Two wood canvases lay on the floor awaiting the master’s brush, an experiment in a new medium, as Tiki statues stand watch behind red and blue chairs near the picture window. Paintings and sketches adorn the walls of his office. None bear the SHAG signature, though. Painter Josh Agle’s own works lean against a cabinet, stacked randomly without rhyme or reason or color palette.
Yet, it’s the turquoise guitar that stands curiously among the artist’s chaos. The six-string with the Tiki-inspired strap hasn’t been played for years, but it is not truly forgotten. It is a nostalgic reminder of days gone by and the humble beginnings of one of the world’s most iconic modern artists.
Agle, aka SHAG, is the paint brush behind those well-known martini-clutching ladies and gentlemen who exist amidst angular lines and bright colors. The women with beehive hairdos hanging by palm tree-lined pools, cool-cat men partying with alligators, while black felines prowl the edges.
It’s sort of a Jetsons meet Mad Men style that has fascinated mid-century art lovers since Agle stumbled upon his artistic career as a student at Long Beach State University.
Agle, whose childhood was spent in Sierra Madre, Hawai’i and Utah, moved to California to study architecture and economics at Long Beach State, intent on becoming an accountant, a career that served his father well in raising a family of nine kids.
“After piddling around in college, I decided I should probably get serious and think about a real career,” he said, sitting in the studio of his split-level Orange County home. “And since my dad was an accountant and seemed to make a good living and made it look easy, I decided I would study accounting.”
More often than not Agle found himself drifting to the school’s art department. “After a while, I realized I had more in common with the arts students than I did with the business students,” said the 55-year-old artist.
He eventually switched majors and embarked on a career based on primary colors rather than prime numbers. It was while in college that Agle hooked up with a budding rock band strumming that blue guitar, and landed a job designing album covers.
“I worked in the record industry for about 10 years, doing commercial illustration and graphic design. My specialty was recreating vintage-looking album covers for mostly smaller, indie labels, punk labels, alternative labels,” Agle said.
Agle said he found the vintage graphic design style appealing because it felt “futuristic and old-timey at the same time.”
When his indie rock band, Swamp Zombies, recorded their first album, they turned to their guitar-artist for an album design. Agle, though, knew he couldn’t sign his own name to the cover; he would need a nom de artiste so it would look like the band could afford a graphic designer. He eventually settled on SHAG – the last two letters of his first name and the first two letters of his last name. Little did he know that a star was about to be born.
“I started playing around with that (SHAG) style for some commercial art, then for a record cover,” Agle said. “I had thought I was going to make my living as a graphic designer and commercial artist; that was my intention after graduating from (Long Beach State.)
“But people started asking for original paintings. They saw something I didn’t, and I told them I’m not that kind of artist.”
The more he painted, the more they asked. In 1995, promoter Otto Von Stroheim asked him to contribute a painting to a local exhibition. The two shared a love of everything Tiki. The picture sold quickly, for $200.
Shortly after that showing, Agle said another friend asked him for a series of paintings for an art show at a Santa Monica coffee shop.
“I got one wall in a room in this coffee house the size of a bedroom, and I thought I could fit five paintings on this wall,” Agle said. “I thought I wasn’t going to sell anything, so I better paint things that I like because they are going to end up on my own wall.”
All five paintings sold before the night was over, none for more than $300. Despite the wad of cash in his pocket, Agle didn’t quit his day job as a freelance graphic designer until SHAG was making three times as much as Josh Agle.
“I was totally afraid to quit my job at the record label because I was sure as soon as I did, I would never sell another painting,” Agle said.
Today, SHAG originals sell between a few hundred dollars and tens of thousands of dollars. Whoopi Goldberg, Seth Green and Ben Stiller are among the celebrities who have purchased SHAG paintings. Agle has had exhibitions all around the world and his paintings hang in homes and galleries worldwide. He said he soon will be shipping a painting to the Ice Station in the Antarctica, putting his paintings on all seven continents.
Agle said he is considering taking an 18-month sabbatical after his latest showing in Australia. After 20 years of creating, one horrific accident and one too many dips into the party scene, he said he wants to step away for a while, get away from the martini-and-cat scenes depicted in his paintings.
Agle said too often his life imitated his funky party scenes that he captured on canvas. He got caught up in the shaken-not-stirred crowd and realized he needed to stop. Three years ago, he put down the cocktail glass for good.
“I used to call drinking ‘career research’ because everything I did revolved around situations where people were drinking,” Agle said. “But at some point, the career research got to be too much and all I was doing was career research.”
On an early morning in 2010, after returning from a red-eye trip to the United Kingdom, Agle decided to start painting but wearily stumbled and fell through the floor-to-ceiling window in his house. He awoke in intensive care, having suffered cuts, bruises and mild nerve damage in his right shoulder.
Before the accident, Agle’s paintings had taken a surrealistic dark turn, inspiration taken from disturbing dreams and trauma-filled childhood memories. No more hipster men. No more women in animal prints. No more Tiki.
“They were less related to what you think of when you think SHAG themes,” he said.
Agle said the accident shook him out of that dark space and he returned to happier times and places and eventually led him to the Happiest Place on Earth. In 2013, Disney asked Agle if he would create several original pieces for the 50th anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Garden. He obliged.
Agle since has provided paintings and merchandise pieces for Disney’s Star Wars celebration and will create a collection for the park’s 50th anniversary of Pirates of the Caribbean. After that, he said he will take a long-needed vacation from doing shows. He instead will concentrate on creating merchandise that can be found in his SHAG stores in West Hollywood and Palm Springs.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve been doing two major galleries a year, and I’m ready to sit back and not have that nagging ‘I have to create a body of work’ feeling,” Agle said. “I want to sit back and think for 18 months and concentrate on the SHAG stores.”