JON CONTINO’S ILLUSTRATIONS AND HAND-LETTERING have appeared on everything from microbrews to Miller High Life, from Nike ads to the pages of Sports Illustrated. A lifelong New Yorker, Contino remembers admiring the juxtaposition of graffiti-covered train cars against the backdrop of multimillion-dollar ad campaigns when he was a kid. The first time he recognized graphic design as a potential career option wasn’t in a high-school art class or a trip to MoMA—it was when he and his teenage friends rode the train from Long Island to visit a “shady guy” who made fake IDs in the East Village. Although Contino wasn’t actually interested in buying beer (he’s too much of a control freak to pick up a bottle), he was blown away by the possibilities presented by “giant printers, garbage computers, and a ton of weird art equipment piled on top of tables.”
Contino’s new book Brand by Hand eschews creative briefs and client demands in favor of stories about those early influences, from baseball and horror movies to punk rock and tattoo artistry.
ALL THINGS BASEBALL
I love everything about baseball, especially the setting: It’s always in the warm weather, it has equal parts relaxation and action, and you can spend the whole day playing it or watching it, just bullshitting with your friends. And then just like that, it becomes the most intense thing in the entire world. I always loved the aesthetics—the logos, the baseball cards, the different jerseys, all the Starter hats in the ’90s. When I was a kid, I had 60 Yankees hats, and I was always thinking, How many lawns can I mow to buy another one?
The older I got the more I learned about the history—the ’70s haircuts that fell out of their helmets, the Afros—and today you’ve got all the crazy beards, the tilted hats, gold chains, and guys like C.C. Sabathia and Gary Sanchez covered with tattoos... but through all of it, guys still wear the same Yankee pinstripes they’ve been wearing since 1903. I love that mix of modern and traditional.
THE NIGHT OWL
Since I became a father, my hours have shifted further and further to the fringes of the day. Now that my daughter is five and a half, I’m up at 6:30 or 7:00 to get her out of bed and get ready with my wife. After one of us takes her to school, I’lI head to my studio, which is attached to our home—a renovated schoolhouse in the Lower Hudson Valley. If I’m picking up my daughter after school, I leave around 3:00, which only gives me a few hours, so I’ll work another couple hours before we eat dinner. When everyone is asleep, I’ll go back to the studio around 10:00 and do another full day’s work ’til 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
I try to do creative work during the day as much as I can, but as soon as I get into a groove, there’s a two-hour conference call with a client. At night, there’s a certain freedom, like when I was a teenager and we’d go into the city and it felt like a free-for-all. Everything creative was almost hidden during the day—the video stores and record shops and the place that made the fake IDs where I first discovered graphic design. It’s not that there are no rules, but everything is more flexible—you feel like you don’t have to live by societal norms at that time of night, because there’s no one around to tell you otherwise. I get that same feeling at my studio late at night, too.
THE DARK SIDE
There are definitely two sides to me. I grew up with my brother Nick, who has Down Syndrome and spent the first few years of his life in the hospital. So I got acquainted with the idea of death a lot earlier than most kids, and I dealt with that anxiety for most of my childhood and into my teens. I used to fight a lot, because kids would make fun of my brother or take advantage of him, and that’s the part of humanity that I rally against with the harder-edge shit.
It’s funny because I’m not a malicious person at all—my wife makes fun of me because wherever we go, I just start talking to people and making friends. But when I see certain people in the world succeeding [without good reason], it stirs up that old punk-rock mentality. I’ve learned how to channel that particular response into something creative, which is helpful—drawing and design are definitely therapy for me.
I have two work modes—creative mode, where I’m brainstorming, is when I’ll play the loudest, most aggressive music so I can get lost in a wall of sound that’s just bleeding into my brain. I’ll listen to bands like Jesus Piece, Incendiary, a Brooklyn hard-core band called Indecision, and a death-metal band called Dying Fetus—so good. Oh, and you know who else? Tears for Fears. (Laughs). I love Tears for Fears.
The other mode is making shit: If I’m creating a font, so much of it is really tedious, so I’ll go into machine mode and listen to podcasts or put on a movie and let it run in the background. Some of my favorite podcasts are Axe to Grind, We Hate Movies, and Tell ’Em Steve-Dave—a couple of Jersey guys who just talk shit for an hour and a half.
FINDING A VOICE
In the beginning, illustration was was just personal expression—I was in hard-core bands [doing work for myself and my friends], and then I started doing some freelance work for small labels in high school. As I got a better sense of how to operate as a freelance designer, bigger clients started coming to me, asking for more corporate work, so I started bending a little. Then when I opened my first studio in 2005, it was all bending for other people. Even though the work was decent enough, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere; I was reading all the magazines—HOW and Print and Communication Arts, thinking, Why can’t I do this sort of stuff?
When the recession killed off a few clients, I realized it was a good opportunity to explore my own style a bit more. I took the money my wife and I got from our wedding—the only $2,500 we had to our name—and I went to the Apple store and bought a new iMac. I made a portfolio with all my hand-lettering and illustration, and agencies started calling me. That was the response I had been trying to get for so many years of catering to somebody else. Instead, things finally clicked when I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to do things the way I want to do them—if people like it, great; if they don’t, I’ll just go back to working for my dad.’ Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.