Drive safely and don’t abuse alcohol, drugs or candy

When asked by his teacher to write to a contemporary artist as part of a school project in 1997, 13-year-old Green Day fan Austin Kleon immediately opted to contact collage artist Winston Smith – the man responsible for creating the artwork for the band’s 1995 album, Insomniac – and after finding his address via a gallery curator, Austin sent his letter to the artist and hoped for the best. A few months later when nearly all hope was lost, the stunning 14-page reply seen below, along with pages and pages of artwork, arrived at the teenager’s home. He was ecstatic:

I couldn’t believe it. An artist—a real artist!—had written me back!

To me, it was the equivalent of Rilke writing back to the young poet. He told me about his life and his methods. He urged me to always question authority, stay away from drugs, and keep getting straight As so one day I could pay the bills. (An artist—a real artist!—was telling me it was okay to get straight As!) I’d never heard anybody talk about the kind of things he wrote about—art, America, growing up in a small-town—it was like a time-bomb that went off in my brain.

The letter, and I’m not exaggerating, changed my life.

Naturally the 13-year-old replied and to this day – 13 years later – they still correspond. Austin Kleon is now an artist and writer. Enormous thanks to both Austin, whose fantastic work can be seen at his website, and Winston Smith himself, whose stunning artwork can be viewed at his site.

Transcript follows.


7 March, 1997

Hiya Austin!

Thanks for the cool letter. Sorry for the delay in writting back but I’ve finally got time to sit and scribble, so here goes:

That’s good that you’re a straight-A student. That will come in handy later in life for little things like earning a living and other luxeries like food and shelter. Unfortunately I can speak from bitter experience. I was a straight-F student and I’ve been broke most of my life (as a result). So keep up the good work pal. Actually—a couple times I got D’s or even a D+. They let me have that just because I occasionally turned in my homework. I used to wish I had a dog just so I could blame him for eating my homework (—a lie most teachers never bought anyway.) I guess I could have rented a dog and then feed him my homework—but it was cheaper just to not do the homework in the first place. The result was I never finished High School and, having no education or marketable skills, I was forced to become an artist.

That’s a really cool name for your band “Insult to Injury”. It covers two of my favourite things. (to do, not to get.) Yeah, I saw Kathy Spiering just a couple days ago and told her I’d heard from you. She was busy setting up a show—an art exhibit. She wanted me to add some pieces to it. The web site (Cyborganic) is pretty extensive—if you get to a certain part there are about a dozen or so pictures. At least that’s how it used to be. I’ve only seen it 2 or 3 times. There’s also a pretty long article in an internet magazine called “Addicted to Noise”. I don’t know how to locate it but I reckon it won’t be too hard to find on the internet. It also features “movies”—kinda. Short kinetic clips from a stop-action animation I did for a Green Day video for European MTV. By the way—if you want to order my book you can call Last Gasp (the publisher). I think it’s $25 plus shipping—probably $3 or $4—so about 28 or 29 total. Their number is toll free—1-800-848-4277. I don’t have any spares around or I’d send you one. But I will send you stuff not in the book.

So as for your questions:

1. My collages have a 50’s look to them because most of my source material is from war-time and post war era magazines—1940’s to late 50’s. That was the period of lush, exagerated color illustration. Then in the late 60’s color fotografy took over and the rich color illustrations faded from use. Too bad. (so if you ever come across a nice stash of 1940’s to mid 1950’s Life magazines or Saturday Evening Post, etc, and you can get ’em cheap $2 each or less let me know and I’ll buy them from you. I’m always on the look out for new (old) stuff. A friend of mine is sending me a set of old mags from the late 40’s all about the future—all the cool stuff we going to have “in the future”, like flying cars and picture-fones and mom bringing the groceries home in her own private Whirly-Bird (helicopter). It never happened, did it? Instead people drive the same bent-up cars (with gasoline costing ten times more) to the same lousy jobs (where they have to work twice as hard for half as much money) and their kids ride to school on the same old yellow school bus they rode 30 years before. That’s the American Dream.

As you can probably tell, I have kind of a cynical attitude about the future—and the present. I had no idea there was even going to be a future. I was 10 years old durring the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and I had a flashlight and a bag of M+M’s and a transistor radio packed up in a little bag so in case World War III happened I could go hide in the sewer. (I even used the threat of World War III as an excuse not to do my home work. I told that teacher that since the world was going to end anyway then what’s the point of wasting time on homework?—she didn’t buy that either. And she seemed disturbed that I pointed out this rather obvious point in front of the whole class. Yeah, if I’d known I was going to be around this long I would have taken better care of myself. So drive safely and don’t abuse alcohol, drugs or candy. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for that later.

Question/Answer #2: I don’t care much for music as I’m too visually oriented to pay much attention to music. And I don’t watch TV at all. I stopped that when I was 16 or 17. Television is bubble gum for the brain. It’s the most dangerous drug in the world—worse here in America than anywhere else, but the rest of the world is fast catching up. And unfortunately I do see papers—most mainstream papers are owned by corporations that control what’s printed in them so they are largely useless. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who noted that the more one reads newspapers the less one is informed. (in our day it would be: the more one is mis-informed.) So papers are a bit of my inspiration. More information is available from non-corporate sourse—such as lefty mags like “The Nation” or “In These Times” or “The Progressive” & “Utne Reader”—to name but a few. But actually most of my inspiration comes from my own sick mind and my own bizare personal experiences. Lots of my work is largely meaningless(outside of that which is clearly social satire or political satire) So much of it is just interesting new arrangements of images that may iether be funny, pretty or just weird.

3. The seamlessness? That’s tough. I just cut as carefully as possible. It takes lots of time. (keeps me out of trouble…) And I try my best to match up images that will be in proper proportion with each other. That is very time consuming, locating them and sorting through them.

#4: My history—well—I grew up in the middle of nowhere—in Oklahoma, you’re lucky, you live in Circleville. I lived in Squaresville. So when I turned 17 I split. I flipped to Italy and studied art and remained there for over 6 years. When I returned to America I hitch-hiked out to San Francisco (only because the only person I knew in America happened to live in California). Then for a couple of years (1976-1977) I was a roadie for different Bay Area bands like Santana, Journey, Tower of Power, The Tubes, Quick Silver Messenger Service, and other washed-up nobodies. Then the punk scene began to rear its ugly head and I started making posters for bands—some didn’t even exist. I just made them up as a joke to illustrate my particular style of art. Then I met up with Biafra and Dead Kennedys and the rest is history. (or mystery.)

Question #5: My art—well, like I say, try to order my book and also in about 3 months (I hope) there will be a second book out that I’m working on right now. It’s called, “Been wrong so long it looks right to me”. I’ve also got some other LP art out there an stuff in various magazines. I do a thing each month for the last year or so in Spin Magazine. It’s an illustration for a monthly editorial page called Topspin. (usually page 14 or 18). Your discription of the “Insult to Injury” record cover is great. While reading it I got an image in my head and then saw your sketch and it was exactly the same. I was imagining this poor beat-up, tired-out rat staring blankly out the window as the wreking ball is just about to hit his only shelter, and the rat’s thinking—”Oh swell, I had a really crappy day and now this.” I know the feeling.

The wierd thing is—I know I don’t have any images of a wrecking ball and crane—I showed your sketch to my girlfriend and she liked it too. But a day later I was going through a magazine when I was waiting for Kathy Spiering to hang my artwork for her show at this cyber cafe and guess what I found:—yep—a wrecking ball. Too wierd, huh? “There are no coincidences.” So I’ll do my best to cook up a piece that resembles your idea. Now I gotta locate a rat. I can do that. I like rats.

Enclosed are some recent pieces I did plus some old things. There’s a (slightly trimmed) better color version of the Green Day LP cover. Its original title is: God Told Me To Skin You Alive. Speaking of Green Day—I was sitting in a pizza joint in Oakland with a friend not too long ago when this guy with green hair came up and kissed me!—I looked up in shock and realized it was Tre (the drummer in the band who I’ve known since he was about your age—and now he’s a millionaire, so keep practicing your music!) I hadn’t seen him since I visited backstage in Florence, Italy when we all happened to be in Italy at the same time. He said they have 30 new songs and may be doing a new record very soon. Tre’s a good egg, as are Bill and Mike. Mike’s wife just had a baby. They all have kids now.

Also enclosed is a (kinda long) interview w/ me that just came out in a punk ‘zine called “All The Answers” out of Arizona. The guy who wrote it up spells worse than I do and he left out quotation marks that would make it much clearer, but it’s ok.

Like I say, I’ll try to come up with some good imagery so you and your band can use it as a poster or (maybe) even a CD cover.

So I’ve looked about for stuff that might help on your project for the art class. This is probably too much to use but you can sort through it and pick out what will work.

By the way—it may take me quite some time to get finishing that CD cover so I hope it’s nothing you need right away. I’ve got some projects coming up I have to work on so sit tight. I’ll eventually get round to it.

Ok pal, hang in there. Keep up the straight-A’s and always think for yourself. Good luck on the art class project—let me know how it turns out. Don’t get lost or killed. And remember, you can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.