Even if you don't know West Portal-based artist Donny Gillies, better known as "Dirty Donny," it's likely that you've seen his work. Over the years, his art has appeared on skateboards, posters, album covers, T-shirts, and two pinball machines: Metallica and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Originally from Canada, Gillies has long been attracted to record cover art, comic books, video game artwork, and rock 'n' roll and punk music.
“For me, my artwork is nostalgic and stuff I was into as a kid," he said. "But I’m always searching for new stuff and different directions to take.”
Gillies got his big break 15 years ago, when a friend of his showed his work to Metallica guitarist and SF local Kirk Hammett during the filming of the band's documentary, Some Kind of Monster.
Hammett commissioned Gillies to paint a mural for his office, and other members of the band hired him to do guitar artwork for them. His freelance career quickly took off, and he moved to San Francisco in 2002, noting that Bay Area locals just "got" his art.
While Gillies works and lives in West Portal, he makes his rounds around San Francisco in his custom designed van, which he's named Vandolf.
In addition to his work for Metallica, Gillies has done artwork for underground rock and pop bands like The Helicopters, and published two books. His first, the now out-of-print Monster Revolt, collects his artwork from 2000-2010. His new follow-up, Pinball Wizards & Blacklight Destroyers, contains works from the last five years, including collaborations with Metallica and Creature skateboards and his pinball art.
Gillies is "a very nice guy, mad polite, and respectful," said his recent collaborator, photographer Ricky Powell. “He’s also talented—that’s obvious when you see his work. He's very creative and has good ideas."
A pinball aficionado who frequently hangs out (and features his art) at the Upper Haight's Free Gold Watch, Gillies said the opportunity to design the Metallica pinball machine with Stern Pinball was a dream come true.
“When I got the gig, I was nervous because I had to please so many people—the Metallica fans, the pinball fans, and also Stern and the band itself," he said. "The band has a very precise vision of they want to do—they are Metallica for a reason.”
Gillies is an advocate of hand-drawn pinball art, which had been under threat in recent years. "When you mess with that, and put a shitty Photoshopped weird commercial wrap, it doesn’t work. It loses that soul and looks kind of cheap,” he said.
These days, more and more hand-drawn games are coming out, opening the door for new artists. “It’s the heart and soul of pinball,” he said.
Indeed, Gillies' success with Metallica has landed him yet another pinball gig—this time, for Aerosmith.
"I just wanted it to look cool—not monster-y or cartoony, but more of an illustration," he said of the new machine. "With Metallica, I know them, so they’re easier to draw. But I did it, and Aerosmith signed off on it, if so they must have liked it.”
The Aerosmith pinball machine is set to debut in 2017. But in the meantime, those interested in seeing more of Gillies' work can check out his website, where he sells posters and T-shirts, or order a copy of his book from either location of Green Apple Books.
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