GREG ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Welcome, Keef Cross, to (Heard It Thru) The Griotvine! How are you today?
KEEF CROSS: I'm doing great, thanks for having me.
GREG: Can you tell us a bit about yourself for those unfamiliar with you?
KEEF: Well, my name is Keef Cross, and I am a tattoo artist/art instructor/comic book creator based out of Atlanta.
GREG: You've been getting a lot of attention recently due to DayBlack. Now what is DayBlack?
KEEF: DayBlack is the name of my comic book, about a slave who gets bitten in the cotton fields, and in present day works as a tattoo artist.
GREG: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
KEEF: The inspiration came from working as a tattoo artist and meeting and having conversations with so many different types of people, and deciding to document these strange and sometimes hilarious stories into a comic strip with a tattoo artist as the main character. But it was when I saw the movie Interview with a Vampire that the whole vampire/slave aspect crept into the narrative.
GREG: What about the element of vampires spoke to you to incorporate that into this story?
KEEF: Well when I was watching Interview with a Vampire there was this part in the story where the two vampires, played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, were plantation owners and they would regularly feed off the slave women, and the slaves were furious about it and drove them from their home, and I said to myself, "There's an untold story in there somewhere". And since the tattoo industry is linked with blood, and at the time was sort of a subculture in itself, I guess the two worlds just kinda blended together in my head.
GREG: Some people feel as if vampires have been done so many times but I feel you've been able to add a bit of your own freshness to your take. Were you conscious about that? And what have you incorporated to make it a different type of vampire tale?
KEEF: Vampires have totally been overdone! I agree and it was never really my intention to do a vampire book. And honestly DayBlack is only technically a vampire book because Merce actually lives his day to day as a human and strives to be that, so you rarely even see his fangs. But he is a vampire and you will see others that have no qualms about bleeding someone. But I knew if I was gonna do it, it had to be something different. It had to be something culturally and socially relevant to me and my personal experience as a black man living in America.
GREG: What cultural and social aspects do you feel you've incorporated into this tale?
KEEF: I think the cultural aspects of the story, at least from my cultural standpoint start from Merce being introduced as a slave. Slavery already has horrible legacy in the minds and hearts of most black people, so that weight is instantly transferred when you first see Merce. In the present day, we see Merce interact with a variety of people from all cultures by tattooing them. I think the most notable cultural and social portion of the story are the vampire hunters, who are all of Mexican descent. I decided to do this because I noticed how Mexicans in this country kind of became the butt of the jokes as far as taking menial jobs for next to nothing and almost seeming like the new black people. And blacks were taking the roles of looking down on them, as we were, and still are by white America. So keeping this in mind, I made them guardians of the human race, migrating to America, only because of its high vampire population. Most hunters working as landscapers, so them having machetes, chainsaws, and other tools that could be used to dispatch a vampire would never be questioned.
GREG: I loved that part about the Mexican workers secretly being the protectors against the vampires. Merce also has a very interesting relationship with one of the hunters, which I felt was very interesting. But I'll leave it at that as I refuse to spoil it for future readers! So how has the reception been for the book?
KEEF: The reception has been overwhelming. I would have never expected people to like it so much. I've always considered myself an artist first and writer second, so when people tell me how much they love the story as well as the art, it feels amazing.
GREG: So let's talk about the art now that you mention it. It's not a style I'm used to seeing and it makes it a lot more fun to look at due to how different it is. Can you tell us about your artistic style and how you came about developing it? It's rather abstract and experimental.
KEEF: It's kind of hard for me to describe my style of art. I've heard it described by others as folk art, or African influenced, and I can see that. I will say that my strongest influences came from the art of 70's cartoonists. Ralph Bakshi, Robert Crumb, and Vaughn Bode, also books like ElfQuest by Richard and Wendy Pini, and BrotherMan by Dawud Anyabwile and Guy Sims were monumental influences.
GREG: Do you think being a tattoo artist has enforced your style in your books in any way?
KEEF: I don't think being a tattooist has necessarily influenced the art of the book, although I've heard a lot of people say that it has. I don't know. Maybe I'm too close to it to notice.
GREG: I'm actually really excited to interview a tattoo artist, haha! I love the art of tattoos even though I don't have any myself. But what got you interested and involved in tattoos?
KEEF: Well how I got into tattooing was, I had just graduated from art school and moved back to Atlanta with my newborn baby girl and moved back in with my mother while I looked for work. I ran into a guy who liked my art and told me to go holler at another guy that owned a tattoo shop about starting an apprenticeship. I went down there, drew something for him on the spot and he hired me. Now keep in mind I had no previous interests in tattoos whatsoever, so I took the job the same way I would've took a job airbrushing or sculpting or doing any kind of art. I just looked at it as another discipline for me to master. It is in retrospect I wish I had the desire to go and seek out a proper apprenticeship under an artist that I respected, rather than the first person that hired me. If I had done that I probably would be a stronger tattoo artist right now. And that's not to say that I'm not a good artist but the passion for it isn't there like it should be in all great tattoo artists. I found my passion in illustrating and storytelling. But it's just ironic that my true passion sprung from a profession that I really didn't have any passion for and that's when DayBlack was born. Because if I didn't end up being a tattoo artist, DayBlack never would have happened.
GREG: Often one of the big surprises from artists is stumbling on another aspect of art and realizing there's another world they never planned on. While we're talking about tats, and we'll talk about the DayBlack film soon, there's a part in the film where Merce mentions wanting to do his own thing instead of doing what clients always choose. Is that something you also struggle with as an artist? I can sort of see a correlation of the artist always getting hired to do other people's work but no real investment in what the artist themselves would like to do.
KEEF: Early on, one of the main issues that I would have with tattooing was constantly doing flash, which is designs off of the wall, and not being able to do my own work. You'll see that reflected in the comic book. When I wrote that, it was a major issue for me. It's not an issue so much anymore because now I do a lot more custom work and I have more clients coming in and asking to get work done in my own style so that's great. But mainly it's just artist ego, like I could be working on a 6-foot tall painting and have to be interrupted because somebody wanted to get a tattoo of SpongeBob SquarePants smoking a blunt! But I don't do those type of tats anymore, thank God.
GREG: Haha. Now on top of your book and tattooing, you've also been working on bringing DayBlack as a live action. Congrats on the short film, I thought it was fantastic.
KEEF: Oh, you saw the movie? Great! I'm glad you liked it!
GREG: Loved it, man. How did it all get started?
KEEF: Well the movie idea came about because I had just been published and I was feeling a tad invincible, so I said, "Why not write a script for a film?" Since that is the trend nowadays, I thought I should be prepared in case Hollywood came knocking. So I wrote a script with Mos Def penned as the role of Merce. Once I finished the script, I decided to reach out to some people I knew that were aspiring filmmakers. I gave the script to a guy named Justin Jordan who at the time was directing my wife in a web series called Mommy Uncensored. He dug the script and we began casting.
GREG: Were you always planning on going to different mediums with DayBlack?
KEEF: I didn't really plan on doing different mediums with DayBlack until I saw the response to it, then I was like "Oh, if y'all like it like this then you'll definitely like it like this!" Animation is the next frontier and actually seems like the most natural transition.
GREG: Ooh, DayBlack animated?!
KEEF: DayBlack animated is just another idea and I haven't had much time to properly devote to making it a reality. Right now I still have a story to tell, and once that's done, I'll focus on other storytelling avenues.
GREG: I'll be real with you. When I first found out DayBlack was going to be a short film, I was initially a bit skeptical due to wondering how the hell would you be able to achieve some of what's in the book. There are a lot of very trippy scenes and imagery, like the two-headed lion motif. You ended up taking a bit more of a grounded approach. How did you go about figuring out what could work while keeping the essence of the book intact?
KEEF: Yes, the book has some very trippy scenes and I knew when I was writing the script that a lot of it wouldn't be possible to film on our budget, so I just took the essence of the story, which essentially is about a man who has been one way for the majority of his life and wants to change and be more. This is a theme that I've struggled with personally, and I think others have as well, so I knew that theme would resonate with people. Essentially the short film is a demo of sorts, of what DayBlack can be as a possible television series or feature length film, and I believe that even films with a lot of CGI must have a strong story first, so that's the reasoning we used while shooting DayBlack.
GREG: There were parts that were removed from the story and things added in the film that were a pleasant surprise. Things that had to do with Merce's family and former love interest. Were these parts planned for a later part of the comic and brought forward or is this a new plot entirely new for this movie?
KEEF: The scenes from the movie are definitely parts of the story. We just condensed it to have more of a story arc. A lot of what you see in the film won't be told in the comic until volume 2 of the graphic novel.
GREG: Oh nice! There are some creators who want every adaption of their works to be different from the comics, like Mike Mignola and Hellboy. Are you in that same camp?
KEEF: Did I mention that Mike Mignola is my all time favorite comic book artist? I want my adaptation to be as close to the source material as possible. I think change comes with collaboration and can be a good thing but can also, in my opinion, askew a pure vision from the artist. When I first began to work on DayBlack, I would try working with other writers because I was still unsure of myself as a writer, but the more I would try to collaborate and listen to other people's take on the story and characters, the more I knew that only I could tell this story because so much of Merce and his life is based on my own. That's why I respect storytellers like Tarantino, (early) Spike Lee and Woody Allen, because when you go see their movies, you know it's their pure complete vision, from the writing to directing.
GREG: It's hard to see DayBlack done differently than how it currently is. Now has there been any type of movement or progress in attracting Mos Def for Merce?
KEEF: There hasn't been much movement as of yet. I have sent copies of the script and book to his management, so my fingers are crossed. But I literally believe this was the role he was born to play.
GREG: While I love the idea of Mos Def for Merce, I'm hoping you get your current actor for Merce, Eugene H. Russel IV, to still have a role in the production.
KEEF: Definitely! Eugene H. Russel IV absolutely killed the role of Merce! Hearing him first give a voice to Merce in script readings is something I'll never forget, and Justin and me assured the cast that if DayBlack is taken to the next level, they will be included in some capacity.
GREG: I'm very happy to hear that! We're getting ready to wrap up but I do want ask about Rosarium Comics. I've been really enjoying their output. How did you get involved with Rosarium?
KEEF: I ended up being published by Rosarium through Facebook. At the time, I was just posting images of DayBlack when I was attempting to self publish. Bill Campbell approached me and said he had a new publishing company and he wanted DayBlack to be the first comic book on his roster. I was shocked because earlier that year I had sent a version to Top Cow publishing who publish Indie comics and was rejected because they said it wasn't strong enough to compete. And they were right. The story and art were sub par because I wasn't fully invested in it yet. As an artist, I wasn't used to rejection and I didn't like that shit one bit. So I used that as fuel to get my ass in gear, and focused on my writing and my style of art. It wasn't until then that Bill reached out.
GREG: Good on Campbell for that! What advice can you give other creators out there, especially after that back-story of the rejection?
KEEF: The best advice I could give someone is buckle down and work. If you're serious, there are no shortcuts. Put as much of yourself into your work as possible and avoid trends at all costs.
GREG: Where can people find you and your work?
GREG: Thanks for coming by, Keef. It was an absolute pleasure! Any final words?
KEEF: Thanks for having me ! This was an awesome interview! One of the best I've had so far!
GREG: Awww. You're making me tear up! Keef Cross, everyone! Be sure to check out DayBlack and watch the short film below!