Mournful spirits, brooding gargoyles, blood-thirsty vampires, nightmarish beasts and seductive sirens are a few of the creatures that prowl the creations of Joseph Vargo. The artist has been honing his dark craft for decades and is renowned for the gothic fantasy imagery he portrays. Be prepared to step into a world where pariahs thrive, and the dead pulsate with life.
Drawn to morbid subject matter as a child, Vargo, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, was fascinated by horror, monsters and the uncanny. He is a self-taught artist who experienced much rejection early in his career due to his darker style and tastes being deemed unsuitable by the mainstream art scene. Determined to show there was an audience for his work, he launched his publication company Monolith Graphics in 1991, selling art prints, shirts and other collectibles bearing his original illustrations. Since then, he has more than proven that his art has mass appeal and is admired by many dark souls across the globe.
His talents don’t stop at painting. Vargo has written fiction for his gothic horror anthologies The Dark Tower series, and he founded the magazine Dark Realms, which successfully ran for more than 30 issues. During my baby bat days as a teen, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one copy, Issue 8, which circulated around 2002. The retail chain Hot Topic carried the magazines, and my attention was arrested by this fiery female figure summoning forces from a cauldron.
Each issue is themed, and interestingly, there may have been two versions of number eight released because the cover I have is headlined “Vamps: Bewitching Beauties and Dark Divas.” If you visit the artist’s official website where you can view all 32 magazine covers, the same issue is labeled “Witches: The Shadowy Truth Behind History’s Forbidden Craft.” Of all the years I’ve owned the booklet, I wasn’t aware of the variation and I think it’s serendipitous that I have the “Vamp” version considering the name of my virtual domain here. Maybe it was fate; forces beyond hinting to me of the title I would bear in the future…. But I digress. That’s part of the magic of Vargo’s art. It tends to have a profound effect on the psyche.
Dark Realms is no longer in print and the magazine has become quite a coveted collector’s item. Other Vargo memorabilia I own include journals and The Gothic Tarot—a deck beautifully illustrated with enchanting nocturnal figures.
The artist also has an impeccable ear for music and started the gothic-inspired group Nox Arcana in 2003 with former band mate William Piotrowski. I’ve listened to every album that’s been released, and the tracks are mesmerizing, evoking a transcendent ambiance. A few of my CD favorites include Theater of Illusion, Transylvania and Legion of Shadows.
In the following interview, Joseph Vargo invites us into his darkly intriguing imagination. He gives a further glimpse into his projects and life as an artist.
Q: The coming year, 2021, marks Monolith Graphics 30th anniversary! When you established the publishing company, did you imagine it would grow to what it is today? Has the success met or surpassed your expectations?
A: It has definitely surpassed my expectations. Initially, I just wanted to create cool, gothic works of art portraying vampires, gargoyles, ghosts and other creatures of the night, but when I first began pursuing a career as a fantasy artist I was met with a lot of rejection. Gothic art wasn’t a popular genre and there were very few self-publishing outlets available. I would have been happy to work for any book publisher or record label, even under the creative supervision of an art director, but I kept running into a brick wall. This was the impetus for starting Monolith Graphics. Looking back, the early rejection was actually a blessing in disguise. Creating my own publishing company allowed me the freedom to spread my artistic wings and pursue my other creative interests beyond my art, specifically music writing, and eventually game design. I dread thinking that I might have had no artistic freedom if I had been hired by a publisher and been told what subject matter to paint or how to portray it.
Even early on, I had my own style of working and a lot of ideas for what type of art I wanted to create, so I kept painting and began publishing my own works on posters and t-shirts. I never planned on building an art gallery, creating The Gothic Tarot, running Dark Realms Magazine for eight years, writing a vampire saga and other books, or creating more than 20 concept albums with my own dark, neoclassical musical project. If you’re persistent enough, you can achieve any goal you set your mind to. Now, I am only limited by my own imagination, and the possibilities are endless.
Q: In 1997, you and your partner Christine Filipak unveiled the gothic art gallery, The Realm. Then, due to unforeseen circumstances, I know you had to close it the following year. I have a deep appreciation for dark art and would’ve loved to experience the space you two created. Have you considered relaunching it or holding a solo art exhibit showcasing your work at an existing gallery?
A: The Realm project was a fantastic experience, but it took us away from too many of our creative pursuits. Because of the sheer amount of time involved with running an art gallery, we have no plans to open another one. I have an annual holiday show at my home, where I display a large portion of my works as well as new paintings each year.
I don’t actively pursue galleries to feature my work. Most of my pieces are not for sale and it’s a pretty big undertaking to transport a large amount of framed paintings and ensure their safety, so I don’t envision any gallery showings in my immediate future. Another factor is that most art critics don’t consider gothic fantasy art to be fine art. This was one of the main reasons we decided to create Dark Realms Magazine after we closed The Realm gallery. We featured hundreds of emerging artists, writers and bands that focused on dark or gothic themes. Sites such as yours that continue to promote people whose talents stem from the shadows are truly appreciated by those of us who create gothic works and admire the beauty in darkness.
Q: So, I own The Gothic Tarot as well as the compendium. Yours is the first Tarot deck I’ve owned, and I must say that it’s been quite helpful in my learning of the practice. In addition to the deck, you’ve incorporated occult symbolism throughout your works, from art pieces to music with your band Nox Arcana. Where do you look for inspiration when it comes to deciding what sigils you want to incorporate in a particular work? Are there occultists that you find very influential?
A: I’ve studied various mythologies of the world and am fascinated by icons and symbolic representation that were used by various archaic civilizations. Whether it’s ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or Medieval alchemical symbols, I’m intrigued by the iconography depicting supernatural powers, deities, or things considered sacred or evil. My interest stems more from a design perspective, and less from a mystical or occult aspect. Utilizing the recognizable messaging that certain symbols represent allows me to communicate my ideas through art on a subliminal level. When I want to send a clear message with symbols interwoven into a work of art, I make sure to be historically accurate so that they can be easily recognized and accurately deciphered. Other times, I want to encode a hidden message, so I’ll use artistic license with my original designs. I’ve created several of my own secret alphabets that have a very mystical flair and used them to conceal hidden messages in our CD art, website and video games.
Q: I am aware that you set into motion the creative direction of Midnight Syndicate by directing, producing and financing their first two albums Born of the Night and Realm of Shadows. I’m also aware that the business partnership didn’t end on the most congenial terms and that your name has been, in essence, omitted from the group’s biography. How did that turning point shape what you’ve created with Nox Arcana and would you have still established a musical group of your own if the fallout hadn’t happened?
A: I actually got involved with MS after their first self-titled album, which was a conglomeration of rap, country, pop and other musical styles. After I redirected the music and re-envisioned their image to focus solely on a gothic style with Born of the Night, they buried all traces of the first album and claimed that it was “out of print.”
After we parted ways, my former associates started claiming that I had very little to do with the project that I had completely revamped with my art, writing and musical direction. By making these claims, they threw down the gauntlet, forcing me to prove them wrong. I had a lot of ideas that they couldn’t achieve because of the band’s limitations, so I began Nox Arcana to fully realize my vision.
I had been involved with various musical projects over the years, but in 2002, I decided to make music my main focus, while still creating new art and writing. It turned out to be a great artistic outlet for me, allowing me to create full-blooded concept albums for the various gothic themes that I loved. The concepts range from haunted mansions, creepy carnivals and sword and sorcery, to Grimm fairy tales, ghostly pirates, and of course, vampires. Some of the concepts pay homage to my literary heroes Poe, Lovecraft and Stoker, while original story ideas allowed me to bring some of my own dark imaginings to life.
The Nox Arcana discography currently consists of 20 different concept albums, a film soundtrack, a game soundtrack and three collaboration albums with other artists. The project has been very rewarding, and Nox Arcana has gained some nice critical acclaim. Our Winter’s Knight album made it into the top ten of the Billboard charts, and our music has been used in several films and television shows, in addition to being performed by various orchestras. I would have never achieved any of these things if I hadn’t started my own band.
Q: Returning to the subject of art, are there any up-and-coming artists within the dark art realm whose work you find very promising?
A: There are so many incredible fantasy artists out there now that it’s hard to narrow the field to just a few favorites. If you take a look at the DeviantArt site, you’ll find countless artists creating some truly fantastic stuff. The site has entire categories for horror and fantasy. I think it’s great that there’s an outlet like this where emerging artists can gain exposure and display their talents, especially those that may be deemed too dark or sinister for the mainstream art world.
I’ve kept my eye on several of the artists that we featured in Dark Realms Magazine and watched as their careers blossomed. Many of the artists that we showcased years ago have created extensive bodies of work since then. Some of the notable artists that we featured include Jason Engle, Ian Daniels, Matt Hughes, Joana Dias, Fabrice Lavollay and Kristoffer Frisk, just to name a few. They are all wonderfully talented artists with a penchant for the dark side.
Q: I have had an utter fascination with vampires since I was a teenager, mainly because of Anne Rice and your vampire art. What do you find most alluring about these nocturnal beings?
A: Ahh, vampires. Although they have been historically portrayed as vicious and evil creatures of folklore, their image has changed with time. Modern literature tends to depict them as tragically romantic antiheroes. They undoubtedly possess the most diverse character traits of all creatures of darkness. They can be loathsome, walking corpses with an insatiable bloodlust, or they can be the epitome of irresistible beauty and charm, possessing unearthly powers and strength. They are forlorn figures, condemned to the shadows of night. The darkness in the soul of a vampire is born of tragedy and lost love, and their mysterious nocturnal nature adds to their romantic allure.
Vampires are immortal beings, brooding and wise, often charismatic and attractive with high sex appeal. Unlike other nightstalkers, vampires don’t merely hunt and kill their prey, they seduce them, often sharing their immortality with those they desire. Almost all other gothic creatures are portrayed as evil monsters and villains in literature and film, but there are numerous books and movies that portray vampires as central heroic characters.
I have always strived to depict vampires in all of their guises, from the monstrous to the darkly romantic and beautiful. When I began writing the stories for Tales From The Dark Tower, I wanted to be sure to build upon these different archetypes, creating villainous undead creatures along with heroic and romantic creatures of the night.
Q: What does the future hold for you in regard to all of your ventures—Monolith Graphics, Nox Arcana and beyond? Any hints you can leave us with, or will those lie in a special puzzle of your creation?
A: I always have several projects in the works at various stages of development. Right now Christine and I are working on a new computer game, Doctor Arcana and the Secret of Shadowspire, the sequel to The Cabinets Of Doctor Arcana. I love creating these types of games because it allows me to combine my art, music and writing to conjure something entirely from my own imagination. I write music year-round, mainly for my own enjoyment, but creating a concept album is a more serious process that takes more time and dedication. I also have a new series of gothic fantasy stories that I’ve been writing between other projects. In the back of my mind, I have a long list of projects to work on, and every now and then a new opportunity will rise from the shadows. There’s always something to divert and distract from even the best laid plans, but it keeps life interesting.
There’s no doubt that Joseph Vargo’s work possesses the power to stop you in your tracks when you experience it. Whether it’s his paintings, his music or writing, his artistic oeuvre is compelling and leaves an undeniable imprint on the soul.
Delve further into the mystical world of Joseph Vargo at his official website where you will also find links to all relevant social media platforms.