I recently realized that there is a real lack of serious, in-depth writing about the poster scene, on the internet or otherwise, so I thought about how I could work to change that. My friend Mike Isaac immediately came to mind. Mike is a fairly prominent fixture on most poster-related message boards. Don’t let his modesty fool you, he is also a student, knee-deep in one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country, so he knows what he is doing. For his first piece, he decided to avoid any controversial topics and just do a simple introduction. I am sure you’ll like him as much as I do. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mike Isaac:
When Mitch first asked me to write for his blog I was excited, but at a bit of a loss. I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. It’s not that I lack the ‘qualification’ to write on the poster scene – by most arbitrary (and entirely fictional) standards, I’m a full-on poster art geek. I spend most of my waking hours frequenting the lowbrow art scene’s blogs and hubs of activity. I’ve carved myself a little niche on the boards over at Gigposters.com, having become at the very least a recognized, if not (dare I say) respected, member of the community. I own a few hundred prints – some “sought after” by many, some not so much – and have developed my own sense of the aesthetic I enjoy and prefer, while gaining more and more insight into the technical processes that have been used to create the works of art I collect. Still, what could I write that would interest those that may already members of the scene itself, be it artist or collector, layman or aficionado, random Google-searcher or daily blog-checker? Maybe a personal testimonial of sorts…something on how I got into this crazy world of inkjet skulls and day-glo tits, French paper wishes and letterpress dreams. A brief recap, if you will. I hope you’ll pardon the romanticizing.
I remember my first poster purchase fairly well. It wasn’t that long ago.
Queens of the Stone Age had just released “Lullabies to Paralyze” in March of ’05, and I had tickets to their June 16th date at The Fillmore, San Francisco. The record didn’t really floor me – it felt almost nothing like the stoner jam “robot rock” days of Stone Gossard’s Loosegroove records and Frank Kozik’s Man’s Ruin label. The sound was almost too clean and overproduced, a tighter Interscope release that felt like it was searching for a wider appeal. Regardless, I loved hearing the group’s live sets; frontman Josh Homme tends to take older tracks from the group and rework them into entirely different versions of the original, playing otherwise unreleased material only at live shows. So I went, hoping for some aural goodies.
While checking out the merch booth for any tour-version CD/LP releases, I stumbled across a massive, wacked-out, seven-headed-hydra of a poster made for the show. I can’t say for certain if I hadn’t noticed gigposters at shows before, or if this was the one that just happened to first catch my eye. Whatever the case, the artist’s slightly disturbed yet still cartoonishly-campy aesthetic got me. Good. I bought it then and there, rolling it up and shoving it under my already sweaty armpit before diving back into the sea of now buzzing show-goers.
It seemed more of an afterthought to me at first. The poster was something nice to take home after the concert that I could pin up on my wall and look at occasionally – a fond reminder of whatever live rarities that night’s tour date had in store, how drunk I may have ended up being by the end of the night, the thought of the perfect rack on the girl next to me who had decided to flash Joey Castillo during the opening drumming to “Song for the Dead.” I was too young for the Rick Griffins and Stanley Mouses of the ‘60s – hell, I was still crapping in Pampers when Kozik revived the scene in the ‘80s – so the concept of the rock poster as a work of truly admirable “art” with a rich history behind it wasn’t at all in my mind. I thumbtacked my souvenir to the sheetrock wall above my bed and didn’t give it much of a second thought, save for a wistful moment every now and then of wishing I could check out that chick’s boobs again.
A month or so later, I was out on a date in the Haight area of San Francisco – a region still reminiscent of the countercultural loud rock and lascivious living generated along its sidewalks in the ‘60s – and passed a storefront with a huge window display of posters, most of which were from QotSA shows. I went inside and was taken aback at the selection they had. Hundred of framed and unframed pieces, some that had a similar look and feel of the poster I had purchased at the show, others in styles entirely different, each one amazing to me in its own way. The shop owner, Naomi (a woman I’d come to know and love over time), familiarized me with some of the artists on her walls – Todd Slater’s silhouetted Morrissey print, Derek Hess’ scuba-geared mosh-pitter on his Pearl Jam poster, even a rendition of Robert Smith from the artist whose QotSA print was my first, Jermaine Rogers. I ended up walking out with another Queens print, this time from an artist whom Naomi said was “going to be huge” in the poster world, Emek. Apparently there was an entire world surrounding what I thought to be mere swag, something a little classier than the Bo Dereks and Farrah Fawcetts of decades ago.
I was way more in the dark than I expected. The end of 2004 had brought the publishing of Paul Grushkin’s and Dennis King’s Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion, a 472 page, 7 and a half pound tome of all things poster, from inception to mid 80’s revival to the then-current state of affairs. Multiple demographics of entirely new poster enthusiasts were being reached. Kids that weren’t alive during the early days – when concert promoters like Chet Helms and Bill Graham were publishing some of the now-revered classic posters for legendary rock show line-ups – could flip through the book’s pages and see what their new generation had to offer. And the aesthetics varied wildly. One could find posters with an emphasis on graphic design from artists like Patent Pending’s Jeff Kleinsmith, Ireland-cum-San Francisco designer Alan Hynes, or the work of the guys at Decoder Ring Design Concern, as well as the illustration-heavy output from artists like the insanely prolific Scrojo, the Chicago-based greyhound & squirrel wrangling Jay Ryan, or Italy’s dark trio of muse-makers (and my personal favorite group of artists), Malleus. There was so much to delve into, so many different styles to appreciate, so many nuances particular to each artist.
Best of all, if the artist was doing his or her job right, each poster’s concept and execution “fit” with the sound, look and overall “feel” of the band. I loved how the two existing mediums came together and interacted, all through the artist’s individual interpretation and appreciation of each art form. Sometimes I could tell when the artist was a true fan of a band; the amount of detail or clever album references in a given poster made me smile, made me feel like I was “in the know.” It heightened my experience of being a fan, both of the music and, over time, the artists themselves.
Thus began my progression into the world of rock art. Over the next 4 and a half years, I would come across web sites dedicated to the scene – fellow poster nerd Clay Hayes’ Gigposters.com, a veritable treasure trove of archived gigposters and flyers from the past 20+ years, has become a mainstay of my daily web surfing routine, while the collector-operated Expressobeans.com informed me that this art form was actually valued by many, and in some cases the art itself was worth thousands of dollars. They became places where artists and collectors could find one another, buy and sell work, trade ideas, discuss everything from the goings-on of the music industry and art world to the technical aspects of screenprinting and graphic design.
Like any other scene, entry into the world wasn’t exactly easy. Many of the artists at Gigposters had known each other for years, and the site developed a sort of “locker-room” vibe, doling out shares of hard knocks and hazing to newcomers and the outspoken board member frosh. I definitely took my share of verbal abuse, though over time I came to see it as the hard time one gives friends after being around each other for a while. It was nice to be called a tool by guys and gals that see me (or my message board comments, at least) every day. I felt at home.
And if any doubts around the sincerity of GP and EB members’ care for each other lingered, they’ve definitely been eliminated after seeing members rally together during tough times. Funds for their injured and often health-benefit-less printing bretheren have been set up to raise money for ailing artists – accident-prone San Francisco-based artist Lil’ Tuffy immediately comes to mind – and eBay benefit auctions for charitable causes are often the recipients of prints to be sold, selflessly donated directly from the artists and collectors themselves. Despite any rough veneer the community may have, the members definitely look out for their own.
As the visitors and sites have grown, so have the topics of discussion, springing forth an entire culture of sometimes interesting, sometimes stupid, yet always entertaining dialogue between scene-goers and artists across the globe. For me, the lowbrow atmosphere matched my warped sense of humor. Rather than the haughty stuffiness of the so-called “highbrow” art world (one which I have neither the money nor the knowledge to enter), the atmosphere was much less pretentious. Yet it was still open to serious discussion around issues considered important to the community. Artist’s concerns, opportunities for work, trends, techniques, any and everything was fair game, and the feedback given by people in the field – some with years of hands-on experience in their areas of expertise – has proved to be an invaluable resource for fledgling artists seeking such wisdom, as well as an entertaining read for the uninformed collector who would otherwise lack insight to the entire process.
Bottom line: for such a seriously talented and dedicated group of artists and art enthusiasts, no one takes themselves too seriously. I think that’s part of the charm of the scene, part of why I’ve stuck around. Over the short time I’ve been involved, I’ve crashed at artist’s places on cross-country trips, received generous hook-ups with free posters and merch from those whom I’ve cultivated relationships with, and have overall learned so much more than I ever thought I would about this…thing, scene, deal…whatever you want to call it. It’s an entire world I’m proud to be a part of, and hope to continue to be involved for years to come.
So that’s my not-so-brief recap on just how I got to y’all today. Over the coming months, I’ll be writing up some exploratory pieces on the scene, dealing with pointed questions coming from both artists and collectors alike. I’m open to feedback and input – I rely on it, actually – so feel free to email me. I’m looking forward to hearing from you all, and hope that you’ll find my contributions valuable.