If you have the Dec/Jan issue of Revolver — which features Nine Inch Nails on the cover — then you've seen the fascinating mixed media artwork by Thomas Hooper on the last page of the magazine. Hooper is an acclaimed visual artist — who has create iconic artwork for Mastodon, Converge, Neurosis and more — and a highly coveted tattooist, based out of Rock of Ages Tattooing in Austin, Texas. His original, commissioned piece was inspired by the lyrics of Nine Inch Nails' "Into the Void" — specifically, the line, "trying to save myself but myself keeps slipping away." "Voids, absence, space and loss of form play important roles in my work," he explains, adding that NIN's "music creates an audio topography that I wanted to attempt to explore through my own methods and experiments."
His Nine Inch Nails tribute piece, titled "Into Through the Outside," is available in Revolver's shop as a stunning collectible 18" x 24" limited-edition silkscreen poster printed by Burlesque of North America. The 10-color screen print — on 100-pound Cougar White, acid-free, archival paper — is hand-numbered, embossed and signed by the artist.
Shortly after the completion of all three pieces, we caught up with Hooper to discuss the resonance of NIN's artistic vision, the painstaking process through which he creates his own work, the beauty in deconstruction, and the exploration of life's biggest questions. Plus, he shared behind-the-scenes, work-in-progress images of "Into Through the Outside" as it came together.
THERE ARE LAYERS AND LAYERS OF ACRYLIC, INK AND GOUACHE IN THIS PIECE. DO YOU MIND TAKING US THROUGH THE CREATIVE PROCESS? HOW MANY LAYERS DO YOU THINK THERE ARE TOTAL? WHERE DID YOU START?
THOMAS HOOPER There's seven or eight different layers. But there's technically, like, four paintings if I was to break them up into individuals. I kind of work through things in a random sense where I will make simple things on paper and then I'll slowly pick them up when they seem relevant to a project. There was an abstract ink kind of texture on that paper and I did that probably when I lived in New York about 10 years ago. Then it sat in a stack. It followed me around. Then when this [project] came up I was like, "Oh, I like the texture on the outside of that piece of paper. I think this will be good for something." So at that point I mounted it to a birch panel. Then I was actually taking a trip to New York for Thanksgiving, so I took the painting with me and worked on it in the hotel. That's when I did a void type of shape, triangle with a hole in it, and then added, like, leaf veins on the rest of the paper — that's the piece you see on the slipcase, the part over Trent's head. So that was the initial ink painting, if you will. Then when I got home I started adding layers. I'll do a mono-print style painting that gives me texture and I'll kind of layer onto that with layers with an acrylic varnish in between. Then I do a flat paint color over the top and then I sand the painting back down to expose all those layers, and I'll paint on it again, and sand it back down, and then I paint on it, and sand it down again. So I build up and break these layers away.
The idea came to me through listening to music and experimental music, much like Nine Inch Nails. So I kind of deliberately employed it this way. You can visibly — I say visibly because good music, to me, is visible in a sense — but you can visibly see they've created these layers of sound and texture and move them away and pull them back and forward. So I tried to replicate that with painting and so kind of breaking and attacking the surface of a painting or drawing has become part of the process for me.
I also wanted to create this idea that it doesn't reference anything that existed, like any types of ethnic art or art forms. I didn't want it to feel like I was plagiarizing a certain specific art of a religion or certain specific culture, that it nestled in its own universe, but also within ours.
IT'S SUCH A TEXTURED PIECE. A LOT OF THE ARTWORK FOR NINE INCH NAILS ALBUMS ARE LAYERED AND TEXTURED, AS WELL, SUCH AS THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU THOUGHT ABOUT?
I did. And I kind of liked how Russell Mills interprets Trent Reznor's music. But I was really conscious of not wanting to imitate his work because Russell Mills' work wraps into the Nine Inch Nails packaging as a whole and that's a huge inspiration. But I didn't want it to look like I was trying to be part of that or plagiarize any of Russell's work. So it was like, Well, how can I do this but make it feel like I was doing it? I looked at a lot of stuff, I listened to some interviews with Russell but then I kind of deliberately put all of the stuff away and listened to the Nine Inch Nails record. I listened to Fragile the most and I like it because the artwork [for that album] is just a soft, out-of-focus photograph, so it didn't give me too much. I wanted to be inspired by the music, less about the art this time so I wasn't subconsciously imitating. Then I was also very conscious of [Converge frontman and visual artist] Jacob Bannon, who is a very good friend, who did a Nine Inch Nails piece maybe a year ago now and I didn't want to look like I was imitating him. But I think I've managed to pull it off. It complements his work and Nine Inch Nails.
FUNNY, WHEN WE TALKED TO JACOB ABOUT HIS NINE INCH NAILS ARTWORK, HE MENTIONED YOU AS SOMEONE HE LOOKED TO FOR AN OPINION. BUT BACK TO YOUR PIECE — IS THE FRAGILE YOUR FAVORITE NINE INCH NAILS RECORD OR IS IT A DIFFERENT ONE?
My favorite always was [the] Broken EP on cassette when I was a kid.
DO RECORDS LIKE THAT ONE STILL HOLD THE SAME FEELING FOR YOU TODAY?
It's not the same meaning, it's a different meaning. I mean, yeah, it's the most familiar and does everything for me. But the catalog is so huge, of Trent's work, that you can get lost in it. You can listen to a record that you listened to before, but it will sound like a first time you're listening to it. But The Fragile's been my favorite for the past year or so.
THERE'S A VIDEO OF YOU "BAKING" THE PIECE IN THE OVEN. CAN YOU EXPLAIN?
A lot of what I do, there's a lot of layers and paint and it's hard to show, but it looks like a digital print on the mount. It doesn't even look like a painting because I've sanded and varnished it so much. But to get to that point, and the reason it was in the oven, is because I was behind schedule and I couldn't wait two days for it to dry so I could paint on it some more so ... I stick things in the oven to make them dry quick. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the painting to the right idea or feeling and I'm like, "Ah, it's not quite there, I need to add another layer." But I also need to scan and hand this in tomorrow so ...
I'm always making problems for myself so I've become quite good at solving them.
LOSS OF FORM PLAYS AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN NINE INCH NAILS' ARTWORK, AND IT PLAYS A ROLE IN YOURS, AS WELL. I THINK MOST PEOPLE WOULD ASSUME FORM IS IMPORTANT — CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY IS DECONSTRUCTION IS, TOO?
Well, I can only say for me, but the removing of form and deliberate structure I find makes things more ambiguous. I don't want the painting to be saying — the shape of the forms within it — being like it's in all capitals. I want it to be subtle. Rather than asking a question or a statement, I'm just trying to open it to the viewer to ask the question themselves. I'm just opening a door and they brings whatever meaning they want to it. So by taking the form away — not that I'm trying to be mysterious — they bring it. That absence of form ... you know, the thing is, as a tattooist, I tattoo 45-50 hours a week and so I'm generally dealing with form — tattoos and people's physical form. I'm dealing with that all the time so when I make art, I really want to step away from it or remove it from the process so it's an escape for me by being different.
[So] I've been messing around with deconstructing. Like, the other part of the loss of form thing is how I think of death. Because when we die, we lose our physical form, you know? So that plays a constant role in my work because it's the thing you can't answer. So those are the questions I constantly play with because they're the most exciting because there isn't a real, defined answer. I think that was kind of an addition to the question of you asked me ...
AT TIMES VIEWERS STRUGGLE WITH ABSTRACT WORK FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS. BUT CHIPPING AWAY AT WHAT THE BEAUTY IS FOR THIS TYPE OF ARTWORK IS IMPORTANT.
Yes. And the art I make, I'm very fortunate that people enjoy it. But for the most part, my job is to tattoo so the painting, I have the luxury of it being an escape. It's where I go. It keeps me sane. So I make these paintings for me. I kind of want to feel like I can fall into them, meditative objects, like little sacred pieces for me about a certain time and place. There's a lot of abstract things I make that I don't show because I don't feel they are really relevant as a finished painting. So to me, and in my head, maybe it's my insecurities, I don't show them because it's like, I don't know if that's a piece of art or if it's even finished. So I understand where people can be coming from when they look at it say, "I don't even know what that is or what that's meant to be."
THE LYRICS FROM "INTO THE VOID" — "TRYING TO SAVE MYSELF BUT MYSELF KEEPS SLIPPING AWAY" — WERE THE MAIN INSPIRATION FOR THIS PIECE. WHY?
For me, it's the idea and concept of the notion of we ourselves, or us as people, we're not a defined, fixed thing. We are many things. It all revolves around there's so many versions of us that exist because we exist in other people's consciousness as they think of us. So this idea of trying to save oneself, that yourself keeps slipping away — we are a singular, fixed object in the universe is, to me, not true. We're not a singular object or entity. We are ever-changing. Instead of this definition of "this is who I am and this is who I'll always be," we exist in our own heads as much as we do with all the people we interact with in our lives. Not that you can't rely on yourself, but you have the ability to be a million different things.
RIGHT. YOUR REFLECTION AND THE WAY PEOPLE SEE YOU AND YOUR EXISTENCE AND WHEN YOU'RE GONE, DECONSTRUCTED ...
Again it goes back to that question — who are we, why are we here? And I don't really want the answer. I just like playing with the question.