An Interview with the Illustrator of the Iconic Thunderdome flyers

Halfway through the nineties, I started collecting gabber-flyers. I had to do it in secret because my parents didn’t allow me to. Baldheads, shiny fluorescent tracksuits, flags on the sleeves of bomber jackets and militarized rhythms in laser-lit sports halls. According to my parents this wasn’t a good environment for a ten-year-old from Bloemendaal, the Netherlands. The flyers for these events -with images of devils and naked devil women shrouded in skulls- didn’t really contribute to the thoughts we had about the scene. And so I hid my precious flyer collection in a big bag in a bush in the garden, to try to copy and admire them for hours when I found myself at home alone.

What fascinated me most about the flyers were the saturated colours and distinct illustrations. Looking back, these were the consequences of growing up with eighties cartoons and horror, fantasy and science fiction films like Ghostbuster, Indiana Jones, Robocop and G.I. Joe. Those were the genres that by that time I already felt a deep and profound love for. There could also be found some overlap with the imagery of the comic books I collected. In short, my ten-year-old mind was being tickled. It was a love that would never fade away.

One particular flyer was special to me. This was the flyer of the Earthquake-Edition event at the Hemkade in Zaandam, from 1996. I bought it from a classmate for five guilders. The flyer portrayed a robot surrounded by mechanical parts of his mask floating around in a cloud of electricity. Piercing orange eyes contrast with the strong turquoise and blue that dominated the flyer. The robot is framed by something that reminds me of an electronic interface. The information about the event is written in strong typography, the timetable written in the font of a digital alarm clock.

The robot on the flyer is an airbrush illustration by Victor Feenstra, responsible for the iconic Thunderdome artwork that adorned all the CDs and merchandise from part seven until part 22. When I found the Earthquake flyer the other day on Marktplaats (the Dutch eBay), I realised that it was time to look for Victor. Who was this man behind the artwork that managed to entertain three generations of gabber-kids? The man who is to gabber culture what ‘Pen & Pixel’ is to Rap? The man who rubberstamped an entire generation of gabber subculture? After some emailing back and forth we set a date for the interview and I was invited to his home.

When I arrived at the address, I thought for a second that I had written it down incorrectly. Victor’s house somehow didn’t look so Dutch. The Arco (Roman doorpost), the stained glass designs (“did it myself”), the Art Nouveau decoration and the Mediterranean colours reminded me more of an Almodóvar film set than a Dutch mansion. The contrast with how I imagined Victor’s world would be was huge.

Art Nouveau
Across the table sat a Burgundian man in his early forties dressed in white linen and sandals, his hair flicked to the back thoughtlessly, with a slightly waiting attitude. Except for Thunderdome, Victor also did the artwork for (amongst others) DJ Promo, Hellsound, the Happy Hardcore CD and Darkracer. With a nice glass of wine, we talk about Thunderdome, graffiti and, to my surprise, the influences of Art Nouveau on his work.

Feenstra: “I don’t come from an artistic family, although my grandfather was a draftsman and my mother was actually really good at drawing. When she was younger she used to design wallpaper. While I was studying I had concentration problems. From a very young age I was always doodling. Some parents said: ‘You have to study, get your degree and study more.’ My parents, especially my mom, stimulated me to find my own way.”

“I started at the Graphic School of Amsterdam and after that I went to the Art school of Rotterdam. I didn’t finish by the way; it was too free and loose for me. I was already working a lot as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. That didn’t really motivate me to study. I have always worked more as a graphic designer than as an autonomous artist. Strict deadlines bring out the best in me.”

“My love for graffiti led me to spend some nights in jail”

From a small graphic design studio in the Zaanstreek, Feenstra designed greeting cards, T-shirt prints and illustrations for Disney. He also did some airbrush and graffiti jobs on shop-shutters and facades of clubs.

“My interest in graffiti started in 1985. Delta and Shoe [legendary Dutch designers –ed] were the guys my friends looked up to. In those days I also had my first encounter with my big love, hip-hop. The first time I saw Style Wars was unforgettable. There was a drum machine in the background and a train passing by with art on it. When you’re 15 or 16 your reaction is like ‘wow, what’s that?’ All that violence in the lettering, that was something totally new. The free form of expression and the text instead of cartoons; that’s what inspired me. My love for graffiti led me to spend some nights in jail, but only when I was younger. When you start out, you run away from everyone that has a dog, but when you grow older you just continue with the piece. Of course sometimes it is a police officer, and then it’s jail time.”

Feenstra started to get more interested in airbrushing, a painting technique that came from the States and had more to do with a tattoo pen or mini aerosol than with a traditional paintbrush. His brother had a friend at a body shop in Amsterdam and organized the Custom Car Show with amazing Hot Rods and motors. “There I saw someone making an airbrush illustration on a Hot Rod for the first time. The technique fascinated me, so I bought one for myself. The book Sexy Robot by airbrush artist Hajime Sorayama had had a big influence on me. The effects that you can create with airbrush, like flares and the characteristic chromed-look, captivated me. Because I didn’t have a Harley tank or hood, I started out with the underside of my skateboard, and that needed a new piece every week.”

“At the start of the flyer era it was simple: fantasy books by artists such as Boris Vallejo were used by all design studios. The Earthquake figure for example came from the cover of a fantasy book (Bruce Pennington – Earthwork). From that drawing I used the head and adjusted it, and that became the Earthquake robot. That’s how many of the artworks started.”

“Either way I am inspired by seventies fantasy. My art teacher Ruth Pos introduced me to artists such as Rodney Mathews and Roger Dean. The Mysteryland flyers for example, are full of elements from fantasy and Art Nouveau. Or take the little devils from the Happy Hardcore series, those were inspired by figures from the books of Vaughn Bodé.”

Thanks to Tim Albers, a graffiti writer and friend, Feenstra was introduced to M-Design, the design studio of Miles Stutterheim (Duncan Stutterheim's brother). It was Tim that transformed the Wizard from Mode 2 (graffiti artist) into a full colour airbush, after the image was used on The Final Exam Flyer in 1992. “One day Eric Keijer and Miles Stutterheim came to my door to ask me if I wanted to do the artwork for the next Thunderdome flyer, Thunderdome VII. I was already freelancing, but didn’t really like the vibe of the advertising world and of the people that occupied it. Music was my passion and this opening came exactly at the right time.”

“What was striking to me were the parallels between the gabber and the metal scene"

The first Thunderdome CDs were released on Arcade Records. Arcade distributed the CDs and ID&T organized the parties. “I think that in the end they decided on not fighting about the name, but just on working together and starting a platform. ID&T didn’t have its own distribution in those days, so Arcade was a good organization to work with. The same applied to the flyers. But at some point, the scanning from books just had to stop. Books have copyrights, so you can’t just make a copy and put that on a CD. It was a little bit like the Wild West; no one ever paid for the rights to use that artwork. Flyers can get thrown away, but having CDs with Boris Valeo on the cover, well this is a trickier situation. We had already scanned most of the books, so then creating an identity and new artwork was the next challenge. We started brainstorming, I started visualizing a rough version and then we tried it out to see if it worked or not.

“For a small design studio we really did a lot in those times. We made websites, flyers, magazines (such as Thunder Magazine), music videos, basically everything. I worked as the Art Director of the studio and was also responsible for a big part of the artwork.”

There are so many great quotes from these times. “I just remembered the one about the Thunderdome subtitles. Miles used to come into the office in the morning with a naughty look in his eyes and say: ‘I have it! Caught In the Web Of Death.’ Stutterheim senior used to be the one who always found the catchy subtitles.”

Having a sense of humour for Thunderdome made sense, even though the music was known for being hard and dark. “What was striking to me were the parallels between the gabber and the metal scene. It was interesting to see that the gabber-kids, like the ones from the metal scene, liked to express themselves through merchandising such as T-shirts and accessories. There aren’t many scenes in which it as strong as these, and you don’t see it in other branches of dance. There are many similarities between the two scenes: in aesthetics, it’s both underground, both are rebelling against the establishment, etcetera. The only difference? Gabbers don’t have long hair.

“The making of the artwork started with looking for themes. We would watch horror and science fiction films, for example Childs Play with Chuckie. We would watch videotapes looking for shots and inspiration to use. I’m not a real horror lover, but the creative freedom and link to fantasy was of course very nice. I am much more of a romantic and am much more influenced by the work of Victor Horta, for example. That’s maybe seen best in the early flyers of Mysteryland. I have this predilection for architecture, but Art Horta and Alphonse Mucha are phenomenal. Art Nouveau also clearly has that fantasy element: that curl, that lash, usually dark and lurid. On the cover of Best of the Best Hardcore 100, that lash is clearly recognizable.”

"Stutterheim senior used to be the one who always found the catchy subtitles.”

According to Feenstra the artwork of Thunderdome is especially strong because only the gist of that was visualized. On an LP you can depict a whole story, but a CD just offers a canvas of 12x12cm. So everything had to be measured really carefully. That size resulted in the iconic centred heads with the piercing looks. “Sometimes I just sketched something that I then copied afterwards. Then I pasted something else on top of it, searching for the right composition. You can actually see that in the Chuckie-sketch, that I later pasted the hand with the knife onto the sketch. In the beginning all the drawing was done manually on illustration cardboard, but later it went through a digital scan of the artwork. From Thunderdome 17 on everything was done digitally. But I have always continued to do sketches manually.”

That was the golden age of the flyer. “Our printer always really tried to print everything the best way possible, with nice paper, a good lacquer and beautiful varnish. When the A5 flyer packs arrived with lots of text on it, no one was really willing to collect them. The fact that someone could easily distribute and sell those flyers in record stores and boutiques - that really took away the magic for me. The printing, the spot varnish, standing out with the beautiful and original forms; that was why we did it.”

From Thunderdome 21 onwards Feenstra started to design more cinematographic covers. Instead of a static image, it represented a scene. The subtitles were replaced by chapters. “My idea was to make the covers together with an accompanying story, that could be printed in the leaflet or be read on the website. But I think that the time wasn’t right anymore. ID&T got a lot of shit because they were seen as being too commercial. They were really susceptible to that kind of critique, and I think they laid a connection between the criticism and my colourful artwork. So suddenly they wanted it very minimalistic and underground. Look for example at the edition that has the completely black cover with only the logo on it. In my opinion that lacked that iconic element that the other Thunderdome artworks had. What can I say, I like abundant artwork, I like making a complete product. For example Digipacks: that’s like a complete, compact artwork. My dream wasn’t to get my own exposition, but to make a physical product, a book for example.”

In the time of Thunderdome, Feenstra listened mostly to Pink Floyd, but he understood the gabber-energy. In the early years everything was still so new, and everything that’s new, is cool. “The moment that you see a stroboscope in the smoke, the hypnotizing effect of the hard sound - that has an impact on you. My first house party was in the Waakzaamheid in the beginning of the nineties. Hip-hop turned into hip-house and acid. Humanoid met ‘Stakker Humanoid’ and ‘Rock To the Beat’ by 101 used to be my favourites, I actually jumped to that a lot myself”

Nowadays Feenstra doesn’t do fantasy or flyers anymore. “Around the year 2000 I decided that something had to change in my life, I was done with the flashy club scene. Maybe I gave too much, maybe everything went to quick, I don’t know. My relationship ended and at the same time I told ID&T that I wanted to leave. The company was changing rapidly and many new people were being hired. I think everything became a little too chaotic for me and I couldn’t find my own place in all of it anymore. While in the process of moving to Amsterdam, all my stuff was temporarily stored in my mom’s attic. A shaving mirror that was situated underneath a window functioned as a lens and set everything on fire. I lost almost all of my artwork and work from my younger years. That made me pretty sick. Miraculously about five of the Thunderdome originals survived the fire.

“Regarding the Thunderdome work: I think that I only started appreciating it later on. I’m a perfectionist and am now able to take some distance from it. It was iconic work and is fitting to the times. I think that in ID&T’s most important years I contributed something to the shaping of its identity. ID&T still uses my logo and I’m very proud of that.”

“The most fun I get from the actually the reactions and questions that I get from people… and an interview like this one today… or when I run into people that say: you made me start designing. That’s the fun stuff. That people get really into it. Of course that’s a big honour.”