points of conversation for me is the influence that their respective geographical location seems to have on their work and how that influence is identified. So I’ll ask you what I asked them, do you think that your surroundings have shaped your art in any significant way?
- I'm from Germany, a pretty idyllic rural area close-ish to Frankfurt, close enough to civilisation for convenience and far away enough for my preferred feeling of hermetic isolation. Has that shaped my art? I'm not sure, a lot of early influences came from my parents' record collection and fantasy book covers. Maybe having not grown up in an urban environment and with not a lot of friends as a kid made it easier to appreciate the magick of nature and loneliness, but all in all, I really don't think so, these are pretty pedestrian influences I could've picked up anywhere in the world to be honest.
Looking through your to-date body of work, I’m amazed at the amount of time that is surely spent working on your craft, not to mention the sheer number of people and bands you must have worked with so far.
- Oh, quite a lot. Even before I quit my 'real' job to do this full time, I took on up to 30 commissions in my first year (2013). It was, and still mostly is, illustration work for metal bands, artworks for album covers, shirts, posters, etc. There's the occasional book cover too, but that's mostly it. And it's what I really enjoy too.
Some collaborations that seem to stand out the most, to me at least, are those with the likes of ATLANTEAN KODEX, MALAKHIM, TCHORNOBOG, SVARTIDAUÐI and WINTERFYLLETH amongst a few others. How do you approach working with a band and what is the level of creative input from the involved parties?
- I often say “please tell me all that you want to see in the illustration but don’t expect it to be there necessarily”. It’s a common misconception by a lot of customers that giving an illustrator complete freedom makes their job easier. All it does is add another step; going through previous artworks, lyrics, doing research, sketching stuff up in various directions etc. I’m a big fan of making a vision work, translating someone's thoughts into my own visual language. Which doesn’t mean I don’t often come up with my own ideas, that happens very often and usually speaks for the inspiration a certain band provides me with. But I really like to go through all the input, references, mood boards, whatever and concoct that into my very own composition.
In more recent years a lot of your work has included various sigils, either incorporated into a piece or as the focal point of the piece itself. Given that dealing with sigils is quite a delicate endeavour, I’m curious as to whether you conduct any form of research before embarking on this type of work?
- To be honest, that’s not a topic I really like to talk about a lot, I feel a Boëthiussian approach is the wisest here. Sigils and magickal symbols have more meaning to me than pure design, but then again, that’s what even profane symbols, icons and seals want to accomplish. A lot of the sigil work I do for my own purposes I’d never show on social media or sell them, but I also don’t think it’s blasphemy to create a symbol in which the balance is tilted more towards the design part of things, in most cases even those have deeper meaning, even if that might not always be noticeable at first glance.
With the abundance of self-anointed gnostics and occultists within black metal, I wonder whether you have come across any situations where what one says does not necessarily fall in line with how one is?
- I do think there are a lot of people within that subculture who are serious about their spiritual doings, but I’ve found that those who boast about it the least are usually the ones you can take a bit more seriously. That’s also why I’d prefer not to go too deep into that if you don’t mind, it’s a very personal thing and works best in isolation and solitude, although I’m sure people ‘in the know’ can tell from some elements in my illustrations.
You are also responsible for a number of band logos. How do you find working on a band’s name/logo versus a broader piece of work?
- So, in general, I’m not the biggest fan of logo commissions if I’m being honest. As superficial as it may sound, rarely is the price bands are willing to pay, for what is essentially the piece of art that is usually their initial and most reproduced visual representation, reflective of the time and effort involved with that process. There are exceptions, of course, but there’s a certain limit to a seemingly endless back and forth for me. That being said, I love doing logos, I know I’m not particularly good at it, but I already made up metal logos when I was 11 or so and I very much like a word being replaced by an illustration. But there are guys like View From The Coffin etc. who are usually the better choice.
How did you come to realise that art was where you wanted to spend your time and efforts creatively? What does being an artist mean to you as a creative force?
- I only came around to the term “art” in recent years; often it's used in pretentious and self-serving ways by people trying to fit into a role without wanting to, as dumb as it sounds, pay the price. There's a reason one of the biggest clichés about artists is them being unstable, depressive and weird. Most of them are and, despite being a weirdo seemingly becaming en vogue over the last couple of years, it's not all fun and games.
But on the other hand, there comes a time in life when you find out that what you really want to do is create, not for the applause or the recognition or money, but because there's some weird beautiful phlegm stuck in your soul you have to cough out before you go insane. Be that with music or painting, drawing, whatever. So over the years, I noticed that I was angry at an idiot's definition of art, not the thing itself. My wife is an artist, my best friends are artists and I judge most entertainment from an artistic perspective, so I guess that means it's pretty important to me.
Do you turn to any specific peers for motivation or inspiration?
- Impactful artists for me, from the old to old-ish guard, are the obvious ones like Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, Dürer, Eleonora Carrington, AOS, Frank Pape, Alberto Martini, Henry J. Ford, Mike Mignola, Virgil Finlay, Druillet, Chumbley, Ian Miller and so on.
More recent ones include Adrian Baxter, Lupe Valesconcelas, Skinner, Aaron Horkey, Glyn Smith, Adam Burke, Synod, Bethany White, Pierre Berthier and others.
On top of your artwork, you are also a musician. Can you tell me what projects you have been involved with and what your musical aspirations and interests are?
- Oh. I’m not sure I’d call myself a musician (yet), I’ve been playing the guitar quite badly for at least 27 years and I only recently started drumming. There are some projects I’m working on though with great, actual musicians carrying most of the load, but I’d rather not have them be the ‘bands that one illustrator guy plays in’ but have them stand on their own. So if you’re interested, wait for one or two releases towards the end of the year with shitty drums and that might just be my band.
As far as working as an artist in the broader industry is concerned, how do you find dealing with people from the extreme metal community and working within that community in general?
- I enjoy (and also kind of hate) making my own hours. I really like taking ideas and references from my customers and turning them into something more or less unique. It's also nice to “discover” a lot of great artists in the underground through my work. Creating a sort of CI for a new project with a bit of a blank slate in terms of visual aesthetic is always a wonderful thing, as well as putting my own spin on an established look or vibe.
Meeting creative maniacs is also great, as most illustrators would agree, especially for introverts and people with anxiety issues. It’s way easier to bond with likeminded people, creators and semi-lunatics.
Do you think that personality factors, such as anxiety, depression or general lunacy, play a significant role in the quality of work and general success of illustrators today?
- I think that is almost the price you have to pay for being creative. Not a big fan of a trend in the mainstream that almost glorifies depression or mental health issues, although that also may just be a method of self-preservation, seeing how almost inevitable a lot of that has become for so many people. Moreso, I’m sure that for a lot of “us” it’s either some kind of output in any of the artistic fields or…something more troubling.
Some people want the world to think they’re crazy and sad and all that but you can usually tell if it's dishonest, no one really wants that. It works great as a gimmick for some, but it shouldn’t if you ask me.
What would you say has enabled or encouraged you to keep going as a full-time artist so far?
- The great response to my work, both from people following me on social media and the bands/labels I work with, gives me an insight into what looking at my crap can mean to people. Which is great because, as is a bit of a stereotype with creative people, I hate seeing my stuff most of the time. I've met a bunch of great people through my work, some of those became dear colleagues and acquaintances, some I'd describe as being among my closest friends.
There's always weird stuff happening, rude and ignorant people you have to deal with, mostly bigger names trying to take advantage of their assumed status, stuff like that. But aside from maybe two or three really disappointing experiences, a handful of stolen illustrations and one strange case of another artist redrawing my stuff in their style, I think I'm mostly pretty lucky with the people deciding to work with me.
Have you noticed any major changes within the industry in your time?
- In terms of art, yeah. I feel there's an interesting shift away from obvious metal images back to an interesting mix of old ideas and new approaches. You can see way more commissioned paintings now where once there were the same ten old Dürer /Goya etc. paintings and drawings sampled as artwork. A lot of bands are a lot braver with their imagery too, moving away from devils and skulls to a more metaphorical vision.
What does the future hold for you musically, artistically and personally?
- I will indeed record at least one EP this year with one of the bands I'm drumming for, so that's a great thing. In terms of illustrating, I guess we'll see. I'd be perfectly fine with doing band stuff for the foreseeable future. I wouldn't mind upping my rates a tiny bit so I don't have to burn out, but I guess that's part of that deal with the devil.
There’s also a tumour growing in one of my fingers, despite having been removed once already, and if my doctors are to be believed, this could spread to all of my other fingers sooner or later, so that’s also a thing the future holds, but we’ll see when and how that gets to a point that’s more problematic than it is now.
Thank you for your time and insight into your work. I now invite you to offer any closing sentiments you may have.
- At the risk of coming across preachy, I wish more people would channel all their digital anger and energy shouting into a social media void and rather create something. Usually, I say that I hate humanity for what it is, not what it could be, and I feel things get more idiotic the more people allow the internet and their respective bubbles to take over their lives.
Pick up a pen or an instrument or an empty .txt file, anything other than feeding even more anger to that disgusting digital souleater.