Super Freak | Footpatrol Discussions

Last week, we took a trip up to Birmingham to visit Super Freak, aka Dan Whitehouse. An illustrator and painter, Super Freak creates cartoon characters within their own immersive worlds which, along with an eye-catching colour palette plays on your playful side.

From the New York Times to VANS Vault to Birmingham Commonwealth, Dan brings inspiration from popular Pop Culture and Mid Century Comic strips to create these scenes. His famous ‘Spanky’ character being at the forefront of most of his artworks.

Footpatrol: Hi Dan, hope you’re well, and thank you for allowing us to come along today. Firstly, can ask you to tell us more about yourself and more about the world of SUPERFREAK.

DW: Hey! Thanks for swinging by man. So I’m an Artist from the West Midlands and I guess my kink is old cartoons and drawing hands with faces on ‘em.

I originally come from a background of Graphic Design, which I studied in Nottingham before I graduated and started work as a Content Designer at an Ad agency. In the background of all this, I was constantly illustrating and building my own little universe of characters and silliness until one month I picked up real momentum and started getting some pretty awesome commissions for my stuff. I quickly quit my job and just went all in on my art. This is where Spanky blossomed and became the internets best friend!

FP: For our readers can you elaborate on just who ‘Spanky’ is and where he came from?

DW: Yeah so Spanky was a happy accident pretty much. I was working on a brief for VOXI to illustrate this phone case which included a crowd of odd little characters and shapes. I used some of my older sketches as references & inspiration and I came across this tiny hand with two dots for eyes and a curved line for a mouth. I thought it was hella cute so I plopped it into the final design. I got some nice feedback a couple of times on that particular character so I guess I just took it and run. I always wanted to have a ‘main character’ that would be tied to my work and I realised I’d found him on that day! Today, he’s fully matured into a much more complex figure with a dynamic personality who tends to embody real emotions that we all face on the daily. On the surface he’s always got a gleaming grin, but he’s often surrounded by overwhelming backgrounds and noise. He’s a reminder to try and stay positive through the shitstorms because there’s always a way through it. He’s that one mate who always will ride or die with you!

FP: Such elaborate illustrations surely calls for a very open mind, where does your influence come from and how do you approach each piece?

DW: Each piece is basically like a jigsaw puzzle in the sketching phase. I try to cram in as many relevant characters and objects as possible, which all interact with each other in some way or another. Spanky is the hero who features in mostly all my work as I use him as a canvas for my own experiences and feelings. I have to be a little open minded when I create because I kinda have to look in the mirror and ask myself ‘what’s going on with you?’, which I’ll then try to translate into a new piece that I hope can be relatable. The overall vibe of Spanky is of course inspired by the old Walt Disney cartoons, but I think now that Spanky has aged (and me, sigh!) I don’t really seek or rely on outside inspiration anymore. Once I locked in my creative process/style, it’s just a matter of thinking up a concept and pushing play, but the real beauty of Spanky is that he can be rendered in any style and he’ll still remain Spanky! This gives me a lot of freedom when I create and for the future.

FP: As Superfreak enters 2023, are there any new artistic approaches you want to try?

DW: I just want to keep improving on a technical level. Over the recent years I’ve been trying to push the amount of detail and movement I put into in my pieces to achieve a more realistic but surreal vibe, while still holding onto that charming mid-century style. I just wanna get weirder! I think as 2023 rolls out though, I’m looking to bring Spanky up to speed with the fashion world and use him as a model template for some wacky Super Freaky fits. 

FP: On face value, viewers are greeted by your works with crazy colourful visuals and very tongue in cheek gestures. Is your work a reflection of your mood at any given time? is there a deeper message you try to show in each Superfreak piece?

DW: My work is basically a creative vomit of contrasting moods. It’s a clash between blissful content and impending disaster. Always on the brink of something fucking crazy. I like to think I’m a pretty chilled out dude, but I’m very aware of all the chaos around me/the world which can get overwhelming and make me feel ‘squeezed’ and a little claustrophobic. I’m constantly trying to capture this with all the tightly-packed characters and reverberating colours. I want folks to feel a tad uncomfortable when they’re looking at my stuff but then reassured by the goofy cartoon characters posing as their wonky tour guides in my universe!

FP: From the New York Times to VANS Vault to Birmingham Commonwealth, it seems you have spanky’s fingers in many pies… What have been some of your favourite briefs to date and can you elaborate on the charity auctions you have done too?

DW: Hahaha remind me to whip up a sketch of a Spanky pie when we’re done…

Being jetted out to Miami with Budweiser for the Super Bowl was pretty wild. Completely out my depth (or planet) amidst all these celebs but I made the most out of it with all the free bevs hehe.

Overall though, my favourite projects tend to be those where I get the freedom to just go nuts and do my thing, but on the contrary I do like working with directors who give me their bonkers ideas and we get to truly collaborate on something special together. Two minds are often better than one and collaboration is what makes being a creative so much fun.

And yes the charity auction!… That whole experience was just magic. I spent the day at a local dementia residency where I took a blank canvas, a few paints and brushes and we worked together to paint this big Spanky collage which I later auctioned off and donated the money back to the care home so they can have some nice days out & about. Was a real special moment to share and makes you realise the importance of art in all our lives. We had so many giggles that day and the simple action of holding a brush and making some marks brought back memories, smiles and questions from all the residents. This is what art is all about!!

FP: Random one… If you were a sneaker, what would you be?

DW: I’d have to be a pair of Vans. They’re simple, versatile, can take a bashing and they’re ready for anything. 

FP: Another random one…If Spanky was a sneaker, what would he be?

DW: He’d deffo be a pair of white Chuck Taylor All Stars. They’re old school but timeless, they get better with age and will always be right there when you need ‘em!

FP: Just wanted to say thank you very much for allowing us to come and peep into the world of SuperFreak, its been an honest pleasure! And as a fellow Brummie, its great to see such talents stemming from the city.

DW: Here we wanted to give you an opportunity to give any words of wisdom, shoutouts or upcoming events to all the fellow artists and super freak enthusiasts.

Never let grown ups tell you what you have to be. Stay young and silly forever and never be afraid to screw up along the way!!

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