Derek Yaniger


Derek Yaniger’s art is transporting. His work calls to mind the color and mood of the 1950s — his limited color palette, usually just two or three colors, evokes the spare whimsy of Fifties style ads and illustrations; there is an economy to his lines; and the playful, cheery scenes bring a smile. But beyond the retro inspired images is art that is also thoroughly modern, and an unmistakable nod to the Lowbrow Movement’s purpose: to elevate cartoon art to the next level. Yaniger’s deeply personal pieces may make heads turn with their striking visuals, but what ultimately draws viewers in is the larger, engaging questions that his work asks about ourselves, and the lines we draw when art purposefully provokes, challenges, and inspires.


When I arrive in the Atlanta, Georgia neighborhood of Virginia Highlands, the temperature holds at 98 degrees with a humidity level of 98 percent. It is, as they say in the South, ‘’hotter than a goat in heat.’’ But it is beautiful, too: Art Deco homes with porch swings line the streets, and pink crepe myrtles and white magnolias are in full bloom.

I head to George’s Bar and Restaurant, a local, old-school haunt clad mostly in hardwood that is a classic ‘shotgun’ style building —long and narrow, so that a shotgun fired through the front could exit to the back without hitting any walls. Some neon lights advertise beer, and the place is quiet, although I can tell it must get packed at night.

A black Mini Cooper rounds the corner just as I step in and parks nearby. I catch my first glimpse of its driver, clad in classic Rockabilly attire: well-loved oxblood leather Dr. Marten’s boots, rolled up blue jeans, a black Penguin polo shirt trimmed in white. It’s Derek Yaniger.

Yaniger is tall, with a goatee and some side burns.  He’s affable and easy to talk to, and he orders a gin and tonic. We chat about current events and how hot it is in the South, — but I’m curious about the past too, and where his story starts.

Photo courtesy of Derek Yaniger


Derek Yaniger was born in 1960 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was the youngest of six children: Carlotta, Norman, Guy, Johanna, Pam, and Derek. His father, Norman, was an accountant; and his mother, Frances, was a homemaker. Norman had served in the Coast Guard during the Korean War, and after corresponding while he was away, the two had married and settled in Little Rock, a city which Yaniger describes as “urban as Arkansas can get,” he explains.

Childhood was fun, and Yaniger recalled “a lot of playing outside, a lot of pretending that I’m Secret Squirrel, and a lot of homemade costumes.”  

When he started grade school, his mother opened a lamp store called The Lamp House and commissioned him to design its logo. Yaniger giggles at the memory. “It was so bad,” he says, recalling how he fashioned the ’T’ in the store’s name to resemble a lamp. But the design marked an important milestone. “That was the very first piece of art I ever did and got paid for it,” he explained with a smile.

Artwork would play an increasingly larger role as the years went on. In the same way that first tastes or smells stand out in the childhood memories of chefs, it’s images that seem most prominent in Yaniger’s recollections of youth: album covers, home movies, illustrations and comics.  Of his parents’ music collection, Yaniger recalls being obsessed with the artwork, “especially anything with a cartoon.”

The newspaper comic strip was the perfect place for a child who loved cartoons, and Yaniger read his fair share — Peanuts, B.C., and Archie, to name just a few. But he didn't just read comics; he learned to trace them, too. Comic books came next. They were a rarity in Little Rock at the time, and every issue — patiently awaited, eagerly sought — was cherished. Yaniger took in every page, even the ads. 

It was in the ads that he discovered Cracked and Mad, two heavily illustrated American humor magazines that were — most significantly — available at the local grocery store. “They were cool because you could buy them at Kroger or Winn Dixie,” says Yaniger. He asked his mother to buy a few issues, and although she was offended by some of the content in Cracked, she allowed for Mad. Yaniger speculates that his mom found Cracked cartoonist Bill Ward’s drawings too obscene.  “He always drew women super sexy,” as he raises his eyebrows.  It was the beginning of a beginning, of sorts. Yaniger spent countless nights in his room, reading the magazine under the covers with a flashlight. 

Yaniger’s favorite Mad artist was Don Martin, a hugely popular cartoonist who was publicized as Mad’s “maddest artist.” He had a unique and easily recognizable drawing style: characters with bulbous noses; half-open, sleepy eyes; and shoes that were so grossly oversized that they bent at the ends by 90 degrees, a detail Don Martin fans call “the hinged feet.” 


His own favorite Don Martin cartoon panel was a play on Rapunzel, the fairy tale about the imprisoned princess and her long, flowing hair. “All you see is this [prince] looking up, and you don’t see her,” Yaniger says. “Then he says ‘let down your hair.’’’ Rapunzel’s long hair then falls into the frame, and the prince uses it to climb up to the tower. Yaniger gestures with his hands as if to zoom out. “Then it cuts back and she’s brushing her hair…and it’s armpit hair! Genius!” he laughs.

As he read more and more comic books and Mad magazine, Yaniger drew more, too. He had been tracing his favorite characters, but soon he no longer needed them as a reference and could draw them from memory, in any position or scene. Word of his drawing ability spread at the co-ed, Catholic elementary school he attended, and he became the go-to person for any banners or art projects. 

An art club met in lieu of art classes at school, and every year a drawing contest was held for each grade. In the third grade, Yaniger submitted two pencil drawings: a hippo and a gorilla. He was shocked to lose, especially when he saw the winning entry. “This girl beat me with this crooked house, in crayon, that she drew with her foot,” he says. Word in the playground spread that he lost because the nuns, part of the Sisters of Mercy, thought that he’d cheated and traced his drawing. “The nuns did not have much mercy for me,” Yaniger jokes. He still has the hippo drawing to this day.

The loss that might have been a setback for other children instead served to inspirethe young Yaniger, and he immediately set to work plotting his strategy for next year’s contest. “I remember thinking, I got to make it crappy — so I drew a cartoon house with my left hand.” His determination paid off: he won the fourth grade art contest.

Around the same time, the Revell Model Company began advertising their ‘Big Daddy Roth Rat Fink’ model kits in comic books, and Yaniger gravitated toward them. The ‘Rat Fink’ depicted oversized, grotesque monsters driving disproportionately small cars, and the cartoonish style appealed to him, despite his preference for the ‘Weird-Ohs’ model kits sold by the Hawk Model Company. 

“Weird-Ohs,”  or “Weird-Ohs Car-icky-tures” were exactly what their name implied: hot rod models that were manifestly, purposefully strange; whose prototypes the creator and illustrator Bill Campbell himself described as his “funkiest thoughts.” Yaniger enjoyed kit building, but admits his newfound hobby “had more to do with the box, rather the model.” He loved the monsters, and not just in the kits. He ordered monster masks too, and continued to doodle and draw with gusto. And even then, he decided he wanted to draw for a living.


Yaniger and his wife, Eden, have two college aged children: Heather, who is 21 and Emma, who will be attending New York University in September with plans to study theater. He recalls his reaction the moment his daughter declared her ambition to make it on Broadway. “Kid,” he said, “You have a better chance of becoming an NFL quarterback than being on Broadway.” But the moment gave him a flashback to his own mother’s tepid reaction when he announced his intention to become an artist. “My God,” he says. “Do I become my mom and say ‘don’t do that,’ or do I say, ‘fucking go for it! Reach for the top. You never know.”

It’s a bit easier now, as an adult, to discern the shades of his gray in his mother’s seeming lack of support over his professional ambition. As a child, anything short of unwavering enthusiasm can be difficult to understand, and Yaniger was only 12 or 13 years old when he told his mother that he wanted to draw as a profession. “I’m going to be artist,” he recalls saying to her. “I don’t know what kind of artist, but I want to be an artist.” Her reply was a polite “Well, you can’t. Well, no.”

Yaniger was devastated, but not cowed. He felt hurt that his mother might not believe in him or think he was good enough to succeed, but he also felt driven to prove her wrong. “In a way, it made me stronger and work harder,” he says. “It sounds so ‘Oprah’ now, but I was just trying to please my mom.” 

Later, as a Graphic Design major at the University of Georgia, Yaniger faced the same seeming indifference from his mother whenever he brought home paintings and drawings. The lack of recognition at home was always in stark contrast to the attention he attracted at school, where he indulged kids’ requests for drawings and became “the art guy.” No matter the reaction, he continued to draw.

Yaniger’s father reacted a different way altogether when he heard about his son’s plans to become an artist. In 1972, Norman Yaniger invited a friend or client who worked in advertising to come to the house to look at his 12-year-old son’s work. At the time, Derek’s portfolio consisted mostly of comic strips involving tennis, inspired by lessons he’d recently been taking — but he worked hard to put out a strong showing for that important day. He included 10-15 three-panel cartoons of his tennis character, and also recreated most of the intricate line drawings of the Beatles’ album cover for Revolver. And he wondered how either might lead to a future point of contact or job opportunity.

The visitor made a few offhand remarks along the lines of “Yeah, we hire artists all the time,” and “Can I see your work” — enough for a young Derek to appreciate the real purpose of the meeting: for him to see that his father believed in him. “The main thing is my dad believes in me,” he exclaims. “He thinks I’m good enough to waste this guy’s time.” The encouragement pushes him to work harder to hone his skills. 

The divergent ways in which his parents’ reactions drive and inspire Yaniger’s work and career inform his parenting sensibilities with his own children. He knows now that his mother just worried about him, and his siblings have told him how proud she was, especially after the publication of his book Wildsville: The Art of Derek Yaniger. “My mom would take [my book] to church, and Bingo, and say, ‘look at my kid,’” he says. Even with two grown children, he knows exactly how she feels.


Pop culture was a huge influence on Yaniger’s work, especially at the start. “My drawings changed with what I was into,” he explains. There was a period where he loved horses, so all of his drawings were of horses. In 1975, after the release of Jaws, it was all sharks. He drove a yellow Volkswagen Super Beetle in high school and drew just Volkswagens for a time.

“In all of these things I was learning how to draw cars, animals, and all these different things,” Yaniger says. “when I’m excited about something, [drawing] is how I expressed it.”  He admits that at this point he wasn’t really developing a style, “I had no voice [at this time].  I was just a kid trying to make it look like the picture.”

In 1974 Yaniger was a freshman in high school. He reaches for his iPhone and shows me a picture of a picture of his freshman ID, and we both have a good laugh. Yaniger attended The Catholic High School for Boys, a name he deadpans as “very creative.” With a name like that it sounded more like a detention center than an institute of higher learning.  As in many parochial schools, uniforms were standard, and he wore khaki pants and a button down polo shirt until his senior year, when he was allowed to wear a tie, too. Yaniger’s two ties were an outlet for creativity and rebellion. “If you looked at it longwise [in the front], it had these crazy squirrelly patterns — but if you looked at it sideways, it says ‘have you had any lately?’” He laughs. Another tie was even more filthy, he recalled, but he didn’t wear that one too often. “I was scared I was going to get caught,” he says.

Yaniger spent many summers doing one job or another. An upside to being the youngest in a large family was there was never a shortage of jobs to do; he could always work with a sibling or one of their spouses. He did stints at his brother Guy’s shoe store and at his brother Norman’s tuxedo shop. Another brother-in-law, Gerald, owned a used mobile home dealership.  I joke and asked if he was a used mobile home salesman for a summer.  He quickly says, “No…that would have been glamorous.  My job was to clean them.”  Yaniger spent part of one summer cleaning the mobile home before the drudgery of cleaning toilets in an open lot under the blazing sun … “I did it for a month,” he says. “I can’t take it.” Luckily, not every job was so hard. There were some that he loved. 

He recalls one summer painting houses for his brother-in-law, Steve Howell. “It was fun because the guy I worked with was funny,” he says. “His name was Ron Monroe.” Ron Monroe was a hippie type, a free spirit with long hair and a beard who would ad lib song parodies as they worked.  He struggles to recite a full song, but he remembers they were mostly filthy — and hugely funny and creative. “I just thought this guy was a genius,” he says. Even today, Ron Monroe stands out as one of the funniest and most creative Yaniger met in his youth.

The summer jobs weren’t just for fun — they were a means to an end. Yaniger’s plan was to save the money he’d earned and attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) for two years to complete his core classes, and then head west to the University of Colorado, which he’d read had was one of the top art schools in the country. 

Kevin Kresse and Derek Yaniger were good friends at the UALR who both intended to transfer to different schools after their first two years. “In my life I’ve been really lucky to be around people that are very energized and believe we can do anything,” he says. Kresse was just one of those people, and an important influence on him. 

In 1981, Kresse proposed a backpacking trip across Europe during the summer before they each left for their respective schools. Over the course of 2 months Yaniger and Kresse traveled to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, Austria, and Italy, living off of bread and cheap wine and taking it all in. 

When the pair reached Florence, Italy, they stopped to see the famous doors at the Baptistery of St. Giovanni, in a visit that would mark a turning point for both Yaniger and Kresse. The 15th century baptistery doors, called the “Gates of Paradise,” were sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti on a commission by the Catholic Church to offer hope for the city of Florence after the devastation of the Bubonic Plague, and they signaled a kind of hope for the two young travelers in 1981 too. 

Yaniger tells how, as the sun was going down after a long day of traveling, he and Kresse sat in front of Ghiberti’s doors with some cheap wine and bread, all they could afford at the time.


Yaniger tells how, as the sun was going down after a long day of traveling, he and Kresse sat in front of Ghiberti’s doors with some cheap wine and bread, all they could afford at the time. Both had important things in common: they were at a crossroads of their education and shared a passion for art, along with parents who were hoping to persuade them both to choose a more prudent path. “At that point,” says Yaniger, “My mom was like, ‘you got to take business classes, you got to have a safety net just in case this art thing doesn’t work out. Kevin’s parents were the same way.” And maybe it was the cheap wine, but that night both friends decided to major in art. 

Kresse did major in art, and pursued a career in fine art. He later went on to become a well-known bronze sculptor in Arkansas whose work is mainly large government commissions and public sculptures. For Yaniger, the medium is a bit of a parallel between Kresse’s current success and their evening at the Gates of Paradise: “It’s funny because Ghiberti’s doors are bronze, and now he’s a sculptor in bronze,” he remarks. He credits much of Kresse’s success to his laser sharp focus, a trait he openly admits to lacking. “I was totally fine being a whore,” he laughs. “I’ll do cartoons - whatever. I just want to make art.”

When Yaniger returned from Europe, he was forced to reassess his plans for college. Financing didn’t work out for him to head to Colorado, so he researched other schools and landed on the next one on his list: the University of Georgia at Athens. The faculty had impressed him, and it didn’t hurt that the popular new wave band, the B-52s, were among their alumni. Yaniger started on campus in the fall of 1981. “It was a great time to be there,” he says with pride. 


The hustle and bustle of Athens, Georgia, took some getting used to for Derek Yaniger.  Athens was the sixth largest city in Georgia and located just one hour outside the state capital in Atlanta. Compared to Little Rock, Athens was the big city, with all the vitality, color, and sound that cities could offer, and that was especially true when Yaniger arrived on campus in the fall of 1981. The Athens music scene was on the rise, and many of the rock, new wave, and punk bands that would go on to shape popular music would get their start right there.

Yaniger had only been on campus for a few weeks when he noticed someone walking down Baxter Street on the north side of campus. It was a young man, about his age, with long, curly hair shaved on the sides and left thick and loose on top, like a mop. The shaved sides are dyed and decorated with polka dots, and the sight of it makes Yaniger stop in his tracks. “I’m this naive kid from Little Rock,” he says, and he had never seen anyone quite like him. The man’s tattered sweater leads Yaniger to believe he might be homeless, so he’s shocked when he walks into his painting class one day and finds that the polka-dot haired hobo is his classmate.

Later in the semester, that same classmate volunteers to model for their painting class when the nude model fails to show up, and Yaniger paints him — twig, berries, and all. It turns out the classmate is Michael Stipe, the lead vocalist of the now famous rock band, R.E.M. 

I’m stunned. “So you painted Michael Stipe’s schlong?” I ask in disbelief.  Yaniger nods. “I painted his schlong, and I had to look at it for a long time.”  He ended up giving the portrait to a girlfriend, but he wishes he still had it.

R.E.M. was formed in the Art Department at the University of Georgia in 1980. They had a loyal local following, including some fans in North Carolina. But they weren’t widely known beyond that, and neither did they seem to care to be, at the time.

Yaniger remembers his first R.E.M show on Halloween night in 1982. “I don’t know how they pulled this off,” he says, “But [the concert] was in an abandoned church. There were big sections of the wall missing — like, the roof is gone.” He scratches his head. “It had to be dangerous as hell.” 

For someone who was admittedly out of the loop on music, listening to R.E.M. for the first time was like an awakening, and Yaniger was immediately converted. He bought the only piece the band had available — a 7 inch single for “Radio Free Europe” available on Hib Tone Records — and brought it back to share with friends and spread the word in Little Rock like it was the sonic gospel.


“You had to go behind the pillar, so you really couldn’t see it.” All the cryptic note said was “Wheel of Cheese, 40 Watt Club, 8:00 pm.”  “But [the art department students] knew Wheel of Cheese meant R.E.M.,”

Being an early adopter had its perks. Yaniger attended a lot of R.E.M. shows for a pittance, or sometimes for free. “Not too many people knew about them,” he says. Even at their performances at the 40 Watt Club, a popular music venue in Athens, “You could see them for five dollars.”

Fraternity kids began to show up at concerts, and R.E.M.’s popularity skyrocketed. But true to their art band roots, they began to play secret shows, with details conveyed in a code of sorts. “They would put an itty bitty post-it note on this pillar in the basement of the Art Department,” Yaniger explains. “You had to go behind the pillar, so you really couldn’t see it.” All the cryptic note said was “Wheel of Cheese, 40 Watt Club, 8:00 pm.”  “But [the art department students] knew Wheel of Cheese meant R.E.M.,” he smiles, “We just kept it a secret from all the regulars…the basics.”  Other times, the band would open up their practice sessions in a garage in downtown Athens, giving the impromptu concerts the feel of a block party. 

Music offered a new dimension for Yaniger, but art remained his first love, even as the two worlds began to reveal parallels in their pursuit for a simpler, more pared down means of expression. In the same way that so much of the punk rock musicscene in Georgia was a reply to the over-intellectualization of rock, Yaniger’s art — and the Lowbrow movement in general — sought to respond to the over-intellectualization of art.

Rock and Roll grew up in the 1970s, shedding the playful, insipid lyrics that had popularized songs like Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” in favor of long, 10-minute Moog synthesizer solos like the kind made famous by Keith Emerson. But that still wasn’t what artists like the Ramones, the Stooges, or the New York Dolls were looking for — they wanted to get to the good part: the hook, the guts, the punchline. Hence Punk songs are played sloppily, and fast, with three chords under two minutes.  The same was true in the art world: art was so over-intellectualized that drafting skill was no longer a prerequisite.  Artistic statements needed to accompany the paintings of Abstract Expressionists.  In tandem with the rise of Punk in music, Robert Williams and his band of merry men created Lowbrow to elevate cartoon art and bring the focus back to draftsmanship.

Yaniger’s work at school, wittingly or not, increasingly helped reinforce those Lowbrow themes in his own art. He was the in-house cartoonist for the Brou-Ha-Ha, the comic strip of the school newspaper, The Red & Black. The portfolio he submitted for the job was filled with drawings inspired by the simple line drawings of the cartoonist Bernard “Hap” Kliban, whose telltale black cats were sketched in his distinctive style. The editor liked it, and gave him the job.

The pay was minimal, but the experience was invaluable. “I learned how to draw just about anything,” Yaniger says. He honed his drawing skills and learned how to meet a deadline. The newspaper was printed four times per week, and Yaniger needed to produce a comic strip for each issue. He carried around a sketchbook at all times, drawing constantly to document his surroundings and looking for inspiration. There, in his early 20s, he began to transition into an adult — retaining a bit of childlike imagination and humor, but forging the work ethic of a seasoned draftsman. Most importantly, he says, he “learned to scale down.” 

The economy of lines — the purposeful brevity that is a hallmark of Yaniger’s work — started to come into being as he worked behind the desk of the Brou-Ha-Ha. “That’s what it really taught me,” he said of his sketches and cartoons. “You’re trying to tell a joke, so just get to the punchline.” In the same way that the music he’d discovered represented a casting off of the old, frivolous, and complicated, so did his art now reflect an important lesson: “Make it simple.”


Even a casual look at Yaniger’s paintings reveals the obvious: he doesn’t dwell on background. They’re either very simple, or nonexistent. “I boiled it down to what is important,” he explains. A great example is his  2013 work, “Corn Squeezin Zs.”


Corn Squeezin' Zs

2013 by Derek Yaniger


The painting depicts a sleeping hillbilly bootlegger leaning against his musket. In the foreground, on the right, is a fire boiling at a homemade distillery, whose contents are poured into a bottle labeled ‘rum.’ It’s in the drawing of the man’s arm that one can appreciate how deftly Yaniger chooses to use less, not more: a single line connects the arm to the musket and stomach, and the color changes red to white and back to red. There is no shading to overcomplicate the visuals; Yaniger prefers flat color. He conveys his message in an instant. “Everything you needed to know was right there, and I didn’t want to do any more than that,” he says. “It looks simple, but it takes so much work to boil it down.”

Yaniger’s art shows the brilliance of timing, too. In the same way that comedy relies on delivery, so does his work require well-employed timing and an appreciation of jokes and puns. In his 2004 work, “Whistlebait,” a very voluptuous woman is ogled by men in a line of cars. They are depicted praying to the Gods of Relativity to slow down space-time. For the viewer, of course, the scene — and space-time — have already been frozen for them to stare as long as they like. And there it is: just like that, Yaniger punches the viewer in the gut and gets to the punchline: the lady is the whistle bait, the punchline. 

whistle bait

"Whistle Bait"

2004 by Derek Yaniger 

24" x 24" 

Acrylic on panel


The painting is a bit naughty to be sure. The subject matter is slightly sexist, but Yaniger doesn’t mean any harm, and everyone cracks a smile. In any case, Yaniger is no novice when it comes to the tongue-in-cheek. Even back in his Brou-Ha-Ha days, he was constantly poking fun.

The lively Greek scene at the University of Georgia was a frequent target of Yaniger’s joke. In one anti-Greek comic strip, he portrayed Star Trek officer Mr. Spock holding a recorder while attending a fraternity party surrounded by drunk Greeks. The caption reads, “Yes Captain, I cannot detect signs of intelligent life.” 


In 1986, Yaniger graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design.  He left Athens for Atlanta to join the Graphics Group Whistling Dixie as an illustrator. “It was actually two companies in one,” Yaniger explains. “Graphics Group was the graphic design portion, and Whistling Dixie is the illustration group.” Clients included Coca-Cola, Alpo, TV Guide, McDonalds, and Reader’s Digest, and Yaniger produced artwork for a variety of projects. The commercial work was not always inspiring, and the pay may only have afforded a Spam and ramen noodle existence, but Yaniger learned a lot: he met deadlines, met great people, and could mimic any of the big illustrators as needed. He continued to hone his skills and his craft, and was paid to do it. “I learned how to make the client happy,” he says. And he still uses lessons he learned there today. 

He also learned a bit about himself. In 2016, Dragon Con, the Atlantic Comic Convention, commissioned Yaniger to draw the poster for their 30th anniversary celebration. His plan was to draw a 1950s style wedding cake, embellished with “roses and swag, roses and swag,” he says. He checked his book of stock art from the 1950s and was pleased to see that the images matched his vision. “That’s what I learned: I know how to do all the standard cartoon beats.” He had internalized so many of the things that had served to inspire throughout the years.



His tenure at Whistling Dixie was also marked by other personal milestones: he met his future wife, Eden, at a friend’s Christmas party; and formed a punk band, Dead Elvis with his friends, just as he decided to branch off on his own to do freelance work.

Dead Elvis debuted in 1989. They included fellow art buddies Larry Pricket (“Jet Terror”) on lead vocals and guitar, Kevin Rej (“Ernie Danzig”) on bass, and Yaniger (“Squirmy Rooter”) on drums. “We were all art types,” he says. “So we had T-shirts, stickers, a whole merchandise table before we learned how to play instruments.” Once the branding was complete, the trio considered the music. Yaniger picked the drums because it was the last instrument left.


Dead Elvis 2008 Reunion show

Poster designed by Derek Yaniger


“If we only spent more time practicing than designing T-shirts, then we would be halfway decent,” Yaniger says. “But it was punk, so it was three chords.” Still, the band knew they needed an alternate way to entertain crowds, and headed to Goodwill to stock up on stuffed animals. They weren’t interested in high quality toys. Yaniger says they looked for stuffed animals that resembled “the shitty ones you win at the county fair.”

Armed with their bounty of secondhand, flea-infested stuffed animals, Dead Elvis would take to the stage at the local bar and rip the toys apart as they played their music.  Then they would spit beer at the crowd, and the crowd would reciprocate. Bar owners hated them — the post-performance scene was a mishmash of alcohol and mini styrofoam pellets exploded from decapitated stuffed animals. Yaniger explains their approach. “Dead Elvis was more about the show, the mayhem,” he says. Despite the chaos they left behind, they did receive invitations to return and even played a reunion set in 2008 under a mist of beer.  He pauses and shows me a picture from the 2008 reunion show.  It’s a black and white photo of the band and it seems to be raining indoors.  “That’s beer,” Yaniger points out.  Dead Elvis attracted a small following and opened for bigger groups, like Danzig, Social Distortion, and the Ramones. 

DE beerstorm 2 (2).jpg

He pauses and shows me a picture from the 2008 reunion show.  It’s a black and white photo of the band and it seems to be raining indoors.  “That’s beer,” Yaniger points out. 


I was curious to know how Dead Elvis landed the honor of opening for the Ramones.  Yaniger explains that venues preferred to give openings to them and the small handful of punk bands instead of the Oi bands that comprised many skinheads.  The Ramones were conducting their sound check and Dead Elvis was waiting to go next and Dee Dee Ramone, the band’s bass guitarist, walked through the hallway, asking everyone he passed for a joint with complete and total disregard to anyone’s personal space. Yaniger wished he had one to offer, but was glad for the chance to chat with Dee Dee Ramone. And despite the missed opportunity to smoke a joint together, he says, “It was nice to say we opened for the Ramones.”

Yaniger evolved in his time as part of Dead Elvis. His interests grew to include zombie art and graphic novels, which he considered art. He realized it was a path he wanted to pursue, and began collecting Dead Elvis art and headed to Dragon Con, the newly formed Atlantic Comic Convention.

The two-year-old convention was a place of possibility. Aspiring comic book artists and their fans could mingle with comic book publishers like Marvel and DC, and each could potentially leave with a deal in hand. Yaniger was as determined as ever. He stopped at every table presenting his portfolio before finally landing at Epic Comics, Marvel’s Graphic Novel Division. Mark McClaren, the editor, reviewed his portfolio and gave Yaniger his first comic book job: Hellstorm.

Hellstorm was a graphic novel comprised of short stories illustrated by five artists per book. The project was a good fit for both parties because it gave Marvel a chance to work with Yaniger without committing to a full book, and it allowed Yaniger to dip his toe in the comic book world. It worked well — after Hellstorm, he moved on to other Marvel comics, including Hellstrom, Toxic Crusaders, and Web of Spiderman, to name a few.

The days doing comic book work are like a world unto their own. Yaniger talks about the process of being given a stack of standard issue Marvel paper, then drawing with pencil before faxing for approval to draw in ink. “Usually there’s a penciler and inker,” he explains, “Who then send them to the letterer, who then send it to the colorist.” Yaniger had no idea that he had been unwittingly doing double the work by penciling and inking on his own until he received an additional hundred dollars per page for his extra work.

Yaniger proved his mettle with his work on Web of Spiderman #100. “I did 11 pages in that issue,” he says proudly. “I go to the mailbox and receive my residual check and it’s $23,000!” The artwork and sales of Web of Spiderman #100 convince Marvel executives that Yaniger would be the right choice for their next project, Transformers Generation 2.


Transformers Generation 2

Cover by Derek Yaniger


Rob Tokar, Yaniger’s editor, agrees and pitches the idea to him. Tokar is a friend, too; in addition to their collaboration on Toxic Crusaders, Dr. Strange, and Web of Spiderman, he was a guest at Yaniger’s wedding. But the prospect of illustrating a 1980s kids’ cartoon just doesn’t appeal to Yaniger, whose interests at the time lie in horror and more gritty art. And then a graphic novel called ABC Warriors, by Simon Bisley, changes his mind.

“It’s robots kicking the shit out of one another,” Yaniger says. The illustrations capture a grittiness that sparks his imagination, and he agrees to the project if he can put something similar together. Tokar green lights his sketches and Transformers moves forward.

The premier issue, designed by Yaniger, features Optimus Prime with bullet wounds to the head and a subtitle that reads: “This is not your father’s Autobots.” The scene portrays some grisly details: shell casings protruding from heads, blood, hoses, and drippings. Normally, the Comic Code Authority (CCA), a governing body for comic books that is analogous to the film industry’s rating authority, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), prohibits the portrayal of blood and guts. But Yaniger’s illustrations outmaneuvers such a rule: since the Transformers are robots, he’s not actually showing anything disallowed. Blood has been replaced by transmission fluid, guts have been replaced by gears, and intestines have been replaced by hoses. 

The fans love it. “I still get a lot of fan mail,” Yaniger says. But despite the project’s success, he is getting weary with the schedule at Marvel. The work calls for 10-hour days, and he is not overly enthusiastic about the storylines. His home life demands more, too. He is now the stay-at-home parent for his first child, Dean, and the competing responsibilities of diapers in one hand and drawing Megatron in the other cannot continue. In 1996, for the second time in his career, Derek Yaniger opts to freelance once again. Now, having mastered comics, he sets his sights on a new goal: animation. 


“Draw Yogi Bear,” Derek Yaniger recalls the interviewer’s request. “Okay. Now George Jetson.” Yaniger quickly sketches whatever cartoon character is asked of him. He is sitting in a conference room at the Cartoon Network offices in downtown Atlanta, hoping for a job. His old Dead Elvis bandmate, Kevin Rej, helped set up the interview, and now Yaniger is here, pen and paper in hand, sketching one character after another.

Cartoon Network represented the next step for Yaniger on several fronts: not only did it offer the chance to break into the world of animation, but the studio also produced a number of cartoons in the midcentury style that Yaniger found so compelling. “Part of the reason I wanted to work there was because I was attracted to that look,” Yaniger says. “They were just like me.” 

He couldn’t have been more right. The driving force behind Cartoon Network’s midcentury push was Craig McCracken, a roommate of fellow Lowbrow artist Miles Thompson at CalArts. “He was fully into that,” Yaniger says. “He only hired those guys [into the mod style.”

Yaniger got the job. At first, he was mostly assigned to design promotional art for T-shirts and stickers; then he worked on art for online games, and eventually graduated to the animation of commercials for upcoming shows and marathons. He continued to study 1950s illustrations, and its limited use of color stood out time and again. Where people tried to imitate the 1950s style with merely clean lines, Yaniger noticed that the homage fell short if more than a few colors were used. 

He hoped to incorporate a limited color palette of gray, red, and black on a commercial for “Johnny Bravo,” but his proposal was met with pushback from his boss. “I had to fight with them for that,” he recalls. His boss pointed out that the character’s hair was yellow, but Yaniger insisted that he would give it a retro, 50s look. When they finally relented, they were pleasantly surprised by Yaniger’s work. “That’s it,” he says. “This is all I want to do.” 

Ironically, the limited color palette of 1950s illustrations wasn’t an aesthetic choice at all; it was based solely on economics, and it was cheaper to limit printing to 2-3 colors. Yaniger was sincerely troubled by halfhearted attempts to thematically recreate the 1950s with images of cocktail parties, burlesque girls, and rockabilly. “But they weren’t capturing the look, which bothered me,” he explains. “It’s easy to paint something when one is given every color in the spectrum. That’s easy…what’s difficult is executing a big complicated painting with two colors.”

By this time, Yaniger had been at Cartoon Network for two years and was beginning to feel a bit like a hired hand. His life had changed again: in 1998, he and his wife welcomed their second child, Emma. But his interest in 1950s style art had not subsided, and as his hobby research increasingly occupied more of his time and as the hallmarks of his distinctive style became more manifest, he decided to leave his day job and return to freelancing for a third time.


Unlike the previous three occasions in which he opted to freelance, this time Derek Yaniger does not have a concrete plan for what he wants to do — except that it likely involves his latest obsession: tikis. 

“I’m going to turn my unfinished basement into my tiki studio,” Yaniger says with a gleam in his eye. He cleared loads of bamboo from a friend’s backyard and sheepishly admits to spending the family money on tiki decorations. Cartoon Network have been calling, but Yaniger has been turning them down, intent on transforming his basement into a Polynesian hideaway.  “It’s so stupid,” he rolls his eyes, “[Cartoon Network] is calling and I’m turning them down, and my wife is like…really?”  His wife has been incredulous but supportive, and he is grateful to have married someone who cares so much that he is happy.

Still, constructing a tiki hut in Georgia is not a straightforward task. For one, giant palms are impossible to find — the only online seller was asking for $1000 — and so Yaniger conceives of a plan to make his own, with chicken wire and crack filler. Crack filler comes in an aerosol can and when sprayed, liquid polyurethane comes out, but it cures as a solid foam that can be sanded.  His ingenuity pays off: once hardened, he is able to sand down and carve the foam into a totem pole in his garage, including one inspired by the Moai of Easter Island.

One weekday afternoon, Yaniger is obsessively carving his tiki totem pole in the garage when the sound of loud springs uncoiling and gears moving break his concentration.  The garage door is opening.  “It’s my wife coming home from work — cuz’ she works,”  he says, to emphasize the fact that he quit his steady job to to this full time.  “At this point my wife is thinking he’s lost his mind,” he says with embarrassment, “I’m sorry babe…I gotta work through this.”  Luckily she was.

Yaniger's re-designed tiki basement.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Yaniger's re-designed tiki basement.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Yaniger is not the first in his family to make plans for a home bar. His father, Norman, dreamed of becoming the proprietor of a bar, but he chose the more conservative path: life as an accountant and father to six children. The next best thing was his home bar. “We didn’t have a big house,” Yaniger says, “But the bar was massive. My mom hated that fucking thing — it was huge.” He laughs, recalling how he had to take a deep breath just to pass it. And yet, he remembers his father with some amusement, “I’ve never seen him drink.”

Norman Yaniger passed away in 1986, around the time that Derek graduated from the University of Georgia. Although more than 12 years have passed, Yaniger’s father has been on his mind a lot. “That spurred a lot of my love for retro,” he says solemnly, recalling the objects that his parents kept at home during his childhood. 

The accessories were the most important part of their family bar. Yaniger remembers the swizzle sticks; the gaudy, nudist napkins; and the wind-up Charlie Weaver bartender toy. “All those things were so weird and cool to me,” he says earnestly. He scoured eBay looking to replace the old comics, lunch boxes, or Rat Fink models he’d owned as a child. Part of him was amassing a collection, but another part was studying each piece, and looking to that aesthetic to help define his own voice. “My obsession was capturing that look,” he says. He called the style “adorably filthy.”

There are two paintings in particular that Yaniger feels best capture the essence of “adorably filthy:’’ a 2013 piece entitled “Racing for Pinks,” and another 2014 work, “The Pusher,” from. “Racing for Pinks” was actually inspired by a 2012 painting called “Dragging for Pinks,” in which two drivers brandish their pink slips, or ownership papers before competing to win them. “Racing for Pinks” is a play on words — this time, Yaniger paints a female driver holding up her pink underwear while the other driver, a rockabilly guy in a T-bucket carries his actual pink slip ownership papers. The painting once again flies in the face of political correctness, which is exactly the point: by simultaneously giving the viewer pause to both smile and cringe, he asks us to redefine what is funny and offensive and acceptable as individuals and as a society. How much does intent matter when we label content and art?

"Draggin' for Pinks"

2012 by Derek Yaniger

Racing for Pinks

2013 by Derek Yaniger


The somewhat outdated notion of the taboo is another common theme in Yaniger’s work. Cartoons in the 1950s and 60s often depicted characters engaged in activities that would never be allowed today — smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. And yet these verboten acts were memorialized in media and popular culture. “That’s what I’m poking fun at,” Yaniger says. 

“The Pusher” depicts a dark scene and covers a host of taboos. In the painting, a sinister looking man in a long black trench coat is exchanging money with a little boy in a propeller beanie, and offering a variety of contraband to satiate any number of vices: lust, greed, or gluttony. The pusher has it all: nudie magazines, X-ray glasses, cigarettes, alcohol, loaded dice, playing cards. As with his other, purposefully provocative work, it would be easy to dismiss the painting as simply offensive. But it would be difficult to argue that the issues he raises are irrelevant — it’s up to each viewer to assess where the lines must be drawn, when to strike a balance between offense and openness, and how the questions his work asks might be answered.

The Pusher

2014 by Derek Yaniger


Yaniger’s “adorably filthy” style can sometimes be perceived as controversial, and he knows he needs to market it strategically to obtain freelance work. Visually, the limited palette and retro illustration style evoke nostalgia, but the actual subject matter tends toward the provocative. Between 2001 and 2002, his plan was to promote himself to subculture communities. He put a selection of work on CD and mailed it to people and business that specialized in retro culture, among them Atomic Magazine, in New York; Barracuda Magazine in California; the organizers of the Hukilau event in Florida; and Tiki Oasis, in San Diego. The first to bite was Otto von Stroheim of Tiki Oasis.

Tiki Oasis was founded in 2001 as a fundraiser to support the rehabilitation of the ailing Palm Springs Caliente Tropics Motel. A buzzing locale during the heyday of Polynesian pop culture in America in the 1950s and 60s, the Polynesian-themed had now fallen into disrepair, and von Stroheim was determined to save it. He commissioned Yaniger to design the poster for the Second Annual Tiki Oasis in 2002. 



“The goal was to get [my name] out there,” Yaniger says, “The first three Tiki Oasis I did for nothing.  I didn’t even charge him.”  And the plan worked. Jeff Griffin of Atomic Magazine called next and commissioned him to illustrate several pieces for their drink recipe section. And then Stuart Sandler, who would later become Yaniger’s business partner, saw his ad in Atomic Magazine. 

Sandler is the proprietor of Font Diner, a website selling unique fonts for commercial and consumer use. He was perusing Atomic when an illustration for a pisco sour in the drinks section caught his eye — it was a pen and ink drawing of a smiling fellow in sombrero and poncho raising his pisco sour to a sultry señorita, come to life with just three colors: maroon, green, and black. The exaggerated proportions of each character — the short, big-nosed man beside the slender, leggy woman — did well to emphasize their personalities, just as the artist intended. Sandler was impressed, and intrigued by the artist who went only by ‘Derek.’ He called Jeff Griffin at Atomic Magazine to find out more.


In Sandler’s mind, the artist behind the pisco sour drawing was a elderly person living in a retirement home in Florida who once worked at Hanna-Barbera or Saul Bass. He hoped that Jeff Griffin could help him source the illustration, which he thought was a genuinely old 1950s image — and he was shocked to discover that not only was the illustration not an antique, but that its artist was alive and still producing work.


In Sandler’s mind, the artist behind the pisco sour drawing was a elderly person living in a retirement home in Florida who once worked at Hanna-Barbera or Saul Bass. He hoped that Jeff Griffin could help him source the illustration, which he thought was a genuinely old 1950s image — and he was shocked to discover that not only was the illustration not an antique, but that its artist was alive and still producing work.  Yaniger recalls the funny phone conversation Sandler and Griffin had.  “You gotta tell me where you got that image,” asks Sandler.  “Old?” Griffin responds with a puzzled tone, “He just sent me the artwork.”  “I get that, I’m asking where he got it from.”  Griffin had to finally spell it out, “His brain man!  He draws the stuff.”  Griffin recalls a long awkward silence, then had to check Sandler’s pulse on the phone, “Hello?”  “You mean he’s alive?” Sandler asks.  Griffin reminds Sandler that Derek is barely in his mid-30s.  The conversation goes in circles for minutes before Sandler realizes that Yaniger is indeed alive and the artwork created was new and not drawn decades ago or lifted from an old cookbook [1].

When Yaniger and Sandler finally connect, a fruitful partnership is born. Sandler had been wanting to diversify his Font Dinner offerings, starting with clip art — and Yaniger was just the artist to do it. He already had a passion and audience for all things retro, and Yaniger’s talents helped to grow the company’s products to include serigraphs, T-shirts, and even fezzes. It’s a good fit; Sandler manages the production side, and Yaniger can focus on the creative. For Yaniger, the biggest compliment of it all lies in their chance beginning, in the pisco sour drawing that started it all. “[Sandler] didn’t know!” he exclaims. “He thought it was old art. That’s exactly what I want. That’s what I’m trying to do.”


No artist is an island. Their families form their earliest memories and make up their most current trials and adventures. What happens to an artist’s family happens to the artist, too — and many times, it makes its way into their art too. As we wait for our food, Yaniger tells me about how he met his wife.

Derek Yaniger had just graduated from the University of Georgia when he met Eden Thorpe at a Christmas party. She was a freshman studying computer science at the University, and although he was smitten with her, he was currently living with his girlfriend. “I just thought she was adorable,” Yaniger says, raising his hands in praise. So he began calling her anyway.

Eden agreed to see him. She did some research and found out about his girlfriend and confronted him about his situation halfway through their first date. Yaniger apologized and broke up with his girlfriend that night, but the evening didn’t pass without some drama: he woke in the middle of the night with a steak knife impaled in his leg. “I still have the scar to prove it,” he says. 

Derek and Eden were married in 1992 and welcomed their first child, Dean, in 1995. Dean was raised as a boy and went on to attend Georgia Tech, studying computer science just like his mother. But after two years, he fell into a deep depression that plungedthe entire family into a scary limbo, wondering what to do and how to help their child. 

Therapy helped Dean come to the realization that he was transgender, and a weight lifted. The family was very supportive, and Dean now goes by Heather and has a steady girlfriend. But Yaniger’s still has concerns as a father. “The scary part is how are other people going to treat her,” he says. “We do live in Georgia.” 

Yaniger’s art bears the marks of that difficult chapter in his family’s history. “That’s scary ass shit when your kid is talking about suicide,” he says. It was a challenge to draw happy people when you aren’t happy yourself, and he recalls having to constantly rework an image during that time.  “It didn’t flow,” he says. “I had to really work at it.” And even then, try as he might, the darkness would sometimes show.


By now, Derek Yaniger’s work is an amalgamation of everything he’s done: sketches that hark back to his very earliest drawings as a child; themes of irony and humor that recall his time at the Brou-Ha-Ha comic strip in college; the spare, disciplined methodology of pencil and ink at Marvel; and the restrained, retro color palette he insisted upon at Cartoon Network. But gallery shows are still something of a novelty, and although his work now features his distinctive, recognizable style, conveying it across new mediums and in new places still takes a bit of practice.

Yaniger had casually painted for friends and weddings, but official art shows required that he produce sale quality work. He develops a new way of doing things that mixes the best of his old techniques with the best of the new. When sketching or painting, he prefers to stand; once the sketch is final, he scans it into the computer and uses Photoshop to map out the color scheme. “When I’m painting, I don’t want any surprises,” he says. “I’m like a Ford factory.”

Once he finalizes the color scheme, he enlarges the sketch on a photocopier and affixes the paper to the wood so that he can trace it. He traces with a heavy hand, deliberately bearing down weight as he pulls the pencil along so that he can leave indentations in the wood. Then he works in low light to see where the shadows fall in the impressions, or where the paint falls literally into the fossa left by the pencil. Once he masters painting on wood, he becomes the go-to guy for anything retro, and a world of new opportunities opens up.

“I got an offer to do a thing for Dell,” he says, recalling a pitch for him to draw a laptop in his retro style. Yaniger was quick to point out that laptops didn’t exist in the 1950s, and offered to draw a mainframe computer instead, but Dell executives were insistent on the laptop. The moment was a crossroads: on the one hand, working with Dell would be lucrative and could give him exposure to new markets and opportunities. But it would also require that he prioritize simply having work over the integrity of making his art, and Yaniger opted to decline Dell’s offer. “Anytime you work with the big guys it’s a huge pain in the ass,” he explains, “This is why I prefer working for the little guys — the Tiki Oasis [of the world], the people doing it for fun.  The project had to mean more than just profit. 

In 2014, Yaniger received an email from a team with Brian Setzer, the Rockabilly musician. They’re interested in commissioning a sketch for Setzer’s upcoming Christmas album, “Rockin’ Rudolph,” and Yaniger feels an instant connection. Setzer is a big revivalist of the Rockabilly look and sound, dating back to his time with the Stray Cats in the 1980s. He gets to work right away.

Yaniger’s finished sketch depicts Brian Setzer standing back to back with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Setzer is holding his signature Gretch guitar and singing into an old time ribbon microphone, and Rudolph, his nose aglow as a red Edison light bulb, has a stand up bass. He sends the sketch off to Setzer’s team.

Weeks pass without a response. And then, suddenly, Yaniger hears from one of Setzer’s agents, asking him to draw it again, in a completely different style.


Weeks pass without a response. And then, suddenly, Yaniger hears from one of Setzer’s agents, asking him to draw it again, in a completely different style. Yaniger is tempted to concede, but as with the Dell project, he ultimately pushes back, disappointed by the lost opportunity but standing firm in his principles.  “I was sick to my stomach,” he says, putting his hands over his face.  His family would constantly ask him, “Are you sure [you want to turn this down]? it’s Brian Setzer?”

But the Setzer saga is far from over. Months later, Yaniger learns that Brian Setzer, perusing a Kustom Kulture book in which Yaniger’s art is featured, actually asks for him by name as the artist to draw his album cover. Setzer’s staff reveal they already have Yaniger’s submission on hand, and Setzer loves it, no changes requested. The whole ordeal is a bitter one for Yaniger. “The thing that pisses me off,” he says in a huff, “They didn’t even show him the drawing.  They thought they knew what he wanted.  They were doing the whole ad agency thing.” 

...together they watch as the lights turn on and the curtain rises at the Cobb Energy Center to reveal Yaniger’s album cover artwork, blown up to be 200 feet tall as the backdrop for the show.


After some hits and misses, Yaniger finally meets Setzer at his Atlanta concert in December 2016. He takes his friend and fellow Lowbrow artist Dave Cook as his guest, and together they watch as the lights turn on and the curtain rises at the Cobb Energy Center to reveal Yaniger’s album cover artwork, blown up to be 200 feet tall as the backdrop for the show. His name alone spanned three feet. Yaniger was floored. “That’s my art! I did that!” he wanted to shout. It’s a fitting conclusion to a tumultuous project, and a highlight in a career that, still in its heyday, already has so much to celebrate and still more good things ahead.




There are more stories, more details, more anecdotes, but the sun is going down now, and the neighborhood of Virginia Highlands is starting to come alive. The restaurant fills and fireflies flash outside. Families are taking walks, and the street begins to hum with activity. We drain the last of our cocktails and Derek Yaniger says, “This is why I do this crap. These little encouragements and moments keep me going.”

The little encouragements mean so much to us all. The afternoon has been a telling glimpse into the story behind a storyteller. It has been a fascinating, heartwarming, hilarious, and deeply personal tale, connecting dots between a childhood love of drawing and comics, a musical awakening, and an abiding interest in art that questions, challenges and inspires. 

And yet, there is more to come. Derek Yaniger is looking to the futuse, a Lowbrow artist who is always looking to push the cartoon image to the next level. His work in the varying fields of illustration, graphic design, animation, and painting all produced something very different, but also very similar: art and images that were uniquely his, a testament to his style and his journey.

As we part ways, I ask Yaniger to make a letter ‘L’ on his forehead, and I do the same in honor of Luke Cheuh’s seminal painting, “Lowbrow: And Still a Loser.” I point the camera at us to take a selfie, and then the shutter clicks. 


[1] - Wildsville:  The Art of Derek Yaniger, 2008, Koreo Press




What is Lowbrow Art?

"Appetite for Destruction" by Robert Williams, 1978


What is lowbrow art?

Most American's have not heard of the Lowbrow art movement, yet most of them have seen it or enjoyed it in one way or another. Take for example the very popular heavy metal band, Guns N' Roses and their 1987 debut album, "Appetite for Destruction." The album name and cover was based off a painting of the same title. The original 1978 painting and the subsequent album cover depicts a robotic rapist, an abused woman sitting on the side walk with her panties dropped to her ankles, and a red metallic avenger leaping from the fence. The album cover was so controversial that record stores refused to stock copies of it. Guns N' Roses' record company, Geffen Records, compromised by putting the offending cover on the inside and replace the cover with a cross and skulls of the 5 members.

The individual to laud or blame for "Appetite for Destruction" is a underground comic book illustrator-cum-fine artist named Robert Williams. During the early-60s Williams was the illustrator for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's t-shirt and custom car design business.

Roth sold airbrushed t-shirts of grotesque caricatures of over-sized monsters driving under-sized representations of hot rods that Roth built at car shows and hot rod magazines such as Car Craft. The t-shirts were called "Weirdo shirts" and they became a craze; and Roth was at the forefront. When Roth's business closed in the mid-60s, Williams joined ZAP comix, a non-conformist anti-establishment underground comic book founded by a collective of artists which included: R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso. During his tenure at Zap he created his trademark anti-hero, Coochy Cooty, who appeared on the pages of Zap many times. During the late-70s Williams founded a loose knit group of illustrator friends, which included: Matt Groening, The Pizz, Gary Panther, and Mike Kelley, and called themselves the Art Boys. Williams hosted these ad hoc art shows as an excuse to throw a party and each show had a theme. Everyone had to produce an art piece based on the theme with the caveat that the work had to be "thow-awayable." The intent of Williams was to take cartoon imagery and take it to the next level. He hoped to start an art movement based on underground comic book images, which were drawn on paper with pen and ink, and transpose them with oil onto canvas. It would take 20 years for the movement to take off. 


Around the same time small underground galleries in LA and New York are showing this type of artwork, Williams' fellow ZAP Comix alumus, Gilbert Shelton co-owned a publication company named Rip Off Press, and offered to do an art book of Williams' work. Since no other sane publication company would dare take this challenge, the dilemma was what to name the book? On a lark Williams decided to go with the title, "The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams," and the front cover was a painting of a robotic rapist, an abused woman a red metallic avenger. The book was released in 1982. He admits that the term "Lowbrow" was never intended to name the nascent art movement and was never a serious conjecture. But that's exactly what happened. The original connotation was to suggest that the self-deprecating title would eventually wear off and rise over time.