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The Swartz Brothers of Black Ink Art: Connecting Music and Painting.

May 8, 2014

BlackInkArtDD05Text by Kyle Bagenstose. Images by Darragh Dandurand.

When a band’s latest album drops, there’s a reason why fans will trudge to the record store – come rain, shine or zombie apocalypse – to buy that nice, big, shiny vinyl package. It’s the same reason they stand at the merch table after shows, carefully deciding which T-shirt they want to throw $20 at and rep around the neighborhood that weekend. It’s because music is really about more than just music; it’s about what it represents.

And how best to represent your music aesthetically? That’s where brothers Jon and David Swartz, owners of Black Ink Art, come in.

“It’s definitely important to have artwork as part of the package,” says Jon Swartz, the older of the brothers. “Album art is the first thing that grabs your attention. Most musicians have a certain visual language that they want to speak in. I like to think we help them with that.”

The Swartz brothers created Black Ink two years ago, after both graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art with degrees in graphic design. Despite their proficiency with design software, they work mainly with paint and mixed media, often creating brightly colored, trippy works that show mystical landscapes around people and animals. The style attracts musicians, whom the brothers say are among their favorite clients.

“The best clients are the ones who have a basic idea,” Jon says, “but want to see our own interpretation of that idea.”

Perhaps their best-known client to date is The Lawsuits, who rang the Swartz brothers up after seeing a painting titled “Different Strokes,” and asked to use it as the cover of their album Cool, Cool, Cool. They’ve also done work for Philly-based artists like hip-hop duo Lee G & Delon and MC Skrewtape, along with out-of-towners like New York’s Mercury Landing. Work often goes beyond cover art, branching into merchandise, Web design and even visual effects at shows.

“Merch is a great way to give fans something to show their support,” Jon says. “It helps brand the artist and add exposure, while also allowing bands to make more money while out on tour.”

Perhaps the reason why working with musicians comes so naturally to the  brothers is because of their love – and dependence – on music. While growing up in Mt. Airy, the two attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. They hung around downtown for shows at venues like the TLA. Now, while creating most of their paintings in the tiny, cluttered basement of their home near 12th and Wallace streets, the two constantly have music blasting.

“Music definitely alters your mood,” David says. “Jazz for example, it makes you zone out and get really mellow. Or, if you’re tired late at night, you can put on some electronic music to get a little spurt of energy while painting.”

“I listen to a lot of Bootsy Collins,” Jon adds. “It’d be easier to list the things I don’t listen to while making art: polka, country and not much classical unless it’s remixed with some dubstep beats.”

Often, music makes an appearance in the finished work, as some of Black Ink’s most popular pieces feature artists like ?uestlove, John Lennon and Bob Marley. A piece titled “High Mileage Davis” depicts Miles Davis driving an old muscle car through outer space. Another, called “O.D. Bee,” puts the head and torso of Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard on top of a bumblebee, complete with boombox and brown-bagged 40-ounce in his hands.

“Wu-Tang actually shared that one on their Facebook page, and it got like one million likes,” Jon says with a laugh. “Didn’t mention us of course, but maybe we’ll make a shirt out of it and try to take that to the bank.”

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