This article appears in FLOOD 12: The Los Angeles Issue. You can purchase this special 232-page print edition celebrating the people, places, music and art of LA here.
“I’m putting on a sweater and pretending there’s actually weather out,” says Kii Arens from his home in Los Angeles. Mostly content with the balminess of the day, for a moment the visual artist reminisces about living in a chillier East Village upon moving to New York City in 1991—complete with flashbacks of lugging an air conditioner up a four-flight walkup and opening up for the Ramones with his former band Flipp. Thirty years later, he’s still enchanted by the music of a more divine decade past. “I thought the ’90s were amazing,” says Arens. “Look back to Radiohead’s The Bends—listen to that now and it still feels fresh.”
The musical palette of the 1990s lends itself to most of Arens’ poster art today, along with the color scheme of LA, a city that provides everything he needs for creative inspiration. “Los Angeles has its arms open wider than any other town that I’ve experienced—at least in the United States—to let your freak flag fly,” says Arens. “There’s this combination of cultures making the perfect visual gumbo for whatever it is you want to create.”
Supplies are also plentiful in LA. Earlier in the morning, Arens was set on procuring a new silver mannequin for an upcoming collection of futuristic pieces featuring polka dots. “You want some crazy plastics done, hit the Valley,” he says. “You want to get the right outfit, go down to Main Street. Everything is here and anything goes, so I've never felt any boundaries, even though I already have a tendency in my own design brain to drive with the blinders on and follow what my heart feels or gets really excited about. In what other town in the United States could you accomplish your artistic goal in that way?”
“Los Angeles has its arms open wider than any other town that I’ve experienced—at least in the United States—to let your freak flag fly. There’s this combination of cultures making the perfect visual gumbo for whatever it is you want to create.”
Another world from St. Paul, Minnesota, where Arens grew up fascinated by fonts, music, and poster art, after moving to Los Angeles in 2004 Arens opened his La-La Land Gallery, showcasing artists like Shepard Fairey and Gary Baseman in its earlier days. Arens’ mid-’00s lightbox art exhibit is one he’s revisiting now with his “You Lightbox My Life” show, featuring his “La-La” character and logo, birthed from an original spin-art piece he did for the Minnesota State Fair, and which also served as the cover art to Cheap Trick’s 2003 album Special One. The original lightbox exhibit came to a halt when a French collector visited and scooped up all of Arens’ pieces. “I want to revisit that concept now, especially with my new printing techniques,” says Arens, “and the different things that I can create with movement.”
Influenced mostly by graphic elements and pop culture, Arens has always been on another plane when creating. “Never having gone to art school,” he says, “I have nothing but the rest of my life to enjoy and discover and hear and read and see all these different artists that make up all of our minds and our brains and our vision.”
Eventually shifting into working on more concert poster prints, Arens’ early poster work included a Beck, Spoon, and MGMT show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008, and a more memorable Tom Jones piece in 2010. All of these projects had one thing in common: a gravitational pull to Los Angeles and the city’s famed venues like The Fonda or the Bowl. Within the past decade, the artist has already checked off working with most of his musical heroes with the exception of the dearly departed Prince. (Back in 1991, however, Arens briefly served as an art director for the Purple One for two days and also appeared in his 1990 movie Graffiti Bridge.) In the moment, and in retrospect, everything is still his masterpiece, including his work for Radiohead’s benefit show at The Fonda in 2010 and Devo’s 2009 show at Irving Plaza in New York City. “It’s Devo without a doubt,” says Arens. “They are living pop art.”
Typically, Arens searches for the height of an artist’s career when capturing the right image, while indulging his own artistic whims. “I’m so into the polka dots right now, so no matter what you ask for, it's going to be polka dots,” says Arens. “I think about the act and I think about the fan in me. What would I want on my wall? What could I live with? What transcends your average poster into poster art? It usually lands on a simple, single image that I try to make as clean and bright and perfect as possible.”
“Never having gone to art school, I have nothing but the rest of my life to enjoy and discover and hear and read and see all these different artists that make up all of our minds and our brains and our vision.”
He’s rarely concerned with the risk of creating a design that goes too far—if that’s even possible. “Someday it would be interesting to make a book of my cutting room floor pieces, because it really is the consummate edge of who I am as an artist who sometimes pushes it too far,” says Arens. “But I gotta keep pushing it too far, because I don't ever want it to be bland and watered down. Maybe it’s just that wide-eyed feeling and look that my father has to this day. He’s 84 now and he wakes up in the morning and says ‘What am I gonna do today?’ I’m so lucky to have that in my DNA.”
Arens recently held a show entitled “Art School Dropout” that was held at La-La Land, which showcased 40 different artists including a “reunion” of some featured in the past, and continued to animate his “Future Men” project, spawned from a piece with The Chemical Brothers featuring an unlimited series of color variations of the silver mannequin characters.
“I think about the act and I think about the fan in me. What would I want on my wall? What could I live with? What transcends your average poster into poster art?”
He also launched his art-based variety show Life of Kii on YouTube during the pandemic, featuring interviews with author and 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, photographer Bill Burke, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, as well as profiles of deceased artists such as the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
Recently returning to more music video production (previously Arens worked on videos for Queens of the Stone Age, Pixies, Glen Campbell, and Band of Horses) Arens directed a video for New York punk quartet Surfbort’s Linda Perry–produced single “Big Star.” “It's got a bunch of my spin art,” says Arens. “You'll definitely see me in it.”
Moving from one iconic figure to another, into one figment of his imagination before darting somewhere visually uncharted, Arens is still searching for the next thing that pops. “Crossing over and creating art that is my art is where my head is really at now,” he says. “As much as I love music and doing art for various entities, in the end, it's a limiting audience of a fan base for that artist. But when you create an image that's universal... I do honestly feel like I have yet to hit my pinnacle piece of artwork that I might be the most known for.” FL
Pieces of LA: Kii Arens' Stories Behind the Prints
They raised $600,000 for Haiti that night at The Fonda, which was amazing. I brought 100 posters to that show, and at the end of the night, only the display poster was left. Radiohead had a whole bunch of their fans listening to the show right outside the front door, so Thom Yorke over the mic asks to allow everyone who is outside in for the encore. So all of these real Radiohead fans that couldn't afford the $600 ticket price for the show got in for free. And I lifted up the poster and said, “Alright, I'm going to auction this off because it's for a great cause.” And I'm looking around at the record industry peeps pulling out their wallets, and then I see this kid who definitely was one of the street-dwelling fans, and he’s reaching in his pocket, kind of thumbing through some money. I looked down at him and I said, “We're going to start the bid off, how much do you have there, sir?” and he’s like, “Seven dollars,” and I'm like, “Seven dollars going once, going twice—sold for seven dollars!”
Tom Jones (2010)
I love Tom Jones! His voice is so strong. If you've ever seen him in concert, he can bring you to tears. So I had the idea of shaving his name into chest hair. Craigslist had me looking at an influx of photos that were more than hairy chests, and I didn't mean for it to go that way. So I actually just took one for the team and did it to myself. The medallion that he’s wearing and the belt buckle were all hit with a green gloss, a matte finish.
New Order (2012)
I was just thinking of New Order’s perfect ripe melodies and super economic songwriting—the best note wins. Perfect music. Perfect fruit. Fruit is the perfect piece of art created by nature. I remember telling some people, “I’m so excited about fruit,” and they were like, “What? It’s New Order.” Sometimes you should just do it and not let anyone’s preconceptions in.
This was just part of the guilty pleasure of growing up watching Sonny and Cher and being able to take an artist and coupling them with Bob Mackie's costume designing. I bought that doll off eBay, got that puppy home, and did a photo shoot with it. My iPhone photo was better, so this poster was shot with my iPhone.
Danny Elfman (2014)
This piece is such an imprinting for me with Pee-wee's Big Adventure, of the Tim Burton era, and then Elfman with The Nightmare Before Christmas. I think I saw Nightmare three times in the theater while still living in St. Paul, Minnesota. I just wanted to come up with an image that was completely fucking googly and creepy, like Danny Elfman.
Van Halen (2015)
As an artist, I go for clients when they’re not looking, and sometimes that works—like what happened with Van Halen. I did the last poster for them ever at the Hollywood Bowl. I didn’t know it was going to be their last show at the time, but I made the poster, then sent a few copies to the Bowl, and when Wolfy [Wolfgang Van Halen] got his hands on it, he ordered a bunch. All of a sudden, there I am doing a Van Halen poster.
Conan O’Brien (2018)
Isn’t this one great with the old-time-y photo? I did a little digging on my own, and they sent me a bunch of photos to work with, but I ain't gonna lie: Conan’s head is not the easiest thing to make pretty.
Bernie Sanders x Public Enemy (2020)
When Bernie came on the scene in early 2016, I started going to some of the rallies, and at the second rally I brought my doodle, a paint-by-numbers version of Bernie, to the event. The whole Bernie camp loved it. Before I knew it, I was invited to a lot of conversations at super-rich houses in Beverly Hills with people giving donations, and that's when I actually started working for the Bernie campaign. And bringing in Chuck D...that was the edge of the moment where the world actually thought that Bernie had a shot.