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Hung Up: The State of Rock Poster Art

Stacey Brook

With major labels fading and promotional budgets cut to the bone, can rock-concert poster art survive? Can it even thrive?

In the paper-and-ink universe of Brooklyn poster artists Kayrock and Wolfy, of Kayrock Screenprinting, the indie rock band Oneida sounds like two yellow chickens pecking their way through a hypnotic funhouse background. Or like double monkey gargoyle heads floating against a honeycomb pattern of primary colors. Or serpentine dragons and medieval beasts worthy of fairy tales, slinking through a sea of blood red around a light-blue Care Bear. Basically, the band sounds like anything Kayrock and Wolfy’s prolific imaginations squeeze through their aluminum screens.

Oneida’s lead singer, Bobby Matador, who describes his band as “loud, fast, and repetitive,” says, “One of my favorite posters that Kayrock and Wolfy ever made for us was just a bunch of shit that Kayrock took from Tin Tin comics and a Hawkwind album cover. You really don’t ever know where it’s gonna come from.”

Since they began working together in 2000, the Kayrock duo have spent their days designing and hand-pulling promotional posters in a two-story, graffiti-ensconced warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, precisely saturating archival paper with ink from plastic quart containers, swapping out screens while aligning print registers, and tweaking last-minute designs. On machines cobbled together from old printer parts, Kayrock Screenprinting gives hundreds of bands identity on paper, churning out designs for such groups as Tall Firs, Les Savy Fav, Deerhoof, and Tiger Mountain. This isn’t a matter of glossy, label-sanctioned photos slapped with crass and impersonal “Fill in the Date” footers. Kayrock and Wolfy create original posters for tours and know the bands they are hired to represent on paper, often intimately. The work is always informed by the music, and lovers of both music and art are drawn to them. Their creations are a far cry from the flimsy promotional one-sheets that propagate modern-day music venues and construction site walls. In a world of pummeling advertising, they are rare promotional artifacts that make you slow down and stare.

Matthew Caws, guitarist and lead singer for Nada Surf, recalls how he first came upon the team's work. “I worked at Earwax, a record store in Williamsburg, for a couple years. More often than not, there was a poster for an upcoming show hanging in the store. I began to notice that the really great ones were all made by Kayrock and Wolfy.”

Kayrock and Wolfy's reputation has put them at the vanguard of their industry. But that industry is in upheaval. New York poster art is going through a period of remission. Though New York City is spilling into its outer boroughs with artists and musicians, high quality, thoughtfully designed, rock-concert poster art has become less visible than it has been in the past years. A combination of the impractical cost of living and setting up shop in New York, limited venues for public posting of grassroots artwork, and the rise of internet promotions has resulted in diminished exposure for this art form.

“You don’t see a lot of homegrown poster art in New York,” says Matador. “That’s just a fact.”

The earliest American concert posters date back to the 1940s and '50s, and were mainly straightforward designs, bold and purposely simple, dominated by negative space. But by the '60s, San Francisco had become the Mecca of poster art, thanks mainly to the ongoing poster series commissioned by legendary promoter Bill Graham for the Fillmore Auditorium. The expansive catalog of concert posters created for bands like the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Led Zeppelin gave rise to the first legendary rock poster artists like Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, and Stanley Mouse. Their psychedelic designs defined the look of a generation and served as a visual translation of the ideals of '60s hippie rock.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that New York developed a signature poster style, and when it finally came around it was connected to punk. Unsurprisingly, it was raw, rich and full of rebellion. New York artist Arturo Vega, who designed the Ramones’ iconic eagle seal, says the punk era was "a fresh start. Like, let’s get rid of all the unnecessary adornments and decorations, and do it the best you can any which way you know how.” The posters from this period embody this gritty DIY attitude with scrawled text and low-res images on smudged, disposable sheets of cheap copy paper in black, white, and shades of gray. Vega recalls that his first poster for the Ramones came from a photo-booth photo. He says, "I just blew up an image I had taken for twenty-five cents."

Raymond Pettibon’s cartoon-centric, politically charged, anti-authoritarian illustrations for Black Flag carried forward the punk aesthetic into the 1980s. Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore says, “Hardcore flier art culture comes out of Black Flag fliers: The way it was done. The attitude that it had. What it was saying. Pettibon started that. The artists were always so important because they conveyed the vibe of the music and the vibe of the scene.”

In the 1990s, artists began experimenting with screenprinting, injecting craftsmanship and vivid color into an art form that for almost two decades had been defined by the absence of these elements. What was formerly produced by and for the everyman began to take on an air of exclusivity. “Guys like Frank Kozik and Coop and the whole era of '90s high-color artists made great posters, but they’re really only made for collection,” Blush says. “The intent of it is not as a mode of communication. It’s lowbrow, but it’s high art.”

The current climate of New York's art world has only helped to propel posters further in the highbrow direction. They have become less affordable to produce, more difficult to post publicly, and less practical and effective as an event’s sole form of promotion. "When I moved to New York in ’74, people could get a loft for 90 bucks and stay forever," says Bob George, founder and curator of the Archive of Contemporary Music. Now "you’re competing with every rich person in the world who wants to live in a major city. Your competition for space is the whole world and that makes a big difference.”

With Manhattan open only to the world’s wealthiest, the spirit that propelled poster movements in the past has, as Blush points out, “moved across the bridges.” When it costs $4,500 a month for 900 square feet of city studio space and your screen-printing operation requires a full-scale printing press, 10-foot-tall drying racks, multiple computers, reams of poster-sized paper, and an endless number of screens, you’re simply forced to set up shop out where space is cheaper. Garrison Buxton, co-owner of Peripheral Media Projects -- six stops out of Manhattan on the L train -- says, “If Peripheral really wanted to ramp up the production end, we probably wouldn’t be doing it in New York, or we would be moving it a little bit further out so we could have more space to get an additional press, and additional racks.”

But even if you cross over the East River, there’s no guarantee you’ll find the space you’re looking for. Standard Motion Design’s Jon Setzen, a graphic designer and poster artist who creates art for Southpaw, a club in Park Slope, Brooklyn, specializes in posters with a worn-in, vintage flavor. His inability to secure sufficient studio space has directly impacted his production methods. Setzen foregoes screen-printing altogether, producing instead high-quality offset prints that he has printed out of state. The outsourcing makes operations like Kayrock Screenprinting all the more valuable, as Kayrock and Wolfy often print runs out of their large Williamsburg studio for artists who aren’t lucky enough to have as much space.

The struggles of the music industry haven't helped poster art either. With the continuing struggle of major labels, the responsibility for procuring creative promotional materials has shifted to the musicians themselves. But can a New York area band that is paying $50 an hour for rehearsal time, saving money for recording sessions, and wrestling with skyrocketing rent, afford to commission limited-edition silk-screened posters for individual gigs?

It depends. Kayrock quotes a hundred-print run for a standard-size 13-by-20-inch, two-color screenprint at $350, including both design and printing costs, but stresses their willingness to work with in bands' budgets. Most poster artists, perhaps hoping that their efforts will drum up more future business from the acts their work will promote, are willing to do the same. Jeff Sheinkopf, a poster artist in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, says, “Usually it comes down to about a dollar or two per poster, but if a band says, 'We’ve got 100 bucks to do this,' I’ll make it work. I know the posters are gonna be used, I know they’re gonna be up somewhere."

Even if the financial hurdles are cleared, poster art still faces the problem of finding places to be hung. The New York City Department of Sanitation's Digest of Codes forbids the posting of stickers, posters, or any other promotional materials on public or privately owned property -- that means no posters on lampposts, phone booths, or trash receptacles. And it’s not a smart idea to test your luck. Bands have many cautionary tales of tickets, high fines, and arrests to share. Sheinkopf, who also plays drums for Brooklyn-based band Tigers and Monkeys, says, “I have had police and sanitation workers threaten. Luckily I’ve never actually been ticketed or arrested, but plenty of times I’ve been standing while they watch me pull down every poster that was put up.” Mikey Palms, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Southpaw, tells of an artist who was arrested for putting a sticker up on Second Avenue. “In New York, every inch matters," he says. "Somebody owns every inch of everything."

The colonization of Manhattan by chains has converted former poster-friendly blocks like St. Marks Place from a hub of independently owned businesses into an string of low-fat yogurt outlets and chain fast-food joints. As Manhattan becomes shinier and more sanitized, space that was once prime for posting becomes taboo. Starbucks certainly isn’t jumping to tape up screenprints for shows at the Mercury Lounge. George notes, “When you have corporate stores, nicer stores, they have an image to protect, so they are less likely to put up a poster.”

Posting laws in other boroughs reflect the rules in Manhattan, and bands and artists looking to display works that were once part of a guerrilla marketing spirit, now find themselves knocking for permission on the doors of Brooklyn record stores, bookstores, coffee shops and cafes.

Some artists aren’t bothered by the shift in posting etiquette, arguing that the expense and craftsmanship that goes into the posters demands that they be hung in controlled environments. Peter McGouran, founder of East Williamsburg screenprinting studio Polluted Eyeball, says, “When I started to put up fliers I began to think more along the lines of, it’s gotta last longer. I don’t necessarily believe that you have to do as many, just get them to good locations.”

But artists who long for the days they were able to attack the city with one-sheets and a staple gun have had to find new ways to distribute their work. Kayrock and Wolfy, for example, have been experimenting with a system in which they print one or two-color screenprints on medium to light paper stock, and fold these 11-by-17-inch sheets into eighths for distribution around town. With this unique delivery system, Kayrock has created something that is far less disposable than the average flier giveaway. If it ends up being left out on the kitchen table in a Brooklyn apartment and catches the eye of a random visitor, it has accomplished it’s mission. “Everyone who comes to that house will see that poster. It has a role even after advertising a specific event, for us as artists,” Kayrock says.

The obvious place for rock posters is on the walls of the rock clubs. Unfortunately, venue support of the independently produced gig posters has flagged. As the New York rock club scene is slowly consumed by entities like Clear Channel and Bowery Presents, bulletin boards and glass showcases that once boasted bold, event-specific, silkscreens now display too-slick, label-supplied glossies that blend in with other mass-produced visual noise. Venues don’t want to spend the cash to produce materials they can get from the labels for free. Peripheral's Buxton says, “As long as profit is the sole motivator and it’s just about kind of appealing to mass audiences, the clubs are not a good incubator for really cool, hands-on creativity.”

Even the Knitting Factory, which once actively encouraged original artwork to promote shows, now tends to have a skeletal bulletin board instead. “The people that felt really adamant about posters at the Knit are no longer there,” Wolfy says.

Southpaw is a rare exception. It continues to commission original show posters. “I feel like people want to associate the music with something else," Palms says. "If it’s either for identification or to function as a reminder or if it’s just an aesthetic, it’s nice to put a poster outside that advertises an evening for your band.” In that spirit, Southpaw has transformed itself into a veritable rock-art museum, with entire walls given over to posters for previous gigs, for such band as Clinic, OXES and the Beatnuts.

But Palms knows he is in the minority as far as club owners go. “In New York especially, we spend so much time trying to keep our places floating that it’s hard for us to rely on entrepreneurs to actually do something and follow through with it,” he says. "Maybe we feel it isn’t necessary."

His last point is probably closest to the truth, thanks to the internet. With venue websites that list full concert schedules weeks, and sometimes months in advance, it is hard for a club to justify spending extra money on seemingly inefficient guerrilla marketing tactics. Bands have MySpace pages and newsletters, while blogs like Brooklyn Vegan track the status of popular shows right up to the on-sale date. Often, posters won’t even be ready until long after tickets are sold out.

Lately, concert promoters have shifted toward distributing thumbnail-size images to announce upcoming events. The Village Voice’s “Sounds of the City” blog routinely features jpegs of intricately illustrated and brilliantly Photoshopped New York-based show posters and fliers, many of which will never actually be printed. That these images are still referred to as “posters” and “fliers” suggests the strength of the art form's roots even as it is swallowed by new technology.

Though Kayrock and Wolfy don’t mind supplying their design jpegs to bands after printing, they never take jobs that aren’t destined for paper. But aspiring poster artists whose names aren’t so intrinsically connected to screenprinting who hope to make money have no such scruples. Sheinkopf, who also designs interactive e-cards for major label acts, says, “You’re not really getting the full picture when you see a poster as a three-inch image, but if I’m going to get an email from a band, I’d rather see a cool, really interesting thing that they’ve had designed than just a text thing saying ‘Tickets on sale tomorrow.’”

Still, three years after a thumbnail image is blasted to an email list, it is long lost in cyberspace. Yet a Kayrock-designed Oneida print, the band’s name in doughnuty yellow letters above a crumbling castle on the edge of a dark gray sea cliff, currently hangs in Brooklyn’s Earwax records and has been hanging in the store since 2005. Taking into account this kind of longevity, the posters being produced now are often commissioned more for their commercial value than their promotional use. “The way our business is going, posters become merchandise,” says Wolfy. “You’re buying into the branding. Like Radiohead -- it’s a corporation, not much different.”

The demand from fans for these kinds of tokens is apparent. “Music is such a passionate thing for so many people. To have something visually that you like, that has a name of a band you like from a show you went to that was a good night -- it’s a great token of the evening,” says Setzen. As Wolfy says, “Posters are the physical representation of an ephemeral experience.”

Fittingly, poster art has been carving a place for itself on the museum world’s white walls over the past few years. At last year’s “Summer of Love” exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, an entire wall of classic '60s psychedelic posters greeted visitors as they entered. The Museum of Modern Art in New York holds in its permanent collection posters for bands like the Grateful Dead by such poster artist legends as Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso. And both Raymond Pettibon and Tara McPherson –innovators concert poster design -- showed in private galleries in Manhattan in the past year.

But poster artists are driven by more than the chance at art-world stardom. “I like the feeling of having something in my hand,” says Buxton, a sentiment echoed by many of the artists who long for simple tactile pleasures and physical proof of their artistry and hard work in an increasingly digital age. Ultimately, it is the expression of these intangibles that make poster art such a potent and necessary form. As Bob George points out, “I bet in any era, at any time, in any year, you could probably put together a great collection of really nice, classic posters.”

Freelance writer Stacey Brook is an obsessive hoarder of rock concert posters and pop culture paraphernalia, with a soft spot for female vocalists, dirty prose and lowbrow art. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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