If you’re a fan of the comics published by Vice, have ever listened to any Run the Jewels, spend megabucks adorning yourself with merchandise on Witchsy, or lose hours hunting creepy, irreverent loops on Giphy, the name Gazin might ring a few bells. What you might not know is that there’s two of them, Penelope and Nick, and they’re brother and sister, not husband and wife.
Separately they make often explicit illustrations inspired by B-movies, vintage sci-fi, and “the Barnes & Noble graphic novel section.” Both have seemingly endless side projects, from bands and dance troupes, to microwave meal reviewing and DJing. But that’s how they like to keep their careers. Separate.
Like all good siblings, Nick and Penelope have a strong love/hate relationship, equal parts visceral contempt and doe-eyed adoration, which makes their recent decision to host an exhibition together—the brilliantly-titled Gazinzag— a little hard to understand. Who in their right mind would bring family dynamics into their working life, let alone stake their professional reputation on that pain in the ass they endured on car journeys as a kid? They elaborate:
Nick Gazin: We hate each other. We haven’t seen all that much of each other since I went off to art school in 2001. At times that’s been intentional. Penelope can really push my buttons, and I can push hers back. Neither of us enjoy ceding power to another person and we have both had issues with authority figures that have caused us problems our whole lives.
At the same time I have a deep respect for my sister. She is one of the funniest, most driven, uncompromising people I know. She has great personal style and I think she’s doing everything right.
Penelope Gazin: What he said. I had a show with Superchief last year at their Brooklyn location. They pitched the L.A. space to me, but I was intimidated because the space is really big and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to fill it up with art or with people. So I invited my brother to do the show with me out of fear and insecurity on a whim. I quickly regretted it; I would’ve been able to hold the show just fine on my own. I guess it was cool, though.
Did you ever have art shows as kids?
NG: Yes. When I was 11 I had an art show at a café around the corner from my house called Arcadia Coffee. I made one sale and I am still bitter about it.
PG: I actually wasn’t as into art as a kid, so I never had a show. I was mostly focused on ballet but was a generally creative and angsty child.
Which one of you is more successful?
NG: Penelope is in all measurable ways, most notably she has double the amount of Instagram followers I have.
PG: I guess I am in measurable terms, but Nick has more iconic images than I do. I can just hold up my hands and say he did the Run the Jewels covers and everyone realizes they’ve seen his art before.
How did you both get started, and did you ever help each other out along the way?
NG: Our mother is my favorite painter and was my primary source of encouragement from when I was a toddler. Check out Tani Conrad. She’s great. She would give me art supplies, take me to classes, help me put together my portfolio for art school. She had faith in me when there was no reason to. I owe her everything.
PG: I didn’t have as much help from my mom because I wasn’t as art focused growing up, but I knew she was always a resource when I needed it. I actually think the biggest influence on me was Nick. He really was a large factor in shaping my taste. When he went away to college when I was 12, I would sneak into his room and read his comics for hours, and it was sort of a sanctuary for me. I also went through every sketchbook and personal belonging, which I know he would’ve been pissed about.
Are your parents your biggest fans?
PG: Probably not. They are pretty happy we both aren’t in asylums or living at home all medicated up, because I think at one point in both of our teenage years they thought that was a possibility.
NG: I think the suspicion was that I’d never leave the nest or I’d just kill myself. My biggest fan is a construction worker named Keith Lee. He’s showed up at my house covered in white dust from working a 12-hour shift so he could buy art from me before returning to his wife and kid to help her edit a video.
Both of you make pretty explicit work. Are the Gazins traditionally a lusty family?
NG: One time my mom told me that my dad is unnaturally horny. I’m a pretty sexy guy, too. I can’t speak for how horny my mother, sister, or brother are.
PG: We are horned up. We weren’t molested, though. My ex once told me people would think I was slutty because of the kind of art I make.
What was the Gazin household like growing up—did you share comics collections, art supplies, and other cute stuff?
PG: Nick did buy me some comics, but I mostly stole his and got my grubby little fingers all over them and creased the pages.
NG: At one point we had 28 rabbits running around, shitting everywhere, and being adorable. Our dad is a weirdo from L.A. who used to be a street performer, doing his mind reading act. Our mother went to Yale. We also have a brother named Charlie who has severe social anxiety. I spent a lot of time alone reading and obsessing about the things I wanted to do and things I wanted to own.
How does Charlie feel about you two being so close in terms of what you do for a living?
PG: Charlie is a complicated guy. He probably feels left out in some way, but I think he feels left out in every way considering he’s lived in Asia in some unknown second-world area for two or three years, and has completely written off Western society. He claims he will never return to America.
Why is your art so mean?
PG: Our dad is a little mean so we got it from him. I’m better at taking it than Nick is, though. He gets sensitive. I’m an impenetrable force and cannot be discouraged, which is a very helpful characteristic to have as an artist.
Nick used to tell me my art sucked up until three years ago when I started to catch up to him. I think my toughness was developed as a defense mechanism as a kid, but it’s not anymore. I’m a self-sustaining emotional bio-dome.
NG: Part of the reason I said that is because you had these dudes around who were just kissing your ass because you were a pretty girl who did something. I think they probably saw it as a hobby, affectation, or quirk, and I was concerned that you’d stagnate and stop improving if everyone was telling you you were great while you were still developing.
“I believe people only learn through trauma and will typically do the bare minimum unless they’re scared.”
You both do a lot of other stuff outside of illustration though. How come the Gazin hustle is so strong?
PG: Mine is not driven by finances. I somehow figured out how to make more money than I needed at age 18 by selling vintage on eBay, that then turned into selling prints and T-shirts of my artwork around age 21. I like to try every creative medium and will never stop chasing the art dragon, because if I stop I will be alone with my thoughts.
NG: I’ll keep chasing the art dragon and the traditional dragon.
You’re also both pretty busy promoting the work of other artists and illustrators. Why’s that?
PG: I don’t get artists who feel competitive with one another. We all do something different, and if you feel confident in your original thought you shouldn’t be worried about someone else being more successful than you, or someone who may be kinda ripping you off. Just make what you’re gonna make and don’t let your social neuroses affect your work.
Nick promotes other artists as the comic book editor for Vice, and I co-founded an e-commerce platform, Witchsy, that is like a curated Etsy for artists. Many of our artists are already established, but a lot are artists who just needed a starting off point and guidance on making “art merchandise” and subsequently being able to make money from their work. I get a bit of a high “discovering” people and getting them their first jobs, or teaching them how to open their own online store.
NG: I’m not the comics editor, I’m the art editor. I just also deal with the comics. I’d like to say that like 75% of the people I’ve hired for the Vice Comics section have gotten book deals out of it. I see myself as fighting a war against mediocrity. When beauty wins, I win.
What about selling your work to big brands? Do you have strong ethics about that kind of thing?
PG: No, we have no ethics. I don’t think either of our styles really scream “commercial,” but we both could make it work. We’re both open to most opportunities. Anyone who says they don’t do brand work because of ethics is probably just not getting that much work and is being defensive. That is my pet peeve; people who are defensive and make excuses.
NG: I did some stuff for Nike that never came out. I’ve taken photos for Rockstar Games. I did art for those Scion sponsored garage singles. I did a Colt 45 ad. I was a model for Uniqlo. I’ve worked for Vice since 2002. I used to work for Camel Cigarettes giving away cigarette coupons at bars.
My main goal is to be able to keep affording to live in New York and draw, and do as much creative work as I can while I’m alive. I have other goals that branch off of that, but survival is number one. I would sell out harder if I could but I can’t. My brain will only allow me to compromise so much, and I only have so much versatility.
NG: I don’t see sharing aspects of my personal life on Instagram as a price I’m paying. I like Instagram, and I make art because I like creating flattened 2D representations of my thoughts and feelings with a mass audience. I don’t see this as a new thing. I think that if people think they know you it gives the art they like some context. Would David Bowie’s music be as popular if he looked like some average shmo and wasn’t captivating in interviews?
PG: It feels strange to me. Sometimes it’s nice but sometimes it freaks me out and makes me feel vulnerable. In some ways I like that people already feel connected to me, but sometimes I meet people and I don’t want them to feel connected to me.
Do your fans frighten you? Some of them seem to want you to do bad things.
NG: I don’t know if the word fan means what it once did since everyone’s on social media and has the power to express themselves to strangers with words, texts, and videos. At one point this was a power that was reserved for a select few, but now we can all be artists and the only gatekeeper is whether you can afford a smartphone or not. At one point maybe there was “famous” and “not famous,” but now we’re all on the same fame spectrum, but at different levels.
PG: I like it when someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I like your work,” but I get uncomfortable when people tell me I’m their favorite person ever or start to freak out, because I don’t feel worthy of that kind of worship. I also get some creepy love letters and messages from guys. I specifically have a P.O. box so that a fan cannot obtain my return address and stalk me. If I was a man I would not have to pay $300 a year for a P.O. box.
NG: People are creeps online and creepy men get to be anonymously gross. Penelope once showed me a Facebook message from an ex-college professor of hers who told her out of the blue that he wanted to “rock out with her, spank her, and kiss her.” People are scum.
What do you most love about the other?
NG: I like how hot she is. I’m really proud of having a smoking hot babe for a sister.
PG: Nick is very original and one-of-a-kind and genuine. Nothing he does is to be “cool” or an act. He’s also a pretty kind person overall.
NG: One of the things I respect about my sister is that, although she’s an attractive lady, it’s not the strength she trades on the most. She isn’t afraid to be gross, or present herself in a less than flattering light. I think Instagram has led a lot of young women to become even more obsessed with and nervous about their appearance than before. My sister’s online persona seems to be about taking the piss out of that garbage way of being—she made this hilarious makeup tutorial that was all about how to make your mouth look more like a vagina.
There’s a good amount of female artists on Tumblr and Instagram where it seems like what they draw and paint is secondary to the photos they post of themselves looking cute and holding a paint brush. It often seems like making art is a chore they have to do in order to get to have the identity of being an artist and getting to make proclamations about art.
Penelope is an artist, business person, dancer, and musician first, and a pretty lady last.
PG: Wow that’s so sweet! Nick is also a pretty lady last.
What’s the secret to being a solitary artist and not going insane?
NG: If you’ve seen the art I make you might already know that I’ve had some close calls in the past 10 years. I’ve found that mushrooms are great for getting over pain and getting some perspective. Penelope thinks that getting a tattoo can help you feel better. I take vitamin D pills, have a beautiful cat I adore, some house plants. I try to go and walk to a place and get coffee instead of just making my own, so that I see humans.
PG: I don’t think either of us have any real advice on that.