During the late 80s and early 90s, the 100% Mambo artist collective created one of the most vibrant and explosive chapters in the history of Australian surf art. With a roll call boasting the likes of Reg Mombassa, Paul McNeill, Jeff Raglus, Gerry Wedd, Robert Moore, Paul McNeil, and Jim Mitchell contributing prints, paintings, illustrations and an unbridled, fantastic identity, the brand soared as a beacon of what the world might look like if the lunatics took over the asylum. And man was it loud! Fusing rock and roll, political antagonism, a love for surfing, skating, life, and colour with a healthy dose of tongue in cheek rivalry, Mambo delivered fearless and inimitable campaigns that have become nothing short of iconic. Right in the thick of it all was the unassuming Kiwi, Jim Mitchell, who among other career highlights was the man behind Mambo’s incredible Loud shirts. After leaving Mambo, Jim moved up to the Central Coast for a while before returning to the surf market with The Critical Slide Society, which has gone on to become the quiet achiever of the Australian surf scene. Surfing World caught up with Jim to get his take on those early days, TCSS, and how he thinks surf art is travelling today.
SW: So what’s on your mind at the moment Jim?
JS: Just the usual stuff mate: trying to conjure up some gems for the new Aussie summer range and a couple of special projects for Japan and USA. Also, why does that person need to eat carrots on the train every night? What have my dogs destroyed today while I was at work? Would I look like a sore loser if I sacked the intern for beating me at pong? …same old.
Tell us a little bit about your journey with art, do you remember the first drawing you ever did? The one that made you feel like you might be good at it?
I don’t remember exactly but I can recall doing lots of drawings of our local small-town hero John Rowles. He was a Maori Elvis with massive 60s sideburns. My Mum must have said they were good and I decided that was my career path. Mum was a talented landscape painter so I was counting on her knowing good from crook.
Back when I was at school, being good at art was way cooler than just about anything, basically until sport became the cooler thing to do. Did you experience a moment of being awesome at school or were the Rugby kids the stars?
Art was the soft option at my country school, it was all about rugby. Luckily I was also sporty and had a really big brother but the thing that gave me an identity apart was our surf gang. There were five of us from this tiny forestry town pouring over Tracks and Surfer Magazine, modelling our look off the Californian and Aussie crew. Don’t know how we survived.
What was the breakthrough moment for you, when you knew that art was going to be your life?
The career counsellor at school made it clear that a job in art was absolutely not an option, so that settled it for me. I moved to the closest city and enrolled in a design course. That lead to art college for another three years then out to the real world. I’ve never considered myself anything other than a working artist since.
Did you ever lose faith in that and go get a real job?
For a few months after art school I worked on a fishing boat in freezing conditions which was enough to drive me back to the pens. Until we started TCSS in 2009 I was always a freelancer. I guess I don’t like having a boss.
Who were the artists that inspired you and that you rolled with when you were in your formative years? Who’s work did you connect with most?
My art college buddies Geoffrey Notman and Nigel Buchanan were enormously talented artists and my peers at Mambo, Bob Moore, Reg, Paul McNeil were always motivating. Tony Edwards, Rick Griffen, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Milton Glaser were my earliest art heroes.
Was mixing surfing and art a natural thing for you. What was your journey with surfing and when did the two cross over?
I grew up surfing my older brothers mals, a knife railed Atlas Woods and a Dunlop D-fin plunder cruiser every school holiday spent at our family beach shack. My grom diet was Tracks and Surfer mags, I loved surfing history and all the colourful characters. It was many years later in my career when I was working as a freelance illustrator for publishing and advertising companies in Sydney that I connected with Mambo and had the right vehicle to make the cross over combining my two main interests.
Movements seem to have so much power, were you guys aware of the cultural legacy you were creating at that time?
Mambo was a very unique company combining art, surf, music and politics. I knew I was involved with something special but probably didn’t realise its full significance till later on, once it had moved on to something else. One week you’re being commissioned to design an alternative Aussie flag, next a tee print protesting Pauline Hanson’s bullshit and then you’re in China painting the walls of one of the first night clubs in Guangzhou after the doors opened to the West. It was endlessly entertaining.
Were there ever any artists knife fights in the carpark? Was there an underlying feeling of competitiveness?
Fuck yes, everyone wanted to get their art in the next range. Bob Moore would rock into town on deadline with a suitcase of next level ideas, Paul McNeil would have 5,000 illustrations ready to go and Reg had sketch books full of brilliance. I was just lucky enough to work with Wayne Golding who supplied us all with the season’s bylines to illustrate and I tried to make my art wearable. Ultimately you would be judged on the sales from your last art work and if you were selling well you were given more work. No actual blood spilled that I remember and we’re all still mates.
I have to ask, The Loud Shirt, you dropped a couple of iconic prints… you still wear those from time to time today?
Still too loud for me. Wish I’d kept a few more of them though, so much work went into those designs. A couple of weeks easily for each shirt because everything was hand rendered. We couldn’t afford to commission artists to do that now.
Tell us about the time in your life between Mambo and TCSS?
There was a good six months after we started TCSS before any money came in and I was mowing lawns for rich folk at Palm Beach for my mate Nic’s company Mowtown ( I used that on a piece of art later, thanks Nic!) I took the time to paint up a show for the Greenroom Festival in Japan and surfed a lot more than I get the chance to now.
What were you looking to do when you started TCSS that you didn’t get to do with Mambo?
There was no master plan to recreate Mambo when we started Critical. It was just about getting our art onto tees and boardies, pretty simple. If it made us laugh it was in. I spent a lot of time in Bali at the screen printers and manufacturers making sure we got those first deliveries into stores. Canggu wasn’t so crowded back then.
Having been a part of this surf art world for so long, who and what gets you excited these days in terms of the art thats around?
The team in our art department all bring something different to the table in terms of their surf/art/music influences and I am really enjoying the fresh references they introduce. We’re part of a global movement now collaborating with artists around the world. That’s what keeps me interested.
What have you been working on? What’s your latest passion?
I’ve been working on a project within Critical, called Movers & Shapers, highlighting the talented shapers we have on our team: Thomas Bexon, Eden Saul, Johnny Gill. Plus a series of fins designed by our riders CJ Nelson, Mick Rodgers, Kai Ellice-Flint. It’s such a good story to tell, I don’t think many people realise what heavy weights we have on the team. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Outside of TCSS I have a show coming up called Pitches which is all my original visuals submitted to Mambo back in the day. I came across a stack when clearing out my plan drawers and I really liked all the notes and swatches and coffee stains on them. They took me back to that head space and I find them more interesting than the fully finished rendering.
Can an artist ever be satisfied Jim?
Yes for sure, I would be completely satisfied painting and surfing.