In a sun-washed apartment overlooking midtown, Memphis, Anthony (Tony) Max’s studio is decidedly minimalist. Surrounded by books on most sides, a brown reading chair and simple art desk claim the most well-lit spots. Gone are the paints, easels and pallets you’d expect to find in a painter’s work area, and in their place are an old HP Touchsmart300 PC, a Wacom Cintiq 24hd, and an Asus Sonicmaster laptop — all used with a program called ArtRage to create a new form of art, blending photography and digital paint strokes.
There are surprisingly few indicators in the monochromatic, industrial décor of the wildly vivid scenes Max is best known for. Moving deftly between bizarre and whimsical, his early portfolio reflects a colorful, sometimes nightmarish dreamscape, full of haunting images and shocking contrast. Masks are a common theme, gas masks or masks or those worn in ancient Greek theater, and shadows dominate most scenes. It’s Generation X-meets-Southern Gothic, freaks and crumbling architecture and all, and distinctly mythical, much like the superheroes of the comics he grew up reading.
Max’s earliest visual memories, however, were far more pastoral than his paintings would suggest. On a farm in Longview, Mississippi, where his family continued its nearly 200-year-old Mississippi heritage, Max remembers an absence of toy stores — or any stores, for that matter — and spending most of his free time drawing. “I drew everything I saw,” he says, “Cows, horses, ducks, fish, bees, and trees. I quickly realized the more realistic I could make the drawings, the more attention the adults gave it.”
Recognizing his talent and with no options for art instruction in the area, Max’s parents enrolled him in weekend courses at Memphis State University and Arts East when he was 9. “That’s where I first learned painting, elements of design, and drawing from life,” he recalls. “The biggest influence on my skills was a class based on Betty Edward’s book, Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain. It teaches children how to visually break down images into shapes that they can faithfully recreate on paper. It was full of psychological tricks to help shut out background information and narrow your focus. I still see it as one of the most important books ever written on the subject.”
A Horn Lake High School graduate, Max admits the influence of fellow artists he met when visiting and attending classes in the city. “All of the art classes available were in Memphis,” he says, “and I enjoyed making friends with the other city artists. They had been exposed to so much more visual pop culture than me, so I had so much more to learn from them. And they all had tattoos, something which I had always had a fondness for. At age 16, I started making trips to the city to get tattooed. It was intriguing to think my art could jump from the paper page to my skin.”
That intrigue would soon become a profession. At 22, Max began an apprenticeship with Dave Evans at Underground Art, a Memphis tattoo shop well known for its cutting-edge artists. “He was already redefining what modern tattoos could do, so he taught me an entirely new bag of tricks,” says Max. “Tattoos didn’t have to look like stickers or patches or cartoons. As I picked up skill, I started infusing my tattoo art with the realism and design rules I had learned through painting. And tattoos sold much better than paintings.”
Although there was more money to be made in tattooing, there was a caveat. Painting allows for mistakes because the artist can rework and cover with another layer of paint. Tattoos required painstaking planning because the ink can’t be covered once applied, so all marks are permanent.
“I was working on a live canvas,” says Max, “so the consequences of screwing up were more serious. It was also teaching me how to take a client’s ideas and create a work of art that was crucially personal to them. The more closely I could bring to life their personal vision, the happier they were and the more my business grew. Years passed as I learned more tricks, and eventually I noticed that there was no real difference between tattoo needles and paintbrushes. Either were capable of producing fine art.”
That fine art included canvasses that would see a much wider audience than any painting ever would. “My paintings hung on walls in closed houses, only seen by visitors,” Max says. “But my skin art followed its collectors everywhere they went. Suddenly my art was traveling the globe and being openly advertised. Each one was a walking billboard that brought in more clients.”
Max’s changing preference for media has again taken a new direction, returning to his first love of comic art and dynamic images that tell a story. With multiple issues of his work, The Golden Silence, already sold and available on Amazon Kindle, Max offers them as free downloads in a digital format on Tapas. The hard copies can still be purchased through the artist, from local comic shops, or through Createspace. The Crimson Hand should be available early in 2018. Until then, he can be found tattooing at No RegretsTattoo Emporium in Memphis or selling his comics at conventions, such as the Memphis Comic Expo, September 16 and 17.
Of Paintbrushes and Needles
The ever-evolving art of Tony Max gives a new meaning to "multifaceted"
Story by Tonya Thompson