Finally, thanks to visual artist Brandon Spahn, we can play drinking games with rappers. The 26-year-old graphic designer has spent the past six years turning our favorite artists into a set of gorgeous playing cards. Perfect for Kings, or, you know, displaying incredible artwork. The cards started as a simple necessity: Spahn and his then-roommates needed artwork for their apartment. One university project and more than one-half decade later, what began as a bid to decorate, ended up as a stunning display of matte painting, vector art, and love of hip-hop.
“The first few illustrations were for fun, and to have something to hang in the apartment,” Spahn reveals. “The more I got into hip-hop, I started basing the illustrations off of [the] music. I’ve learned more techniques. I’ve gotten better at lighting and making the image have more life — my Anderson .Paak card is a good example of how I’ve evolved. It’s probably one of my most detailed pieces.”
Those details translate by way of vector painting and matte painting. Spahn brings images into Photoshop and Illustrator, working overtop them to add details and flourishes based on the artists’ music. Spahn’s work shines in the minutia. Adding a golden dove to his SZA piece to represent “Doves In The Wind” is as talented a touch as choosing the colors for his Mac Miller piece based on the Faces album artwork. His attention to detail has garnered a sizable online following, too.
Spahn, born in Poseyville, Indiana, and currently based in Bloomington, loves the reception his work gets online. He makes little money off his prints and pursues art strictly for the love. When he sees orders for his work across the globe, touching down in countries he has never been to, Spahn feels nothing short of gratitude. As he concludes his six-year project and feels a sense of closure, he hopes to reach experimental new heights with his next work. We’ll be waiting.
My full conversation with Brandon Spahn, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
What drove you to pursue visual arts?
When I was 12 or 13, I used to play this video game called Age Of Mythology. I was a member of an active community, and they had a forum up, and the community owners had a competition to design a banner for the forum. I looked up how to do that, downloaded a free, open-source version of Photoshop, and made the banner. My sophomore year [of high school], I entered this t-shirt contest on designedbyhumans, and my shirt won shirt of the day and shirt of the week. That got me 1,500 dollars. I used that money to build a computer strictly for graphic design.
Where did you get inspiration for your current style?
Back in college, I used to create these matte painting artworks. You take a couple of different images and paint over them in Photoshop to create new images. I do that a lot with these hip-hop illustrations. My Kanye [West] art is a great example of that. I have a couple of other styles. I have a vector, abstract style, where I start with a rough vector. That’s drawing basic shapes over an image. I do that in Illustrator and then finish it in Photoshop. That’s like the Mac Miller one. I have a couple of different processes; some take longer than others. I try to keep experimenting and trying new things because I want to continue practicing and expanding my style.
Talk to me about your hip-hop deck project. Why cards?
I started this [project] before I knew I wanted to turn it into a card deck. My junior year of college, I was living with three other people in my apartment, and we all listened to music a lot. We just wanted some stuff to hang up on the walls. For fun, I illustrated my first four: Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Drake, and Eminem. Those were hanging in our apartment, and I was like, “This is pretty fun.” During my senior year, I was in a graphic design course. By this point, I already had nine of 10 illustrations finished. The project [for my design course] was to create something digitally and bring it into the real world.
How did you pick which rapper gets what suit/number?
That’s funny [laughs]. I kinda base it off their music. 50 Cent got shot nine times, so I made him number nine. I put Drake as a Queen because I thought it would be funny, thinking about his personality. Also, artists are historically higher in the echelon of people’s minds. It comes down to the artists I listen to, too: Mac Miller, Kanye, Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, and Kendrick [Lamar]. I based some illustrations off parts of their music, too. SZA has a gold dove for “Doves In The Wind.” Mac Miller, I picked the colors based on Faces. Young Thug is green. A lot of the artwork is based [on] aesthetics.
You started the project in 2013. Talk to me about the evolution of the work across six years.
These are not drawn from 100 percent scratch. The old process was taking images, pulling them in Photoshop, and painting over top of them, which is what I learned from matte painting. Like Anderson .Paak. The overall shading and highlighting are built from the original image. With the vector style, I’ll add basic shapes and detail them. Nowadays, I have a tablet, and I take photographs and paint over them. I add things. I like to be open about [my process] because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I just like making things.
The first few illustrations were for fun and to have something to hang in the apartment. The more I got into hip-hop, I started basing the illustrations off of [the] music. I’ve learned more techniques. I’ve gotten better at lighting and making the image have more life. The Anderson .Paak one is a good example of how I’ve evolved. It’s probably one of my most detailed pieces. My most recent [work is the] Kanye West, Tierra Whack, and Chance The Rapper [pieces]. I like those styles.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you across the past six years of illustrating?
That’s a good question. I don’t want what I do to go stale. I don’t want the same style. Some of my most recent work has been starting to look the same. I try not to do that. I want to create new projects that are 180 degrees away from this one. I don’t wanna be stagnant. I do a lot of animation in my free time, too. That’s my next goal, incorporating illustration. If I create eight pieces, I don’t want them to look the same. [I want them to] stand on their own.
That’s also why, if you get this deck, it doesn’t look like the design was thought out from beginning to end [regarding] the [overall] aesthetic. Maybe my graphic design professor won’t be happy about that, but I also think it’s kind of cool.
In addition to the cards, you also do gorgeous prints. I have two in my apartment. How has the reaction to your work online surprised you?
I love it! It’s crazy to me! People in countries I haven’t even visited: New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany… They’ll order my artwork, and it blows my mind to know my artwork is out there in somebody’s place. That’s the craziest thing to me, especially growing up in a small town. I don’t make a lot of money off them. I don’t do it for the money right now. It’s cool my artwork is out there. It’s fun and exciting to see people talk about my artwork in a way I’ve never imagined.
One of my friends moved to Florida, and he walked into his buddy’s apartment, and my Freddie Gibbs piece was hanging in his apartment. I didn’t know the guy, and my friend didn’t know him until he moved to Florida. That was cool.
Best creative advice you’ve ever taken?
That’s the funny thing about growing up in a small town. I didn’t talk to a lot of creatives. My grandma was a painter, though. Working and talking with her meant a lot to me. It was cool seeing her being creative, and it inspired me to take this career path. It’s not a thing she said, exactly. It was just working and seeing her be creative. It stuck with me, and I enjoy creating because of her.