Buckle up ladies and gents! It’s time to head back over the pond to that wonderful land of beer and funnies, the United Kingdom, in search of more magic from the world of beer can design. This week we’re making a water landing atop the mysterious, dark, boozy abyss that is Black Iris Brewery in Nottinghamshire.
I… don’t know much about Black Iris Brewery. I would love to, don’t get me wrong. And I’ve really tried. But I’m on the wrong side of the world and all I have is an Instagram and a twitter account to go on. Clearly though, they’re brilliant. From what I can gather they’re based in Nottingham, love music, make amazing beer and have some of the most unique label designs I’ve seen in the UK craft beer market. They also regularly hold an event named “Piss up in a Brewery”. Your honour, I rest my case.
Black Iris’ beer can artwork is truly exceptional. As we all know, beer fridges are a screaming cacophony of colours, jostling endlessly for the attention of your eyeballs. But how do you stand out from the tecnicolour background? Go dark. And when you’re going dark with your artwork, there’s only one man you want on the case: Kev Grey.
Kev has been designing since the 1990’s and has worked for some pretty big names in his time, among them: Vans, Download Festival and now Black Iris Brewery. His style is unmistakeable – bold, black and white illustrations drawing on classic tattoo themes and old school skate art, with a healthy sprinkling of humour. Kev’s beer can designs are endlessly playful and differ wildly from can to can, his inimitable aesthetic holding them all together as one cohesive collection that screams BLACK IRIS BREWERY. There is no mistaking these cans for anyone else’s, that’s for sure.
There's a lot to be said for ongoing collaborations between breweries and artists. Over this side of the pond you have folks like Doan's whose brand is now forever linked with local artist Ola Volo through her gorgeous illustrations that adorn both their beers and various walls in Vancouver. In Doan's case, they're rooted to the community and their city by her art. In the case of Black Iris, Kev Grey's art links the brewery to the various subcultures his style of art is synonymous with, from skateboarding to graffiti.
Here’s Kev to talk about his beer label designs for Black Iris, his signature style and his journey with Black Iris.
First off, you’ve been in the design game for a good while now, designing for big names like Vans and Download Festival - how did your relationship with Black Iris Brewery come about?
2018 is a bit of a milestone year for me as it marks the 20th year since the drawings I was making through the mid-1990s developed to the point where I began working in the black and white style that I still work in to this day. Over the years I’ve worked for many companies, from small independents to big brands, but my relationship with Black Iris began at the beginning of 2014 who up until that point I believe had been brewing in the back room of their local pub and began making plans to develop and expand their business. Luckily for me Alex from Black Iris was aware of my work as he lived in Sheffield when he was younger at the same time I lived and worked there, so when he and Nick began to make plans to develop Black Iris they contacted me to ask if I would design a logo and pump clips for them. Four years later the business and our working relationship has gone from strength to strength.
What does your process look like and how involved are Black Iris?
They will usually give me the name and details of an upcoming beer and let me know if the artwork needs to be designed for keg, cask or can. From there I have a lot of freedom with how I design the artwork which from an artist’s point of view is great as I feel as though they have a lot of faith in what I do and in return that helps me create some of my best work for them. Overall it feels like a collaborative process and one that works really well.
Your style is instantly recognisable – where do you draw inspiration from? There are clearly classic skate and tattoo influences, but are there any artists/musicians in particular?
My earliest sparks of inspiration that formed the roots of what I still do today were being obsessed by my grandads old naval tattoos in the early 1980s (most of which I have copied and now have tattooed on my own arms), discovering skateboarding and skateboard graphics in the late 1980s, and then reading underground comic books and beginning to paint graffiti both in the mid-1990s. All these influences and researching them throughout the 1990s, combined with the opinion that I preferred black and white comic books to colour, just naturally merged together towards the end of the 1990s and I’ve never looked back. During those formative years I took a lot of inspiration from within those specific cultures but I now try to take inspiration for my subject matter from anywhere that’s unusual and out of the ordinary in an attempt to keep my ideas fresh.
The art & brewing communities are becoming increasingly intertwined, especially over in the UK – Do you have any thoughts on “the can as a canvas”? And on the ever growing interconnectedness of the communities?
As an artist/designer it’s always exciting when an individual company or an industry as a whole sees the potential for being involved with a group of artists who already have their own voice and ideas. I think it’s important when given these opportunities to not just think about what your artwork looks like on paper or a computer screen but to equally think about the size and shape of the object you are designing it for and how it will look once printed on that object. What starts off as a 2-D image becomes a functioning 3-D object and if done correctly your design has the potential to become more than just a drawing printed on something. When I’m designing anything whether it be a beer can, skateboard, T-Shirt etc. I treat it just the same as if I was creating an original artwork that would be exhibited in a gallery.
Do you have any personal/side projects that you’d like to share?
I started my own publishing company back in 2008 called Gamblers Grin so I could self-publish and distribute books/zines of my own work and the work of other artists I like. This year I plan to release a new book featuring all my HEAVY RIFF graffiti and artwork I’ve been making over the past few years. I’ve also been creating a lot of original artwork on watercolour paper using black ink and spray paint that I plan to continue as much as possible throughout the year. Best place to see a selection of all my new commissions and personal work is on my instagram @kev_grey
Like what you see? Have a read of these!
Want more colour? Check out Justin Longoz' amazing beer cans designed for Four Winds Brewing