Known for pioneering the Gonzo movement alongside Hunter S. Thompson, artist Ralph Steadman’s work is as varied as it is disturbing, from the cover art of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to the Williams Book Illustration Award-winning work on a new edition of Alice In Wonderland and, most recently, being personally selected by Vince Gilligan to design the covers for the limited edition Breaking Bad Blu-rays.
In person Steadman, now 78, is everything you’d hope for. Dressed in a black Heisenberg porkpie hat and draped in enough chains and pendants to make close friend Johnny Depp jealous, Steadman is lively and expansive, segueing into a vivid Hunter S Thompson impression as he invites you inside his world of strange art, drug-fuelled vandalism and bad craziness.
What drew you to Breaking Bad?
It drew me. They wanted me to do it and I had never heard of it. They sent us the box set and my wife and I spent the next couple of weeks ingesting the whole thing. Afterwards, we got withdrawal symptoms, much like a drug.
What did you think of it?
It’s unbelievably complex. I decided that Walt was a darker person than I’d imagined at first. The big sadness was when Hank realised that he’d been tricked by his dearest friend.
He found out on the toilet…
He found out on the toilet! Of course you always find out things on the toilet, don’t you? Particularly that there’s no toilet paper, that’s another one.
The whole idea of Breaking Bad was, as Hunter [S. Thompson] would have said, [adopts low, rumbling voice] ‘bad craziness.’ Hunter was almost a prophet when you think of some of the things that are being done now, and almost done in the name of Gonzo, you know.
What’s been the worst reaction someone’s had to your pictures?
It usually happens with local papers. The first time I met Hunter [At The Kentucky Derby in 1970] I drew a picture of his brother that Hunter called hideous. His brother got quite upset. Then Hunter maced the whole restaurant.
[Above: Ralph Steadman with Bob Odenkirk at the launch of the Breaking Bad Character Portraits by Ralph Steadman exhibition in Shoreditch]
You also had an interesting time with him at the America’s Cup yacht race in 1970…
We arrived at Newport, Rhode Island and Hunter said [adopts Hunter S. Thompson voice] ‘We’ve got a job to do Ralph. We’re gonna do a story.’
‘Well what are we doing?’
‘I dunno Ralph, we’re gonna figure it out, we’ll go for a walk first.’
So we had a few drinks then hired a boat, planning to get in between [competing yachts] ‘the Gretel’ and ‘the Intrepid’, and fuck up the race! That was Gonzo you see. Anyway it proved too difficult, but we still had our boat and Hunter had started these taking pills.
I said ‘What are those things? Are they for seasickness?’
Hunter said ‘Psilocybin. It’s a hallucinogenic.’
‘Can I have one?’
Hunter said. ‘I don’t know, it’s up to you. I like them.’
So two hours later I was feeling good and he handed me these spray cans.
I said ‘Well what are you gonna do with those?’
‘I don’t know Ralph, you’re the artist.’
‘Well okay, I suppose I’ll have to write something.’
‘Okay, what’ll you write?’
So I said, ‘How about “Fuck the Pope”?’
And he said, ‘I just love that line, man.’ If somebody says, ‘Are you religious?’ ‘No! Fuck the Pope!’
I was ready to spray paint it on one of these million dollar yachts so we rowed our little boat between them and just then we got caught.
Hunter suddenly whispered to me, ‘Ralph. We must flee.’ So we got out of there quickly. Just as we got back to the shore Hunter said ‘We’ve failed Ralph. I must let off some flares’ and these fucking things went up into the night, and landed on the yachts. The fire brigade came. We didn’t have time to see what happened. At that time Hunter was standing for sheriff of Aspen and he had to get back to the hotel to call and register his vote.
Did you realise from the start it’d be such a rich partnership?
I think Hunter realised that I was his, kind of, rag doll, you know, I would do the silly things… he would just point me in a direction and I’d go and do it. It was all schoolboy fun.
You’ve worked on everything from an Oddbins catalogue to a new cover for Fahrenheit 451. Which piece sticks in your memory?
The Alice In Wonderland pictures, because Alice was based on my eldest daughter, Suzanna. Also, some of the work from I Leonardo, I thought was interesting. And The Big I Am - another book about god - particularly a nice picture I did of Lenin, towards the end of the book.
On a more serious note, you’ve talked a lot about ‘art as a weapon’. As a cartoonist, what do you think the Charlie Hebdo attacks meant to the profession?
Well it should mean sweet Fanny Adams actually. It was terrible and it made me feel very unsettled. It just goes to show just how relevant [Australian/British philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s idea that the only thing that’s laughable is the thing we cannot say… but if you can say this thing in a drawing, that’s so powerful.
That’s what I think people who are really unpleasant get upset about. They don’t like anybody to attack them in that way. I hope that artists and cartoonists can continue doing what they’re doing.
I’ve figured out how Jesus Christ pulled off two of his miracles. The Sea of Galilee is only a few inches deep for about forty yards out, you see, so he could easily have walked on water that far.
And also, the one where Jesus helps the fisherman to miraculously catch fish, the boat would have been just there at the edge of the sea, and they’d have thrown their net on the shallow side, and then Jesus just said, ‘No! throw your net on the other side!’ And there’s two miracles right there. A book on that might be quite nice.
The Breaking Bad Character Portraits by Ralph Steadman exhibition runs from 13 - 15 February at 71A Gallery, Shoreditch, 71alondon.com