Born and raised in the South, Charlie Owens moved to Atlanta the summer after he graduated from high school. The 33-year-old artist is a bit of a recluse who would rather hole up and produce art than talk about it. But despite his reserved nature, his art is bold and daring with obvious nods to some of his favorite things (namely wide-eyed girls with tattoos, muscle cars and monsters). He reluctantly took some time away from preparing for four upcoming shows to share his thoughts on Atlanta, tattoos and other inspirations.
How long have you been in Atlanta?
I moved here in ’92 to go to the Art Institute. It’s great, and I haven’t moved away. My art teacher in high school kind of pushed the topic of moving down here to go to the Art Institute. It was descent, I guess, but I think I got more experience once I got out on my own and started freelancing.
How would you say Atlanta’s art scene compares to other cities?
I haven’t done that many shows outside of Atlanta. Other cities seem to have a certain group of artists, which seems to be the way it is here – it’s the same artists kind of rotating in and out. That’s the good thing about [The Atlanta Creatives Project] is I knew who a lot of artists were, I knew their names, but I didn’t really know their faces. I like the art scene here. It’s a little cliquish, I guess, and sometimes it’s about who you know. But overall I like it, obviously, because I’ve stayed here for a while.
When did you realize you were an artist and when did you decide you wanted to pursue it?
I always liked to draw as a kid. My mom used to always tell me stories about me sitting around drawing horror monsters and stuff. I was always into monsters, but I guess skateboarding magazines were what really got me into it in high school. I was just constantly drawing stuff I’d see in Thrasher and Transworld and stuff like that. I guess that’s really what got me into it.
How do you go about creating art? What’s your creative process?
It kind of varies. Sometimes I’ll actually have a concept in mind and do a lot of pen-and-ink sketches. A lot of the stuff that people are starting to know me more and more for is the girl illustrations. With those I’ll have a general idea in my mind but I’ll usually find reference. I’ll start with rough pencil sketches to get the poses down and then I redraw those in Illustrator on the computer so I can move things around. Those are one of the few things I draw like that; everything else is usually by hand. I use a lot of screen-printing, a lot of paper and just a lot of mixed media really.
The girls are definitely what you’re known for, but you also do stuff without girls in it.
When I first started painting, it was always really bold cartoon characters with big heads and weird bodies. I’ve seen some of that around town, but not much. Lately, I’ve been trying to mix the two together and have the girl illustrations with the characters. It seemed like there for a couple of years I was just experimenting and kind of was all over the place. But now I’m trying to marry the two images together because it’s really weird how some people just completely hate the girl illustrations and say, ‘Where are those weird characters you do’ and other people are like, ‘That’s a little childish, I like the other stuff.’ In the end that’s why I experiment so much because I’m just trying to find what I’m happy with. If I can figure out a way to marry the two together and complete an idea I have in my mind, I think it’ll work out better in the end. But it’s an ongoing experiment and I’m still trying to figure out my own style. I get kind of bored doing the same thing over and over; I think that’s why I started experimenting out of the characters themselves. Then I got into doing paste-ups around town and screen-printing and things like that. At first I was trying to do just big marker images on paper, but you can’t blow them up and keep them clean so I started experimenting in Illustrator and figured out a few techniques to get the lines perfect and you can blow it up as big as you want and it still looks exactly the same.
Are your girls based on real people? I’m guessing from the photos that they are?
It’s funny because sometimes I just find people on MySpace. But they’re just for inspiration; I’m not really trying to make them look exactly like anybody. Sometimes it’s people I don’t know at all that just have unique facial features or whatever and I just go from that. If they look like a character already, I usually just pull from their facial features or kind of come up with my own ideas for them. There are definitely some people who just always look so animated, like characters themselves. Those are the ones that as soon as I see them I see what I’m going to draw.
I’ve actually never drawn any of the girls in the shoot.
But you probably will now.
Tattoos seem to be a big part of your work as well. What attracts you to tattoos and who are some of your favorite tattoo artists?
It just seems like a more interesting style for someone to have than just a Plain Jane person walking down the street. I mean, visually there’s just more going on. I’ve just always thought tattoos looked cool since I was a little kid, especially girls with tattoos. There’s nothing too meaningful behind it.
There are so many tattoo artists that are good.Phil Colvin did everything on my left arm and my back, which one day will be complete.Deano Cook did my entire right sleeve. But there are a lot of good artists in town. All the guys down at Liberty are awesome. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I’ll just leave it at that. If I had more money and free time, I’d get something from everyone.
How has Southern culture influenced your work?
Growing up in the South, there’s definitely a style to it. A lot of it just goes back to growing up and seeing the things that were around you. My dad and people like that had pictures of some of their old cars from when they were younger. That was just something that always stuck in my memory and I kind of gravitated towards those things as I got older.
What are your opinions of Atlanta’s creative scene?
There are tons of great artists, but everyone’s doing their own thing. It doesn’t seem like there’s competition or anything to me. Everyone has their own unique styles and most people, not everyone, seems to be open and willing to help other artists out. Either with sharing a technique or method to help someone figure out something they have been trying to pull off in their own work, or just sharing resources, networking, things like that. I think influences from other artists are important and help an artist grow in his or her own style.There are certain artists that are probably my favorites that I’ve always seen throughout the years and I’ve seen their styles progress more and more. Overall, Atlanta’s a great arts town to me. I wish there were more parts of it that would accept certain styles of art. There’s definitely a split between lowbrow and high end. Of course there’s going to be art that you just don’t like personally, but I think you can find good art on both sides. It’s just opening up and seeing it a little bit. It seems like the higher the price tag is, the more important the artist is and until you get that high dollar tag on there you’re not considered a real artist no matter how accomplished you are.
Who are some of your favorite local artists or artists in general?
Man, you’re going to make me piss people off. John Tindel is by far one of my favorite artists in Atlanta. I mean, for years I’ve been following his work and it just keeps getting better and better, but there are tons of great artists here – Bethany Marchman is awesome, Tyson McAdoo is awesome, a lot of the tattoo artists are great, Rene Arriagada is great. All of those people have completely different styles.
I’d say Blaine Fontana’s probably my favorite artist around right now. He’s not local, he’s out of Washington, but his work is so good.
Do you have any words of advice for up-and-coming creatives?
I always say not to worry about what others think about your work. In the end you should be doing it for yourself, not trying to adapt your style to fit the mold of what's hot at the moment to make a buck or to get the approval from some art critic who’s opinion means nothing anyway. If you believe in what you're doing, stick to it and it’ll pay off for you down the line.