Step into the retro world of John F. Malta, a West Bottoms-based artist whose creative journey is a blend of nostalgia, punk aesthetics, and a passion for eye-catching storytelling.
His vibrant imagination took Malta from his early days doodling in the classroom to his recent collaborations with iconic publications like The New York Times and the morbidly whimsical realm of Garbage Pail Kids.
“Even as a little kid, it’s the thing that has brought me the most joy and the thing that kind of makes me happy to be alive,” said Malta. “It’s nice to have found a way to establish that joy into a career as a professional illustrator.”
Click here to check out Malta’s growing portfolio.
Now that his passion is his profession, Malta is careful to keep the right mix of creativity-fueled and client-driven work, he said.
“I balance my professional practice with a lot of personal projects,” Malta continued. “My client projects that I work on are predominantly in the editorial and advertising space.”
“In addition to that, I do a lot of personally generated projects. I think it’s important to balance both creative art practices,” Malta emphasized.
His personal projects often evolve into art books, comics, or exhibitions, allowing him to alternate between telling others’ stories and expressing his own ideas.
Comics are one of Malta’s favorite storytelling mediums because of their accessibility and affordability, he said.
In his 2019 comic “Haunted Francis,” a punk kid named Haunted Francis experiences a life-altering event when a skull bursts out of his chest at the age of 12, wreaking havoc on his life. The character’s inability to hold a job or maintain a relationship because of the skull’s independent nature leads him on a path of self-discovery through professional wrestling.
“That project has led to an actual wrestler in Philadelphia who wrestles as that character now,” Malta shared. “It’s a very weird blurring of reality. The wrestler found the comic and reached out to me and was like, ‘I think I want to wrestle as this character, can we make a costume?’”
“It definitely feels like the convergence of so many different things that I have loved and been a fan of my whole life,” he continued. “It’s fun seeing people that I feel like would be the audience, connect with it.”
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Inspiration for a distinctive style
In the tapestry of Malta’s artistic world, inspiration is a thread that weaves through every piece of his work. The origins of his distinctive style stems from a nostalgic journey back to his childhood in the 1990s.
“I previously played in various punk bands when I was younger in high school. Punk aesthetics, and punk music is very much a big influence on shaping the sort of feeling and energy of my work,” Malta explained.
A combination of the visuals of 1990s Nickelodeon cartoons, 1970s punk aesthetic, and 1980s VHS tapes blend together to create a theme within Malta’s work, he said.
“I always watched a lot of Nickelodeon cartoons when I was growing up in the ’90s,” Malta shared. “’Aaahh!!! Real Monsters’ was one that I absolutely loved, and ‘Doug.’”
But it wasn’t just animated characters that left an impression on his creative spirit. Malta’s biggest inspiration comes from a live-action sitcom from his youth, he said.
“It was ‘The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” said Malta. “It’s a very surreal show. Because a lot of my work and my art has always been about storytelling in various ways, and the narratives in that show specifically have always had a really big influence on me.”
Creating for iconic publications
At the time his work was first published in The New York Times in 2011, Malta was living in New York City, where he attended grad school at the School of Visual Arts for illustration. He used a portfolio of mostly his personal work to reach out to various companies, institutions, publications.
Success required significant self promotion at the encouragement of one specific mentor, the late Marshall Arisman, who was the chair of the school’s illustration program. Malta relates to Arisman’s path as an artist, as he did a lot of personal work, but found ways to take that personal work and apply it to the world outside himself, he said.
“I feel like up until I went to that school and had him as a mentor of sorts, I really only saw my work fitting into the communities and people that I connected with, versus the world outside of the people I was connecting with. He really helped me see that,” said Malta.
“The Garbage Pail Kids is another project I had always wanted to work on. It had a big influence on me when I was younger,” he said of the satirical characters and style created in the 1980s as a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids and other pop culture elements of the day.
The opportunity arose through the international art exhibition Beyond the Streets, where Malta collaborated with a diverse group of artists to reimagine the iconic Topps trading cards that first featured the Garbage Pail Kids, letting him infuse his artistic vision into a beloved childhood memory.
Sketches, dreams come to life
When creating art for big publications like The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated for Kids, Malta frequently finds himself under tight deadlines.That pressure can produce a constructive challenge, he said.
“It helps to determine the amount of work that I would like to be able to generate. I still enjoy taking those assignments. Over time, I got used to figuring out how to solve a problem and finish an assignment within a very, very restricted timeline,” said Malta.
Hand-drawn sketches follow brainstorming in his creative process, before Malta turns to digital tools to complete the job.
“The iPad Pro and Procreate app have really dominated the illustration industry and helped me digitally expedite my process a little bit more for client projects,” he said. “I draw everything, send it to my laptop, and then color everything in Photoshop.”
As Malta’s artistic journey unfolds, he’s on the brink of some exciting projects, he said. One such venture is an animated short film adaptation of Haunted Francis, scheduled for completion next year — an achievement that aligns with his guiding principle: “To follow the things that you really want to do even if you feel like it’s not gonna lead to a career,” he shared.
“Even if you think that there isn’t an audience for it, or it can’t immediately equate to money, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea,” Malta said.
A solo exhibition at the Daum Museum in Sedalia, Missouri, also is on the horizon — opening in January. This exhibition is expected to offer a diverse showcase of Malta’s work, featuring paintings and installations that reflect the multifaceted nature of his artistry.
Click here to dive deeper into Malta’s work.