David Anthony Welker, a New York City-based artist, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on July 30, 1964. Over the span of his career, he has explored countless medias – large-scale paintings, portraits, murals, and commercial illustration. He is probably most well known for creating the cover art for Phish’s Rift album; however, his artistic reach has extended far beyond that.
One of David’s earliest and most influential memories was when his older brother, Steve, took him to the September 3, 1977 Grateful Dead concert at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey. David was 13 years old at the time. With over 100,000 people in attendance, including New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Hells Angels, this early exposure to the psychedelic counterculture had a significant impact on David’s artistic eye and would influence his art from an early age.
David spent his formative years in New York City suburbia drawing his perceptions of what life in the city was like. He later enrolled at Syracuse University to study painting, drawing, and illustration and graduated in 1986. For the next two years, Welker continued painting large-scale works to build a repertoire. In 1988, David moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he first saw the band Phish at the Paradise Club in 1989. Also musically gifted, David took a brief hiatus from art to pursue music, first with drums and then guitar. In 1992, David moved back to New York City and began touring around the lower east side with his band. When David saw Phish again in March 1992 at the Roseland Ballroom, he connected with the lyrics/mood of Phish and decided to reach out to them artistically. This decision would forever change the course of David’s career.
At the same time as the Roseland Ballroom show in 1992, Welker’s artwork was being shown in a gallery on Broome Street in New York City. David said that the music he heard that night drew parallels to his art and that he felt he needed to reach out to the band. The song “Rift” was played that night. Welker selected two show cards from his gallery show, Staten Island Ferry and Levitator, and mailed them to Phish’s fan mail address with the message: “I would love for you to come to my show. I really enjoy your music.” Two weeks later, David returned home one day to Trey Anastasio’s voice on his answering machine asking him to return the call. Trey then explained that the band would like David to do the cover art for their upcoming album, Rift. The very next day, David drove to Burlington, Vermont to meet the band over a spaghetti dinner. Very little with regards to business was discussed, but David said it was the opportunity to be around them that day that put the wheels in motion. Over the next few weeks, David would talk several times with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon about the specifics. David then sent them the painting Lengthwise. Trey liked it but requested that David “blue-ify” it to echo the sentiments of the concept album, Rift, which details the aftermath of a grueling break-up. David was provided copies of the lyrics for every song on the album but "Horse," which is why it is the only song not alluded to on the Rift cover art. Once Elektra Records and the band had approved the artwork, it took David a total of four weeks to complete Rift. The final version of Rift, which is an oil-on-paper painting measuring 3' x 6', was purchased by Phish in 1996 and now hangs in the conference room at Phish headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. When Phish purchased the original Rift, they also commissioned Welker to do A Portrait of Mike Gordon, which was later released as a giclee in 2006. Welker has completed several additional Phish posters since then, including gig prints for Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon's side projects. Relix magazine labeled Rift as one of the most iconic album covers of all time in 2007.
In 2015, a group of private commissioners and self-professed Phish fans hired Welker to revisit the Rift artwork to see how the fictitious man fared in the 20+ years since Rift's release. David's response was Mound, a ramshackle exterior of the same house portrayed in Rift but with a gigantic mound and labyrinth in the yard nearby. Mound quickly rose to a second-place finish in Expresso Beans Art Print of the Year for 2015.
On February 21, 2018, Welker released a successor to Rift entitled The Maze. The piece depicts the same room 25 years later. It was released in four editions: a colorized print, a screen print, a letterpress print, and a graphite print. All editions, comprising 1250 copies, sold out in a minute.
Life as a Muralist
Following the instant success of the Rift album release in 1993, Welker began an apprenticeship from 1996-2007 under artist Franklin Tartaglione. Together, they traveled all over the United States painting landscape murals for wealthy private commissioners. Tartaglione was an apprentice of famed Chinoiserie mural legend Robert Jackson. This extended immersion in the Rococo art style deeply influenced Welker as an artist.
During this same time, Welker also professionally collaborated with renowned fashion photographer Raphael Mazzucco. While their professional relationship was beneficial to both, Welker returned to the art of music in 2009.
"It was gratifying to find that the early seed I had planted from that album cover for Phish made it possible for me to step back into the illustration market with surprising swiftness due to the rise of the gig poster and lowbrow art movements. From 2009 and onward, I joined the screen print revolution and adapted my large-scale painting style to a smaller-scale pen-and-ink technique. I quickly identified with the creative freedom of the concert poster world and began building my first truly cohesive illustration portfolio... I was a real student of the medium. I went to poster shows and visited as many of my contemporaries’ studios as I could. I really took it to heart. I became a print addict and a collector. I have more than 700 screen prints from other artists in the scene," Welker said in a recent interview for Communication Arts.
He has since gone on to create gig posters for some of the most popular touring bands in America, including Bob Dylan, The Black Keys, Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, Phish, Primus, and Widespread Panic.
Creating a poster for Fare Thee Well, the Grateful Dead's 2015 sign-off in Chicago, was a dream come true for Welker that brought him full circle from his first concert with his brother in 1977. David considers it one of his greatest honors.
Welker has continued to release original art, free from affiliation to other bands/events, with great success. When Bottleneck Gallery or Fun City Ink Gallery release new Welker art, it sells out within minutes.
Welker had his first solo gallery show, "Subconscious Narratives," at the Hoerle-Guggenheim in New York City in November 2015. Fans traveled several hours by plane, train, car, and bus to stand in line outside the gallery in the rain for hours before it opened just to meet him and obtain his newest print releases. Welker had 77 original pieces on display, as well as several screen prints available for purchase. The screen prints sold out in the first four days of the two-month show.
Evolution of the Skully
The "skully" began as a doodle that eventually became the symbol of David Welker's work. It is now available on everything from stickers to handbills, T-shirts, and even throw pillows.
- Selected for the Society of Illustrators Annual, 2014
- Selected for the Communication Arts Annual, 2015
- 2nd place Art Print of the Year, Mound, 2015, Expresso Beans
- Art of the Week Winner, Expresso Beans - 13 times
- 2nd place Poster of the Year, Phish Alpharetta 2014, Expresso Beans
- Represented by Bernstein & Andriulli
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