Interviews: Artist And Composer Mark Kostabi Talks About His Upcoming Film My Italy

Artist and Composer Mark Kostabi, known as a leading figure in the arts scene for his amazing work, as well as the self-interviews he published in the ‘80s that reflected on the commodification of contemporary art, is no stranger to the world of entertainment. His work has been referenced or has appeared in many films and TV shows (Miami Vice, American Psycho), he produces a weekly cable TV show, and he’s designed some of the most famous album covers of all time. His latest project is something quite different though, playing himself in the new Uncork’d Entertainment release My Italy (out 11/7 on VOD). A director and his assistant are traveling around Europe to seek financing for a film with and about four international artists: The aforesaid Kotsabi, Polish Krzysztof Bednarski, Danish Thorsten Kirchhoff, American Mark Kostabi and Malaysian H.H. Lim; all of them stars from the world of art and in love with Italy. The result? You have to see.

TMS: Thank you for designing some of the best album covers ever – the Use Your Illusion albums are classic. What was your inspiration for those particular designs? 

MK: I made one painting in 1990, inspired by a detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, using a combination of silk screening and oil paint. I used red, yellow, black and white. When it was time to give the painting a title I asked my brother Paul Kostabi for a suggestion. He said “Use Your Illusion.” Years later he told me he got the idea for the title because he saw me using illusions and exaggerations in order to get press for my art career. I sent the painting to Hanson Gallery in Beverly Hills where Axl Rose stumbled upon it and bought it. He recently confirmed the story to me that on the night before, he had written some lyrics which included “I bought me an illusion and I put it on the wall.” This incident inspired him to ask me if he could use my painting and title for the cover of his next album. The blue version, Use Your Illusion II was created by Axl and his people who simply changed the colors with something like the PhotoShop of the day. 

TMS: How long does something like that take to do? 

MK: It was very quick. I ordered a large screen from Ace Clearprint, the same place Andy Warhol used, of a book reproduction of the Raphael detail. My brother Paul Kostabi screened over a yellow ground with red silk screen ink. Then I gave it to one of the Kostabi World painters to overpaint the left figure with black, white and red oil paint in the classic Kostabi style. My personal participation (idea and signature) was a matter of seconds. My assistants probably spent a day or two creating the whole painting. 

TMS: Have you done a lot of album covers over the years? 

MK: Yes. My other famous one is the final Ramons album: Adios Amigos. That one also involved Paul Kostabi, who was friends with Joey Ramone and suggested he ask me to design the cover. That was also based on an existing painting of mine called Enasaurs, but the Ramones people made several changes, most notably changing the pointed hats on the dinosaurs into sombreros and eliminating the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’ve also done covers for Youth Gone Mad, Psychotica, Seether, Jimmy Scott, Gene Pritsker, Peter Jarvis and my own CDs. 

TMS: Your work has been covered in films, too. How rewarding is it, seeing and hearing your name referenced in all these forms of media? 

MK: It’s very rewarding and exciting. Once I found out by accident: I was watching 9½ Weeks in 1986 in a movie theater in SoHo, with popcorn in hand, and suddenly I saw one of my images in a scene with Kim Basinger. Miami Vice once created a whole episode revolving around my paintings. 

TMS: When did you start on My Italy

MK: In about 2014. It took about three years to make. 

TMS: Is it fair to say this is something very different for you? 

MK: Yes and no. I’ve been on TV a lot. And there have been many documentaries (including another docu-comedy called Con Artist) made about me. But this is the first time I actually had to be an actor. Even though I was playing myself, I had to recite memorized lines, deliberately control my walking speed and facial expressions, etc, all under the direction of the genius Bruno Colella. 

TMS: Tell me about working with Bruno Colella? 

MK: Well, he’s a genius for sure. He’s a very nice person and he knows just about everyone in the Italian film world. I learned a lot working with him – all sorts of tricks, like when I had a scene with a shorter actor, I had to bend my knees during an upper body conversation scene where we had to appear the same height. But basically he’s a visionary genius and My Italy seems to be many things, including a twisted cinematic self-portrait of Bruno Collela. I love the way he included all his friends, including his young son, in the movie, but still attains the utmost professional and artistic integrity. 

TMS: How long of a shoot was it for you? 

MK: Three years is pretty long. Although obviously it wasn’t every day for three years. There were some moments when I almost lost my patience, showing up on time for a 10:00 AM shoot but not being on camera until 1:00 PM. Sometimes I complained but Bruno just told me: “This is the way we do it.” And I learned to shut up after while. What did actors do during down time before cell phones. I guess they brought a book. 

TMS: If there’s one thing audiences take away from My Italy what do you hope it is? 

MK: That it’s the real deal. One of my favorite movies is the Oscar winning The Great Beauty, which is a masterpiece, but My Italy is even better as a glimpse into the Italian cultural scene today. Especially behind the scenes of Rome and Naples. There’s nothing more authentic out there. I mean he got the real protagonists: actual, active famous artists, musicians, poets, actors – to play exaggerated versions of themselves.