EVERY TABLE IN THE LARGE, rectangular space is piled high with paints, India ink, brushes, half-finished drawings, and mangled books. There must be hundreds of works scattered throughout Raymond Pettibon’s New York studio—some drawings on notebook-size paper stacked haphazardly on the paint-splattered floor, others large-scale paintings hanging on the wall: the Statue of Liberty, a Babe Ruth–era baseball player, a noir-ish woman smoking a cigarette, and, of course, a tiny surfer in the maw of a massive wave.
Born in 1957 and raised in Hermosa Beach, California, Pettibon had a childhood filled with books, comics, baseball, and surfing. When his older brother, Greg Ginn (Pettibon is a nom de plume), formed a band, Pettibon suggested the name Black Flag. He also designed their now-famous logo—a stylized rendering of four offset black bars—and a slew of album covers.
Pettibon started publishing zines of his drawings and his writing, with titles like Tripping Corpse, The Language of Romantic Thought, and Virgin Fears. For much of the next decade, he remained decidedly underground, exhibiting in small galleries and record stores. But as his work evolved, so did his audience. In the mid-’80s, a handful of renowned L.A. artists embraced Pettibon, with a number of collectors and curators following suit. Soon he would occupy almost contradictory posts: a bona fide global art star and a DIY punk rock icon. His work was similarly contradictory, taking aim at subject matter like Charles Manson, Gumby, J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis Presley, and big-wave surfers.
Pettibon honed a unique style that hinges upon the marriage of striking imagery and oblique text. But his creativity isn’t limited to paper and canvas. In casual conversation, he likes to make stuff up. At a dinner in New York a few years ago, Pettibon sat across the table from me, next to a man he’d just met. Over the course of the meal, Pettibon and the man engaged in deep conversation. When Pettibon left, the man turned to me.
“That guy I sat next to was incredible,” he said.
“How so?” I asked.
“He’s a dog breeder,” the man said. “Pit bulls that fight to the death in these highly illegal dogfights. There’s this whole underground culture, and apparently he’s one of the top breeders.”
This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard of Pettibon the Fabulist. He’s notorious for plunging into any number of alter egos: East L.A. dog breeder, Spanish bullfighter, Mexican wrestler, Hawaiian big-wave surfer. He’ll improvise, meticulously fleshing out these imagined lives as he goes.
When I met with Pettibon on a gray April morning in Lower Manhattan, he played the part of himself, painting in his studio and looking comfortable in red plaid pajama bottoms and a powder-blue T-shirt. We walked through the space, across a floor covered with unfinished collages that he was not afraid to step on, eventually stopping in front of a half-finished surf painting: a giant sapphire barrel with a small goofyfoot surfer streaking through it, head cocked slightly to the side, arms outstretched.
The image reminded me of a story about the 19th-century English painter William Turner, who famously had himself tied to the mast of a steam ship during a storm in an effort to experience the natural power of the ocean. Today that would seem a bit excessive, especially considering that, with a little imagination, you can scream across the face of a 30-foot wave from the comfort of a Manhattan studio.