Illustration Student Puts His Love for Marine Biology to Work Through Art

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Academy of Art University illustration student Aaron John Gregory has created an unusual art niche that has served him in a variety of remarkable endeavors. To put it simply, he draws fish.

“I’ve spent my entire life in love with aquatic wildlife,” said Gregory, who is currently a senior at the Academy.

This passion permeates almost every part of his life from the name and musical themes of his acclaimed metal band Giant Squid to his successful t-shirt company Cotton Crustacean to his job illustrating a serious mollusk biology text.

“As a kid, I had aquariums all over my bedroom. Right out of high school, I studied marine biology at community college and worked at almost every tropical fish store in Sacramento, CA,” said Gregory, who even bought one of those stores with his aunt when he was 23 years old.

A scuba diver for over 20 years, Gregory dove professionally at Aquarium of the Bay shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2007.

“Part of my job was literally wrangling huge eight foot long sharks in and out of the main tanks,” Gregory said.

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Aaron John Gregory wearing Argonaut Octopus, from his t-shirt company Cotton Crustacean. Courtesy of Aaron John Gregory.

He still earns a living by servicing high-end aquariums in the city and occasionally volunteers as a diver at the California Academy of Sciences. He also installed the new-planted aquarium exhibit at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, which opened in November. On top of that, he illustrated and designed the t-shirts, posters and other related goods in the conservatory’s gift shop.

“It feels like I’m engrossed in marine biology on a daily basis,” said Gregory.

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CUESA 2014 poster by Aaron John Gregory. Courtesy of Aaron John Gregory.

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“Mosasaurus” by Aaron John Gregory. Courtesy of Aaron John Gregory.

His love for art was born out of a desire to illustrate comic books. In 2009, he decided to go to art school and enrolled in the Kubert School of Graphic Art in Dover, NJ.

“I soon became known as the guy who draws weird fish stuff,” says Gregory. “That stayed with me when I transferred to AAU a year later in search of a school closer to home and to my band, Giant Squid. Even the songs I write for the band predominantly have nautical themes, but are utilized as a metaphor for human experience.”

Director of the School of Illustration Chuck Pyle calls Gregory a “phenomenal senior who embodies the best of illustration as a student.”

“He is already madly freelancing and doing many entrepreneurial things,” said Pyle. “He is ‘placed’ and then some before he even graduates.”


Gregory started his t-shirt company Cotton Crustacean with a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The pen and ink illustrations of prehistoric marine life that he produces for the t-shirts have garnered a lot of exposure, and lured some lucrative, high profile freelance work his way.

“I just licensed an illustration of a mosasaur for permanent display, alongside fossils of the actual animal, in a natural history museum in Dallas, TX,” Gregory said. “My drawing of an argonaut octopus recently got me hired to illustrate the wraparound cover and interior illustrations for a biology book on mollusks, written by prominent British marine biologist, Dr. Helen Scales.”

And that’s not all. Gregory’s band, Giant Squid, is celebrating their 10-year anniversary with the release last month of their fifth studio album, entitled Minoans.

“I’m in love with art history. I took the family to Greece and the island of Crete a couple years ago after being so inspired by Kevin Forman’s class on art history up to the 15th Century,” said Gregory.

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Conservatory of Flowers: Art of Aquascaping. Courtesy of Aaron John Gregory.

“I was so moved by the ruins, artifacts and incredible history that I wrote an entire progressive metal album about the ancient Minoan people who lived on Crete over 3500 years ago.”

Critics are raving about Minoans and Giant Squid is selling copies in every corner of the world right now.

“Plans are to finally tour Europe next year, now that I’m graduating this December,” said Gregory, who met his wife, professional cellist and vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz, when she joined Giant Squid in 2007. They have a three-year-old daughter named Pearl Gray.

Gregory’s next goals are to get Cotton Crustacean shirts in museum gift shops everywhere and fine-tune his portfolio because he still wants to draw comic books professionally.

“Most importantly though, I desperately need to spend more time with my family now that I’ll be out of school,” Gregory said. “Pearl is old enough to realize that I’m at the drawing table all day and not with her and Jackie. That’s heartbreaking for me. Time for some serious playground sessions and trips to the zoo. I’m counting the minutes till then.”