Derek Hess: The Concert Poster Designer Shares His Dual Diagnosis Struggle
You probably don't know the name, but if you're a fan of extreme music, you've probably seen his artwork. Derek Hess has designed concert posters and flyers for a multitude of bands, including Clutch, Pantera, Type O Negative, White Zombie, Fu Manchu, Pearl Jam, NOFX, Helmet, the Rollins Band, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd to name a few. He's also created album art for Unearth, In Flames and Sepultura. His work is in the permanent collections of the Grammy Museum, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and even the Louvre in Paris.
But he doesn't just raise awareness of rock concerts and albums. For years, Hess has been talking about mental illness, even going public about his struggle with alcoholism and bipolar disorder via his award-winning, 2016 autobiographical documentary, Forced Perspective. And he has just released a new book, 31 Days in May: A Visual Journey, a collection of images describing his ongoing battle with dual diagnosis, a term for those who struggle with both mental illness and substance abuse. We spoke to him about his career as an artist, as well as his struggles with dual diagnosis.
Your book is very striking and very moving. Is sharing your art therapeutic for you?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Doing artwork is definitely an outlet. With my work, I tend to not deal with any kind of current event. I tend to wanna deal with some kind of human emotion. And definitely, being bipolar, you’re dealing with a whole host of emotions. And I found that what I like to do is try to get my artwork to stand the test of time. So say I do political art; it’s gonna date that piece immediately at that point in time. Like if I drew something about the porn star and the president, ten years from now it’s gonna go right back to that point in time and look very dated. So if I try to do something pertaining to human emotions, it hopefully will withstand the test of time, because we all have and will continue to have emotions, and hopefully it will be a relatable point of artwork for the decades.
I didn’t necessarily start doing bipolar pieces to feel I wasn’t alone. But in doing them, I found out I wasn’t, because of the feedback. I think it helps people as well who might be struggling and not really open to talking about their mental situation to feel like they're not alone. People have this [condition], and there is no shame in having it; it’s just something that you have. And if it’s not situational, then it’s chronic and something you will have and will have to be maintained, probably, for your entire lifetime. But that doesn’t make it a bad thing. It just makes it a thing that you have, like diabetes. If someone has diabetes, they won’t be cured of that, but they have to take care of it to keep it under control. I feel that’s the same with a mental illness.
I want to ask about your poster art, which is how many rock fans know you (or at least, your art). Does it matter if you relate to the band when you create a poster? Your style of art seems to really fit, say, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, but you've done some cool stuff for other bands, like the Reverend Horton Heat.
Well, a lot of those posters were my own gigs, because I booked a venue here in Cleveland for six years, and being my own client, then I could do my own posters however I chose to do them to sell the show. So definitely, I did the whole gamut of the bands that I was booking at the time, one of them, of course, was the Reverend Horton Heat, which was kind of out of the norm, you would think, of my imagery. Soul Coughing would be another one. But then at the same time, I’m doing Laughing Hyenas and the Jesus Lizard. I try to keep them all relevant.
Do you like doing posters for some bands or genres more than others, or are they all just people to you?
Well, they’re all people for me, but my personal taste -- it’s across the board, but I definitely lean toward the heavy and the harder stuff. So I can relate to the lyrics that these bands are putting together and putting out. A lot of it, you can read these lyrics and say, that guy may be suffering from bipolar; that guy might be a dual diagnosis by what he’s writing. And then you put it towards the heavy music, and I, obviously, will gravitate towards it.
Your Pantera, Type O Negative, Crowbar and Clutch posters are great and they capture the music.
Right. Well, that’s definitely the idea. It’s a connection with the fans, and the ones that are easier for me are the music I dig most. So definitely you’re right about that.
When I look at your art -- your posters and the book -- I see influences by Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe and Raymond Pettibon.
Well, I appreciate all of them, definitely. Steadman was the most influential towards me. Pettibone, definitely I appreciate it. I love the Black Flag stuff. But it definitely is not a visual influence on my artwork. Steadman and a comic book artist from the ’60s and ’70s is a huge influence on me, Gil Kane. He’s huge, huge, huge, huge on my drawing, not on my content, but on his drawing skills and how he can present the figure.
I still like his work on Green Lantern.
His Green Lantern stuff is some of his best stuff, definitely.
It feels like we are finally at a point where we can have open and honest discussions about depression, or being bi-polar and other things that people used to be uncomfortable talking about.
I totally agree. I think right now culturally and in our society is a good time to start talking about these subjects openly. For a number of years people were, "Oh no, no, no, I can’t talk about that. People will think I’m crazy." My artwork is an attempt to help remove this stigma, the negative stigma as far as mental illness goes and to pull the curtain back and just create a dialogue. When I was initially diagnosed as depressed, I was able to talk about it. Then when I got the diagnosis that I was bipolar, initially I was like, "Oh, I don’t know if I wanna talk about that." It's socially acceptable to be depressed; bipolar is a whole other animal. But as time went on, it’s like, not that big of a deal. I can talk about this, and if people have a problem with it, that’s their problem with it, not my problem with it. So I became pretty open about talking about it, and it’s really become not that big of a deal for me to speak about it.
But the more I would speak about it and write about it and make illustrations about it, the more I found that people were kind of keeping it under wraps. And I would get emails from people and people coming up to me as well, saying, "Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve been struggling with this or a friend of mine’s struggling with this and it affects me directly, or a family member or personally it’s going on with them," and they’re appreciative that a dialogue can now be started in a safe manner instead of just a shaming situation where they may not feel safe about it. But some people carry shame about it and fear of other people finding out. It’s not that big of a deal to me. It’s me, it’s what I’m about. And it’s definitely helping other people to speak about their situations, I’ve found.
I like your comparison of mental illness to diabetes; diabetics know what they can and can't eat. They know what they have to do to manage their condition.
I’m pro-medication as far as illness goes, whereas some people are anti-medication, and that’s fine if it’s the way they wanna handle it. But like diabetes, you need to take your insulin every day. And I also found that people with mental illness take their meds, and then they get better and feel like they’re cured, and they would go off their meds and definitely would quickly find out they’re not cured. And like I said before, it’s chronic, and it needs maintenance to maintain a sense of well-being.
I understand people when they say they don't want all of those chemicals in their body. But if someone is suffering, and the medication helps them to get through life without suffering, it seems like that's the right thing for them to do.
That’s a good way to look at it. It’s up to the person what route they wanna pursue to feel better. Some people only wanna do therapy and talk it out, and other people will only do meds. Personally, I find a combination of both is the best avenue to take.
People have talked about depression and bipolar disorder in relation to Kanye West in recent weeks. I felt a bit uncomfortable about that: it felt like people were looking at a guy who they liked, who did some things that they didn't like (saying he loved Trump, etc.) and attributing it to bipolar disorder.
I have not really followed it, but I know that other people who aren’t professional or aren’t suffering from it really have no right diagnosing somebody. Like you said, it could be all kinds of reasons why he did what he did. But you are not a professional. How do you know? Are you a doctor? Are you his therapist? Have you sat down and worked through these issues with him? No, you’re not. You’re just somebody on the Internet who’s basically lipping off, which you can hide behind the Internet. People say things they wouldn’t normally say to a person face to face. And that’s what I feel about that. Unless the person comes out and says it. Like Kevin Love, the basketball player for the Cavaliers, came out to talk about his panic attacks.
It’s like alcoholism. You see somebody and say, "Wow, that person’s an alcoholic," but it’s really up to the person to admit that they’re an alcoholic before you can really judge them. Or not even judge them, because alcoholism is a disease as well. That’s what the dual diagnosis is about, which I have. It’s a mental situation, and it’s an addiction situation that a person suffers at the same time. And a lot of people who are bipolar, schizophrenic, or have panic attacks or whatever, self-medicate with some kind of substance, alcohol or drugs. And therefore, a lot of people are dual-diagnosed. I kind of went off the subject there, but it’s really not up to the average person to make a diagnosis, by any means.
People speculating from a distance and saying that Kanye is "bipolar" is like calling someone "retarded" as an insult. It's super inappropriate and insensitive. "Asshole" is a much better way to insult someone.
I totally agree. The whole idea is to remove that stigma. Instead of that being an insult, that just means, hey, that person’s diabetic. It's something they have.
You addressed this in your book, but for people who don't suffer from mental illness, and who really want to understand it and help people who do suffer, what is your advice? How can other people help?
Well, become educated in what’s going on. You don’t have to go out and become an expert, but realize that this person [with a condition] may be acting this way, and it’s not necessarily a character defect. It could be a character defect, and/or it could be they're suffering from a bipolar acting up situation. I think education is the best thing that can happen with the public in general. Stop calling people names, "Oh, that person’s crazy" or whatever, and try to put yourself in their shoes.
We may see people in our own lives, or on television -- celebrities, politicians, etc. -- and you think, "Maybe that person needs to seek professional help..." But it's ultimately up to each individual to take that first step.
Yeah, I agree. It’s up to the person who is suffering from something like that to seek professional help. If you have kidney issues, you’re gonna seek a doctor, whereas if you’re suffering from a mental issue like I spoke about before, you wanna seek a doctor and decide a course of action you wanna take, which may or may not be met.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. One thing that I think a lot of people have learned in the last few months of #MeToo and #TimesUp is: if you're a man who hasn't been the victim of sexism, just be quiet and listen to the stories of the women who have experienced that. If you're white, listen to what black people have gone through. Similarly, if you are fortunate enough not to have suffered from mental illness, the best thing you can do is try to understand what those who do go through. You don't need to add your opinion; you need to try to listen and learn.
I think it’s a good analogy with the #MeToo movement going on. It’s a good time for especially the abused people to bring their issues up and saying, "It’s not my fault this happened to me, and I’m a survivor, I’m not a victim." Just like people who have bipolar, it’s not our fault that we have this thing. It’s just time to start a dialogue culturally in our country. Other countries, obviously, it’s up to... it’s in their culture whether or not they’re ready to talk about it. The more reserved and conservative the country is, the less likely people are gonna talk about these issues. And that’s one of the reasons, one of the many reasons I feel fortunate I’m in America because we’re developing this openness about these subjects.