Frank Kozik, the master of sardonic incongruity who designed iconic posters for rock giants like Nirvana and Pearl Jam before becoming a pioneer in the burgeoning world of art toys, died May 7 at 61 leaving a hole in the hearts of the countless artists he inspired worldwide.
Kozik, who soared to artistic renown from the punk rock underground of Austin by blending anodyne images of happy kids, bunnies and cartoon characters with terrifying allusions to sex and violence, was not himself a street artist. But his work inspired many in the graffiti/street art community.
Shepard Fairey called him “a prolific punk rock DIY trailblazer” in a moving remembrance issued in the wake of the artist’s demise. Fairey recalled meeting Kozik in 1994: “He seemed quiet and brooding, so I didn’t talk to him much, but his prolific poster output blew me away.”
Later the two would collaborate on a 2000 show in Osaka, Japan, called “FUCK Kozik and Giant” that spawned an iconic poster in Fairey’s signature Russian constructivist style featuring Kozik’s famous Labbit, a smoking, unshaven rabbit character, parading before the Kremlin.
The passing of Kozik was met with anguish among those he inspired in New York’s street art community as well.
“Like most people, I first saw Kozik’s work through his posters. The bright colors and bold imagery to promote bands I liked definitely stood out.”
“Like most people, I first saw Kozik’s work through his posters. The bright colors and bold imagery to promote bands I liked definitely stood out,” said ChrisRWK, whose familiar forlorn, but optimistic, robot character could have sprung from Kozik’s oeuvre.
“Then to see what he did with the toy scene was inspirational. I had the honor of interviewing him on Urban Robot Cat and just hearing him speak about the scene was great. He has made a huge impact on the art world and will be missed,” he added.
Epic Uno, a New York-based graffiti artist, designer and illustrator, recalled the first time he visited a Kidrobot store, the collectible toy brand Kozik helped make famous, in the early 2000s.
“The store was small, but the impact it had on my career as an aspiring artist was huge. I left thinking there was space for me in a way I could not have imagined.”
“The store was small, but the impact it had on my career as an aspiring artist was huge. I left thinking there was space for me in a way I could not have imagined,” he said.
“Today my work has evolved greatly from those early years. Needless to say, Frank Kozik’s work and his presence in the urban contemporary art world and toy design world was a presence you could not deny… and he always remained an inspiration to me,” Epic added.
Brian J. Hoffman, a Boston-based designer, illustrator and printmaker, said he first came across Kozik during “those halcyon days of the 90s when a new Renaissance of art and music collided. Immediately, I was blown away by his use of retro cartoon characters wielding knives, blasting guns, children playing with insects, and every other surreal mashup of innocence mixed with subversion.
“He’s the reason why I enjoy using children and insects in my work. Kozik left a forever lasting legacy on culture, art, and music which will never be forgotten,” Hoffman said.
Kozik was born in 1962 in Madrid, Spain. He landed in Austin after a stint in the Air Force and infiltrated that city’s thriving punk rock scene via a job as a doorman at a venue called the Cave Club. It was there that his artistic genius was first recognized and his quirky, contradictory and bewildering style made him a sought after creator of rock club posters.
Kozik moved to San Francisco in 1993 and founded Man’s Ruin Records that released dozens of underground singles and albums. He was crowned “the new rock-poster genius” that same year by Rolling Stone.
It was at around this time that the inspiration for the Smorkin’ Labbit struck, prompting Kozik to abandon the rock scene in favor of the art toy industry, then in its nascency. He created hundreds of versions of Labbit, which became one of the biggest collectible vinyl art toys ever. He eventually became chief creative officer at Kidrobot, one of the leading art toy enterprises.
“I will always remember Frank’s childlike wonder and enthusiasm when it came to creation. Frank saw art wherever he went and was always trying to add a layer to everything.”
“Words escape how we felt about Frank,” said Joel Weinshanker, CEO of Ad Populum which owns Kidrobot. “I will always remember Frank’s childlike wonder and enthusiasm when it came to creation. Frank saw art wherever he went and was always trying to add a layer to everything,” Weinshanker said.
Through all his successes, Kozik maintained that he was not really an artist, but a promoter, marketer or appropriator of the work of others.
“I’ve always done advertising; I’m not an artist. I didn’t invent anything new,” he said in an interview with Texas Monthly in 2001 that was recounted in a brilliant, long-form obit published by the magazine on May 11.
“The thing I do is in support of something else. There’s no great message behind my work. I don’t have any standard technique. I’m not putting my raw emotions on canvas in startlingly beautiful form to convey an emotive state. That’s art. I make posters,” he said.
“Frank was a man larger than himself, an icon in each of the genres he worked in,” his wife Sharon said in a statement posted to social media. “He dramatically changed every industry he was a part of. He was a creative force of nature,” she wrote.