We love when a partnership comes together organically, such is the case with Sea Monsters. We met the Sea Monsters' founders in Brooklyn. They’re local and also surf. After hearing about what they were doing, we thought it was pretty amazing. They make healthy, tasty kids’ snacks that encourage children — and adults — to have a deeper, more positive relationship with the sea and the environment. And once we saw the graphics, it was an easy choice to do tees with them. Their graphics are by Kevin Lyons (who has been playing in the Chinatown Soccer Club with John from Sea Monsters for years, another organic connection in this story): we were already big fans of his work, so this made it an even easier decision to collaborate. This is a fun one for us - and our first time venturing into kids tees so we are excited to get these out. We recently caught up with Kevin Lyons not too far from our 195 Mulberry shop to discuss his infamous blog and clothing line Natural Born, the evolution and origin of his monster characters, and his role in our most recent project with Sea Monster snacks.
Where did that name Natural Born come from?
It was a combination of a few things. At the time, I was working for SSUR, Supreme, and these other brands that were kind of streetwear oriented. But then I had this real Timberland meets running vibe that I was into, long before running was a thing. So I liked the idea of nature and street together. Also at the time every rapper would say, natural born this, natural born that, and I just thought, "What if you just truncate the last part?" It's just natural born. So the brand itself was across between reggae, country vibes, and then this streetwear kind of thing.
So the whole vibe was tans, and off tans and tonal. Natural Born lasted for 10 years, distributed out of SSUR down here on 7 Spring Street was our headquarters. We had a store on Mulberry St, the SSUR store. And that's where it came from, it's just that melding of natural born, and then it's kind of natural born what? But you could put anything behind it, but it was that blend of nature and streetwear.
With Natural Born, what drew you to the old hippie references, old school graphics, and politics of that era? What to you is important about those specific references?
I think partly it was the graphic design, partly it was the anti-establishment thing, just this idea of that, I was born in '69 and there was something about the sixties that I gravitated towards as I got older. And it just also was different from what people were talking about. I needed to swerve into my own lane.
Even Noah has done stuff like that, where you kind of creep into the sixties, seventies, or the eighties like what you did with Big Audio Dynamite and bring back some of that history. That was important to me with Natural Born, to educate a little, just bring back some of these things that maybe people have forgotten.
Can you tell us about some of your monster characters? And what role does that play in your work?
The monster characters have about a 12 to 15 year history in which I have been developing them. Being a graphic designer I started drawing them on phone calls. I'm just sketching these dudes while I'm waiting on the phone, or in my sketchbook. They're side stories, it was never like, "Oh, I'm going to put this guy on a tee shirt, I'm going to show this work."
Then when I had kids, I just started drawing them to entertain them and as I did that, I just sort of developed them a little bit more. So my oldest daughter, she wouldn't eat her lunch, and I would put these monsters in her lunch bag and have the monster screaming, "Eat your eggs, or I'll break your legs.” Her teacher at the time would read it to the whole class and it became a thing, and I would do hundreds of these.
Soon after then when people started asking me for work, I would send them my monster characters.The French brand Colette, which I later became a designer for asked “Do you have any work?" And I sent them a bunch of monster drawings and they got back to me asking "Is there more where this came from?" And I was like, "Wait, these are popular?" So from there it just kind of took off.
At the root of it, it all started with kids. The funny part was this juxtaposition of these friendly little monsters who were yelling swear words like “Fuck You” at first and they kind of represented me as this angry little creative guy. Now it's come full circle, 15 years later they're on the Sea Monster snacks trying to get people into the idea of eating what's inside the bag.
How did the partnership with the Sea Monster snacks come about?
I think John and his wife thought of the idea of creating this snack, and then they were like, "We need a mascot.” John and I played soccer together in the Chinatown Soccer Club and he knew of my work, I knew of his, and he really was the one that created the partnership because he approached me and said, "Hey, listen, we don't have any money. We're just doing this for the love, this is really interesting. We want to do sea monsters, you make monsters, would you ever consider doing them as sea monsters?"
I had just finished a really successful collaboration with Jolly Rancher making these fruit characters so I had it on my brain and I was like, "Oh yeah, I'd love to do characters." I love the idea that I'm a partner in the brand, not just, they paid me to do these characters. They actually gave me some ownership and some belonging to the brand, that makes it even more interesting for me.
Mixing art and commerce, how do you feel about it? Do you think there's a right way or wrong way to do it? How do you make it feel effortless and natural within your work?
I think for as far as art and commerce goes, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with the melding of the two, nothing at the core that's wrong with it. I think there are collaborations and partnerships which are forced, and it's obvious when they're kind of forced. I turn down a lot of stuff. I don't take everything that's given to me. I do look for some sort of symbiotic relationship with that brand, either I wear it, I eat it, I participate in it. But there have been times where just the characters matched the energy of the brand.
Brands can really propel an artist forward, can really bring an artist to the forefront of culture and of commerce. I do think that I'm more particular than a lot of people. I don't have to do it for the money. I've had some successful collaborations, but it's not like it's one of those things where I have to just keep doing them. I look for the partnership, I look for the organic relationship with the brand itself. In the case with Sea Monsters, I'm drawing something that I want to draw and there's definitely a collaboration and a back and forth between myself and the founders.
Have you ever tried to classify your art practice?
I obviously illustrate, I obviously make art, I obviously make graphic design, so I'm all three of those things. But I sort of think there's a drawback to each label that you put on it. I am an illustrator which is the most accurate version of work I do for brands. There are illustrators out there that can draw anything that can make New Yorker covers, that can do cartoons, that can do human beings, that can make whatever. I'm more a person who draws what I want to draw. So maybe my exact classification could be “stubborn old man”.
So that’s your professional title then, stubborn old man?
Stubborn old man is my lane right now. I'm getting more ornery and more insistent on, I'm going to do it my way or the highway kind of thing.