Billy Tackett (Florence, Kentucky) has been creating pop culture mayhem and hellish images for over 25 years. He’s best known for his zombie art, but this prolific artist has created a varied volume of work, including hundreds of pieces for book/album covers, illustrations, and more. He and his wife renovated the former Florence Hotel into an art studio and gallery, where visitors can watch Billy work and see his creations come to life.
The first time I saw his work was during an art stroll at a local gallery in northern Kentucky. The “zombie-fied” renditions of famous photographs immediately jumped out at me, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I follow him on Facebook, where he would post “Daily Arting” updates. To see a consistent and constant flow of fresh work is impressive, to say the least. “The idea behind my Daily Arting was multi-purpose: For one, I didn’t feel as though I was being as productive as I wanted to be; that my work habits could be tighter, so I came up with the idea to do one piece a day. The bonus was that I would focus on some things that I felt were weak points in my skills. Also, I had decided to use the sketch markers which were new to me, so I got some good practice there. Looking back over my body of work, I started out using heavy black lines, and then gradually moved into some gray-scale with blending. And then gradually, I began to add color and developed a really cool watercolor effect with them. It’s pretty amazing to see the transition.”
Artists who are considered successful stress the importance of perfecting their craft every day… but posting new work so frequently proved to be daunting. “I never realized how hard it could be coming up with a new picture every day… REALLY hard. At some point, I started coming up with a comic book character and then trying to come up with another pop culture reference to mash it up with. That was pretty fun. Unfortunately, this year I had to scale back the Daily Artings to just Artings. I wanted to do fewer pieces, but higher quality pieces.” Still, releasing more than a couple new pieces every week is something few artists would even think of committing themselves to accomplishing.
Bill has used almost every media, from oils to charcoal and markers. “My favorite is whatever I’m currently focused on. Right now, that’s my markers and latex splatter art.” For a peek into this fascinating technique, visit Billy’s website (http://billytackett.com/index/2014/03/02/splatter-painting-video). I found his painting of Hellraiser’s Pinhead to be even more terrifying as a splatter art piece! “For those who don’t know, my splatter pieces are created by dipping my finger in paint and flicking it onto the canvas. It’s very controlled and pretty precise.” The results are amazing. A gritty, grizzly image emerges through layers of tiny splatters of paint.
“About 10 years ago, I was doing a lot of graphic design work. If I ever needed a design element, I would try to make it myself. Like if I needed a brush stroke, I would grab a brush and paint and get to swiping until I had what I needed. At some point, I needed a splat and couldn’t get what I wanted. I went through different paints and various methods of splattering them when I realized some of them looked like flowers. So I started with some really abstract looking flowers. I would create a few pieces a year, but I never really got into it. My wife encouraged me to do more, but I was focused on the zombie art at the time. I began to feel I wasn’t growing artistically through the oil paint and finally took my wife’s advice. Three years ago, I focused on the splatter stuff. I really began to push the medium and see what I could do with it. As I tell people all the time, I’m re-inspired! Moral of the story: Always be willing to try new stuff and listen to your wife!”
Billy is fortunate to have his wife as his Manager, as she handles the back-of-the-house tasks with professionalism and ease. As any artist will tell you, managing the business and marketing aspects necessary to be a professional, well-paid artist is difficult and frustrating. It’s successfully executing these crucial parts of the business that prove to be the downfall of many aspiring artists, whether they’re painters, writers or performers. She also orchestrates Billy’s appearance schedule and collaborative projects.
One of his favorite commissioned projects was for Bicycle Playing Cards. “Everything was created in oils, scanned and designed in the computer. It was a lot of work, but really fun. It was probably some of the last zombie pieces I created and definitely the most fun.” (http://billytackett.com/index/bicycle-playing-card/)
Billy and his wife are very good at creating opportunities and following-up on leads to keep him busy. His website has an amazing array of pieces available for sale. “I’ve created nearly 300 book covers, illustrations, etc. I worked mostly in small press and independent publishers. I started doing the convention circuit years ago, trying to drum up more business, and kind of fell into doing the zombie stuff after that proved pretty popular. I still do a cover on occasion, but most of my commissions are for private collectors, corporate events, and galleries. Not much commercial stuff, and I’m OK with that. Although, I have a goal to get some of my splatter stuff on the cover of a “mainstream” comic book.”
One thing I especially enjoy is the twist in many of his pieces, such as “Jailhouse Spock” and “Aqua-Jaws”. The most popular of his series would be the zombie art. Billy has zombie-fied the beautiful faces of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, just to name a couple. “The zombie stuff was definitely hot for a while, and my Rosie the Riveter zombie was by far the most popular of those pieces. Now, I’m seeing something new start to sell… and that’s my drawings of cars. All my life, I’ve loved cool cars and have wanted to get back into drawing them. My Daily Arting gave me that chance. I’ve been doing cars from pop culture. For instance, the truck from Sanford & Son, Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters and the Bluesmobile from the Blues Brothers. I’ve been working on the cars from the Mad Max movies, and by far, the best selling stuff has been the ones from the original movie.”
This fall in Cincinnati, fans will get to see an exhibit featuring Billy’s works. “I have a solo gallery exhibition this October, which will be monster-themed, so people can expect to see some cool horror-themed splatter art from that. Details will be posted on my website as they are confirmed. I’m also focused on publishing volume 2 of my Dead, White, & Blue comic. Other than that, it’s pretty much business as usual.” Appearances and new projects are always listed on his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/billytackettstudios). “My fall/winter schedule is booking up pretty quickly! I’ve been booking more and more private and corporate events lately. I always keep my appearance schedule listed on my website (http://www.billytackett.com/), and I’m also here at my Florence, KY studio, which is open to the public.”
Staying up-to-date on new social media and online business opportunities is critical in the digital age, so Billy also has a Patreon site. “Anyone interested in following my art as it is created is welcome to subscribe as a patron. For as little as $1 per month, patrons are able to see ALL new art I create a full 30 days before anyone else, giving them first dibs on their favorite pieces.” (patreon.com/billytackett)
Tackett is very passionate about his art. As one can imagine, being a full-time artist is hard work, not just on the creative side. The biggest challenge, according to Billy, is rather obvious. “Making money is the biggest challenge! I’m very lucky in that I have a wife who not only is very supportive, but she has a head for business. She has been my manager since the beginning. Most artists don’t have my wife and the art schools won’t teach artists how to make money. For some reason, a stigma has been put on making money with ones art, and I don’t get it. Art was a trade all the way up until the late 1800s, and then it became cool to be a starving artist. Screw that! I can’t buy my comic books and beer if I’m not making money! Oh, and I also have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay…”
Fans who meet Billy will find an approachable man with a sharp wit and easygoing demeanor. He has some advice for those of us who want to be full-time creators. “If you’re going to do this for a living, the first thing is to practice your craft. Don’t be afraid to suck, because you can’t improve without sucking first. Also, grow a thick skin because there are people who have no problem telling you that you suck. Learn to get over it. Then approach it as a business, like I mentioned earlier. The best way to be professional, is to act professional. Be prepared to start out doing things you may not enjoy. That’s all part of it, and we all have to do it. Be prepared to work long hours for little money. And be prepared to be in it for the long haul, because it takes time, but the longer you do it, the greater your chances of being successful.”