Greg Irons sampled every conceivable creative outlet the 1960s counterculture had to offer—first as a rock musician in Philadelphia (The Candymen), then as a Bay Area rock poster artist (Bill Graham and others), then underground comix (Last Gasp, Print Mint), and coloring books, mastering each one before moving on to the next. By the 1980s, Irons was at the forefront of tattoo art, traveling the world to study with the masters of the form in Japan and, finally, Thailand, where he was hit by a bus and killed in 1984. The legacy he left is a testament to his prodigious talent and energy. Benito Vila has charted the trajectory of Greg Irons’ life and artistry for PKM readers.
In the far-off and far-out Philadelphia of the mid-1960s, Greg Irons wanted to make a name for himself as an artist. He left home at 17, his need to be free of an alcoholic father and a failure to conform to high school norms leading him into the “underground” Philly folk scene. Fate and his good looks led Irons to play bass in the Candymen, a locally popular rock band, before he set out for 1967 San Francisco where, over the next 15 years, he became known for his design and illustration work, creating posters for Bill Graham and others; comic books for Last Gasp and Print Mint; and children’s coloring books for Bellerophon and Troubador Press. Although all that work was considered primarily “counterculture”, Irons’ art took each of those mediums to another level of sophistication and helped them find larger, more mainstream audiences. Tattooing became Irons’ final artistic endeavor, but both his career and his life were cut short in 1984 by a bus on a street in Bangkok, Thailand. He had first gone to Japan to study the work of some old tattoo masters and on getting to Thailand, Irons negotiated a snake tattoo from a Buddhist monk in the mountain city of Chiang Mai. It was meant to serve him as a talisman.
To best experience Irons’ life and work, there is no better book than Patrick Rosenkranz’ 2006 You Call This Art? A Greg Irons Retrospective. Currently out of print and much sought after by collectors, historians and fans, You Call This Art? features interviews with Irons’ family, friends and collaborators and offers over 200 images of Irons’ work, including early drawings, concert posters, complete comic stories and several pages of his tattoo flashes. In asking Rosenkranz by email about his attraction to Irons’ legacy, he wrote. “Greg’s work in the horror comix caught my eye right away. He was graphically savage in his realistic war and crime stories. Yow! When he hooked up with his writing partner Tom Veitch, his stories became even better. Legion of Charlies is a masterpiece. Deviant Slice is another. His Gregor stories are largely autobiographical. It was interesting to learn how they connected to his life during my research for his book. Like when Gregor is riding his bike and crashes into a car windshield and scars his face. That happened to Greg in Seattle.”
No one is spared in Irons’ world. Not himself. Not his publisher. Not even Tom Veitch. In a world constantly on the brink of economic, social and ecological disaster, it’s as if Irons is giving everyone who sees his work fair warning on what’s about to go down, satirizing the structures of “normal” and showing the destruction of where its logic leads. To get to know Irons and his art, I reached out to many of the same people Rosenkranz did for his book 16 years ago. In creating this portrait of the artist, I blended my conversations with his brother Mark Irons, cousin Patricia Brennecke, girlfriend Ann Moen, musician Peter Kaukonen, publisher Ron Turner, collaborator Tom Veitch, artist Robert Crumb and tattoo historian Chuck Eldridge with passages from You Call This Art?, particularly Rosenkranz’ context-providing prose and his quotes of Irons himself.
Rosenkranz suggested I say something about Irons, and I could go on about his determination to make himself known as an artist, but that’s not what sets Irons apart. As Peter Kaukonen puts it, “You can see lines and you will know that they were done by Greg Irons and nobody else.” For a tattoo artist, that’s high praise. For a coloring book artist, that’s likely to bring out the better crayons. For an illustrator or a designer, that’s “it”, expressing what needs to be said with clarity and distinctiveness, making sure the message is easily remembered. Greg Irons’ gift? Nearly forty years after his death, his work stands out now as much as it did then, as fresh, as shocking, as relevant as when he first set it down.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Irons’ first inkling to go underground came after his mother punished him for sketching on the hallway wall. Small enough to maneuver beneath his bed, he began to draw a mural along the baseboards, safe from scrutiny. It remained his little secret until his bed was moved for cleaning with his art unveiled for all to see. From then on, his parents encouraged his budding artistic talent, though they strongly suggested he use paper instead of walls and furniture.
Patricia Brennecke: He was born in ‘47 and I was born in ‘48. We started being really tight when I was about seven. We wrote letters all the time. It kills me that I think my mother threw them away because she thought I was a little too fond of Greg. He would write letters about the guy who lived in the back of his house, who was a nut job, and he’d illustrate them. It was like reading Mad magazine in his letters. When we were about six, I remember going to Sandwich, Massachusetts, with our family and Greg’s family. There was a rainy day and we were all supposed to make, out of clay, something that resembled our names. Our last name is Brennecke, so I did a loaf of bread and a key, and Greg did an iron, just like the real thing. I remember thinking, “Shit, that’s really good.” I wasn’t envious. I was just in admiration of him. He could draw anything. He just had it.
Patrick Rosenkranz: At school his drawing abilities began to bring him the kind of attention he desired. Greg learned that he could amuse and impress his buddies with his sardonic observations and caricatures. The homemade humor magazines and “slam books” he put together and passed around may have been a big hit with the other delinquents-in-training, but not with the academic authorities. His teachers told him he had an attitude problem. His parents told him to bring his grades up or else. Cigarettes, booze and party girls became his favorite extracurricular activities.
Patricia Brennecke: His parents forced him to go to Peekskill Academy. I visited him there and I remember Greg being in a play, Mister Roberts. I can’t remember which character he played, but he played a character who was swearing all the time, “You’re all fucking this. Fucking that.” The guy behind me said to me, “He talks just like that.” Greg was good on stage. He could have been an actor.
Greg Irons: When I was 16, I spent a year in military school. That was really a kind of turning point in my life. In the military school, there were a lot of far out people who were doing essentially the same thing that I was––getting straightened out. I got turned on Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, a lot of West Coast poetry––a whole other part of the subculture. That year in military school was what really turned me around in terms of what it would mean to go into the Army, what Vietnam was all about, which was just about to get really heavy, what I was going to do with my life and what life was going to do to me, and that was the year that I really began to figure I’d better get it together, because if I’m not on top of what’s going to come down, it’s just going to come down on me and I’m not going to have any control over it. After that year in military school, I went back to high school. I was supposed to be in the twelfth grade but they put me back in the eleventh. I got kicked out [of the public high school for smoking in the boys’ room] and it was all over.
Mark Irons: I was eight when Greg moved out and I only started to be aware of some of what he was doing when I was a 10-year-old. Greg was always ahead of the curve, always in the thick of it, getting LSD on sugar cubes from New York. He stayed with these folks who managed a coffee house, and they would book all the acts that would come through Philly. This was in the folk days. He was in that scene. He took up bass guitar and learned to play it. But he really wanted to go to art school.
Greg Irons: I used to hang out at the Philadelphia College of Art and met a lot of people who were art students or ex-art students who were doing a lot of painting or graphics. Drawing was something I had done all the way through school, so I started to paint. I would do a painting in a day, or a painting in an hour, and I would feel like this isn’t right. Like, if you’re going to be a painter, you’ve got to work on your paintings for months, for years. And I was just knocking out these paintings. I remember worrying a little bit about what I was supposed to be doing and how what I was doing just seemed like slopping paint on these boards. I did a lot of giant paintings, four by eight feet, and did a lot of small ones, a lot of realistic stuff, which I would make up as I went along. It seemed like I should know what I was doing and I didn’t. I kept doing it anyway.”
Patrick Rosenkranz: He didn’t really know what he was doing when he first picked up a guitar either, but that didn’t stop him from being recruited by a rock ‘n’ roll band. [Friends] talked him into learning the bass and joining them to become the Candymen. The Candymen made their Philadelphia debut in spring 1966, opening for Gordon Lightfoot at the Second Fret, an in-the-know folk club at 19th and Sansom. That summer they opened for The Byrds at the Lamberville, New Jersey Music Fair.
Patricia Brennecke: I went down to Philadelphia in my mother’s car and saw him rehearse with those guys. They weren’t too bad. But what did I know? I was a 17-year-old thinking, “Hey, Greg’s in a band. That’s pretty cool.” Greg did everything first. He brought Bob Dylan records up to me. He brought Woody Guthrie records up. Everybody’s listening to The Shirelles, and Greg’s saying “You got to listen to this guy, Bob Dylan.” He smoked dope first. I remember he came up to see me before I went for college. He was about 18 and he had a 30-year-old girlfriend. He got out some dope and said he wanted me to listen to Revolver. I was really straight at that point and I thought, “Oh, my parents aren’t home, but I can’t let him smoke in the house.” He was great about it. He didn’t get pissed off. Greg went outside and when he came back, he said, “I really wish you’d let me turn you on”––he used that term––“because the music would sound so much better.”
Greg Irons: I played with the band for a year or so. Everything seems like it was more time than it was because, in retrospect, all those months were so important, really. There was just a point when I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Mark Irons: By early 1967, what Greg really wanted to do was leave Philadelphia but he afraid that the draft board would get him anywhere he went. He had already had one interview with the draft board and he took copious amounts of drugs before going so he could insure they wouldn’t want him. After that interview, they told him, “Okay, you’re 4-F for now [unfit for military service], come back in six months”, but they never checked in. He got tired of waiting and wrote a letter to General Hershey, who was the director of the Army’s Selective Service system, explaining why he opposed the war and saying, “I’m going to California”, and he left.
Greg Irons: I was in Southern California for a couple of weeks, didn’t dig it too much, and hitchhiked up to San Francisco. About the third day of wandering around wondering what I was doing there, all of the sudden I saw Milan [Melvin] on the street, who said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m just here.” And he said, “Why don’t you come with me.”
Patrick Rosenkranz: Milan Melvin was an early entrepreneur in the new music scene who had spent some time in Philadelphia at the Second Fret. Irons stayed at his place for a week or so, while Melvin lined up some work for him. Irons said he might like to design concert posters like the Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso psychedelic posters that decorated telephone poles and store windows all over town. Melvin was involved with a new club called Western Front, which was to be a concert venue in the manner of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Ballroom. He got Irons the job of drawing their first poster, which pictured a false wooden storefront with a teepee behind it, colored in red, white and blue.
Greg Irons: The Western Front poster turned out pretty good, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing too much in terms of color separations. Armed with my one poster, I went around to see Bill Graham. I got one of those little postcards that would have coming attractions at the Fillmore on the back, and I picked some act that was happening in two weeks or a month ahead of time [Chuck Berry], and I did up a poster. I took it to Bill Graham with my already printed Western Front poster, and he said, “Well, I’ve already got a poster for this act, but I don’t like it too much, but this, this, this, this and this is wrong with your poster, and if you can get it together and bring it back tomorrow all corrected, I’ll use it. So, I said, “Okay.” I did that and came back and he used the poster. And that one turned out okay, too. That really opened it up.
I think I did 13 posters during that time. A lot of these things are pretty naïve, really. I was taking a lot of acid, taking a lot of methedrine, smoking a lot of dope, and this is what was coming out. My drawing chops were getting together, but my idea of what a poster was supposed to do wasn’t really there. Evann, who I had just met at the time, said maybe the single most important thing anybody ever said to me in terms of my drawing. She said, “Yeah, you’re pretty good, and you can get lots of gigs and survive as an artist, but if you really want to make it, you’re going to have to work.” And I realized up to that time, I wasn’t working. If I got a gig I would do it, and that was it. And the next time I drew would be the next time I got a gig. I realized that in order to get it together I had to work. That was kind of a turning point. You could say the 30th of July 1967 was it, man.”
Patricia Brennecke: I knew he was in San Francisco because he was writing me letters. Then I heard he got married to Evann, which broke my heart because I was secretly in love with him, of course. I went out to San Francisco in 1968. I had been going to a college on the East Coast and I said, “This is not for me.” I worked for a year, reapplied to UC Berkeley and got in. I came West with one suitcase. I knew he lived on Vermont Street because that’s where the letters came from. I didn’t know anything about anything. I sat on his front steps for about four hours waiting for him to come home. Meanwhile, he and Evann were in Palo Alto visiting her father. Eventually, I took my suitcase and walked down the hill. Greg was doing a lot of posters for Bill Graham. That was his major source of income, I think.
Greg Irons: I was on the poster scene in San Francisco just as it was peaking. I got enough work to keep me busy for the four months that I was in San Francisco, but by the end of the summer I realized there wasn’t anything happening for me. I didn’t have any illusions about the “Summer of Love” anymore, and I was working hard on trying to get my art together. My impulse was to get out. Don’t stick around and get less and less work while everything gets smaller and smaller. Just split and do something else for a while. I’d been on this twenty-five-cents-a-day budget in Philadelphia, so I continued that all summer and by the end of September or October I had more money than I’d ever had. I thought, ‘wow, I’m going to buy myself a BMW, get myself a motorcycle,’ but I didn’t do that. In fact, I ended going to Europe. I got a gig working on Yellow Submarine as an art slave [drawing animation cels], and that was good in terms of money. By June I split. I went to the south of Spain, went to Morocco, came back, was in Amsterdam for a while, then went back to the East Coast and stayed there long enough to get enough money to go back to San Francisco.
Patrick Rosenkranz: By the time Irons got back to California, the playing field had changed––comix were hot and posters were not. Concert venues had disappeared and many of Irons’ old hippie contacts had disappeared. If he wanted to make a living as a hippie artist, he needed to adapt to the new paradigm.
Greg Irons: I did some stuff and found out I had a lot to learn about comics. It wasn’t until about a year later that I began to seriously think about what could be done with it, like, what could I do with it, instead of what could it do with me.
Ron Turner: I was aware of Greg’s work. He had been in Yellow Dog that Print Mint had been publishing for a few years and I knew he was trying to crack the Zap group––Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Robert Williams. Some of those Zap comics sold up to 300,000 copies. They were really hitting at things. They never broke ranks to let Greg in, but he thought, and he was right, that he was as good as artists as any of them. With Tom Veitch’s help, Greg had some of the better written scripts that were ever done.
Tom Veitch: I met Greg Irons in 1969. I shared a house with some poets and musicians on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. And, curiously enough, Greg was living about two blocks away with his wife Evann. Gary Arlington’s shop was walking distance of our Potrero Hill neighborhood. That’s where we met. At the time I was self-publishing Tom Veitch Magazine, devoted entirely to my own work and my collaborations with other writers. In one of the issues, I had a story called “The Mick Jagger Story”, about Mick being assassinated by a mad groupie.
Greg Irons: The Mick Jagger story totally freaked me out. I thought it’d be good to do some comics in collaboration with a writer. I had a lot of ideas but found it pretty hard to write.
Tom Veitch: I needed a cover for Tom Veitch Magazine and Greg told me he needed a writer, but what brought us together was pharmaceutical psylocibin––a shared trip in which we bonded like two lost brothers. This was just as the underground comics movement was shifting into high gear. Greg had done Yellow Dog and a few other comics, but was mainly working as a poster artist for Bill Graham and others. I had been writing and drawing comics since I was a kid, so I was very enthusiastic about working with Greg. At the time I was accustomed to sending a poem or story to a small press editor and seeing it materialize in offset or smudged mimeo a year later in an edition of 100 copies. At best I was a name that was floating around in the cultural ether and a few thousand people had heard mentioned or noticed in anthologies, but very few had actually read. Shortly after Greg moved to Stinson Beach, a house opened up on the same street. So, I moved there along with my pregnant wife Martha and a printing press I used to produce poetry chapbooks. The idea of doing these comics was, essentially, to take the lid off the Pandora’s box of the psyche. We would sit around for hours cooking up fantastic and insane plots, laughing until our sides ached. When Greg’s sketches brought the stories to life, I’d write the dialogue, and then he’d do the final inking. A few weeks later it would all be in print, with color covers and everything. It was an exciting experience to see the products of our brain manifest so quickly in the hands of hungry readers––as many as 200,000 readers per issue.
Ron Turner: Greg was pretty well driven by wanting to be excellent in his art. He tended to go for women who were task makers for him, kept him on schedule and kept him from going around, boozing it up and partying a lot. Evann would make sure he was taking his kung fu or tai chi classes while he was working away. They were living on Vermont Street, the second-most crookedest street in San Francisco, on Potrero Hill behind General Hospital. Then they moved out to Stinson Beach and kept working from there.
Tom Veitch: We made everything we did work, keeping at it until it jelled. Legion of Charlies is a case in point. You have no idea how may days we worked that story over until we got it right. As it was, I didn’t like the cover and still don’t. But that was Greg’s department––he wanted it that way, so there it is.
Peter Kaukonen: I first met Greg in the early ‘70s when San Francisco was a crucible of creativity. By that I mean, we had already experienced the impact of San Francisco rock and roll or so-called “psychedelic music”. Along with that was a graphics, I’m-not-even-going-to-say, revolution. Underground comics were coming into vogue. People like S. Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb were bringing about an artistic vision that was unique. Greg Irons was part of that, and his artwork resonated profoundly with me. At the time, I had been signed to the Grunt record label. I wanted Greg to do artwork for an album to be eponymously named Black Kangaroo [the name of Kaukonen’s band]. I tracked him down and introduced myself at his apartment in San Francisco. We never did that artwork, but we became very close friends.
Light Comitragies, Cover (1971)
Courtesy the Estate of Greg Irons.
Robert Crumb: I actually didn’t know him very well, saw him occasionally at gatherings of cartoonists in San Francisco. I thought he was one of the better artists in the comics scene at the time, was kind of peripherally watching his evolution, thought he was getting better and better as time went on, his vision getting stronger and clearer, and then, suddenly, death cut him down––hit by a bus in Bangkok if I remember correctly. That’s the story I heard. I remember feeling kind of bad for him as I thought he was a promising talent in the comics world at the time. Who knows what would’ve happened if Greg had lived, how he would’ve developed. He died around the same time as the whole underground comics scene was getting squeezed. Lots of artists got discouraged and bit by bit gave up on comics. It was never much of a living, doing those comics back then. Artists have to make a living somehow or other. Many others from that time died young, usually from self-induced causes like drugs and alcohol: Rory Hayes, Willie Murphy, Roger Brand, James Osborne, Vaughn Bode. Justin Green became a sign painter. I was lucky my stuff continued to sell decently, so I kept at it.
Ron Turner: Greg was in the first Slow DeathFunnies and then became a continuing contributor. He drew and lettered our first Slow Death cover and gave Last Gasp its first logo, a skull with its eyeballs and tongue hanging out. He also contributed a lot to Skull comics and to other Slow Death ones we did later on. Greg also drew artwork for coloring books for this company called Bellerophon. Gilbert Shelton did some of those, too. Bellerophon did storylines that were fabulous, with Greg doing pirate images and old sailing ships that are drawn to perfection. It would be lovely to color them in.
Peter Kaukonen: Look at Greg’s coloring books, they’re graphically quite skilled. It’s still not light and fluffy stuff. There’s an edge to it that’s really hard to quantify. That’s a challenge artists face, whether it’s music, or art, or journalism, or whatever craft you pursue, you need to generate income. You need to make a living. Sometimes you have to go where the dollars are. Sometimes you have to play some shitty music. Sometimes you have to draw dinosaurs and bring your peculiar bent to what you’re doing.
From The Official Advanced Dungeon & Dragons Coloring Album, Troubador Press, 1979
Courtesy the Estate of Greg Irons.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Sales of underground comix peaked around 1973. Cartoonists could read the writing on the wall easily enough as their royalty checks got smaller and then stopped coming altogether. Head shops, the primary point of purchase in the distribution network, dwindled when the feds decided to lean on them for selling “drug paraphernalia” declaring comic books, like The Furry Fabulous Freak Brothers, “instruction manuals for drug use”. The Supreme Court decreed that local communities could determine their own standards of obscenity, which made some comix legal here but illegal there. In addition, there was a serious glut of inferior underground titles published in a final frenzy of bandwagon jumping, all of which led to a reversal of fortune for the industry.
Ann Moen: I met Greg at Bellerophon Books where I was working as an office assistant or whatever they called it in those days. I came in one day and he was sitting at a desk, drawing, but he looked like a homeless guy in a way. He was all scruffy and had greasy hair and ripped jeans. I didn’t think too much of him at first. Later on, there was a party of some sort, a big publishers deal in downtown Santa Barbara. I said I’d go represent Bellerophon. Greg said he was going, so we both went. At the party, he was being charming, as usual, to the prettiest young lady in the room. I walked by as he was trying to grope for a pen to write down her number. I whipped out a pen and that impressed him. After that, he took a shine to me. Once I got to know him, he was super charming. I saw how good-looking he was, how attractive, how sexy. Of course, he was super talented, that’s always attractive.
Greg Irons: [From a letter to his father] I saw that it was necessary to get some money together. Some kind of regular income was what I had in mind, so I went looking through the want ads for a job at a gas station or something. I didn’t find a job at a gas station––I found Herb [Knill]. Herb is an ex-marine captain who is also an ex-history professor. He now runs a little outfit called Bellerophon Books. So far, Bellerphon has come up with books of clear line drawings of Ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, Shakespeare, illuminated letters from the Middle Ages, American Indians, etc. These books are marketed as coloring books and are highly accurate, historically. They’re very different from comix. They represent a whole other field. It’s like illustrating things that I don’t necessarily know anything about, but that I have to approach, research and get into. I did a tale from Chaucer’s Wuf of Bath. The criticism of comic books has always been that they appeal to a very limited audience, which is true. It never mattered to me while I was doing it, but now I’d like to explore the possibility of whether I can appeal to a more mass audience. It’s not like comix at all, and it’s a whole new thing to learn, just like it took me three years to get the comix together, and it took me three years to get the posters together, and it will probably take me five or ten years to get the books together.
Ann Moen: Greg drew two dinosaur books. He did a pirate book and another one on the American Revolution. His drawing was so different than anything I had ever seen. He did it all with a small brush and ink. He didn’t use rapidograph or any of that. Everything was with a little brush. He set me up with a brush at one point, too, and a watercolor set. He was really good. He was really patient. He was a good teacher. The first month that I moved up into his little house in Albany [outside of Berkeley] was charmed. Greg taught me some Wing Chun, which was the martial art form that he was really into at the time. We would spar in the backyard, or on the back deck. We did a lot of biking. We went to the Caffé Med a lot, for macchiatos. It had to be macchiato for some reason and we hung out with his friend Peter Kaukonen. It was all just a lot of fun until suddenly he switched back into work mode, and then he was nose to the grindstone, for Bellerophon and Last Gasp, mostly. He had a big drafting table set up in the main room, the front room, and he would just sit there for hours. He liked to work in pencil first, on a big form of paper that he would then have reduced to the size of the sheet. That way it would be sharper and everything. He would work it all out in pencil and then he would ink over the pencil. He liked to smoke marijuana while he did this quite a lot. I lived with him for almost a year. Then I left. We still hung out quite a bit after that.
Peter Kaukonen: You find people whose attitudes, outlooks and sensibilities are congruent and complementary with your own. With that as a basis, you can then longitudinally share experiences. Greg’s outlook was peculiarly mordant, as is mine. We were both artists dealing with our respective visions of our own artistry, he with his graphics and me in playing music. We could talk about what it takes to be a creative person, the challenges and rewards. As well as we were both physical, and part of our relationship was based on riding bicycles. We would bicycle from Marin County, Noe Valley down to Santa Barbara down Highway 1 at a time where nobody was riding bicycles. Then, it turned into an awareness of Japanese arts, things like ukiyo-e, the work of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, that kind of artistic vision, which became part of his tattooing repertoire, as well as martial arts, which I did with him. This was at that time when we were transitioning from rotary dial telephones to push button phones, and Greg and I would spend an hour and a half talking to each other by phone every day. We don’t do that anymore, do we? We text, L-O-L.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Ron Turner brought Irons in from the comix bullpen for Slow Death #7 [subtitled, True War Tales] in 1977. Irons submitted a half-dozen full-page illustrations of pirates too scary to appear in a kid’s coloring book. In the following issue, which came out later that year [Slow Death #8, the Greenpeace issue], Irons wrote and drew his first non-fiction comic story, “The Honor and Glory of Whaling”, which chronicled the history of whaling, and exhibited new levels of draftsmanship and storytelling. Cancer was the theme for Slow Death #10 and Irons savagely ripped into medical malpractice, corporate greed and political corruption.
Ron Turner: Greg had a girlfriend who got cancer. Basically, her doctors killed the cancer she had, and ended up killing her as well. At the time, people were increasingly unhappy with what was going on with cancer because it was starting to strike everybody. This was around the time we learned paraquat was being sprayed onto dope crops by our government. Now we know that stuff can cause Parkinson’s. Greg did a wonderful story in the Cancer issue. There’s a guy dying in a hospital bed, hooked up to every machine on the planet. The cleaning lady comes by. Her mop hits the plug everything’s plugged into and knocks it out. The guy dies and the cleaning lady gets called into the office of the doctor running the hospital and he gives her the big lecture. “This is terrible. It’s going to cost the hospital.” She says, “Oh, lordy, lordy, I’m so sad. I cost this man his life.” He says, “That’s not the problem. You cost the hospital money.” We had a back cover on that that had all these fake cigarette lampoons. We made them just the right size that you could snip them out and put them inside the cellophane wraps of a cigarette package. Greg had a Camel cigarette pack in there. There’s a bunch of jets bombing a bunch of short Middle Eastern mosques. Instead of Lucky Strike, one of the packs was Likely Stroke.
Greg Irons: There isn’t anything in my stories that you couldn’t find by reading the newspaper or listening to the television or radio. But on the other hand, it’s presented in fictionalized form, so it’s a little exaggerated and compressed so it has more impact than the news media. This one, I mean I know a few people who’ve got cancer so that made me think about this.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Leonard Rifas, who was editing Corporate Crime Comics for Kitchen Sink Press, published two of Irons’ ecologically aware stories in 1977 and 1979. “Minamata”, about mercury poisoning in Japan, and “Genocide”, about the decimation of the indigenous population of Brazil. Denis Kitchen was so impressed with them he wrote to Irons, asking him to submit more work for two of his other titles, Dope Comics and Commies from Mars. Irons decided it was time to tell the world about himself. Every comic he published from that day forward would be autobiographical.
Mark Irons: Greg became a dirty little monkey, his Gregor character. It was thrilling to see those as he did them over the years because they were so spot on. He said he should have come up with that a lot sooner.
Ann Moen: He got into the darker side of human nature with Gregor. Greg liked the ladies a lot, and he was a little conflicted about that. “Oh, I want to be with just one person, but I can’t really do that.” That was Gregor. That wasn’t Greg. Greg was more tormented about that. “Oh, what should I do? I want to go play around, but where’s my better nature?”
Patricia Brennecke: When he was doing his Gregor comics, Greg put people that we knew in them. He did one about wanting to have sex all the time. Ann Moen, who was his girlfriend at the time, had a friend that Greg really didn’t like, and he put her friend in there. Most people wouldn’t know who she was, but anybody who knew would know. I got a kick out of that.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Gregor the Purpleass Baboon first revealed himself in in 1978 on the cover of Dr. Wirtham’s Comix and Stories. Gregor appeared in a dozen or so episodes that were published years apart in several obscure comic books, so few readers saw all of them. When collected together and seen as a whole, they reveal Irons at his peak as a savage satirist––with himself at the center of the savagery. They must have been therapeutic in some way, considering the man-hours he devoted to these unflinching self-portraits.
Greg Irons: For me it’s a vehicle for this character that I want to do––this baboon. He’s not really a baboon, he’s a mandrill, but I call him a baboon. It’s the story of some little wasted guy who wakes up feeling bad in the morning and hangs out in a café reading newspapers all morning and then goes to a bar. And that’s all it’s a story about, but what it’s dealing with is medicine and cancer. His name is Gregor, like Gregor Samsa in [Franz Kafka’s] The Metamorphosis. He was a cockroach, but this guy’s a baboon. A lot of writers and people I like talk about monkeys in different places, like William Burroughs uses a baboon a lot, and it’s just an image that struck me and I came up with this line, “I’m a dirty little money and I’m out of control.” Actually, that’s not even my line. I stole it from a friend of mine who just said it one day when he woke up in the morning and realized the kind of shape he was in. And then he promptly forgot about it. But I never forgot about it. I’m going to take that character and do him for a while. But I don’t want him to turn into a Freak Brother for me so that I’ve got to do it forever.
Ron Turner: Gregor was actually Greg Irons. Gregor’s driving along on his bike and he gets hit by a car. His nose gets cut off by the hood ornament. When Greg was up in Seattle, he got hit by a car. The accident just about cut his nose off. The doctors had to stitch it back on, like where your folds are between your jowls and your nose, on the side. They tucked it back in there, and unless you knew what happened, you probably wouldn’t notice that he had a scar there, where they sewed his nose back on.
Mark Irons: He was trying out a bicycle from a bike shop. He went screaming down a hill and a woman made a left turn in front of him. He smashed into the windshield and put his skull right through it. His nose was like in her lap. She was offended. He told me that. She was screaming like it was like a horror movie. I think he liked having that scar. It changed his face, for sure. It was a really bad scar for a while but then it healed over. He took the insurance money. He should have gotten a lawyer and gotten more money, but he just took the money. Later on, he had all these medical problems, like his teeth began to shift, and he had to get a retainer, which was ironic because Greg had braces as a kid and he tore them off with pliers because he hated those braces so much.
Greg Irons: Just after arrival in Seattle I got in a fairly horrible bicycle-car collision … me on the bike. I tore up my face pretty badly … week in hospital, many stitches, much scarring, no future in the singles bars … one of those life lessons, no? Actually, this all turns out OK in an off-the-wall kind of way. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do this for a living, but PEMCO insurance is going to finance my next year or so, should they and my pit-bull lawyers ever settle. Meanwhile, I learn about patience and impatience as I wait for nerves to heal. Slow stuff. Really slow. I’m still limping around from bashing my foot in same accident. Non specific injury. No breaks. All trauma. Jesus, six weeks on crutches seemed like six years.”
Ron Turner: That Gregor story came out long after it was done. Greg died before it saw the light of day [in 1992, in Slow Death #11, titled “Haven’t Heard from Gregor”]. The artwork went missing. We thought somebody stole it out of the bottom drawer of the metal file cabinet, but what happened was it got stuck over the top and when the drawer was shut, it fell down in the space underneath the whole thing. It sat there for almost 10 or 12 years until we found it, when we were moving to new offices. Greg had gone up to Seattle to work as a tattoo artist. He was a good tattooist. When he first started out, Greg got a job on Broadway [in San Francisco, in The Embarcadero] doing tattooing. I would go down every night and meet up with him after the shift at the tattoo place, because I knew he was so squirrely about being a perfectionist. It would really bother him. We’d just chat and talk, to get him to kind of decompress. He had started out tattooing his own ankle. Then he got his members of his family to give him permission to tattoo a little bit on their ankles. Then he tattooed a few friends.
Mark Irons: Greg picked up tattooing fast. I got the sixth tattoo he ever did. It was a pelican. He was shaking like crazy. I had him do a second tattoo on my arm later on. It’s sort of like the symbol on the Mexican flag, an eagle on a cactus with the snake in its mouth. He put a tattoo on everyone in our family, except our dad. My mother got a little flower.
Peter Kaukonen: He was profoundly influenced by the Japanese artistic sensibilities, and he translated that into his tattoo work, an introduction of negative space. Greg wasn’t light and fuzzy. He was an extremely competent artist. He would draw and make you see what he saw, and what he wanted you to see. There are many artists who don’t have that degree of technical proficiency. I have his initial sketch sheet and I have a number of tattoos from Greg. He did a single needle portrait of Jimi Hendrix that he took from the famous Jim Marshall photograph. When he did it, it was unique in its technique, its skill and its detail. Of course, through the years, tattoos blur because the ink is in suspension, in the medium of the flesh, and it spreads out. Greg was really a foundation for the development and legitimization of an art form that had previously been the purview of an underclass of society’s fringe, criminals, military men, sailors and scum.
Greg Irons tattooing Peter Kaukonen, 1979. Courtesy of Ann Moen.
Greg Irons tattooing Peter Kaukonen, 1979. Courtesy of Ann Moen.
Greg Irons tattooing Peter Kaukonen, 1979. Courtesy of Ann Moen.
Ann Moen: I got his third tattoo. It’s two cranes, taken from one of the views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai, on my ankle. At the time, I think it was very innovative. It was different certainly than Don Ed Hardy or Lyle Tuttle or some of the other old school people who were doing tattoos. Greg did a lot of Japanese stuff. Beautiful work. He ripped on that. He loved Japan and all things Japanese.
Patrick Rosenkranz: Irons first met Lynn Seriguchi when they were both enrolled in a Japanese language class in 1976. They saw each other now and then at the Caffé Mediterranean in Berkeley and shared a coffee and a chat. Sometimes he dropped into the Japanese restaurant where she worked on Telegraph Avenue. In 1981, when he heard that she divorced and moved to Nebraska to attend nursing school, he contacted her there. He dropped in for a visit while en route to a tattoo convention and renewed their acquaintance. They drove to Seattle the day Lynn finished nursing school that spring, with Greg going to work at the Seattle Tattoo Emporium right away. Irons and Seriguchi moved back to the Bay Area in summer 1982 and made a down payment on a house in Berkeley.
Greg Irons: I’d expected to stay in Seattle for the summer of ’82, but Danny’s shop closing accelerated things a bit [the building housing the Seattle Tattoo Emporium was suddenly sold]. Fortunately for me, Henry Goldfield’s man, Moses, left Broadway after being in there for almost three years. Needless to say, when a chair opened up at Goldfield’s I jumped at a chance to get back on Broadway. My tattooing seems to go along for what seems like a long time in a sort of plateau, and then makes a big jump all of the sudden. Moving back to San Francisco and working for Henry was a jump like that––it seemed like Seattle was just the same grind month after month and all of the sudden something happened which made me realize how much I’d learned in the year I spent up there.
Patricia Brennecke: You can see an Irons tattoo and know it’s an Irons tattoo. He brought in a lot of that Japanese wave motion, the curling, the black and white that I see around now a lot. That’s not new anymore. Greg was early on that. I used to go watch him in the studio, just sit there and watch him work. When he had a break, we’d go get a cappuccino and a smoke. I’d come back to watch him work some more. It was fun, and there are more than a couple of funny stories from that. I know he misspelled the word paradise on a tattoo. He also either left out a letter or had the eagle going the wrong way on a Hells Angel biker’s tattoo. Greg was scared that the guy was going to realize what he’d done and kill him. All I remember is that he actually kind of disappeared for a few days.
Chuck Eldridge: By this time, he was having a big influence on the tattoo world; his flash designs were beginning to show up everywhere. Not since Mike Malone in the ‘70s had one person so changed the look of U.S. tattooing with their production flash. After a couple of years tattooing on Broadway, Greg developed an ulcer and was in need of a vacation, even if it was a working one. He went to Europe for a bit of R&R in Amsterdam, followed by a month or so of tattooing with Tattoo Bertje in Oostende, Belgium. Greg arrived back in the States in time to attend the September 1984 tattoo convention in Houston. He shared a booth with us [the Tattoo Archive], and as always Greg’s tattooing was in great demand. Having a work ethic that was unmatched, Greg would be one of the first on the convention floor in the morning and one of the last to leave at night. I think he made ten or twelve thousand dollars that weekend. We were sharing a room, and he was counting all his money. He’d take it, put it into piles, look at it, put it into one pile and throw it up in the air. It would all come down and then he’d gather it back up. He knew he’d made enough money to take his dream vacation to Thailand. Just before leaving, Greg was offered a position at Don Ed Hardy’s Realistic Studio in San Francisco, which was the pinnacle of the tattoo ladder. He was on a major roll.
Patrick Rosenkranz: The U.S. State Department notified his parents and Seriguchi that Greg had died of “a fracture of skull and cerebral hemorrhage by traffic accident” on November 13, 1984 at 10:15 p.m. on Sukhumvit Road at Nana Intersection in Bangkok. He was cremated at Wat Kaew Jeam Crematorium. Irons was 37 years old. A memorial service was held at a Buddhist temple in Berkeley on November 24th. His ashes had not yet returned to America, but his friends were there to celebrate his spirit.
Ron Turner: The last time I saw Greg was at the Caffé Mediterranean, or “the Medi” as it was called. I had Zippy-the-Pinhead masks with me that we had just gotten. Greg saw what I had and he uncharacteristically put one on his head. We had our coffee while he was sitting there looking like Zippy-the-Pinhead, his whole head covered by a rubber mask. It was unlike him to be that jocular. His humor was deep and severe usually, sarcastic, smart and always on the button. He was being very loose, not uptight about anything. He had really settled into Berkeley and things were going well for him. That was a good way to say goodbye. He died in Bangkok during rush hour. They have a lane there that’s devoted to express busses, which come down opposite the traffic. Greg stepped off the curb to see if there was any traffic coming. He stepped into that express lane and the bus hit him from behind.
Greg Irons. Ship sketch, illustration, 1967.
From Tom Veitch’s Greg Irons archive.
From “Slime of the Ancient Mariner”, 1979.
From Tom Veitch’s Greg Irons archive.
Illustration from Tom Veitch’s Greg Irons archive.
Illustration from Tom Veitch’s Greg Irons archive.
Patricia Brennecke: The phone rings. I pick it up and a woman is screaming. I don’t know what she’s screaming and I hang up. It rings again. I pick it up. The woman is screaming, “Greg is dead. Greg is dead.” It was Lynn Seriguchi. And you know what? I knew it. When we were kids, we’d go to the drugstore to buy comics and candy, eat the candy and read the comics. He once told me, “The kid on the poster, the kid that’s missing, I always feel like that that kid is me, and it’s going to be me someday.” To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. That’s all I can tell you. I was pissed. I was really pissed. I didn’t get upset until later.
Tom Veitch: I am still influenced by the way the culture systematically overlooked his great talent. He was a very special artist, and I feel he was underappreciated. That, for me, is a lesson about our world and its myopia. Greg’s legacy, I think that will emerge when somebody writes a book about the artistic revolution of 1960s San Francisco. I loved that guy and still do.
Peter Kaukonen: I will never have a friend like that again. I really miss him to this day. His passing was coincidental with a pretty rocky time in my life, where I was dealing with marital disillusion and negative impacts from chemicals in my life. His enduring gift to me is a vision, a sense of vision, meaning a way of how one perceives things in the world, like politics, for example. I think of the grist for Greg’s satiric mill over the last 10 or 20 years. Just think what he could do with that.
Mark Irons: He’s like frozen in time. We had differences that I hope we would have worked out, and I’m pretty sure we would have. I told him once he was mercenary and he ridiculed the thought, but I still think it’s accurate.
Ann Moen: I found out about Greg when I called his house, thinking he might be home, and everyone there was crying because they had just found out he was dead. The next day I received a postcard from him, from Bangkok. I was shattered. It was almost as bad as when my dad died. Greg was the man who I loved the most. I had been married once before, but I loved Greg better than anybody I’d ever met. It’s such a big loss for me, because I know we’d still be friends today if he was still alive. I don’t think about him as much as I used to, but I occasionally have really cool dreams about him. For a while I had a cat, named Kitty, that I was convinced was a reincarnation of Greg. Kitty was hard to tame, hot and cold, sort of an enigma. He was his own cat person. [Laughs] Not that I ever tamed Greg, or Kitty.
Patricia Brennecke: I dream about him once in a while, and I’m always really glad that he’s shown up because he was my best friend. We weren’t as tight the last six months of his life and I don’t remember seeing him much, but I remember calling him before he left and saying, “Don’t let the Thai pirates get you. See you when you get back.” My nieces and nephews, who are now in their 30s and 40s, are totally obsessed with Greg. They wish they’d known him. I miss him incredibly and I talk to him all the time. There are other people that I’ve lost that I don’t feel are still around, but with Greg, I almost feel like he can hear me because we were that close. He was a very dark character. His favorite book was Moby Dick. He also was really full of life, and joy, and fun, and risk. He was kind, too. I remember when I came out from the East Coast and he and Evann were wearing hippie beads and sandals, making money selling stuff on the street. I came out in my little loafers, the little college girl. He was never judgmental about that. I don’t know. I thought he must be embarrassed about me, but he wasn’t.
Greg Irons: The real question is why is death so compelling? Skulls. Everybody has one. I always found Death/Devil/Sin more interesting than Holy stuff. My fascination with the death image was a way of coping––coming to terms with death and coming to terms with life, an attempt to signify thru symbols my place in the scheme of things. I remember who and what I am. We can only evaluate our condition in terms of the symbols we have created. As far as death images in tattooing––death stuff is hot imagery for artists thinking about the human condition.