They Also Served: Owen Smith

Artist & Illustrator


Who says they don’t do ’em like they used to? Long before Hard Case Crime made it safe for pulp cover art again, San Francisco fine artist OWEN SMITH was keeping the flame alive, through his paintings, illustrations and sculpture.

I’ve been a fan of Smith ever since 1996 or so, when I first noticed his work on the cover of The Low End of Nowhere, a novel by Michael Stone featuring his hard-ass Denver bounty hunter and sometime private eye Streeter.

Smith’s work subsequently appeared on a few other Streeter novels, but then I began to notice his work–he has a very distinctive style–popping up all over the place, about as hard to ignore as a pucnh in the face. An Aimee Man album cover (for which he won a Grammy). Maureeen Dowd’s Are Men Really Necessary? Numerous magazine covers, including The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and, I think, Sports Illustrated. He’s done some great painting of boxers. And Springsteen.

Owen’s illustrative work is a marvel of swirling, pulpish impressionism; a celebration of blue-collar solidarity and defiance that harkens back to the days of public works programs and working class murals as much as it does pulp magazines. It’s not really “realistic,” but it’s vibrant and muscular and there’s a throbbing, almost disturbing visceral energy about the way he portrays the people in his paintings. There are no wimps or delicate, pretty people in his work — everyone’s built like a bruised brick shithouse.


  • The Streeter series by Michael Stone
    The Low End of Nowhere (1996), The Long Reach (1997), Token of Remorse (1998) and Totally Dead (1999).
    I first became aware of Smith’s work here, and I can still feel the rush. So retro, and yet defiantly fresh and modern.
  • Mother Jones (March/April 2008 cover)
    Something else again. The theme and title of the issue (and presumably the illustration itself) is “Torture Hits Home” and if you don’t think a simple illustration can shock or disturb you, if you can look at this and not squirm, if you can study this picture and simply shrug it off, we all know which side of the torture debate you stand on… Look at that illustration. Look at it close. This is pulp. This is hardcore. Well done, Mr. Smith.
  • My Scrapbook: Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco
    A series of posters commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission as part of its Market Street 2008 Program, to commemorate Dashiell Hammet’s private eye classic, and featuring characters from the novel. The posters were on public display from Monday, June 16th, to Thursday, September 18th, 2008 on (where else?) Market Street.
  • My Scrapbook: Owen Smith Does BART
    Another one rides the bus…


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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