With some fresh artwork adorning our latest range of casual apparel, we wanted to take this opportunity to shed some light on the talent behind the designs. The artist in question is Tom Bunney, a 34-year old bike mad British ex-pat, now residing in Squamish, BC. Hailing from Shropshire, a quaint English county loaded with forested hillsides and known for its downhill trails and fast World Cup racers (Marc Beaumont, Matt Walker), Tom’s journey from ‘agency life’ in the hustle and bustle of London, to the endless trails and freedom of BC, is as inspiring as are his artistic endeavours. Whether you’re looking for some inspiration to hit the road and travel in the pursuit of a more rewarding lifestyle or are an artist looking to get into the industry, read on...
FBC: How did you get into mountain biking?
Tom: Growing up in the sticks of rural Shropshire, England, I stumbled into biking after hanging with some older guys who were into digging and racing. Shropshire has a thriving scene, packed with trails and race tracks, but life, as it does, has its distractions...bikes ended up taking a back seat for the best part of 10-years during my college and university years. But I really wanted to get back into DH, which was hard living in London, where I lived for five years after graduating. I was getting to the point where I was like, “what the f**k am I doing here? Bikes bring me so much joy and it's such a hard thing for me to be doing living in a city!” And that's what lead me to want to escape and start travelling. I left the UK five years ago, first to Morzine in the French Alps, then to Queenstown, New Zealand, Bali, Indonesia, before arriving in Canada, July 2018, where I am now a resident as of December 2020.
How did you get into art and design?
I feel very fortunate to have fallen into this career without really planning it. At college, my teachers and tutors thought I should go into an engineering-focused degree, based on my interests and abilities in design, technology and just making things. They tried to force me towards maths and physics and the whole engineering route, but I just wasn't very good at it and didn't really enjoy it either. So I made the switch towards graphic design and photography and loved every minute of it, eventually going to Falmouth University in the southwest of England, which is highly regarded within the creative industries as is its prestigious graphics course. Honestly, I really don't know how I got in there based on my portfolio from college, but I did and completed my degree [in graphic design]. And what a forging experience! So much of graphic design and visual communications nowadays is just making stuff look pretty rather than being conceptually based. But what that course showed me was to turn every brief into a problem-solving exercise and adopting a less-is-more approach to creating timeless designs based on conceptual thinking. Although I didn't realize it at the time, attending Falmouth was an amazing opportunity and its reputation within the industry went a long way…
And to illustration?
In my third year at Falmouth, I wanted to draw more and while I'd drawn as a kid, it was never something I thought I was good at or could do for a living. But I started to make my projects more illustrative-based and loved the process. When I left, a mate of mine (who was in a metal band back in Shropshire) got in touch about a t-shirt design and that was the start of my journey into t-shirt art. It was always a side-hustle at the beginning and something I'd do around my 9-5 at the studio in London, taking on little commissions here and there from musicians, clothing brands and friends starting companies who needed some artwork.
From agency life in London to freelancing in BC, were there any hurdles to overcome on that journey?
Financially, yes, but I feel very lucky that I get to do what I love for a living and most of the time it does feel like I'm getting paid to do my hobby, as opposed to a job...although it's certainly not the best paying and the hoops I had to jump through for my residency here were a f**king nightmare. That said, it's all about the work-life balance and I'm happy having less money now and working with people I'd naturally be hanging out with anyway. It's the nature of freelancing in any industry, with its peaks and troughs...you just need to trust in the process. One of the hardest parts is being you're own boss and it can be hard...you know if it's a nice day out and the boys are riding...you've got to be disciplined ha-ha!
Let’s talk about BC, work and your move here...
I moved here for the biking and the lifestyle, but I also made it my mission to try and work with as many local bike brands as possible. I'd achieved this to a lesser extent in Queenstown, but it got the ball rolling and when I arrived in BC, my portfolio already contained some bike-related work. Upon arriving here, the research and emails to potential clients naturally began in earnest alongside as many face-to-face meetings as possible. It was Chromag, based in Whistler, who was the first. They were like, "yeah, let's get you on board and do a project" and were really stoked on and the design, which became one of their most popular and is still in their range today. Chromag is so well respected in the industry here and that design got a lot of positive attention. From there, I was chosen to be the guest artist by the Whistler Bike Park. Every year, they pick a local artist from the Sea to Sky corridor and I was lucky enough to be chosen. Seeing my designs adorning everything from apparel to fridge magnets was pretty surreal, to say the least. The really cool thing about my job is how I connect with people through bikes. It's a small industry and you can quickly make connections from chance encounters with riders you bump into on the trails. Be it pro riders, industry people, whatever, but most of my business meetings are now conducted in the woods and I love it!
Your work has its own unique look and style, but who and what inspires you?
Honestly...heavy metal! That was the start of it, the visual side of metal music combined with the energy - that's why I'm so drawn towards the themes that you see in my work. I also think that growing up in England played a part too and I was always fascinated by castles and medieval iconography, like heraldic crests - I just love them and the history behind them, which is so gnarly. I also think that because a lot of my friends [growing up], were skaters, I became immersed in that culture early on. More recently, I've gotten really into tattoos, even though I don't have that many as it takes me ages to decide on a design...but I just love the bold line work, which I'm sure comes across in my work. I get inspiration from everywhere…
Are there any particular artists whose work catches your eye?
I remember seeing Adi Gilbert's work, ages ago, adorning the pages of a BMX magazine and thinking, "wholly f**k, this is insane!" and the fact that this guy was a rider and making a living from creating cool stuff just blew me away. I don't remember having the direct thought process of "that's what I want to do" but he was definitely a huge inspiration for me. A few years down the line, when we started following each other on Instagram and Adi took an interest in my work, which was huge for me! Mike Giant is another artist whose works I love, covering the gamut of tattoo, design, graffiti and more. I love the fact that a lot of his stuff is black and white...
You know he's colour blind, right?
Well, that explains a lot ha-ha! It’s so much simpler like that and while I'm not colour blind, I love working in black and white and simple colour pallets. Back in my agency days, working on corporate logo designs and branding, you really have to think about colour and finesse the pallet you’re working with at a very early stage. When it's illustrated, doing the shading, for example, I much prefer all the tonal values of black and white. That's just how I like to draw. Scott Move is another and he was an illustrator in the beginning and now a very respected tattoo artist based in London. His style is very medieval-inspired, which I love and seeing his work when I moved to London really got me excited and naturally drew me in. As my own style matured, he was definitely a huge inspiration and getting tattooed by him as I left London was a fitting memento and also my first tattoo.
What are you using to create these designs; pen and paper or something more digital?
I tend to sketch out thumbnails using pen and paper alongside anything design-based, so logos, icons, editorial direction, etc - anything where you're figuring stuff out. For rough layouts and compositions instead of piling straight into the computer and expecting everything to just come together. I'll continue to finesse and figure out any rendering on pen and paper before moving it into the computer, but unlike most artists nowadays, I don't use an iPad or ProCreate. I use Photoshop and with a pretty crappy tablet from China ha-ha! But you know, it works for me and I know all of its quirks, and after all these years, navigating layers and working on composition, it just works....but there's still a lot of drawing and redrawing in the early stages, getting it to where you're happy. By this stage, there's already a lot of back-and-forth with clients although I've reached a point in my career where clients tend to trust me to run with a brief.
The Druid piece you did for us looks especially complicated - how long did that take?
That one sure did take a while! I'll be honest here, the Druid piece is probably one of my all-time favourite drawings, ever. Even the Cougar design, which is a polar opposite of the Druid as far as composition and design process goes...I just loved working on these two very different pieces. The Cougar is simpler and more like a badge or patch, and that's fully rendered on a computer whereas the Druid is more traditionally illustrated. Looking back, it was the absolute dream project, but in terms of time, I'd say it was somewhere in the mid-twenty hour range. These designs are very complex, which you can see from the final artwork, but the composition of the Druid piece changed as we incorporated text, changed focal points and readjusting the position or pose of the subject matter, being the Druid in this instance. But I got really into this one and loved the process and the final artwork.
What other past projects stick in your mind?
I've done a few things that have been well received outside of the [bike] industry, like the Tortilla chip packet design I did for Que Pasa. They’re a pretty big client and the opportunity to work with them came off the back of my illustration portfolio and they asked me to create something for a new packaging design. Obviously, I was all over this and ended up going with a 'Day of the Dead' theme which they’ve used for the past few years, every November. That was huge and was seen across Canada and the United States. Going to the grocery store and seeing these huge stacks of boxes covered in my drawings was crazy!
Aside from bikes, what else drew you to this part of the world?
It has to be nature and the natural world, which are so integral to mountain biking. Just the opportunities for adventure and while I prioritize riding over most things, I really love hiking and camping and just getting out there. BC has it all, almost to the point where it's overwhelming and on any given day that you have time off, there are hundreds of things to do, all of which could be the best day of your life! This is huge for me and my well-being, but I think that links back to where I've tended to gravitate to over the years; the mountains and the endless adventure they represent. While riding was a huge reason for the move here, it's actually been great for my career too. It's what I wanted -- to have enough ‘work’ to make this work -- but I honestly never thought it would happen, but with so much of the [bike] industry based here, it’s massively impacted my work.
You touched on skate culture as an influence of yours - how do you think mountain biking differs from skateboarding and other action sports like BMX, in a visual context?
They all have such defined visuals, which stems from their maturity, where mountain biking does not. It’s starting to, but for a long time, the sport had an identity crisis. From all the neon pyjama-party gear people used to wear to the baggy jeans and t-shirts, it really didn't know what it was or wanted to be. That’s thankfully changing and I feel really lucky to be known within the industry, a little more, for helping to bring a visual identity to its doors and while I don't want to toot my own horn here, I've been told that my work looks like it belongs in mountain biking because of the subject matter I tend to use in my designs.
Do you think that as the sport matures, there will be more artists coming from within it and will we see a departure away from the age-old trope of logos hastily slapped on a bike brand’s casual gear, versus an actual piece of art like we see in other sports?
I absolutely hope so. Just from the people I've met in the sport, I think we're on the whole, a pretty interesting bunch and naturally very creative. From the way we look at lines and pick apart where and how we ride, it only makes sense for that to happen and spark other creative endeavours for riders looking to express themselves away from the trails. Trying to inspire the next generation so that they understand that art is a profession is so important too. Every year, the sport's perception within the action sports community seems to grow, especially with the Real X-Games edits blowing up and things like Rampage - it's getting out there now, more so than ever before and more importantly, in the right light.
What advice would you give an aspiring young artist, designer or illustrator, looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be yourself! That was one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given -- back when I was in London -- by my old creative director. He said to always smile in design meetings with clients and to be yourself and he was so right! The other would be to try and get into a studio and get some real experience. So many people go freelance either straight away or far too soon after qualifying and think that they can make it work without the experience. Ultimately, many freelancers end up in trouble as they don't have the necessary confidence or experience, typically gained from working in a studio and having people peering over your shoulder constantly. My life in London was pretty shit, but I don't have any regrets as it got me to where I am today. I'd also suggest that you don't rip anyone else's work off as this industry is so small and you'll only be dismissed before you’ve had a chance to make your mark.
What's next for Tom Bunney and what are excited about in 2021?
I have my own clothing brand, it's called Bloodstone, which has been around for a few years now and been my excuse to put whatever I want onto apparel. That's been kicking off recently and I've also been supporting some local riders here in BC. I've got a lot of plans there and will be releasing a new design every six weeks throughout summer. My biggest goals, however, are on the bike and as long as I’m riding rad trails all over BC, pushing myself and prioritizing fun every day, then I’m going to remain pretty stoked! But the event I'm most looking forward to is the Backwoods Jam, over on the Sunshine Coast. The dirt jumps there are some of the biggest and I got to ride there last year culminating in one of the best days of my life...suffice to say I'm really excited to get back there! I'd also like to get down to South America later in the year and ride some volcanoes...