A man draws on a computer screen at a studio workspace.


The King of Diamonds Holds a Tarpon: An Interview with Rob Benigno

Rob Benigno’s held either a pencil or a fishing rod in his hand as far back as he can remember. His mom used to give him stacks of computer paper, the kind with perforated edges, and let him go to town drawing all over them. On family trips to Canada, his grandfather taught him to fish for walleye, which led to flyfishing for trout in the small streams near his family home in New York state and then a Great Lakes steelhead obsession once he headed off to college in Cleveland.

After several years spent tattooing, Benigno now combines his passions for fishing and art in the form of apparel, stickers and gear with his brand, Lakes Rivers Streams. He recently finished a years-long project of creating a fishing-themed deck of playing cards, which has brought him a whole lot of attention. I recently got my deck in the mail, shuffled it and gave Benigno a call to talk about fishing, art and the satisfaction of knowing that his cards are at the center of late-night Euchre games on fishing trips all over the place.

A man holding a fanned deck of custom playing cards

Above: Rob and his fishing-themed deck of cards.

The Flyfish Journal: Was your art always fishing related?

Rob Benigno: No. I used to draw a lot of cars, houses, stuff like that. My senior year of college in Cleveland, we had a thesis project that we had to put together, and mine was environmentalism based, which then kind of slid its way into fishing. But once I started drawing fish, that became all I really wanted to draw. The best part of it has been getting to work with a lot of guides and fly shops. I’ve developed cool relationships with them and have been able to go fishing with them too.

How would you describe your style?

Illustrative, cartoonish. There are a lot of underground comic book artists that I really like and get inspiration from—R. Crumb and Daniel Clowes to name a few. Ed Roth is somebody that I always loved looking at, that style of art where it’s a lot of line work, a bit more bold, flatter colors, kind of energetic. A little bit goofy at times. I’d say my style is kind of in that realm of cartoonish, not overly cartoonish though. I like to have a bit more detail. I try not to think too much about it, because in thinking about style, if you’re overly conscious about it you end up trying to emulate yourself instead of just trying to draw in the moment.

Seeing somebody’s work that you like a lot, and then trying to make your work like theirs, you’ll always be second best. So, I kind of take bits and pieces, try to focus on how I intuitively would do things had I not seen what anybody else was doing. That being said, I do have a full bookshelf right behind me of art that I like. I always liked Norman Rockwell, the way that he was able to really emulate a specific feeling in the painting.

What does your process look like?

My head never really stops thinking of random ideas. I enjoy drawing just pictures of fish, but I always prefer to have some sort of concept, whether it’s something that’s clever or witty or a cool way of collaging things together. I like to look at something and have a reaction other than just like, oh, yeah, look at that, whether it’s going to make somebody laugh or have a double take or something. Then it always starts off as a loose sketch. I sketch on pen and paper, just getting the ideas down. And then I do a lot on my iPad as well as, and on a bigger tablet called a Cintiq, before finally finessing it in Photoshop or Procreate. Creating things in a digital format gives it a lot of applicability in terms of being able to turn it into a screen print or decals.

Having it all as files on a computer, though, doesn’t have quite the same feeling of tangibility as works on paper or canvas, so sometimes I do things like painted fly boxes. The front of the fly box is the clear plastic, and I paint on the back side of the plastic. It’s kind of like what they call reverse painting.

A deck of custom flyfishing playing cards made by artist Rob Benigno

Above: Rob’s custom playing cards.

Tell me about your tattooing career. How has that influenced the art you do now?

That initially started when I was 16. I got out of high school and I got an apprenticeship, mostly because I didn’t really want to go to school for art initially. I thought, Well, I could probably make a career out of this without having to go to college. But ironically enough, it actually ended up propelling me into going to college for art because I realized what it would take to really hone this craft that I wanted to take seriously. But getting into tattooing really forced me to have to learn how to draw for clients instead of whatever I wanted to draw.

I tattooed for about six years and I did really enjoy it. It was a great learning experience, and the main reason I stopped was just the permanence kind of got to me. When people came to me with ideas and I was like, Eh, I don’t really know if you’re going to like this 10 years from now. This is maybe me being overly critical of other people’s ideas, but there were things that I thought were a little too trendy at the time. I didn’t want to be the person they think of when they regret the decision.

I started following you when you first started your playing card deck project and really enjoyed seeing the incredible amount of work that went into it. Talk about that project a bit. What made you want to do it, and what was the process like?

Initially it was just me and my buddy out fishing, and we kind of spitballed the idea that it would be cool to draw an entire card deck. The first one that I drew was the king of hearts and he had a brown trout, and I got a pretty good response to that first drawing. The first two suits, I drew when I could, making time in between other projects. Once I made the pre-order available, that forced me to get organized and pin down a timeline. This definitely was the biggest project that I’ve done.

I like that it’s something people will have for a while and get a lot of use out of. I’ve had a lot of people saying oh, I can’t wait to take this to camp this summer. It’s cool to be connected in that way to peoples’ memories of fishing trips and stuff.

A fly fisherman holds a brown trout

Above: Rob with a nice wild brown trout. Photo: Kyle Glenn

Do you have a favorite species to draw or a favorite species to fish for?

It’s cliché, but I love fishing for trout.

In terms of drawing, I don’t really have a favorite because after I draw one so many times, it gets a little bit boring. But tarpon, tarpon are a lot of fun because of the way they’re shaped and their faces; they look like a giant puzzle you can piece together. It’s all these little tiny sections, and it’s very line heavy, and it’s just so angular. They’re a lot of fun to draw.

Lately, I feel like I end up drawing trout a lot, which I’m trying to steer away from and branch out a little bit more, doing some more bass stuff. I live in western New York where there’s a lot of really nice kind of small to medium size trout streams. My favorite thing is kind of getting lost, hiking deep down some little valley or something like that and spending the whole day fishing a few miles worth of water. But now it’s starting to get warmer out. My mom lives on a pond and we do a lot of bass fishing, and I still love doing that. I just love tying big streamers and doing top water fishing.

See more of Rob’s work at www.lakesriversstreams.com.


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