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Shag – Art Showing: Our Deadly Affair – Th’ink Tank Gallery, Denver

Shag is the pop culture icon of our time. You may not recognize the name, but you had to have seen his animated characters one way or another – around town at a store that sells his suave Cocktail Bar soap products, a Paul Frank Frank handbag with a 50’s style woman riding a Vespa in Paris, or even on Showtime if you watch Queer as Folk, where an animated version of his art is depicted in a lounge setting and a stylish beatnik states that, “the new going out is staying in.”


Shag is actually Josh Agel, a moniker derived when he was creating artwork for his punk band in the 80’s, the Swamp Zombies, taken from the two last letters of his first name and the first two letters of last name. Much like DJs take on new identities that match their style of music, Shag’s name fits him like a glove – since his style of art depicts the jive days of the 50’s dance era, and of life during the 60’s when where the cool cats hung out in the Tiki bars.

This cool cat is coming to our town this Friday for a showing, “Our Deadly Affair” at Th’Ink Tank Gallery, located in Lodo on Wazee and 15th Street, where Shag will bring pieces from his personal collection. He’ll be there in person – so you just gotta make it down for this one.

Since 1988, his illustrations have appeared in countless magazines, his artwork has hung in galleries around the world, and appears in everything else – from Cocktail recipe books to day planners and watches. There’s something that’s accessible to anyone who digs his stuff, and that’s the way he likes it.

The particular day that I interviewed him, an eerie thing happened. I like to watch the Style Network when I’m working, and about a half hour before I’m scheduled to call him at his Southern California studio, I hear that the show, “Homes with Style” is coming on and they’re featuring artist’s homes. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s Shag in his 60’s style pad, drawing in his studio next to a wall of Tiki ware.

So I had to bring that up right off the bat.

Shag: That’s was from about three years ago. I don’t live there anymore.

KB: Did you move because your family is growing or you just wanted a change of scenery?

Shag: It was a combination of the family growing… AND people started dropping by that house unannounced because it had been on TV a few times. Some people would come up, “Does Shag live here?” and some would ask, “Ah Shag, would you do a quick sketch for me right now?”

KB: Are you serious?

Shag: Yea. So we moved to a more private area.

KB: And no more interviews at your house.

Shag: Well, they can do it IN the house. I’m just not going to let them film any of the outside of the house.

KB: And one of your books has a picture of the outside of your old house. That probably didn’t help either.

Shag: Nope.

KB: Your brother seems to be pretty involved in your business, taking over the merchandising side of things.

Shag: He actually bought that house that I had lived in.

KB: Right on, keeping it in the family. It is a cool pad. And he can tell intruders, “No I’m not Shag. Go away.”

Shag: Exactly.

KB: In looking at your history, you started your career in 1988 but you didn’t have your first show until ten years later. I know that you did some album artwork for your band’s music, and even separated your artist identity from your musician identity. What other illustration projects did you during that time?

Shag: I did some magazine projects, like Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

KB: How did you get your foot in the door to get those projects?

Shag: I was actually contacted by an illustration agency, which represents illustrators, and they were the ones who got me the jobs.

KB: That would make it a lot easier.

Shag: Yea. I think it’s a lot harder to get hired as an illustrator without one.

KB: Just like a movie star?

Shag: I suppose it’s a little like that.

KB: So you’re not doing your punk rock, Martin Denny band stuff anymore?

Shag: I just didn’t have the time anymore. Towards the end I was trying to divide my creative energies between music and art, and the art side just kept taking more and more of my time. When I was in the band, the other guys were kind of dragging me along and I just became dead weight.

KB: That’s understandable. If you’re going to really be a musician, it’s going to take a lot of your time. But it seemed like an interesting way to jumpstart your artwork and get it out there.

Shag: Yea, but I didn’t even think of it like that. I just thought, “I like music. I like art. I want to do both of them.”

KB: Your shows have taken you all over the world. Are you using a different agency or something to get you into those different markets?

Shag: Well, no. The galleries are different. You don’t need an agent to exhibit in galleries. In fact, I’m not sure if I know of any artists that do have agents. Like, I still have the same agent for illustration. But I don’t do much illustration anymore.

KB: There’s a vintage furniture store in town where I snagged some of my tiki mugs, and the owner was telling me that before the economy took a dump, he used to get in buyers from Japan all the time who were hungry for the retro furniture and décor that’s in line with your style of artwork. You’ve done a number of shows in Japan. Do you think that the Japanese really have a large appetite for your art versus other countries?

Shag: It seems like it. All the shows I’ve had there have been really successful. It’s just that…I don’t speak Japanese. So I really can’t get the impact of it. The last show I had there was pretty good, and a couple months later they sent me the press clippings, and there were dozens and dozens of full color stories talking about the show. Since I couldn’t read Japanese, it was kind of like…what does this all mean? What does this add up to? So it’s a lot easier to guage it in English speaking countries.

KB: What about your shows in Australia?

Shag: Australia’s been great. They were one of the first supporters of my career as an artist. The last time I showed there I showed at the Opera House.

KB: I saw that one of your newer projects is an alphabet book. Was this inspired by your daughter Zoë or something you just thought of off the cuff.

Shag: It was not inpired by her. Actually, children’s books don’t really inspire me that much even though I have little kids. It’s kind of inspired by those little Golden Books.

KB: Oh yea! I remember those. I think my favorite was the Pokey Little Puppy.

Shag: This book’s going to look like that. Even thought it’s not going to be published by them, I want it to do it the same way with the shiny golden spine.

KB: This was a long time ago so I’m sure you don’t remember this, but a few years ago I emailed you about the commercial, the one that used Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice and had the cool jet set type of illustration because I thought you had to have done it. And you emailed me back and said you didn’t. Have you experienced any other types of plagiarism that has been so blatant?

Shag: Yea, there’s been all kinds of things like that. I can’t really do anything about it if they’re just sort of co-opting the style. If they’re actually lifting my actual artwork and using it, than I have legal recourse. On the one hand I should be flattered…

KB: I know how they say that imitation is a form of flattery, or something like that. But if they’re emulating something without you just to not pay you for what your style is worth, that’s not cool. It seems you are getting that recognition through Showtime and the pseudo commercial they have for Queer Duck and Queer as Folk. You also have plans for an animated feature as well, is that something you can talk about?

Shag: Well…I don’t really want to say anything because I feel that if I start talking about it too much I’ll jinx it.

KB: That’s why I asked.

Shag: (laughing) Yea. I have partnered with an established filmmaker and talent, or actors. It’s just like anything. I’ll believe it when it actually happens and when the studio actually says, “Ok. We’re gonna make this thing.” Until then, it’s just an iron in the fire.

KB: Let me ask you this – going from the straight illustration to the process of animation like you did for Showtime, how was that transition?

Shag: The Showtime thing was kind of an unusual situation. They actually did a lot of that without my consent.

KB: What? Not again…

Shag: Yea. Then I had to go back afterwards and legally pursue them. What happened was, I had made a verbal agreement with them that they could animate some of my stuff for a very specific use. They said for me to send the artwork and they would do it, and I could review it and be involved in this whole thing. I sent them the artwork and for months, and months I didn’t see a contract, and didn’t hear from them. Finally I heard that the contract they submitted was completely different from what we talked about. And in the meantime, they’d been animating this stuff for months and months. They started just putting it on the air.

KB: Oh my God.

Shag: Yea. They never put any kind of quality control on it or anything. I have an entertainment agency as well, and they basically went after Showtime. It didn’t actually go to court, but lawyers wrote letters back and forth and finally they settled. I was satisfied with everything in the end, but it was pretty aggravating.

KB: It’s amazing to me to see a company of their size and reputation thinking they could get away with that kind of stuff.

Shag: The funny thing is, most companies don’t. You have to sign fifteen contracts before they’ll start doing anything with you. And now I’ve talked to two other people who’ve had the same experience with Showtime.

KB: Well I guess that was a learning experience, if you continue to be involved in those types of projects. So on to the safer side of your business and doing shows. How did you come to do a show at Th’Ink Tank in Denver?

Shag: For some reason, I hear from a lot of people in Denver. Denver’s not the largest city in the United States, but I never hear from anybody in St. Louis saying they want me to come out there. So when Dina [from Th’Ink Tank] contacted me, I kinda said, “Well, we’ll see.” But then I took a look at their space and the kind of shows they’ve had there and decided to go ahead and do it.

KB: How did you decide to pull pieces from you personal collection?

Shag: I knew I couldn’t send over a lot of original paintings like I would for the galleries in L.A., New York and Tokyo. They pretty much eat up all the original paintings. But I knew that I wanted it to be something that people couldn’t just get from ordering online or something. I wanted a collection of work that people have a reason to come and get.

Those collections, for those that aren’t familiar with Shag, depict a 60’s cocktail lounge in the year 2010, with bright blues, purples, oranges and green. Women dressed to the Nines with a perfect updo doing the Cha, Cha, Cha to the rhythm of beatnik playing the bongo, and the sound of a cocktail shaker being flipped by a suave bartender, whipping up some martinis. You can hear the Martin Denny island music playing on the phonograph, and the warm summer breeze flowing through the tropical bar.

KB: My love for your art and for that era in the 50’s and 60’s was first inspired by my parents who loved to cocktail and would often take us kids to Tiki bars in San Francisco. We were both born the same year, so I’m wondering, were your parents or your surroundings as a kid your inspiration or is your style of artwork something you developed on your own?

Shag: It was definitely on my own. In regards to my parents, it was almost a rebellion on my part. My parents were, and still are, practicing Mormons. I think that’s why it’s so intriguing to me now. It’s sort of like forbidden fruit. If you’re told you can’t do it, it becomes a lot more attractive to you.

KB: So have you ever gotten interested in anything Polynesian or that culture?

Shag: No, not really. It’s less appealing to me than what the white man did with it in the 1950’s and 1960’s, where they twisted it around so it evoked drinking and stuff like that.

KB: And dancing the Bossa Nova.

Shag: Exactly.

Although the personal intrusions from both the public and companies like Showtime were very frustrating for him, Shag’s casual demeanor doesn’t allow one to envision him going ballistic any any shape or form. His artwork, like his personality, says to just, “stay cool man” and let it all flow. And he’s got so many more people getting his back, life seems pretty good for the artist.

Shag’s artwork will be on display at Th’Ink Tank Gallery through March 6, starting with his show, “Our Deadly Affair” this Friday, February 7 – with a reception that goes from 7pm until 10pm.

Along with entertainment books “Shag Party” and Tiki Drinks,” you can also check out his many illustrations in “Bottomless Cocktail: The Art of Shag,” and a new book he’s releasing called “Around the World in 80 Drinks.” Go to to get everything else Shag, and where you can order cool merch from the Shagmart and other online stores that carry his products.


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