I found Mike Moses and Nepenthe Brewing while reviewing candidates for our Best Beer Labels of 2020 and, honestly, shame on you readers for not sending more votes his way. His work belongs right at the top of the best labels out there and I felt obligated to put them front-and-center in your eye holes. Words don’t do his work justice and I feel severely challenged to try.
Thirsty Bastards: My favorite label you’ve done is “Spectral Burden”? Can you tell me the story behind its conception?
Mike Moses: This was one of the first pieces where they told me to just do whatever I wanted to, and as such I started with some of my favorite subject matter. I think that’s fairly common for me to do- To select things that I want to draw and then to develop a narrative based around them and flesh it out that way.
The storyline that came about in this regard was deliberately ambiguous, but is something in the vein of how we carry the weight of heavy things in our lives, whether it be loss, grief, trouble, our mortal coils. There are nods to the things that lead us and the things that pursue us and where we are in the middle with that struggle… ever running. I have ascribed designations to the characters of this piece: The Dead, The Dying, and The Free.
Specifically with this piece I’d like to refrain from getting TOO specific, but you can take it from there.
TB: What is your favorite label you’ve done so far for Nepenthe and why?
MM: Man, that’s a really tough one. I’ve been really fortunate to have great concepts coming from them combined with their willingness to really let me drive on a lot of it so it really caters to my aptitudes and tastes a lot. They’re great people and great friends and the freedom they give me is totally my life’s blood.
AT GUNPOINT, I’d have to say that “Werewolf Deathgrip” is a top contender for a lot of reasons. Beyond the subject matter being awesome, I was really proud of the execution of the design. It’s still so much fun to look at. The colorwork on it is also a huge reason I love it so much.
I was having a really hard time with some artist’s block on that one in the early phases of it. It’s always paramount to me to do something unexpected with any request and I always put a lot of emphasis on doing something with the design that people wouldn’t normally think of in some fashion or another. A lot of things I had sketched out just weren’t working the way that I wanted them to so I decided to go for a walk in a local nature preserve that I hadn’t yet really explored.
After taking a short hike through a meandering wooded path, it opened up into a clearing with a little pond and a meadow. In that meadow there was a burial mound, which mostly are attributed to the little-understood Adena culture, in this particular region. I took a couple of photos with my phone using a particular black and white filter, and had the idea to base the color scheme on the vibe of this old silvertone film look. Everything kind of fell into place after that.
The design for the humanoid/skeletal werewolf holding a flowing swan in mid-swoon in its teeth… The addition of the pink tones… Everything. I hadn’t produced anything for them yet in that range, not only in regards to color, but value as well. Most things at the time were largely mid-tones for whatever reason, and the amount of contrast in this piece just hit so much harder. I love it.
TB: How did you get started making labels for Nepenthe?
MM: I met Brian [Arnold] actually because he got tattooed by me here in Ohio. We hit it off really well right out of the gate. He’s an interesting and intelligent guy and we just jived.
Having him prisoner for many hours at a time, seeing as how we were doing a whole sleeve on him in color, I had 2 years to basically bitch about not only my bad experiences in freelance, but also my passion for it. They were in the early stages of getting their brewery off the ground, so it just kind of naturally evolved into a discussion about if I were to do anything for them, how it would go and what we would do, and we both just got more and more excited the more we talked about it.
I make it a point not to press too hard when people bring things like that up, but we kept talking and stayed stoked until they started getting their brick and mortar in progress. My first commission from them was for the 3 murals that hang in the taproom to this day. Those were just a HUGE amount of fun, and the largest works I’d done for anyone at that point… And STILL ARE, I think.
I guess I didn’t screw them up too badly seeing as how when they opened their canning line they had me continue to make pieces for them, and we haven’t stopped since. They’re my longest-running client at this point, with the largest number of commissions I’ve ever done for one company. We’re all still having a good time with it, so there’s no end in sight!
As far as work for [Nepenthe], I’ve done everything they have on a can. Every single one. Some of them have been the art for the murals if I were behind or unavailable for whatever reason, which is wonderful that they would be so patient and not just hire someone else. Consistency I’m sure is a lot of it but I also just like to tell myself that they love me haha! I think that we’re up to like… 36 labels now?? It’s a lot.
TB: Where are you from and where did you learn to be an artist?
MM: I’m originally from a place called Roanoke, VA (not the mysterious one… the boring one) in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s just a little city in a really pretty part of Virginia, and doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot going on… Or at least it didn’t when I was a kid.
I moved to Richmond, VA when I was 18 for college and attended VCU for sculpture and drawing for a few years but eventually dropped out. I wasn’t terribly impressed with my education, as so much of it felt like regurgitations of the last decade or more of public school art classes and after-school programs, which I’d been involved in since I was little.
A lot of it I think was that it was someplace for me to be while my single mother worked, sort of like a cheap daycare situation, but fortunately it played to the aptitudes and interests I already had. My identity has revolved around being an artist since at least kindergarten and I’ve always leaned into it as much as I could.
When I unceremoniously quit college, I was already working at a tattoo shop in town at the front desk, cleaning, answering the phones and that kind of thing. It was sort of a natural progression to start tattooing when I got offered an apprenticeship by my mentor, Fred Pinckard. That was way back in 2003-ish, and I’ve been tattooing for 18 years now. A lot of how I draw for tattoos and how I illustrate feed back and forth into one another and the way I execute things cross-pollinates a lot between them.
TB: Can you tell me a bit about your process? Are you all digital? Traditional? Mix of both?
MM: My process is pretty varied depending on what I’m working on. I still consider myself a traditional artist, though much of what I’ve been doing in the illustration realm has been undeniably digital.
My process always starts on paper. I don’t really care for sketching digitally. It loses a lot of the organic vibe that you have when you work on paper and that isn’t something that I’m willing to give up. Further, I just feel like it’s a hell of a lot faster for me to draw on paper. I’d spend too much time dicking around with brushes, trying to find something that has the right nuance for sketching, which ultimately wouldn’t matter in the end because it would never be seen. I know that I have a tendency to chase rabbits, so to speak, so having a simple, real-world medium, helps me get things moving.
After the sketch is fleshed out enough for me to see what I want to see, I transfer that to the digital realm by either scanning or taking a photo if I’m in a pinch. My scanner and I have a love/hate thing going on… it’s a total piece but I need it, so I just changed its name on the network to “Pile Of Garbage” or something like that.
After it’s scanned, I transfer that to Photoshop. I have a high tendency to draw things in pieces, probably owing that to my ADHD. It’s easier for me to focus on one part at a time if it’s something complex and it usually is.
After I make any adjustments it needs, then I plug that into a template for the label so I can see where things need to be and set a scale to everything. That final sketch then gets sent to my iPad and I build the rest in Procreate. The finished art is kicked back to Photoshop and finalized and then sent to the client. Boom.
Honestly I’d love to get back to more natural mediums. I love painting in acrylic, but the digital format is just so much faster. And seeing as how I’m usually getting paid in a lump sum with a deadline, I have to be efficient.
TB: What other art do you make?
MM: Well my present dominant trade is tattooing. A huge amount of my time and energy go into that, and it’s still what I produce the most of. Outside of that, I still love to build things… I’ve made a lot of fixtures for my tattoo shop, Cauldron, and I occasionally make some furniture for my home. I don’t really make a whole lot of art for myself anymore, which is something I’d like to change. I don’t think that it’s uncommon for professionals to pull back on what they do in their free time though. Monetizing your interests is a double-edged sword. Inevitably, if you spend your whole day doing something, it loses its appeal outside of work. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to, I suppose more that that particular itch already gets scratched quite thoroughly.
TB: How can your fans find you and your work? Can they buy your art?
MM: Mostly you can see my work on my instagram account. I have a hard time keeping other things updated just because I’m so busy all the time, and that is the one thing that I’m able to keep up with the most. I have a website as well, but it’s really out of date. I plan to get back around to that but man… only so many hours in the day. I don’t have too much of my work for sale at the moment but I have PDF editions of two previous books of mine on my store site, and will be releasing hopefully two more books later this year. The first one is very nearly finished, so that will be out soon I hope. My website is www.thedrowntown.com, and everything can be reached through that.
TB: True or false: The best beer label art looks like it could also be Magic: The Gathering card art.”