Silva Illustrations: Sharpies, Self-Portraits and Suicidal Tendencies

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Sharpie artist James Silva with the Flipcap Zombiehis self-portrait. Photo: Peter Anderson

James Silva has been a presence in the Salt Lake City punk and hardcore scenes since before time began, or so it seems. Following a stint as a tattoo artist, Silva’s impatience got the best of him, and he traded in his tattooing equipment for … Sharpies—as in the tried-and-true, everybody’s-got-one, black markers. To most, that would seem like one hell of a downgrade, but to Silva, and those who have seen what he can do with a Sharpie, it was one of the best decisions he ever made. “It doesn’t matter if you’re having a shitty week, your lady left you, or your dog died. Fuck you, draw,” he says. This is a perfect summation of the man and his art.

Silva’s first artistic inspiration, he says, was his mother. “She was an artist, a painter. She worked mostly in oils and had some gallery shows,” Silva says. “She kind of picked up on the talent, and pushed me when I was younger, which may or may not have been a bad thing.” No kid wants to do what their parents tell them to do, but it was that early boost that, all these years later, Silva seems to be most grateful for. Skipping forward several years, his brief stint as a tattoo artist blossomed into him delving into comic book-style art, and in 1995, he gravitated to art-by-Sharpie. “I would see pictures or photographs, or have pictures in my mind,” Silva says about his artistic subjects, “and they were, and still are, almost always in black and white. I really like black and white, and the Sharpie provides an easy outlet to translate my thoughts into art.”

Although he hesitates to admit to being a perfectionist, Silva sometimes experiences difficulty knowing when a piece is, for better or for worse, complete. It sometimes takes intervention from others to help him figure out when to stop adding to, or changing a piece. “I hear that a lot,” says Silva, regarding the perfectionist tag, “but I don’t know where that comes from. With a Sharpie, I really don’t think I can be a perfectionist.” Silva refers to “the perfection of imperfection,” which is an excellent way to view most, if not all, art. Whether completed or not, Silva admits that he has a rather difficult time parting with his originals—it’s part of his catharsis. “I’m very content doing art for myself,” he says, “but I also wouldn’t mind moving on into a more professional environment.”

Silva’s art has sold almost exclusively through word-of-mouth and he has a difficult time parting with his pieces when they sell. In fact, for the sake of the photos accompanying this article, he had to round up his original pieces from various people around the valley, and he admittedly didn’t want to return them. “I don’t think anyone was really aware [that I was doing art],” Silva says. “I was pretty shut-in for quite some time.” At first, his art was only outlined in Sharpie—he used other methods to add color. Eventually, he transitioned into exclusively using Sharpie. “I needed something to set my art apart,” he says.  He began experimenting with stippling—which essentially consists of shading by using varying sizes of dots. This simple method, and his experimentation with it, was seemingly the missing piece to Silva’s artistic puzzle, and has produced remarkable results. “I have maybe nine strokes in my repertoire—if you look very closely at my pieces, you’ll see the same strokes repeated in every piece,” Silva says. “They’ll pop up a multitude of times in the same piece.” If he hadn’t told me this, I would never have noticed. Even after he disclosed this piece of information and I spent a good deal of time searching these strokes out, I still wasn’t able to see what he had described.

Above Silva’s art table in his almost remarkably sparse apartment, a single LP hangs—a copy of the first Suicidal Tendencies album, which happens to be the first LP Silva ever purchased, and, at present, the only LP he still owns. This is as much about inspiration as it is about reminiscing, as he draws every day directly in the shadow of this album. “I grew up skateboarding in the ’80s, and all of that Venice/Dogtown-style artwork was extremely inspirational to me,” he says. He spent time in Southern California as a kid, and immersed himself in the graffiti art of early ’80s Dogtown, which Suicidal Tendencies helped introduce to the outside world. In a sense, Silva has paid homage to this style of art, along with showcasing other influences such as Pushead’s art, by combining them all into one piece—the Flipcap Zombie, which he insists is a self-portrait. This is, however, the visible extent of Silva’s outside influence. “I really didn’t get out much for quite a long time, and I didn’t keep up with any current ‘art scene,’” he says. “In terms of my art, I’m very much like the musician who doesn’t know how to read music.” This statement speaks volumes to Silva’s inspiration and work ethic—he doesn’t pay attention to outside trends and is extremely self-motivated. It also helps explain why his art differs so much from other local, or even national, artists, since his style is largely self-created. That being said, Silva has been garnering more attention than he is used to as of late, and he’s begun paying more attention to other artists and to the Salt Lake City art scene. Silva readily expresses gratitude to Anthony Granato and Sri Whipple, both local artists who have made their own names in national art circles.

As Silva expresses thanks to the individuals in his life who have continued to push him, and continued to believe in him, he becomes a bit emotional. He expresses his gratitude to everyone involved with the Legion Art Collective, his daughter Chloe Blue, friends and family, Saul and Candace, Josh Stippich, Scott Valencia, Mark Seeley and Shannon Miller. “Always, truly inspirational. Telling me what I needed to hear and not what I wanted to hear,” Silva says of these people. It is this kind of influence that would help any of us strive to be our best. 

At the end of the day, Silva’s art speaks for itself—it boggles the mind to think that his art is solely created using a run-of-the-mill marker, and could be best plugged into what is known as “outsider art,” due to the medium used and the topics expressed. From the incredibly detailed, and downright huge Frankenstein bust, to the Dogtown-influenced self-portrait of the Flipcap Zombie, all the way down to commissioned art for bands and businesses, there is no mistaking the talent and time involved in the creation of Silva’s art—and it is paying off. Silva has several art shows coming up—the first time he has experienced this—the first of which is titled “Singularity,” and is being held at Copper Palate Press on Friday, October 7, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and is participating in a group show at Gray Wall Gallery on October 8. Silva is also open to further commissioned pieces, and his art can be viewed (and Silva contacted) online by visiting

Sharpie artist James Silva with the Flipcap Zombiehis self-portrait. Photo: Peter Anderson Photo: Peter Anderson