Interview with graphic artist Tom Nikosey – Part 2

Interview with designer Tom Nikosey, Part 2, by Gerald Watson II of Art Vs. Commerce

Welcome, dear readers – I’m happy to present the second installment of the interview with noted designer Tom Nikosey that was provided to the ACHOF by Gerald Watson II of Art Vs. Commerce. Produced as part of a series of multi-media exhibitions titled The Classics: An Album Cover Art Exploration staged in the Washington, DC area, Gerald sought out some of the most-influential graphic artists in the R&B/Soul/Hip-Hop arena to give fans of the art form a look inside their creative processes and, as you saw in Part 1 of this interview, Mr. Nickosey’s work in the music arena in the 1970s opened up a number of doors for his efforts going forward. Branching out into design work for clients in Sports, Travel and Fashion, he nevertheless managed to keep adding to his roster of happy music industry customers, with the details related to you (via our intrepid interviewer, Soul 1) in today’s second and final posting. Read on, and prepare to be impressed!  Mike G, curator.

To review Part 1 of this interview, click here 

Soul 1: How would you describe that approach? Incorporating what you feel from the client as well as your “Americana” influence…

Tom Nikosey: In “Americana” I don’t mean necessarily Revolutionary style, or Civil War style, or WWII style…

Soul 1: Then pretty much all of those, like sign painting?

Tom Nikosey Yeah, I think that’s a good way to describe it. They were called sign writers. Sign painters, poster artists…I’m very influenced by all that stuff, I love that stuff. I’ve done a lot of posters and a lot of full on illustrations…

Soul 1: Because a lot of that stuff was hand-painted.

Tom Nikosey's image for Coors Texas Ice House

Tom Nikosey’s image for Coors Texas Ice House

Tom Nikosey: Oh, definitely. I’ve done a lot of pieces where I’ll paint the whole piece on wood. Then again I’ll illustrate on the computer – whatever it takes to create a feel. This is commercial art. These pieces were generated by somebody calling me and saying,” I want you to create a piece for my project.” So it’s very commercially generated, but I still try to do it so you’d be proud to wear it on a t-shirt.

Soul 1: How much creative freedom are you usually given within the parameters of your projects?

Tom Nikosey: In the beginning not as much as later on. Art Directors naturally hire a young person who doesn’t have a lot of pieces in their portfolio. They wanna direct you. They might see something that you’ve done on another piece and they’d say, “I kinda like that but I wanna push you in this direction,” and you work with them. And in my case, it’s not strictly illustration; it’s a combination of design and illustration. I’ve done a lot of lettering pieces that were just done in black and white and printed in solid colors where the design was the whole thing and not necessarily the color. As I started to build up respect and people were trusting me (more), they would call me for my advice.

A sample of Tom's work for a variety of clients

A sample of Tom’s work for a variety of clients

Soul 1: What motivated you to go into business for yourself (Tom Nikosey Design)?

Tom Nikosey: I worked for a couple of studios earlier on, and when I realized that I was working so hard for somebody else, and I knew what the price was that they were charging for my work and what I was getting paid from the studio. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll work harder knowing that I can make more money at what I do.’ I said, “There’s something wrong with this picture. Nobody’s ever gonna pull the rug out from underneath my feet again.” So that combined with knowing that I had something to offer and I wanted to be able to be in control of my destiny, I took the chance of working for myself. In the beginning it’s tough. Nobody’s paying your insurance, nobody’s paying your medical, nobody’s giving you benefits, no guaranteed amount of work, you have to go out and get it, so…

Soul 1: So how difficult was that back then? You said there weren’t that many people that even did what you do…

Tom's work for the San Francisco Giants

Tom’s work for the San Francisco Giants

Tom Nikosey: That’s where I think I was lucky. Because there weren’t that many people that did hand lettering and logos, and they were able to illustrate them, too, I found work was coming in at a pretty regular pace after a short while. So I took on as many jobs as I could and didn’t look back. Nowadays, especially with the economy, work has been way down. But in those days, it seemed to be a little bit easier.

Soul 1: What are some of your favorite thematic or typographical elements that you like to incorporate in your work?

Tom Nikosey: I’ve been influenced by different illustrators and designers in movements in design over history: The Art Deco period, The Art Nouveaux period prior – that was very influential on the way I draw and like to design. I love the 50’s and 60’s; a lot of great graphics and fun things came out in the 50’s… real off – beat stuff. The 1940’s had a great style to it too: those were war years, and the Life magazine years, and the great glamour stuff that came out of Madison Avenue, and all the fashion stuff. There were some great psychedelic posters that came out of San Francisco in the late 60’s that were very influential. Another big influence is Germany in the 1930’s.

Soul 1: Really?

Tom Nikosey: Oh yeah. The German graphic artists; there were three or four that were just knock- out, and their work still holds up today: Lucien Bernhardt, Ludwig Hohlwine, and then the whole Bauhaus movement, you know. So, going to art school, you’re exposed to art history and when you get into it you start to see things that had been done before…the originals. You go to museums and you get knocked out because you think, “oh my god, how did these people come up with this stuff a hundred years ago and I thought it hadn’t been done before!”

Soul 1: Speaking of posters, what do you enjoy designing most: logos, albums covers, posters?

More samples of Tom's work

More samples of Tom’s work

Tom Nikosey: I love it all, but I absolutely love posters because it incorporates graphics, illustration, lettering, typography and strong messages. I mean, a poster is like a billboard. If you see it and it grabs your eyes for a few seconds and then it holds your attention, it’s a good one. I always say a postage stamp is like a billboard. When you’re driving down the street and you see a billboard in the distance, in reality that billboard is about the size of a postage stamp until you get close. If it grabs your attention, when it’s at a postage stamp size, as you’re driving towards it, if it keeps your attention, that’s a good billboard. I love what a poster was designed for; the reason for it. I’ve designed many and I just absolutely love that whole process. I wish printed material was held in higher esteem these days, but everything’s digital. Now a days when you create you have to think about ‘how’s it gonna look on my iPhone?’

Soul 1: What was the transition like from hand – drawing to using the computer, i.e. Photoshop and Illustrator, and was it easy for you to make the adjustment?

Tom Nikosey: It was really hard. In 1995, work started to go down and Art Directors were starting to want a digital file and I was unable to produce one. I didn’t know how to do it, so I went out and I bought a Mac, and I started to call friends and asked them over the phone how to do certain things. But it was very hard; the learning curve was really tough. You know, working traditionally all those years, never realizing that I’d be able to digitally do what I did by hand…it’s a different sensibility. But my goal was to make a seamless transition from analog to digital and I pretty much accomplished that after a period of time.

Soul 1: Do you miss doing all the intricate hand details or is it kind of nostalgic at this point?

Tom's work for Brooks & Dunn

Tom’s work for Brooks & Dunn

Tom Nikosey: It’s a matter of what the piece is. Not too long ago I did a couple of tour logos for a country band called Brooks & Dunn. I painted the tour logo and the poster on wood. I was well into computers by then, but I wanted to go back and do something by hand as if it were done back on an old wooden fence or something. It turned out to be really cool. Painting is one thing; I don’t miss cutting what we call ‘friskets,’ masks for certain areas, when we would do airbrush illustrations. It’s very tedious and sometimes to do an involved logo it would take 8 hours, only to spray-paint it in about ten minutes and peel it up. I don’t miss that, but the interesting thing that’s left over when you paint something by hand is that you have a final painting. When you’re doing it on the computer, there is no final tangible piece of art but the drawing, so I kind of miss that part in a way.

Soul 1: Yeah, being able to physically have something and kind of reflect on it.

Tom Nikosey: Right.

Soul 1: Have you ever suffered from “creative block?”

Tom Nikosey: You know that’s a really great question, and that usually happens in the beginning of your career. Early in my career, I think it was more nerves or anticipation more than it was the ideas but it seemed like ‘writer’s block.’ As I got more prolific at just drawing and going for it, it seemed to me that I had too many ideas, too many variations. It kind of came around the late 70’s, right around the time the record industry had just started to go down. There was a lot of pirating going on, people were copying tapes, the industry was going through troubles with management, and so the record business was pulling back on budgets, and I thought, ‘well, I better re- invent myself.’ So I started going out trying to get movie work – movie logos. What I realized was, they were nuts! Requiring an artist to do just dozens and dozens of variations on a movie logo before they would even pick one and if they did, it was a 5% chance that it would go to a finish. They paid you pretty nicely for the sketches, paid big dollars for the finished piece, but the wait factor was tremendous. So when I was required to produce a lot of variations on a design, it was such a short period of time I had to work rather fast. All of a sudden, I started producing a ton of variations, ‘cause you wanted to get the job, you wanted to get the final. Because of that requirement, it forced you to ratchet up your production level.

Soul 1: So how was that total experience?

Tom Nikosey: It was like being a graphic athlete. You know, you go into training and you go into a flow. To give you a perfect example, in the late 70’s there were four or five of us in town that were getting most of the logo work, and we all know each other. They would call all of us, to work on the same picture. There would be three or four agency’s calling you because the agency’s pitching the studio’s to get the account. And so they would call you and they would allot you X amount of dollars to come up with five or ten designs within three days. So when they did that, you were just nuts for like three or four days. I used to buy rolls of tissue paper rather than pads; seriously – at 12” wide by 50 yards long, I’d buy a dozen rolls at a time.

Soul 1: What was the experience like designing your first Super Bowl logo, and how did that come about?

Work by Tom Nikosey for the NFL's Super Bowl series

Work by Tom Nikosey for the NFL’s Super Bowl series

Tom Nikosey: The first Super Bowl logo that I designed was Super Bowl XVII, which was held at the Rose Bowl. That was the game where the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins. It was 1983. I was called by the Art Director of NFL properties, Glen Iwasaki. He had seen my work and he said, “I would love it if you would work on the Super Bowl logo… would you like to do that?” I was just, “Are you kidding?!” Then he said, “Well, I can’t guarantee that it would go to a finish, but we would love to see your ideas.” After meeting with the NFL committee of four or five people who would make a decision, he chose one of my designs. Actually, it was the first logo for the Super Bowl that was self – contained that sort of created a trademark. I was limited to three colors: red, white, and blue. That lasted up until Super Bowl XXV where you were required to do a logo that had to work in black and white for newspapers, and red, white, and blue for the game and that was it, no other colors. I was lucky enough to get Super Bowl XVII as my first logo, and then I did Super Bowl XX, XXII, and XXV.

Soul 1: How did the “Holiday Deer” and “Bison” stamps come about?

Holiday Deer stamps for the USPS by Tom Nikosey

Holiday Deer stamps for the USPS by Tom Nikosey

Tom Nikosey: You have to be invited to do a stamp – you can’t solicit the Postal Service. I was called by one of the Art Directors, Carl Hermann, who works for the Postal Service to come up with an idea for a Christmas stamp. There are five or six Art Directors who work for the Postal Service around the country, and the Stamp Advisory Committee meets several times a year and they tell the Art Directors, “We need a stamp for this cause, we need a stamp for that cause,” and every year, the Christmas stamp comes up. It’s always the hardest one to design because people buy stamps based on the look. So the Art Director called me and said we’d like you to work on some ideas for a Christmas stamp. I came up with several ideas and that was one of them and that’s one of my favorite pieces. They used it two Christmases in a row. That really hadn’t been done before– 1999 and 2000.

Soul 1: How does that feel to know that your work is such a part of American history?

Tom Nikosey: That was so wonderful. My parents were living in Florida at the time and the local newspaper got word of it, and they called and interviewed me. The most gratifying thing to me was the article came out in the local paper where my parents were living. They were so proud!

Soul 1: What are some of your most-recent projects?

Tom's work for the Firemans Brew brand

Tom’s work for the Firemans Brew brand

Tom Nikosey: I worked on the release of the Tommy Bolin tapes. Tommy Bolin was a guitar player who was destined to be the runner-up to Jimi Hendrix and he died of an overdose in 1976. He was a friend of mine and we jammed together. I was in a band and the lead player in my band recorded him several times in private jams and the tapes were lost for years and we just re-discovered them. We’re gonna put out a whole series of CD packages of Tommy Bolin jams. He’s a guitar aficionado and he’s just revered throughout the world, and unfortunately he died at such a young age. Oh yeah, and the Fireman’s Brew – I’m working on that whole brand. Go to to see all of that stuff and that’s really it for now.

Soul 1: Is there anything that you’d like to add that I may not have asked?

Tom Nikosey: In terms of my career, I think you asked some really great questions, I don’t get those kinds of questions and I think those are very important, especially if there’re aspiring designers out there who are looking forward to having a solid career, or peers who want to feel that they’ve read something that they also have gone through. I feel even though I’m only in my late 50s, and my career is right in the middle somewhere hopefully, there’s a whole body of work still to come out yet. But I feel very, very luck and blessed for people to trust me with their projects. I still do. You know you gotta stay hungry as they say. Stay excited and stay appreciative.

Soul 1: I think it’s a blessing that you’re still in the industry as well. You know, one of the stalwarts that we can count on for quality, upstanding design. It’s like the old saying goes “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” One of the reasons that this article and exhibition was put together was because there’s an underground following of record art and logos and a lot of those skills that you used to basically get the industry to where it is now is a lost art. There’s a lot of people who appreciate the time and energy that went into the creative process and the final product, and this is our way of gathering people together to pay homage to people like yourself.

Tom Nikosey: You know… all I can do is say “thank you”. You know, when you’re working in a studio you’re usually in this box all by yourself. It’s not like a musician where you’re playing to an audience…your audience has a delayed reaction so to speak. You don’t get the reaction until the work is out there, if it even makes it out there. So you’re not really sure if people are appreciating your effort. When you do get recognition and appreciation for your hard work, that’s what makes you do it, plus it feels good to create you know, it’s very therapeutic. Then, for people to look at it years later and say, “my God! That’s such a cool piece!” it makes you realize that your work is timeless… and who doesn’t wanna feel that (their) efforts are timeless?

About the artist, Tom Nikosey – you’ll find his biography (including links to his website) in the Featured Artists L-P section on the Album Cover Hall of web site (scroll down to the Ns).

About the interviewer, Soul 1 –

Soul 1 is a born and bred Philadelphia artist who’s been a part of two art galleries, including the Frank White space in Brooklyn, NY.  A writer and interviewer with over 25 years of experience for music-focused publications such as Wax Poetics, Soul 1 is also a multi-media artist who’s proficient in a variety of artistic media – photography, oil, spray paint and acrylics – as well as gallery installation and fashion design.

About this interview’s producer, Gerald Watson II –

Gerald Watson has been developing creative programming since 1996.  His first experience was through a Hip-Hop inspired phone card company he developed called the Phatline.  This led to a chance internship with a company called Kalodge Projects – a concept event company that produced the pre-eminent music showcase known as Lyricist Lounge – the launching pad for ground breaking Hip-Hop artists such as Notorious B.I.G, Eminem, and The Cella Dwellas.

The internship with Kalodge Projects, which had a fashion segment, led to Watson working heavily in the streetwear industry where he became a sales and marketing consultant for then startups Armegedia, 10 Deep, Staple, and Scifen.  While attending various clothing tradeshows including MAGIC and the fledgling POOL show Watson’s industry networks and contacts blossomed which led to him doing sales and marketing for a now defunct lifestyle magazine called While You Were Sleeping.  It was during Watson’s time at While You Were Sleeping that he not only brought his clothing alliances to the table but got very acquainted working with corporate brands and their agencies including PUMA, Rockstar Games, Zenith Media, and Wieden + Kennedy.

As the print industry began to wane Watson’s skills in developing creative and effective added value campaigns strengthened, in addition to an increasing number of brand contacts.  The timing and experience led to Watson becoming one of the founding members of a creative group called AM Radio (clients include Heineken, Toyota SCION and Adidas), establishing his own multicultural/lifestyle marketing company called Art vs Commerce (clients include Virgin Mobile, Smirnoff, FILA) along with diving back into his passion of art where he and long time collaborator DJ 2-Tone Jones created a monthly art installation known as Artz $ Craftz.

One of Watson’s latest endeavors, a vinyl record album cover art exhibition called The CLASSICS, became the catalyst for one of the creative’s biggest ideas to date – SHAOLIN JAZZ – The 37th Chamber.  Together with 2-Tone, the two have carefully crafted and curated a boutique music project that has received over 10,000 downloads in three months, received press from notable media outlets such as NPR, and recognition from notable music industry aficionados such as world renowned DJ Rich Medina.

All images featured in this story are Copyright 1972 – 2012 Tom Nikosey – All rights reserved – and are used by permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2010-12 – Gerald Watson II & Art Vs. Commerce – All rights reserved – and are used on this site by permission.

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