“Pinball Wizards & Blacklight Destroyers” Artist Donny Gillies Spills On His Passion For Pop Art

When one thinks of the moniker “Dirty Donny”, a soft-spoken creative soul is hardly the phrase which comes to mind. However, this is exactly what Ottawa-born and San Francisco-based artist Donny Gillies embodies. While his famous pop art designs, record covers and pinball machines may be known for their rebellious edge, Gillies is still the quintessential Canadian boy at heart.

This autumn, the 42-year-old artistic talent released his new book Pinball Wizards Blacklight Destroyers, which pays homage to his signature illustrations. With their vivid hues and eye-catching graphics, Gillies’ works have graced everything from the sides of racecars to motorcycle helmets. The gifted yet humble pop artist initially moved to Montreal to pursue his dreams, before making the shift to San Francisco.

Gilles, who cites bands like King Tuff, Apache, Mean Jeans and Brant Bjork, as his favourite groups, is a fan of alternative and heavy metal music himself. Perhaps it’s this passion which led him to work with Metallica, collaborating with the heavy metal band to create a line of T-shirts and pinball machines.  

Real Style spoke to Gillies about transforming a childhood love of drawing into a successful career, his favourite creative influences and finding inspiration in decades of the past.

Real Style: Tell us more about your passion for art. What originally inspired you to become an artist?

Donny: I’ve always drawn, and my mom and dad were very supportive and always brought pen and paper everywhere I went. I’d draw on placemats when we went out to dinner. It’s always been a part of my life, and something early on that I excelled in at school. That was the side of my brain that was strong.

Real Style: You’re from Ottawa originally, but are now based in San Francisco. What do you miss most about Canada?

Donny: I miss my friends and family, and the nostalgia of growing up. When I do go back to visit, I get to see everybody. Ottawa has changed, I’m sure every city in Canada is not the same as when we grew up. Right now when I go back to Ottawa, I find that it’s got a really good music scene. There’s a great place called the House of TARG, which is pierogis and pinball.

Real Style: What are your biggest sources of creative inspiration?

Donny: I’m very nostalgic, so I draw influences from a lot of stuff that I liked as a kid. Saturday morning cartoons, getting into record covers, artwork, comic book art… As a little kid, I remember really liking the art on the cabinets of a pinball machine. Right now, I draw influence from just anywhere I can. I’m always searching for new stuff. A lot of it is really nostalgic. I’m really into stuff from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. A lot of old toys and collectibles, I just remember being a kid and my uncle always had cool cars.

Real Style: What is it about pop art in particular which captured your attention?

Donny: I’ve always been drawn to very colourful artwork. As a kid, I remember there was a kid who lived down the street and his big brother had a bunch of blacklight posters. They were kind of scary, but they were really cool. They drew me in and I just got this feeling from them. Maybe the last few years, I got into actually drawing them. I try to take the style of what I do, and my subject matter, and give it a real blacklight look.

Real Style: Who are some artists or designers that you are influenced by?

Donny: There’s a guy named Bill Campbell, he’s got a book out that’s called A Weird-Oh World: The Art of Bill Campbell. Then there are real iconic 1970s sci fi artists, like Frank Frazetta. One was Jack Kirby, who did comic books back in the day. Norman Saunders, who did the artwork on Wacky Packages, and Derek Riggs, who did all the Iron Maiden artwork, and Puffhead, who did all the Metallica artwork.

Real Style: How was your experience creating art for Metallica?

Donny: It was pretty cool. At the time when I started working for them, I had moved to Montreal from Ottawa and I had been doing artwork full-time for about five years at that point. I was definitely a starving artist, and paid my dues in that realm. The phone was ringing a lot, and I felt like I was doing good! I was in San Francisco a lot, and a friend of mine is a roadie for Metallica and he showed [lead guitarist] Kirk Hammett one of my record covers. That’s how he first saw my artwork. I was visiting and my friend told Kirk “Hey, Donny’s in town.” I met Kirk and got along with him right away.

Real Style: You’ve designed for pinball machines and motorcycle helmets, among many more. What has been your biggest creative challenge?

Donny: Pinball machines are very challenging. I do my art old school, it’s a brush and pen and paper, on cardstock. It’s the way that comic book and poster artists used to do it. It’s really cool to bring this piece of hand drawn artwork. There’s a lot of work that goes into them, you have to do a few different cabinets. It can take up to six months just to do this one project.