You may not know the name Justin Osbourn unless you’re hardcore deep into the horror world, but even casual fans are sure to recognize his artwork, which has appeared on the covers of Blu-ray releases from Scream Factory Arrow, to say nothing of the slew of shirts he’s designed for venerable horror apparel company Fright Rags.
I met Osbourn as a customer at the liquor store where I work, when he kept coming in with awesome shirts from Terror Vision and Vinegar Syndrome. When he mentioned his name and who he did work for, I was like, “I have shirts you’ve made! Wanna get together and chat?” Two weeks later, we’re sitting in the living room of his East Lawrence apartment – which is crammed full of amazing toys, posters, and assorted horror-related amusements – chatting about his work while drinking cans of Miller High Life.
You were in a band before you started all this. What’s the band?
I was in a band called Vena Amori. I guess we were more out of Kansas City, but we started here. Pop metal? I think we broke up in ’08 or ’09. It was started in 2003, four or five tours of the U.S. That was fun.
Have you been doing the art thing the entire time?
Yeah. Not like I do now, but since even when I was in college. That’s when I first was starting to get into music and then I kinda started doing artwork. That’s how I started – doing local bands. I had met this band called the Primetime Heroes out of Topeka and became friends with them and I did some of their stuff.
What’s totally funny is that means technically we’re coworkers because I wrote their press bio for the second record.
Oh, no shit? Was it the orange and vintage one? That’s hilarious. Yeah, technically we are coworkers because we both worked for the same fucking album. That’s a name that pops up ever, so rarely, but I love those guys.
You’re doing art for all these local bands. How’d it start to progress to more national shit?
Well, after that, I met another band called Salt the Earth and did stuff for them. And then me and Marty became friends. We moved in together, me, him and Nick. That’s the first time I moved from Salina – where I went to college – and then from there I moved to Lawrence to live with them for a year or two. Then through that, that’s when I started my band and my focus was the band at the time. I would just do projects here and there when it came along, but then through just playing shows and then started doing more and more bands and it spread and it got bigger bands and bigger bands and bigger bands.
I did the band for quite a while and then, when I quit the band, I kinda reshifted. The first two designs I sent to Ben at Fright Rags, I was getting kind of tired of the band thing, because it was – I understood why – but it was hard to make a living at it because bands never had money to pay you and I saw that, “Wow, this isn’t going to work well, trying to just stick with bands,” so I worked up a couple of designs. I think there were just things I had laying around from band stuff that I didn’t use and sent them to Ben at Fright Rags. I wasn’t expecting anything, but he ended up liking them and I’ve been working with them ever since.
When was that?
That was in 2008 or 2009 once I quit the band and decided to go full-time, art-wise.
I got to imagine working for Fright Rags is what opened the door for all the other work?
Yeah. 100%. The big one after Fright Rags was Scream Factory. I did 20-25 Blu-ray covers for them. Arrow. Vestron. Companies I can’t even remember from overseas and projects here and there. Shudder eventually came along. Joe Bob [Briggs]. Yeah, just all over the place.
Where did you go to school?
I went to school for graphic design. I went to a vo-tech school, so it wasn’t even a four-year college. I had never even had an art class growing up and before I went to college, I had never even touched a computer other than to type a report. The year I showed up in college the hot computer was those Apples, the colored ones, whatever that was. In high school, we had 80 students in a little town of 500-600 people. We didn’t have a lot. We had a computer room, but we didn’t have art class, my entire high school or grade school.
We never had art as a subject or anything, so when I got to college, our first year, we still drew like on paper and stuff, so that was fine. But then, shortly into the next semester, it was a switch to computers and I had no fucking clue what I was doing. That was a big change but I guess it was good because I haven’t drawn on paper since then. Probably pretty much I do everything digital now, but then that was a crazy change.
I have one of the Wacom screens, so it’s just like drawing, only it’s digital, so you could fuck up without fucking the whole thing. You just push “undo,” so it erases a lot of the errors or the time you have to spend to fix it. It just makes it a lot easier. I know a lot of those old school guys sometimes think it’s kind of like cheating, but it makes it a lot easier and it makes more sense. If I was to try to do what I do by hand, it would take like a month to do one piece. It’s just not financially feasible. You have to do it this way.
Are you familiar with most of the work you’re commissioned to do?
Yeah, well being a fan of all this shit, especially horror, there’s rarely – once in a while, there’s one where it’s like, “Ah, damn, I’ve never heard of that hardly,” or, “I definitely haven’t seen it,” but a lot of times, I’m familiar with it or I’ve heard of that, so I better watch it again. If I haven’t seen it, but I’m familiar with it, I want to watch it so I know what the hell I’m doing, because I like to put detailed stuff in it a fan of the movie would appreciate.
Little fine details where I really dig deep. Something you would want to see – little things that are like, “Oh, wow! He really took time to focus on that or add that,” or, “This guy is looking a specific way at this person” and it makes sense because you know.
When you’re doing something for Scream Factory, where they have reverse wraps where you flip it around and have the OG video cover or poster, do you specifically make that list of five or six things where you’re like, “I’m not going to do this, this, this, or this,” or do you want to maybe compliment as opposed to contrast?
Yep. That’s a big thing with all of my designs. Scream Factory, not so much because they were going to include that artwork with it, so I wanted it to make it different enough and not really like that, but with Fright Rags and stuff like that, I’d take into consideration either the theatrical poster or the VHS cover or something, and then pull either a color scheme or some kind of theme with that to bring in something familiar with fans of it, to give it some familiarity but not do something directly like it.
I have to imagine, especially like when you’re dealing with Fright Rags versus work for video companies, you’re dealing with a different set of likeness rights. I know, just from being like on horror Twitter or seeing responses on Fright Rags or Cavity Colors Instagrams, people are always asking, “Why isn’t so-and-so on here?” It’s like, “Well, because do you know how much it would cost? Do you know how much we’d have to charge for a shirt to get Arnold Schwarzenegger’s license rights on a Terminator t-shirt?”
That’s the biggest like snafu – it always seems to come up sometimes with stuff is likenesses and those comments you’re talking about? People don’t quite understand all that is required to do to get the likeness rights, especially with bigger actors now. The further you go back, it’s not as bad with smaller movies, but you start dealing with – as you said – Arnold or stuff like that, or even the Universal monsters? That’s a whole nightmare because there’s estates and then there’s Universal.
Trying to coordinate all of that – luckily I don’t deal with the business side of it, but when it comes to the artwork, Ben’s like, “Hey, here’s the job,” and I’m like, “Can we use this?” “Nope. We can’t use this person,” so there’s a lot of designs where it’s that I have to figure out a way to still make a bad-ass design, but not use the damn lead character or something somehow. That comes up quite a bit.
What’s that like, in terms of testing you creatively, when you’re just like, “I can’t use this major part of the film? Where do I go from here?”
That’s the thing. You got to sit there and think. That’s when I usually think, “Well, how can I go to the VHS styles?” A lot of those had random shit on them like an object – a book with a knife stabbed in it, or something image-wise that doesn’t involve people. I’ll go that route.
There was one I did of The Thing and we didn’t have any likeness rights for that, so I ended up making Kurt Russell’s face a skull and it kind of worked, but I hated it. I originally had his face and I think we somehow got our wires crossed where we couldn’t use him or something, or we could, if we had him personally approve it.
Sometimes we’ll be able to go outside the studios and get the actual actor to approve it, but it was going to take too long or something for the release date, so I had to go back in and change his actual face into a skull and those beams and all that. Sometimes that happens. It’s just like, you don’t have another choice really, and you ended up going, “Ecch!” and it’s okay.
How often do you get to like meet the folks you’re doing artwork of?
Not very often. I live in Kansas, so we don’t have very many conventions. You know, I’ve worked for Fright Rags since 2008 or 2009 and I’ve never met a single one of them? I mean, I’ve met a lot of the Night of the Living Dead cast, but that was before I did artwork for them.
A lot of times, the guys at Arrow or whatever company will say, “Well, so-and-so said this is the best thing they’ve ever seen” or “They love it.” One recently I was nervous as hell about – I did a Dracula Bela Lugosi, and his granddaughter, I believe, is in charge of the estate. I was worried that there was going to be a bunch of changes and eventually it got sent to her for approval and she was like, “Oh, my God!” She loved it and said that’s one of the best ones she’s seen. That was really nice to hear.
For me, writing about horror shit, part of the nice part about it is that watching horror movies occasionally is my job. Frequently, my posts online are just what I’m watching and “Research!”
Yeah, mine too. I do a lot of the same. I always have something playing in the background, whether it’s a horror movie or a football game. No, I usually don’t work while I’m watching a football game or just TV. Just something is always on. I used to be a fucking night owl. I would probably not wake up until three in the afternoon and be up until four or five in the morning when I was younger, but recently, I’m totally in the morning and then in bed early like an old man.
Pretty much from the minute I wake up until the minute I go to bed, I’m working. I take a break to eat meals, and then if I have plans to go out and do something, but other than that, I’m usually working.
Is it fun?
Oh, yeah. I’m so happy to be doing what I’m doing. It gets stressful and you at times get burnout or just get stuck at some point and just can not get past it and you’re like, “Oh man, this, this is going to be the one where I just can’t figure it out,” but eventually you figure it out. I just need to step away or keep trying until it works.
You can find Justin Osbourn’s work at his website, Slasher Design Co.