‘It’s All Hot Rods, Tattoos, Comics’: The Lowbrow Art of Tattooist and Comic Book Creator Simon Morse
Rolling Stone AU/NZ has partnered with Panhead Custom Ales to tell the stories of the New Zealand-based creatives who’re leading the way in lowbrow art.
For Simon Morse, a comic book creator, tattoo artist, and illustrator, lowbrow is not a dirty word.
Morse is based in Wellington, where he runs Dr Morse Tattoo Studio. The shop opened in 2012, but Morse’s art career began two decades earlier. Morse first made a mark with the original comic strip, Straitjacket Ninja, which appeared in the parody comic zine, Pistake, in the early 1990s. It was a kung fu parody with Straitjacket Ninja as the main character.
“He wasn’t even a martial artist,” says Morse, who’s on the phone to Rolling Stone Australia during a typically busy day at Dr Morse. “He was a racing car driver, but he was insane and he thought he had magical kung fu powers. So they put him in a straitjacket.”
Morse fondly describes the Straitjacket Ninja comics as “pretty silly”, but the character was good enough for Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the brains behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics.
“About 1995 I jumped on a plane and went to America,” says Morse. “I was really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and so I went to their offices and showed them my artwork and they gave me a job.”
Morse initially started working on the Turtles comics, but Eastman took a shine to Straitjacket Ninja and decided to publish Morse’s creation through one of his comic book imprints, Kitchen Sink Press.
Morse’s next assignment was more risqué than the family-friendly Turtles. “You know Glenn Danzig?” he says, referring to the founder of the bands Misfits, Danzig, and the adult-oriented comic book publisher, Verotik. “I met him in San Diego and I started illustrating Satanic horror porn,” Morse says.
Morse had been obsessed with drawing since a young age, and the passion bloomed once he discovered comics in his early teens. The British sci-fi comic, 2000 AD, was an early influence.
“Judge Dredd and all that stuff,” Morse says. “It was escapism, and it was also like a drug or a hit—I couldn’t wait for the next week’s comic to come out. When you’re that young, you’re just blown away by these professionals drawing ultra-violent stuff.”
After leaving America, Morse had a brief stint making comics in Japan before returning to New Zealand. Back in Wellington, he found work as an illustrator and graphic artist for Illicit Clothing and the branding agency, Inject Design. In 2012, he opened Dr Morse. Ten years later, Morse still hasn’t created a tattoo flash sheet.
“I just design tattoos that people want,” he says. “Mostly I just draw it straight onto their skin with felt pens, freehand it.”
Given his background in comics, he gets asked to do a lot of nerdy, lowbrow stuff. “People come to me for Marvel, Star Wars, that kind of stuff,” he says. “But what I actually enjoy doing and what I do a lot of is nature, like plants, trees, animals. Really colourful stuff. It ends up looking quite vibrant a lot of the time.”
Morse’s comic art bona fides have made him something of a cult figure in Aotearoa. Around 2014, Morse got a call from graphic designer Anton Hart, who was handling the art direction for the then-burgeoning Upper Hutt brewery, Panhead Custom Ales.
“I’d known Simon for a bit and I knew that he loved that whole Rat Fink style, which we adopted and changed for The Vandal,” Hart told Rolling Stone Australia earlier this year.
The Vandal is an 8% NZ IPA and it was the first beer in Panhead’s custom ale range. Morse’s label art was directly influenced by Rat Fink, a hot rod character created by American artist and hot rodder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s. Since then, Morse has illustrated over 30 labels for Panhead.
Most recently, Morse also provided the illustration for Panhead’s Rolling Stone collaboration, Nayslayer, a 6.5% Pacific IPA.
“Lowbrow is kind of like hot rods, comics, monsters, what I would call bubble-gum graphics or skateboard graphics, which is all stuff that I’m heavily influenced by,” he says. “It’s all hot rods, tattoos, comics—all that fun stuff.”