David Yow draws illustrations of cats based around puns of words featuring the letters — yep! — C, A, and T. He’s been doing this since the early ’80s, during which time he also happened to put in a stint as the front man for the noise rock troupe Scratch Acid and then, later, the Jesus Lizard.
This summer David will release Copycat: And A Litter Of Other Cats, a book featuring the best of his pun-tastic pictures; you can also purchase prints over at his little nest on the Internet (plus you can commission one-off pieces of your own cat via his Etsy storefront).
On a recent winter’s evening I called up David to talk about the origins of his cat compositions, the nuances of feline puns, and find out who the kitten hidden in the background of the Catalyst print really is.
Catster: When did you create your first cat illustration?
David Yow: It was maybe 1979 or 1980. One of my best friends was a guy named Tom and I drew this goofy little cat with a T-shirt on it and I put “Tom” on the shirt so it was Tom Cat. Then I started doing a whole bunch of them with whatever, like Black Cat and Big Cat, because I wanted to use any word that had C, A and T in it as fair game for a pun. So I’d draw like “Catastrophe,” “Catatonic,” “Catnip,” and all stuff like that. Then when I started dealing with [book publisher] Akashic the idea of doing something other than entertaining myself with the cats came to pass.
What were the early illustrations like?
They were very much like the ones I do now, almost no difference. They were crude and the cats are always based in the same position.
Do you have a technical term for the pose?
No, I think it’s just “sitting.”
Were the original illustrations based on a specific cat?
No, it was just the way I draw animals!
When did you start using digital methods on the illustrations?
I think I started around the time I was doing a little art show which coincided with a Boys Against Girls show outside of Vienna in Austria. That was almost a year ago.
What was the first cat illustration you sold?
I think I’d sold some maybe three-and-a-half years ago. Originally I found a horizontal frame that would fit three pieces in it and I put “Catatonic,” “Category,” and “Catnip” in it, like this little triptych. I sold that in 2010.
What’s been the strangest reaction you’ve had to one of your illustrations?
Well, a homeless guy came in the gallery and saw “Catnip” and started masturbating. But the whole deal was they were all originally created — they’re all digital pieces with photographic textures and photographs used as backgrounds — but originally I created them three feet by three feet and I printed the master cat that size and had it put in a really ornate, gold-gilded, baroque frame. I sold that and at the time I fantasized about how I’d like to have a show with all of the cats in it — I think there’s 92 of them — and so have 92 three-feet-by-three-feet cats.
I think even if you didn’t like the pieces, they’d still be something to look at — 92 ridiculous cat puns at that scale. It would be something to tell your friends! But that was the backdrop to the homeless story.
Are there any puns you’ve been stumped on how to illustrate?
There are a few, but largely because I limit myself by keeping the cats in the same position. There’s also a pretty fair number of C-A-T words that I can use that are largely chemical or procedures used in science, which nobody would know. So there’s a handful of words I chose to leave out.
Which pun are you most proud of?
Oh, boy! Probably Stray Cat. If people haven’t seen Stray Cat, it’s just a picture of a wall — there is no cat there.
One of the illustrations pits Miss Kitty against Trixie in some sort of fight. Who’d win?
Now come on. Who really wins in a war?
Another of the pieces shows someone’s hand in the background holding up a photo of a kitten. Is that your kitten?
It is! That’s Little Buddy who’s actually gray, but for that particular piece I colored him in orange to make it look like he’s the cat in question.
Where did you get Little Buddy from?
It was almost eight years ago that I told a few friends that I was in the market for a kitten, as I had a new apartment. A friend of mine knew this girl whose cat was about to have kittens so I actually got to pick him out from when he was fresh and tiny.
He was the runt of the litter and really small and I asked them what that would mean in later life. They said he’d probably be a diminutive cat and he would be very needy. But he grew up to be really fluffy and about 20 pounds, but he is really needy — he always needs something, whether it’s catnip or petting or costumes or whatever. The poor little fellow has to have attention all the time.
Are any of the illustrations based on Little Buddy?
No! And Catalyst isn’t really based on him — it was just that the photo happened to be on the refrigerator.
Your cats all have these bugged-out eyes. Did you consider any other styles?
No, I don’t think so. The first one I drew, Tom Cat, I probably drew it in 15 seconds, just like that, two quick circles, a triangle for the nose and that was kind of it. So I’ve always kept it like that. Each one was generally drawn very quickly and it was always about the first take.
Is there likely to be a sequel to the book?
No, I think it’s a one-off. I think there are 74 cat illustrations in there, which leaves about 20 that I think just aren’t as good and don’t make the grade. So I think this will be the only cat book I’ll do.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.