From body art to beer cans: Hopkins tattooist tapped as Surly Featured Artist

By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

Surly? Actually, he’s thrilled: Adam Sward, illustrator and tattoo artist at Electric Dragonland in Hopkins, will be the new face of Minnesota’s favorite cantankerous craft beer brand, Surly Brewing, in Brooklyn Center.
“When I first got the email, I thought I was spam,” Sward admitted. “I wasn’t expecting it. I was really excited when I got ahold of them and realized, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’”

For someone who eats, sleeps and lives his work, it’s about time for Sward to dip into the craft beer pool with his work.
“All I really do is draw. I work on tattoos, and I come home and work on illustrations,” he said. “It’s so great to have the opportunity to do something that would pair me with a Minneapolis staple, and to be connected to the previous artists. The chance to see Surly with my work on it is pretty rad.”

Sward, a resident of St. Paul, worked as a freelance illustrator for years after graduating from Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley.
“I did the grind, I took every illustration job I could get my hands on,” he said. “When I realized the comic books I liked to draw weren’t a feasible source of income, I moved into concert and event posters.”

Adam Sward, a tattoo artist for Electric Dragonland in Hopkins, has been named the 2017 Featured Artist for Surly Brewing, tapped to design logos for the upcoming Darkness and other exclusive beers (Sun Sailor staff photo by Gabby Landsverk)

He started at Electric Dragonland as a tattoo artist six years ago.

“I kind of accidentally became a tattoo artist,” he joked. Sward saw a posting online about a new tattoo studio, and decided to take a stab at it. He now works full-time slinging ink, on the clock with a tattoo needle and off the clock at home in his own studio.
“I really couldn’t be happier, I still get to draw all day and as a career, it’s rad and it funds my illustration habit very well,” Sward said.
So, what does it take to make art for what some have called the best beer in Minnesota, or even the world?

Michael Berglund, Surly’s creative director, said Sward has a uniquely intense, darkly imaginative style with a sly tongue-in-cheek irony. That snark perfectly complements beers with names like “Cynic” and “Overrated.”
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously here at Surly,” Berglund said. “A lot of the brand is a very self-aware, almost sarcastic sense of humor. We know we’re just having fun, we’re just making beer, and, well, hey, we might be changing the world a little bit too.”

Sward said that’s part of what he loves about Surly, besides the beer itself, of course.
“One of my favorite parts about Surly is the sense of humor they have. There’s a very cynical, sarcastic way to how they market themselves. In the world of craft brewing, people tend to take themselves really seriously and I like that they don’t,” he said.
For the company’s boldest and most sought-after beers, like the annual Darkness release, the branding needs to live up to what’s in the bottle, with intricate, richly detailed designs that speak to the aggressively unique flavors.
Previous designs have included a whole host of imaginative otherworldy creatures, and that happens to be one of Sward’s specialties.
His illustrations, from comics to posters and even some tattoos, are full of monsters and ominous motifs and beings that defy description. Heavily symbolic with a sly irony, Sward’s work pairs classic Americana with the occult and the surreal, creating evocative and unsettling dreamscapes straight out of a nightmare.
“A friend described it best: everything I draw looks like it’s about 30 secs from decaying completely,” Sward said.
“I think there’s a lot of strength in association, and the juxtaposition of this things creates narratives that people are into.”

Sward shows off one of his favorite tattoos, an old Calvin and Hobbes homage that reflects beloved cartoon characters from his youth.

His take on the upcoming Surly Darkness design is based on Baba Yaga, an ambiguous but terrifying witch-like figure of folklore. His designs for Surlyfest and the special anniversary release ‘12’ are still in the brainstorming process.

Berglund added that Surly has a history of working with a variety of local artists to design cutting-edge labels that benefit their beer.
“One of the things that is compelling about craft beer is that it’s a local craftsman that’s making the beverage. There’s a strong local connection to it. You go right to the brewery where it’s made, and it’s a gathering place, a cultural nexus. That attracts artists, musicians, other people who are creative,” he said. “It’s a really compelling aspect of craft beer to bring in artists and other local creators to work together.”

Through its annual featured artist contest, the brewery keeps the designs fresh and exciting, as well as offering a unique platform for up-and-coming artists to shine, he said.

“We look for stylistically, things that push the envelope a little bit, including less traditional artists. That’s what excites me about my job, being able to work with new artists and be astounded by their creativity,” Berglund said. “We’re very committed to always having that changing look and feel and supporting the arts locally.”

Coincidentally, Sward is the third Adam to have the title of featured artist for the brewery, following in the footsteps of Turman and Martin, both beloved pop artists and both, coincidentally, working out of St. Louis Park.
“I don’t necessarily think we need to get street gang jackets, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” Sward joked.
It’s become a running joke for him, Berglund and the rest of the creative team. “We cannot explain it, and hope you understand that changing your name to Adam for next year’s search will not increase your chances of winning. Probably,” reads the website announcing Sward’s win.

Sward, for his part, is just thrilled to be among what he considers to be local legends.
“I feel really honored to be a part of this and the pantheon of artists they have. … The caliber of artists they take on is really cool,” he said. “They have a very strong sense of self. There’s no mistaking the artists and the individuality they bring to the work. I found it to be a very high compliment to join the ranks of the Darkness artists. As validation, in a small way, of the work I’ve been doing all this years, it was a real jolt.”
The honor of Surly Featured Artist is icing on the cake for Sward who he rarely enters contests.
“I’m not one to enter contests or chase down publicity. I feel like if my work doesn’t speak for itself, it’s not good enough,” Sward said.

For Surly, however, he makes an exception, submitting work to the brewery contest the past several years.
“Adam is one of those stories I love to tell, because he had entered into our contests multiples times. We have a lot of talented people, and when we see people enter multiple times, that speaks to their passion,” Berglund said. “Adam has been near the top for a couple of years now. I couldn’t be happier with what he’s created for us so far. Not only is it great talent, but great professionalism and passion that we look for, and he’s got it all.”
Look for Sward’s design on upcoming Surly offerings; for more information about his work, visit

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]