Jonathan Bousfield meets Igor Hofbauer, Zagreb’s best-known and best-loved graphic artist.
If Zagreb had a recognisable look, then the work of Igor Hofbauer would form one of its key ingredients. The graphic artist’s instantly recognisable posters, flyers and programmes for alternative rock club Močvara have become ubiquitous elements of the city’s street-level identity. Hofbauer’s style mixes film noir, fifties’ Sci-Fi, Russian constructivism and the gritty cityscapes of suburban Zagreb to create a seductive urban aesthetic. As well as his poster work, Hofbauer has published graphic fiction, designed book jackets, and painted highly arresting murals inside both the Močvara club and the Spunk Bar.
Hofbauer’s book ‘Prison Stories’, a collection of graphic novellas set in a dark world of suffocation and paranoia, has become a cult title among Europe’s alternative comic-reading set. He has also illustrated ‘Betonske Priče’ (‘Concrete Tales’), a book of short stories penned by Zagreb writer Edo Popovi©; and did the artwork for a comic-strip biography of Miroslav Krleža (Croatia’s greatest 20th-century novelist), to be published in both Belgrade and Zagreb later this year.
Q: How did you start drawing posters, did your interest in music lead to your interest in posters, or was it the other way round?
A: Whenever I try to work out how and why I started, I always go back to the impact of the first poster I ever remember seeing as a child. It was a poster for a reggae band (Black Uhuru, I think) that featured a half-naked man with a monkey on his shoulder. It was stuck to the wall of a dark pedestrian underpass that led towards my local tram stop in Novi Zagreb, and it conveyed some kind of conspiratorial aura. Although I didn’t really understand the codes of alternative culture at that age, I did experience some kind of turbulence, and a desire to get out of my neighbourhood and explore the rest of what was still for me an unknown city.
Ten years later I went to a concert by Russian-Estonian ska-punk band Ne Zhdali and saw a DIY poster that had been made for them by the Pula-based musician Nadan Rojnić. It was drawn in felt pen and then photocopied, but looked wonderful. From that moment I knew that I also wanted to belong to that scene, and soon afterwards I was designing posters for Močvara. I also started with simple black-and-white designs that were drawn in marker pen and then photocopied. It was a great way of learning how to deliver the maximum amount of graphic impact with a minimum of resources.
Q: Are there any examples of Croatian graphic art that were a particular inspiration?
A: The first things that left a big impression on me – a much bigger impression than anything in the graphic world might have today – were the huge theatre posters made by Boris Bućan. Bućan treated his posters as a way of putting fine art into public spaces. The informational content of the poster – which is supposed to be the main message – was reduced to a strip of hard-to-read writing that went around the side, but the visual content screamed out at the public. The Croatian National Theatre benefited hugely by being associated with Bućan’s visual style – they’ve never had a stronger visual identity.
Another important influence was the graphic work of design duo Greiner and Kropilak, who perfected a retro look, working with old fonts from the 20s and 30s and printing on sepia paper – the results looked really very distinguished.
Q: Is there a particular Croatian tradition of illustration and did it have any impact on your style?
A: When I was a child everything I knew about life came from a book called ‘Svijet oko Nas’ (‘The World Around Us’), an illustrated encyclopedia that employed a team of graphic artists that were among the best in Croatia. It’s from that book that I discovered how information could be made to look visually enchanting. I have constantly used it as a source of ideas; in fact I use ‘Svijet oko nas’ in the way that other people use Google images.
Nowadays most Croatian children learn about the world from the (largely American- or British-made) factual programmes shown on international TV docu-channels. ‘Svijet oko Nas’ was a shining example of the many things that were made for children in Croatia at that time, when we didn’t import knowledge from outside, but produced books ourselves. It represented our perception of how the world functioned, it wasn’t brought in from somewhere else.
Q: How did you move from being a poster designer to writing and illustrating your own graphic short stories?
A: I started illustrating the monthly programme booklets for Močvara in about 2000, and my artwork for them frequently took the form of a short comic strip of four or five frames. After I’d done about 40 of those I had the confidence to go into longer strip-cartoon narratives. Compared to posters, graphic storytelling is very demanding and you really have to throw yourself into it 100 per cent.
Q: Your stories are frequently set in grey urban landscapes, particularly among the Limenka (‘Tin Box’)-style blocks that characterise parts of Novi Zagreb. Why is the particular aesthetic of Novi Zagreb so present in your work?
A: Novi Zagreb became an important setting for my graphic fiction when I realised that this was a world that I knew far better than the all-powerful American iconography around which all other strip cartoons seem to revolve. Novi Zagreb provided me with a totally convincing landscape in which my narratives could unfold. Of course I used artistic license to depict a place that is home to me and thousands of others as a derelict ruin, a dystopia. In a way this is a reflection of Novi Zagreb’s unfulfilled destiny as a socially-planned ideal space.
Q: Concert posters and flyers have almost disappeared from the Zagreb streets. What is the future for graphic art in the city?
A: The city is increasingly packed with corporate advertising, a form which nobody really experiences as visual culture. So you could say that authentic visual culture is disappearing from the streets, but on the other hand it is mutating into other forms, such as street art, or web art. Street artists like Oko and Filjio have a strong presence and people are always excited to see what they do next.
Q: The Polish 20th-century artist Witkacy always wrote down a list of the drugs he was taking when producing his more phantasmagorical pictures. Do you have any similar confessions to make?
A: People often ask me what I took when I was drawing a particular piece. The world of comics and graphic novels is by its nature bizarre and it’s no surprise that people connect it with drugs. The truth is that it is absolutely impossible to draw anything unless you have full concentration. Even a beer will slow you down. What any graphic storyteller really needs is a strong cup of coffee.
Q: Finally, what are your plans for 2012?
A: My French publisher is talking about doing a book that will involve about 50 pages of graphic fiction. I am providing the narrative as well as the pictures. A horde of Adriatic zombies taking over a holiday hotel will probably feature in it somewhere.
I won’t be going to any comic festivals this year because they always end up being one week of drinking followed by one week of recovering. That’s not because drinking is an official part of the programme; it’s more because I tend to suffer from what you might call ‘intensive socialising’.