Petr Urban is a household name in Prague — but not for reasons you’d expect. As an Olympic medalist who also happens to be the city’s most iconic cartoonist, it’s hard to find something that Urban isn’t good at.
Trust us, we tried. In fact, we caught up with the artist and sports champion himself at U Pivrnce, a pub he runs alongside his son, to talk about his unusual career, where he gets the inspiration for his bawdy cartoonery and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
While the pairing of sports and cartoon illustrations may seem unlikely to outsiders, to Urban, it makes perfect sense. While training as a luger, Urban came to admire the bravery of the sportsmen around him — “they are very brave and straight people who are not really scared of the system,” Urban says. “[Sports are] what gave me the inner power.” The first sketches he ever did were of powerful, confident athletes.
Years later, the same themes would eventually inspire Urban’s characteristic style of fearless, raunchy comics. But starting out as a cartoonist for the popular Czech magazine Dikobraz prior to the revolution, Urban says he felt it best to illustrate lighthearted, normal events. It wasn’t until the revolution of 1989, and the boom in the comedy industry that came with it, that Urban and other cartoonists began to experiment with dirty jokes and bawdy humor. (Ironically, Urban says the majority of customers were women, buying his cartoon books for their husbands.)
Eventually, Urban went on to illustrate for several Czech masterpieces like “Dobrý voják Švejk” and “The Tales from the Little Quarter.” To this day, he’s sold nearly five million copies of books and calendars, which means his illustrations have covered half the nation. “If this would have happened in America, I’d be a millionaire,” Urban jokes.
Even as his cartoonist career began to explode, Urban never left sports behind. Growing up, his only dream was to become a professional athlete like his father, Olympic luger Horst Urban, and that’s exactly what he did, representing then-Czechoslovakia in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics. But he says he enjoys the way cartoons let him connect with people, share their stories — and make them smile.
“I want to entertain people and the feedback is good, so I continue. My work helps people get through difficult periods in their lives because laughing is healthy,” Urban tells us. “Someone even put my drawings next to their grave, just to make the situation lighter.”
Now — and in characteristic Czech fashion — Urban likes to spread his penchant for making people laugh through the walls of his son’s pub, U Pivrnce. Jokes and cartoons cover every inch of the pub’s walls, many illustrated by customers themselves, and dozens created by Urban. Here guests can also find the mascot of Ruda Pivrnec, Urban’s most influential cartoon.
It’s not the first time Urban has filled a pub’s walls with cartoons. As a child, Urban says he would often visit his aunt’s pub in Jizerske hory, where celebrities from across the country would venture for a taste of arnica, a rare herb used as an ingredient for strong drinks. It was here that Urban began to dream of owning his own pub one day. When Petr got the money from his first book, he did just that, opening a pub in his hometown, Smržovka, where buses of tourists would visit to watch him draw. While the original pub has since been closed, Urban opened U Pivrnce in 1993. Prior to opening, Urban locked himself inside the pub for ten days to cover the walls with jokes and cartoons, working so hard that his fingers bled.
With a successful career as an Olympic athlete, cartoonist and now, two-time pub owner, it’s hard to imagine what more Urban hopes to accomplish. But true to his creative instinct, Urban is already launching a new project — online cartoon newsletters, which he hopes to begin disseminating once a week in August. His other latest project is designing the illustrations for a Stations of the Cross, which will be placed in his hometown of Smržovka. One day in the future, you might see Urban’s cartoons even come to life in animation.
With such diverse talents, it’s hard to predict Urban’s next move. But when asked about his daily routine, it’s clear that Urban’s passions still lie in sports, cartoonery, and — like a true Czech — his pub.
Upon waking around midday, Urban says he begins the day with a jog. At 4 p.m., he takes a seat at his desk, cracks open a beer, or sips from a bottle of wine.
Then, he begins to draw..
This story was written by Adrian McLaughlin