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Graphic designer and musician Ryan Allison: Made in Arizona

Ryan Allison has loved graphic design since he was a kid wearing band T-shirts. Today, he’s a graphic designer himself, as well as a musician.

His design firm is called Neon Navajo, and his band is called Dirt Rhodes.

Allison is good at branding, and that’s what he does for many local businesses like Palabras Bookstore and Rez Road Records — but all of his design is done with an Indigenous lens.

Allison is Navajo. He grew up surrounded by real-life cowboys in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Allison talked to The Show about how his culture — rich with art and history — feeds his work. 

Full interview

RYAN ALLISON: When I was growing up, I was really into T-shirt design and it was the beginning of a lot of these independent record labels. You know, like Fool's Gold, like Mad Decent, kind of that blog house era. But it, it made graphic design look very approachable and friendly, I guess, like to a point where I'm like, hey, I can, you know, I might be able to do this.

LAUREN GILGER: So you went to ASU eventually and chose to go in this graphic design direction. When did you sort of shape an identity as a designer? This idea of, of Neon Navajo and, and sort of taking your cultural heritage and turning that into something that matters in your art?

ALLISON: Well, I've been practicing as a graphic designer for like the last 10 years or so. But I went to ASU to, I guess, make it official, right? With a degree. But when I was there, it really made me discover how unique Indigenous culture is in terms of visual communication. And this also coincided with the pandemic. So when COVID was hitting the reservation really hard, I was often thinking of my folks back home and thinking of, I was just thinking of home really. And with that, I was learning these principles of design and I guess the foundations of what Eurocentric or Western design considers the standard. And I was applying that to things that I might have learned or seen at home on the rez, and that's when the idea really started. And that's also when the music project also started, the Dirt Rhodes project.

GILGER: Tell us a little bit about that. So you're also a musician, you play country music, right?

ALLISON: Yes. I like to say we play Navajo country because there is a distinction and there is a, a specific sound to Navajo country. With both projects, the design and the music, I really want to scream the fact that both graphic design or visual communication and country music have been ingrained in my culture forever. I would even go as far as seeing, you know, Indigenous people, brown folks, Black folks, are all the first cowboys, is ingrained in the lifestyle.

GILGER: So that's really interesting because it's also a huge part, the cowboy thing, right, Is also a huge part of what you're doing in your graphic design work. Tell us about this illustration that inspired the name Neon Navajo, right? Like this is of a cowboy.

ALLISON: Yeah. Well, when I first started taking graphic design super serious, I was trying to find ways to incorporate my culture and my culture's philosophy with this fusion of Eurocentric graphic design or illustration. And I found myself kind of in a weird dilemma because sure, I want to share my culture. But how much of it do I want to share? You know, and people won't understand it, which, which is fine, not everyone needs to understand it. But I think it came with the sensitivity of like, hey, I need to have respect for maybe things I don't understand, whether it's like pictures of deities or symbols that I might not understand. And that's how much respect I have for those symbols in my culture.

So that's when I pivoted to like, how can I depict Indigenous or Navajo lifestyle? And I thought like, hey, my grandpa and my uncles were all cowboys and I grew up with, you know, my, my grandpa always is riding a horse and he's always wearing his Stetson cowboy hat and his, had his boots on. So I started drawing things like that. I guess combining what looks like '70s, '60s airbrush art with Navajo cowboy lifestyle. And that's when things really picked up for me and I started to get a bit more attention with my art and the name Neon Navajo was kind of a thing where I was like, I want to blend these two concepts of, you know, like cowboys are always singing about neon. Like there's a song about "Neon Moon" or like whatever, you know, there's like dancing under the neon lights, right? And then the cow, like the Navajo cowboy and what that means.

And it's just, it's just a iconic American and Native American motif or trope, you know, it's just inherently grained in both American culture and Native American culture.

GILGER: That's a really interesting moment. Yeah. So, so what you're talking about here is like this idea of maybe ownership over Navajo art or the kind of cultural symbols that matter there, right? Like in that you are a Navajo person and therefore the art that you're creating is inherently Navajo art. Is that, do you feel like you are helping to redefine what that means or what it is?

ALLISON: In the big picture, I would hope so. There are plenty of places, you know, if you go to like really anywhere in the Southwest, it'll be branded as Southwester, but it'll have Navajo symbols or any other tribes' symbols. And technically, that's illegal. Like if you can't brand something as Navajo, if you're not Navajo, and then sell it. That's protected by laws. So there is ownership there, right? I mean, for me, it's all about ownership and it's just reiterating the fact that we've been doing this stuff for forever really. And it's not, it's not anything new but not having to provide context and just having it be there and people noticing is also important.

GILGER: That's interesting. So you feel like there's a level of you don't want to have to explain yourself.

ALLISON: Yeah, totally. I actually had this conversation with a few designer friends a couple of days ago where I talked about a lot of Native artists just feel really tired of providing context over and over and over. And it's kind of one of those things where, why can't it just be? And if you don't understand it, you don't understand it. But if you do understand it, it means that much more, right? And just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's not as great.

GILGER: So in your work as a graphic designer then, are you willing to work with anybody and try to represent that, their message, or how do you kind of translate this into the business kind of client side of things?

ALLISON: Sure. I mean, I think being an ASU alumni, you know, that design school is very rigorous and it's actually really prestigious and it really makes you go through the motions of design, the principles the foundation. And what I try to do is blend that with Indigenous thinking. So almost filtering it through an Indigenous lens. And I'm willing, to answer the question, I'm willing to work with anybody if they're willing to work with that vibe that I'm going for. And so far it's worked and I think people are starting to understand that. Like, it is something different, like the Indigenous flavor is something new because it's sort of an untapped market. And you see it all over, even like media, like "Reservation Dogs" is a really good example of that because it, it provides absolutely no context. You're just kind of dropped into that world and you're like forced to learn quickly. But then once you get it, you get it right.

GILGER: So what's next for you then, Ryan, I mean, where do you want to take this? And do you plan on sort of continuing to do what it sounds like you're doing now, which is taking inspiration from, you know, maybe the music that influences the design or the other way around?

ALLISON: Yeah, that's exactly what I'm trying to do, is I want Neon Navajo, but I also would like to make music and I want the music to feel the design and vice versa. And what I mean by that is, you know, the music community always needs rad artwork.

GILGER: I think we just went full circle there, starting with a band logos and ending with band logos.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.