Ben Brown has a thing for skulls. They’re everywhere in his art, and there are even a few on the shelf behind the desk in his home studio in Mosman. Skulls, books, posters, skate decks and files of reference have gathered over the decades that Ben has been one of Australia’s pre-emintent commercial artists. “I don’t spend ages getting it just right,” he says. What he has spent ages getting right is his art. Comic books, punk rock, Kustom culture, surf comics and band t-shirts all combine in Ben’s iconic style. When Nirvana toured Australia in 1991, Brown designed the poster. Yeah, he’s that legit.
From a hardware angle, Brown keeps his studio simple. “I’ve got a drawing table, because I still like to draw at a traditional table that’s a drafting table sort of thing, and then I’ve got two desks. I’ve got two iMacs that I work from. I’ve got an older one that’s got all my old software and my old Wacom tablet on it because I just like old stuff when I’m doing really big jobs that are going to take a while. It’s just, I don’t know, for some reason it’s more comfortable to work on.” Working from a home studio, Ben’s art has a habit of leaking into his life. “I probably will work until I finish work in the studio at night, and then I will take a tablet into the lounge and just keep drawing because it’s half necessity and it’s half easy, you know, you might as well get it done if you are just sitting in front of the telly, you might as well finish that drawing!”
Brown got his start in the early 80s at a screen printer’s in Brookvale. This was a long time before tablets. “It was all pre-digital so they are having access to a dark room and a Bromide camera and an art department, it was awesome because I used to design a lot of rock posters and flyers and hand bills so I could go into the dark room and sneak all my gear in there and work on them. I’d come out like I’d just been taking photos of the koala tourist tee shirts!” The echoes of his screen printing past are still. Ben explains, “The way that I use black line and the colours in my work, it generally looks like it’s screen printed really. It’s always been like that.”
While he’s been collaborating with Mambo for the best part of a decade, his memories of the brand go back way further. Brown remembers the advent of Mambo, when he was a ratbag kid hanging around Waterfront Records, keeping an eye on Mambo founder Dare Jennings’ record label, Phantom. And for artists like Ben, a gig with Mambo was something to aspire to. “It was always a cool brand and stuff and probably professionally I really admired them and would have like to have worked with them when I was younger, it was sort of a hard gig to pick up.” Despite being a fan, Brown didn’t really get around in the gear. “We were sort of real punk rock skate kids so we were wearing The Hard-Ons tee shirts and stuff like that more than a Mambo shirt!”
So it’s back to punk rock, which incidentally is what normally blares in the background back in Mosman. It’s also what takes up the bulk of Ben’s time. His iconic style means he’s in high demand for poster design for bands like Pearl Jam, Queens of The Stone Age, The Pixies…One Direction. “I did put (my work for) One Direction on my Instagram once to freak people out,” Ben laughs. “Heaps of people, they were like ‘Oh that’s hilarious, that’s unreal’ and others were just like ‘I can’t believe you did that!’ It’s like, ‘Oh yes I will turn down good money from a corporate record label just to be cool for you!’” Ben Brown doesn’t have to be cool for anyone. He was there when it counted. He has the skulls to prove it.