EXCLUSIVE: For the uninitiated, “Shag World” is a world like no other. A colorful, pop-art party landscape populated by swingers, bohemians, hedonists, and mirthful, mythical creatures, it’s hard not to be swept away by the fun everyone seems to be having within the frame, if not envious of their endless 24/7 reverie.
My introduction to the art of Shag, aka Josh Agle (take the SH in JoSH and the AG in AGle and you get SHAG. Clever, eh?), goes back to the early 2000s along with my nascent days of Polynesian pop appreciation. After diving into “Tiki culture” and drinking in as much of the traditional and kitschy Pacific Island “getaway” lifestyle, art, books, and merchandise that I could get my hands on (as well as numerous tropical cocktails along the way), I couldn’t help but get seduced by Shag’s colorful characters, carefree creatures, exotic settings, and subtle pop-culture references that seemed to be everywhere once I had opened my eyes to his work.
Beyond the numerous Tiki, nightclub, Bondian, Blake Edwards and ‘50s influences, I noticed that Shag had a sincere appreciation for Sci-Fi, fantasy, and horror icons. Amid skeletons playing bongos, four-armed burlesque dancers seducing fez-wearing gents, and mythical creatures like a Cyclops watching TV or Medusa applying makeup in his settings are appearances by Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and even Dr. Zaius of PLANET OF THE APES simply lounging in a den, enjoying a well-deserved drink — or passed-out drunk.
Shag’s cartoonish style is a perfect marriage with these fan favorites of the pop-culture stratosphere, and it’s no surprise that he has taken on more and more commissions to put licensed characters in Shag World for various companies and studios. Over the years, he has tackled THE PINK PANTHER, BATMAN, H.R. PUFNSTUF, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the UNIVERSAL MONSTERS, and WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, as well as iconic rockers such as The Beatles and Ramones and legendary media figures such as Andy Warhol and Bettie Page.
I caught up with Shag at his first-ever San Diego Comic-Con appearance this July, where he displayed rare prints (including his fun BATMAN ’66 painting), a giant H.R. Pufnstuf photo backdrop, cool themed merchandise, and a trio of Comic-Con exclusives: Limited-edition silk-screened prints of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Warhol.
Our conversation focused on his film and television pop-culture influences, how he tackles licensed character work, what subject matter he surprisingly refuses to paint, and what’s next for him in 2018. Read on…
DAVID WEINER: You’ve made a name for yourself with a certain, colorful look and feel in your paintings which often veer into pure fantasy territory in terms of content. Tell me about your inspirations.
SHAG: Low pop culture, as people would think of it — at least people in the fine-art world — that was the stuff that definitely influenced me. But I was trying to somehow figure out how to present it in such a way that it could be hung in an art gallery. So I was trying to strike this balance between making a piece of art that people looked at and thought, ‘Well that looks like it could be in a gallery,’ but also something that touched on the really kitschy pop-culture things that influenced me growing up, starting from Saturday morning cartoons to the first grown-up movie my parents took me to, which was a double feature of THUNDERBALL and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the James Bond movies. And that was kind of my first window into what grown-ups do, you know? Martini, shaken not stirred, the super villains, and things like that made a total impression on me.
Growing up mostly in the late ‘60s to ‘70s it was PLANET OF THE APES, going back to the days when the only place you could see it was on TV and it would be shown once a year, so you had to make sure you were on top of the TV Guide to see what movies were being shown that week because you might not have another chance to see that movie for another year, another five years. And I remember when they announced on ABC that they were going to be showing PLANET OF THE APES, I remembered as an 8-year-old or 10-year-old marking it on my calendar — not that I had a calendar! But things like that — MAD MONSTER PARTY — those were things that you organized your life around so you could see them.
And then years later when I'm painting my own stuff, I wanted to bring those really influential things from my childhood into the art — especially PLANET OF THE APES. That was probably the first real, overt pop-culture thing that made its way into my heart really early on.
DW: Did you catch any APES movies in the theater, like ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, or CONQUEST, or any of those?
SHAG: I was too young, even for BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I don't remember even being aware that they were in theaters. I knew what they were. The weird thing is kids bring to school magazines and pictures of the movies that are out there — like I remember a kid when I was in fifth grade, he had this book about 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and I remember we would look at this book and it had pictures with the spaceships and the spacesuits. I loved that book and I had no idea what the movie was or what it was about, you know? But the spaceships were kind of like my entry into that.
And then when I was 14 or 15 I was riding the school bus and the school bus driver would just play Top 40 kind of radio, and this radio commercial came on and you heard these spaceship sounds, and then this voice-over said, ‘Don’t worry, that's just a Star Destroyer!’ And they talk about these spaceships, and they say, ‘STAR WARS, coming to your galaxy!’ And I remember thinking, ‘STAR WARS, what a stupid movie title! That’s like calling a movie CAR CHASE or MILITARY BATTLE, you know? I was like, ‘That’s a really dumb name!’ Then a couple weeks later I was at the movies. I even remember the movie that my friends and I were seeing — it was JABBERWOCKY — and they had a preview for STAR WARS, and I remember seeing that preview and thinking, ‘That is going to be the best movie ever made.’ Like, ‘What is that guy in black?!? What are those white soldiers?!? I don't know, but it looks so cool!’ So the day STAR WARS was released my friends and I stood in line for the very first matinee showing, got in to see it the very first day it was released, and I was like, ‘I was right! That is the best movie I've ever seen in my life.’ So that was like another huge kind of pop culture thing in my life. But STAR WARS didn't really make it into my art until later. [However] I painted a Darth Vader action figure on a table in a painting once…
DW: I know the one, and it is pretty much the epitome of my childhood, with these ‘70s kids playing in their living room. One is playing with a TIE fighter, one with a remote-control R2-D2. One of the kids has a KISS T-shirt on while their mom watches. I really connected with that painting. I was 9 when STAR WARS came out, and that was my childhood.
SHAG: Yeah, that’s the first overt STAR WARS one I did. You were young enough where you got the toys. I was, like, 14 so I didn't buy the toys, regretfully. But I loved everything else about it, you know? My younger brothers and sisters had the toys. Remember when the movie first came out you went to like Toys R Us to buy an action figure and you bought an empty card with a thing that said, ‘We’ll send it to you in the mail’?
DW: The Kenner Early Bird Kit! I remember it well. So when you finally did take on STAR WARS for Disney, did you seek it out? Did they ask you? How did that come about?
SHAG: A gallery in Alhambra called Nucleus contacted me and they said, ‘We’re doing this STAR WARS-themed show, would you be interested in doing a piece?’ And I was like, ‘I love STAR WARS; I've never painted it, but I wanted to do a piece that was kind of still in Shag World. That’s how that painting you were talking about, the kids playing with the toys, came about; the mom sitting there lying on the couch, she’s more like the stereotypical Shag woman, drinking her martini or whatever, watching her kids play. I didn't want to actually paint a scene from the movie or anything. I wanted to keep it in Shag World. And then a couple years after that someone at Disney asked me if I would ever think about doing STAR WARS. Disney bought Lucasfilm, and I was like, ‘Eh, maybe,’ and then they said, ‘Well Howard Roffman, who's the head of merchandising in Lucasfilm, really wants you to do something.’
DW: And this was after you established a relationship with Disney with the Enchanted Tiki Room 40th anniversary and so forth?
SHAG: Yeah, I’ve been working with Disney for 12 or 13 years, basically doing Disneyland-themed art. I wouldn’t even paint Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. They came to me a few times and asked me, and I said that it's just not my thing. There are a lot of great artists that paint those characters and I don't want to paint them — I want to paint my childhood, which was going to Disneyland. So they're like, ‘Okay, he'll stick to the attractions, Haunted Mansion, whatever.'”
DW: Did you have discussions about the STAR WARS content? How did you choose the setting and characters?
SHAG: I thought, ‘How could I get as many characters into this piece?’ And one of the women I work with at Disney said, ‘I’d love to see a Cantina scene,’ and I said to myself, ‘Duh, I paint bar scenes! Why didn’t I think of that?”
DW: It was staring you right in the face the whole time.
SHAG: Yeah! So I did a comp of the piece and they sent it up to Lucasfilm. They had a couple little notes. In my piece, Greedo was sitting in the foreground at a table. He wasn't in the back room talking to Han Solo because I set the piece as Luke and the robots just walk into the Cantina and Obi-Wan’s making his deal, you know? Han doesn’t meet with Greedo until after that. And they’re like, ‘We don’t care! People want you to crowd [as many recognizable moments] as you can into the piece.’ So I put the little scene with Greedo and Han in the background.
DW: You’re too much of a purist with the timeline.
SHAG: I know (laughs).
DW: The first licensed work that I remember you doing for a studio was the PINK PANTHER 40th anniversary box set, which I loved. Was that your first foray into working with studios, or was there other stuff before that?
SHAG: Yeah, that was my first studio thing. I think that was released in 2004, but I'd been working on it through 2003. I love the PINK PANTHER stuff — just the style and the fact that [the Pink Panther character himself] didn't talk, because my paintings don’t talk. I've been approached by a lot of animation people and studios and producers who want to animate my stuff, and for the most part, I'm not interested in that because once you give a character a voice and personality, he gets stuck forever. And I kind of want people to project a little bit of themselves into the paintings.
DW: Does that play into SHAG WITH A TWIST, the musical based on your paintings and characters?
SHAG: Yeah, in SHAG WITH A TWIST, which was that dance musical murder mystery, one of my restrictions was the characters couldn't talk, kind of fitting into that whole Pink Panther thing — the whole, 'I don't want to give him a voice.'"
DW: Let’s talk about your recent BATMAN '66 work.
SHAG: Mattel approached me about three years ago to do a BATMAN box set sort of thing as a Comic-Con exclusive they were going to sell in 2014. They wanted me to design this environment in this TV box in Shag style. So that was the first licensed superhero thing I've ever done. And then the next year Huckleberry Toys asked me if I wanted to do a bigger, more comprehensive Batman print because they had they had a DC license, and that was their Comic-Con exclusive in 2015.
And then they did the same thing for H.R. Pufnstuf last year in 2016. That was a Huckleberry exclusive as well. I didn’t want that one to be set in Pufnstuf world. If you look closely, they’re on a set and you can see Sid and Marty Krofft there filming the scene, so it’s back a little bit in the real world — not that Shag World is the real world (laughs).
DW: What would you like to do for your next license? Do you see anything out in particular, or do you just decide when people come to you?
SHAG: I just paint, and people approach me if they have a license or something and if it’s something I’m interested in. Like I work with a company called Dark Hall Mansion on a few license things. I did a box set of Universal Monsters. Monsters like Frankenstein or Dracula have played a part in my art since the beginning, but never like, ‘You can draw Frankenstein so it looks like Boris Karloff because we have this license.’ So that was something I really wanted to do.
DW: They all fit very well in Shag World, listening to records or sitting around having a martini at the bar. Because it makes perfect sense that, at the end of the day, that’s what the Creature From the Black Lagoon would do!
SHAG: And I love a lot of current stuff — I’d love to do a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY piece, which doesn’t seem like it would fit in Shag World at all, but I would figure out a way to do it! It’s definitely colorful, it’s hedonistic, and Shag World is very hedonistic as well, so I’m sure I could work that out.
DW: Can you give me a hint about what you’re working on next?
SHAG: We’re actually going to be doing some official PLANET OF THE APES stuff for next year’s Comic-Con because it’s going to be the 50th anniversary of the original movie.
DW: That’s great! I’m very excited to see that. And just throwing it out there for purely selfish reasons, would you consider doing something with the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? That’s coming up on its 40th anniversary.
SHAG: Aaaaah! Yeah, I watched the original one as a kid.
DW: You’ve got the Cylons and the Ovions, and you also have those alien torch singers with the two mouths and four eyes that could fit right in with Shag World. Food for thought.
SHAG: I wouldn’t rule that one out. There’s certain things I’ve said I would never do. Like I’ll never do STAR TREK, even though I loved it as a kid. My mom was a huge, huge fan, and she would watch it every day in syndication in the early ‘70s and I totally got hooked into it. But it was such a huge [thing for me]. It’s hard to explain. Like I won’t paint Elvis, I won’t paint Marilyn Monroe, and I won’t paint STAR TREK for some reason.
DW: It’s too close for you. I would venture to think that in your own way, you don’t want to ruin it for yourself.
SHAG: Yeah, that’s very possible!
DW: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk. I’m anxious to see what comes next. Your work inspires!
SHAG: My pleasure!
For more info on SHAG:www.shag.com
Then see more of my ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT-related tales and interviews, Summer Music Recommendations, movie reviews, or there’s plenty of STAR WARS musings, Famous Monsters fun, cool vintage movie lobby cards, etc.