The Smell of Success
The resurrection of Austin's poster scene
[Posted to the chat room at Gigposters.com, Thursday, July 19, 2001:]
KJ: Just curious, why do so many great posters come out of Texas? You'd think this site came out of Texas too. ... . (We're actually Canadians.) Although we're getting great posters from all over the world, Texas has been particularly good to us. Why is that?
Snapdragon: George Bush would make anyone crazy.
Che: Kendra has a point ... Kozik, Kuhn, Jermaine Rogers, Uncle Charlie, Jason Austin ... all Texas guys. There's something in the water down there!
Connor13: Good, cheap drugs from Mexico.
Bipedalini: Ha, no shit! Seriously folks, Texas is a big state, with lots of damn people who are serious music fans.
Kevin Jones: Too bad you all smell really bad.
Plastk: That's the smell of success!
Five years ago, when the Chronicle ran its last poster roundup, it looked like the Austin scene had been dealt a crippling blow. The city had just passed an ordinance making it a crime to staple, nail, tape, or wheat-paste any and all posters, signs, notices, handbills to any "utility pole, traffic signal pole, signal box, public bench, street light, or freestanding object" within city jurisdiction, under penalty of a $500-$2,000 fine. (Austin, TX Land Development Code, Section 13-2-864.)
This from a city with a rich and vibrant legacy of genius poster artists going back to the Vulcan Gas Company in the Sixties and encompassing everyone from Gilbert Shelton and Guy Juke to Frank Kozik and Lindsey Kuhn and dozens more in between: Micael Priest, Jim Franklin, Kerry Awn. How could it have happened? What were they thinking? It boggled the mind -- still does. The poster ban remains in effect, and the Drag that runs parallel to UT is still virtually barren of the resplendent and eye-popping one-sheets and handbills that for years made it a veritable walking tour of who's who in underground Texas artistry.
And yet, while a glimpse around the streets of Austin turns up only a handful of handbills flapping in the breeze, elsewhere, local poster artists and their work have been multiplying like bacteria in a petri dish, out of sight, but not out of mind.
So much so, in fact, that the local poster scene has virtually exploded in the intervening years. There are more new artists doing concert posters for Austin live music venues than one article can conceivably cover in detail. People like the four-man crew at Factor27, whose clean, arty designs and penchant for printing their work on whatever is on hand has inspired their poster contemporaries around the country. Then there's Billy Bishop of Obsolete-Inc.com, Jared Connor, whose dirty DIY aesthetic can be traced back through Austin poster history to Frank Kozik and the Art Maggots, Paul "Martian" Sessums, and the whole Bee-Bop Printing crew.
Paul Gigliotti, a relative newcomer to Austin's poster community (and make no mistake -- these days it really is a community and all that that implies) employs blocky, neo-Mondrian layouts in his work for local band Rhythm of Black Lines and record store Thirty Three Degrees. Meanwhile, Jamie Ward's work for the Mercury utilizes Photoshopped photography and stark visuals that look as though they were ripped down off some Eurotrash metro platform.
Jaime Cervantes' style runs the gamut from his eerie grayscale 'n' crimson work for the recent Wire show at La Zona Rosa to the cartoonish glee of his Belle & Sebastian at the Backyard poster featuring robots run amok. Noel Waggener's Epistrophy Arts and Waxploitation posters speak of old Blue Note record covers and Fifties kitsch.
Then there's Rhode Island transplant Mark "Bipedalini" Pedini's work for Emo's and the Mercury, which verges on the stylistically unclassifiable, comic-book whimsy manhandled by a fine art sensibility. And others, too, have appeared -- Robert Jones, Chad Ballard, Brian Curley -- alongside the always-mentioned-as-an-influence Jason Austin, part of Texas poster art's old school, who, while on hiatus of late, is still very much in the game.
It's viral in nature: Each new poster artist comes up through the ranks and gets his work seen either in the clubs or online. The Canadian-based Gigposters.com site offers artists a chance to show their entire collections for free and acts as an ad hoc soapbox from which to speak, listen, read, and learn about the state of concert posters the world over.
More often than not, this winds up facilitating a local exchange of equipment, skills, time, and talent, in the process unconsciously building a poster art community that has been noted across the globe for its consistency, quality, and sheer monstrous output. San Francisco may have us in the poster art history department (the SFMOMA counts the entire run of Fillmore posters in its holdings), but at this particularly fantastic moment in time, there's no better place to be doing poster art than right here in River City.
Factor27 -- Geoff Peveto, Paul Fucik, Clay Ferguson, and Jason Cross -- have only been around a couple of years, but their prodigious, highly artistic output belies the fact. Of all the new Austin poster artists, their work is most likely to appeal to the sly, pop-culture aesthetic that marked Warhol's subversive soup cans and Rauschenberg's (another Texan!) undermining of traditional print and painting techniques. They're the John Cage of poster art, as a recent Willie Nelson poster -- printed on an actual piece of aluminum signage and then weathered (with bullet pocks, no less) -- attests. They've printed on 12-inch vinyl records (DJ Spooky), and rumor has it they want to do a poster on aluminum foil.
All of which begs the eternal question: Is it a poster, or is it art?
"We put the art back in poster," laughs Fucik, only half in jest.
Peveto, out of whose East Austin garage Factor27 is run and who -- like most of the current crop of posterers -- got his start doing Xerox fliers for old-school punk shows back in the day, thinks the art versus poster argument is bunk. He does note, however, that there's always been something of a rift between the illustrator and designer camps. "Illustrators are the guys who will sit down and actually draw every part of the poster, or the image, as opposed to using Photoshop or what have you," explains Peveto. "It's weird there's this split, because we actually do illustration as well as design. We just wanted to steer clear of the devil girls and the typical rock illustration of the Nineties, and to that end, we use a lot of photography in our posters. We're always on the lookout for everyday objects that can be turned into something cool."
So, aesthetically speaking, you're what?
"We're just trying to make something that doesn't suck," grins Peveto.
Unlike Seattle's anti-postering ordinance, which is buried in a shallow grave somewhere in the Pacific Northwest thanks to the Washington Supreme Court's recent noting of its unconstitutionality, the Austin version is still very much in effect. None of the poster artists mentioned in this article have ever been cited for illegal postering activities, while a call to the city of Austin requesting statistical info on poster busts netted a predictably quick, "Umm ... what? Posters?"
Less Than Zero
Billy Bishop, whose manic, garage-inspired company Obsolete-Inc.com has been shooting out deadly cool poster and T-shirt art for the better part of a decade now, remembers when a walk down the Drag was more than a walk down memory lane.
"We hated that ordinance shit," he says, "and we still do. So many people consider these things garbage or a nuisance or whatever, but man, it used to be when walking around, you couldn't go 10 feet without yelling, 'Wow, look at that!' Tons of people would actually have the respect to wait for the advertised show to be over, and then it would be a mad scramble to get out, get your hands on 'em, and just yank 'em all down for your collection. That's how we all got started in the first place: pulling 'em off the walls and thinking, 'This is so cool.'"
Factor27 echoes the sentiment.
Peveto: "We give most of the poster run to the clubs, and then we take some around to the safe places where you can still hang 'em, like the record stores. Most of them are gone in a couple of hours."
Fucik: "And we take that as a compliment. It's cool to be stolen."
These days the only places you'll see new poster art outside of the venue itself is at places like Waterloo Records, Thirty Three Degrees, Sound Exchange, and tacked onto the fencing surrounding Stubb's. The end result of the ongoing ordinance, however much it's affected the city's eye-candy quotient, is that it may have actually helped effect a sea change in the world of poster art via the way people (literally) view it. We're talking about the Internet, of course, the rise of which just happened to coincide with the postering ban both here and elsewhere. Artists have taken to the Web like punks to cheap kegs, and with few exceptions, the Austin poster community is online in one form or another.
"The Web has definitely brought people together," says Peveto. "I'm talking to poster people every day who I didn't even know existed before. If you had told me six months ago that Frank Kozik was saying our stuff is the best stuff he'd seen in 10 years, I wouldn't have believed it. But now I'm talking to him on a regular basis, and people all over the world are seeing our work via the Web.
"We were even asked to send a mobile show to Rio de Janeiro just today, by some girl down in Brazil who had seen our stuff on the Web. There's no doubt the advent of the Web has opened up all kinds of doors. For everybody."
And then there's the aforementioned Gigposters.com, run by Canadians Kendra Jones and Clay Hays. Started in January 2001, the site now features literally hundreds of artists and thousands of posters from all over the world. Besides acting as a meeting point for far-flung posterers, Jones and Hays think that bringing it to the Internet has helped "validate" the scene. They've also noted an overall rise in poster showings, including last month's giant Flatstock poster show in San Francisco, which drew together some 35 artists from across the country, including a handful of Austinites.
Obviously, using the Web is one way to get around local ordinances, but virtually all of the Austin crew longs for the days when "wheat-paste" wasn't just an obscure playground putdown. Until someone gets popped by the cops and finds a willing pro-bono attorney to argue the case (as happened in Seattle), the likelihood of Austin's anti-postering ordinance being repealed is less than zero.
In the end, it's all about the art. The new crop of poster artists in town is light years beyond what their forebears were doing. No more hanging out at Kinko's all night copying endless reams of stanky, toner-smeary cut-and-paste fliers. Offset and screen printing are today's current choice of print techniques, although it's cool -- and oddly ironic -- to note that many current artists go to great lengths to make their snazzy new designs look as much like the crappy old ones as possible.
Lo-fi has become hi-fi, and Noel Waggener knows all about it. His poster work flirts with both highly stylized design and beatnik-chic. His work for an Epistrophy Arts-sponsored Sam Rivers Trio show at Ceremony Hall -- a pair of crows sitting on a wire against a bright orange background and incorporating some daring spatial dynamics -- could easily double as an early Sixties LP cover.
"As far as my style, for the past 10 years I've been really heavy into modernism like Blue Note covers, Bauhaus, and Russian movie posters," says Waggener. "Just lately, I've been into old smut mags, tabloids, black-oriented mags, and print ads. You know, these things were made to be disposable! They weren't meant to last at all. And the design is super-strong, akin to what a pinstriper would do, and it has this really freaky flow to it, kind of like an improvisational music piece. So when you try to re-create that yourself, it can be tough."
Waggener calls his style "neo-art nerd," which fits, and repeatedly mentions the work of famed Sub Popper Jeff Kleinsmith (everybody mentions Kleinsmith) as an influence.
"The lo-fi movement in music is a good analogy for what I do," says Waggener. "Now, it's become more difficult for producers to make a recording that sounds shitty and real than it is to go into their studio and make something that sounds good. I guess you could say I aspire to achieve a level of fabulous shittiness. Kind of like Times Square before Disney took over."
Not so with Mark Pedini's organic, hand-drawn posters, which are clearly influenced by everything from underground comic art to turn-of-the-century, oddball Hatch circus posters. More than any other poster artist working in Austin today, Pedini's flowing, gelatinous lines and absurdist characters defy style altogether. They border on dreamtime, and even though Pedini, who plays drums with Austin's Okkervil River, hails from Rhode Island, his work is the most direct descendent of the Austin old school, echoing the Eighties work of Randy "Biscuit" Turner (of Big Boys fame), Nels Jacobsen, and even the old Armadillo World Headquarters artists.
"One thing about the posters I make," says the bearded Pedini ("look for the guy who looks like the Unabomber," chuckles Peveto), "is that people try to peg me as having a certain style. You can see just by looking at my work that I don't. I have several styles, and I think that's important. If anything, I've been trying to make posters that reflect the music in some way and not just making something that reflects what I as a poster artist want to do at the time.
"I think if you're working alone as a designer, then you have to be flexible. You have to keep working those different parts of your skills. So when it comes to rock posters, I basically try to reflect the vibe of the music as much as possible. But that's just me."
"I use Factor27 for all my work now," says the Mercury's booker Philip Croley. "They're my boys, and in my opinion, they're the only poster artists in town I've seen who really take the time to make a gig poster that represents the show, not just some image with the show text on it. They treat it as art as well as advertising."
Keepsake and a Kiss
From the venues' perspective, a solid gig poster can be the difference between a good show and a great show. It may be giving too much credit to the persuasive powers of a poster to say that a show without a poster attached is likely to be a static affair, but no one can deny that having some delicious artwork out doing the flatstock promo shuffle for a gig is going to bump up attendance at least a little.
"A great-looking poster can sway a person to come out," adds Croley, "and it's a means of conveying both the vibe of the gig and the venue's vibe."
Most clubs, like the Mercury, Stubb's, Emo's, and the Continental Club, have a stable of artists they work with on a regular basis. The payment is negligible (Stubb's doesn't pay; Croley gives the artists $50-$100 and has the posters printed from the artists' jpeg or covers the cost of the run), but the subtle perks of having your work fawned over by your favorite band carries its own cool reward.
"When I came on board at Stubb's," says the club's Amy Corbin, "I began working with Jason Austin and later branched out to include other artists like Geoff Peveto, Jaime Cervantes, and Jared Connor. We definitely like having a poster to give to the artist; they're almost always honored, and it seems like we can never hold back enough to give to them.
"But we don't pay the artists, because as soon as you put one of those nice posters up, they're torn down within minutes. It's more of a keepsake thing, really, and then of course we keep some for ourselves."
We're sitting on a bench across from Quack's Hyde Park Bakery shotgunning a mocha and marveling at the fact that old-schooler Jason Austin has only just recently learned how to use a computer. The reed-thin, bleach-blond, forever-dinner-jacketed Mojo's Daily Grind daily grinder is legendary in a town overrun with young poster upstarts. His work is even more notable for the fact that he's still around, and still producing posters from time to time. Most of his former contemporaries -- Lindsey Kuhn, Craig Oelrich, and Frank Kozik -- pulled up their local stakes long ago and headed elsewhere; Kuhn's in Denver, Kozik's in San Francisco, and no one seems to know what became of Oelrich.
The Austin of the Future
Austin, who learned his recently acquired computer skills from Geoff Peveto, is the one solid link between the old guard and the new still-hanging-around guard. His style -- a throwback to the late-night punk rock shows at the Cannibal Club and too many people on too many mushrooms -- is one of the bedrocks of the Austin scene. It resonates. It has a vibe you can see coming from miles away. It trips you out, and it's very, very cool.
"The scene has really blossomed in the past few years," he says, "even though it seems like a lot of people who used to do postering here have left. I don't think Lyman [Hardy, formerly of Ed Hall, now Pong] is doing much anymore. I've been on hiatus for a while, doing photography and stuff, but I've also done a lot of stuff for people and bands that I never ever thought I'd get an opportunity to work with, me being an old punk rock kid.
"I never thought I'd do two posters for Willie Nelson, one for George Jones, one for Merle Haggard -- much less Burning Spear and Femi Kuti. So it's been pretty good, you know?"
Asked how he's seen the Austin poster community change since last we talked five years ago, Austin hits it right on the head, the same thing every single poster artist we've spoken with has echoed time and again:
"It's pretty amazing the sense of community that's developed or is developing," enthuses Austin. "And yeah, I guess that does have a lot to do with the Web making it easier for us to view each other's work and all.
"But the local artists all seem to be working together, helping each other out. There's the occasional spat, but it usually blows over. And that just makes the posters that much better, you know?"