A Perfect Cocktail: Shag & Star Wars
Josh Agle – better known as the artist Shag – remembers the first time he heard the words Star Wars.
“I heard a hokey radio commercial while riding in my school bus in 1977,” said Shag. “There was the sound of a spaceship, and then a voiceover said something like, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just the sound of a Star Destroyer hurtling through space.’ There were more science fiction sounds and then the name of the movie was revealed.”
“I remember thinking, ‘What a stupid name for a movie. It’s like calling a movie ‘Car Chases,’ or ‘Gun Fights’,” he said.
However, as they do for many current fans, a Star Wars trailer upped the ante for a teenage proto-Shag.
“I went to see the movie Jabberwocky, and before the movie they showed a preview,” recalled Agle. “I… could… not… believe… my… eyes. I knew it would be the best movie,” he continued. “But not much was explained in the preview. Who is that man with the black mask and cape? What is that tall hairy creature? Who is that cute girl with the funny hair?”
Shag – and the world – found out soon enough.
“My friend, my brother and I stood in line for the very first matinee,” recalled the artist. “The movie was so powerful and visually stunning, and the characters were so new and unlike anything I had ever seen.
“My assumption after seeing the preview was correct: It was the best movie ever made.”
Like many aspiring Gen X artists, George Lucas’ masterpiece provided inspiration to a young Josh Agle, now 54, who studied economics and architecture at California State University, before designing cover art for his band the Swamp Zombies.
“I spent that summer making drawings influenced by Star Wars,” said Agle, who, as an adult artist first inserted a Darth Vader figure in a Shag piece in 2005 (unfortunately any images have been lost) and painted a Maori Warrior-influenced Vader in 2007 for The Vader Project.
“I didn’t want to copy the movie directly, so I came up with my own characters and space ships. My black-caped villain’s helmet was a little different from Darth Vader’s. My white-armored troopers were slightly altered to make them ‘original.’
“I wish I had those drawings today,” mused the artist. “I’d like to see how close to the actual characters and scenes from the movie they were.”
In 2013, Shag (a pseudonym derived from JoSH AGle) – whose tiki-inspired, mid-century advertising-influenced non-Star Wars work can be found in galleries (and tiki bars and living rooms) around the world on myriad products since breaking into the “low brow” scene in 1995 – channeled his 14-year-old self into a piece entitled, “The Summer 1977.”
“The success of the first movie took everyone by surprise. The few toys they had created before the film’s release sold out immediately,” said Shag. “So when you went to buy an action figure you actually bought an empty blister pack with a note that said they would mail you the toy in a few weeks.
“Initially, the range of toys that were available was really small: a remote control R2-D2 and some action figures,” he added. “The tie fighter didn’t come out until a few months after the film’s release, so it’s an anachronism in that painting, because it probably wasn’t available until the fall of ’77.”
“I was 14 when the movie came out,” he admitted. “I felt like I was too old for the toys, but I remember my 13-year-old friend collected them, as did my younger brothers.”
But in the painting, there is Shag, playing with the astromech.
“The kid in the KISS T-shirt would be me, because KISS and Star Wars were my two biggest loves in 1977,” explained Shag of the painting’s genesis, in a rare delve into the meaning of his work. “I wish I had had the foresight to buy some of the toys myself! I didn’t play with the Star Wars toys, but I examined them carefully: Was the TIE fighter actually the correct scale to the action figure of the pilot that sat inside? Why did the Han Solo action figure look so weird?”
Decades later, Shag was able to re-examine the universe.
“Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, California, asked me to be part of their Star Wars-themed art show in 2013. I think they wanted me to do what I would later do with the cantina painting – to actually illustrate a scene from one of the movies, but I decided I wanted to do something that fit more into the ‘Shag’ world: a vintage interior with people interacting and socializing.
“I think when they saw the painting they were disappointed that I hadn’t painted a movie scene, but it got a really positive response from people who saw it, so the gallery asked if they could release it as a print,” added Agle. “They did, and the print sold out in minutes, so I think it spoke to a lot of rabid Star Wars fans who had similar experiences.”
That type success has led Shag to many collaborations, most notably with the Mouse on some select paintings and productions.
“Disney approached me in 2003 to create some art and merchandise for the 40th Anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland,” said Agle. “I’d heard for years from people who were at the company that Disney wanted to work with me, but I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call the corporation and say ‘Here I am,’ so I waited until they finally tracked me down.
“The project I did for the Enchanted Tiki Room was really successful, and it took Disney completely by surprise. After that, they offered me so many projects I could have quit everything else and worked on Disney art full time, but I told them I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a ‘Disney Artist.’
“Since then, I work on Disney projects every now and then if they sound interesting and if I think they suit my artistic style,” he said.
And what suits Shag style better than an interstellar lounge on Tatooine?
“The original painting I did of the cantina scene, ‘A Wretched Hive,’ was sold by Disney’s Wonderground Gallery to a collector who flew in from Kansas City the day the painting was made available so she would be sure she got it,” said the incredulous artist. “She arrived the gallery at 3:00 AM the day of the release and there was already a person in line before her waiting! She was really worried that that person wanted the original painting, but they were in line for another collectable Star Wars piece I did, so she stood in line for six hours until the gallery opened and bought the piece.”
“It was a large painting – over six feet wide,” he added. “Disney had to ship it because the collector couldn’t fit it on the plane.”
These days – if you are lucky – you might just track down a Star Wars-inspired Shag piece.
“Some of the products and prints are still available and some have sold out,” he said. “What is still available can be found at the Wonderground Galleries in Anaheim and Orlando, and inside the parks.”
Which is where you might find Shag in 2019.
“I’m excited to see Star Wars Land at Disney,” he admitted. “I thought they did a great job on Star Tours, so I hope it keeps that vibe and quality.”
And what about Shag Star Wars swag? Anything new on the way?
“I think I have one more panoramic Star Wars painting in me,” said Shag. “DIsney asked me to do another one this year, but I told them I wanted to hold off for a little while.
“People tell me the Aloha shirts [which depict the cantina scene] have already been reissued!”
If anyone finds one I’m an XL… JB
Editor’s note: I have seen the Shag merch in Launch Bay at Disneyland including the Aloha shirt, handbags, wallets, prints and more as recently as December. – Amanda