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There were two people whose music poster hobbies interested me in graduate school. One of them was a local guitarist who did the publicity flyers for all of his band’s shows. He drew them by hand, mainly in red and black ink. They were gorgeous and weird, and I still have a half dozen of them. To this day, they remind me of great little venues and most excellent shenanigans. The band eventually fell apart, but these posters live on.
The other person was a fellow student of rhetoric and amateur guitarist who collected music posters with which to wallpaper the kitchen and the hallway to his bathroom. Parties at his house were always upbeat and fun, and waiting in line to pee never failed to be entertaining, thanks to all the artwork. People waiting in line would treat it like a gallery walk. The guy eventually got a professorship elsewhere and I often wonder how many posters got destroyed when he had to peel them off the walls before moving out.
In case you are unaware: concert posters are a thing. You can make them, collect them and trade them. They fall somewhere between baseball cards and Magic: The Gathering cards in terms of marginal, nerdy pursuits. Some people collect one band, or one venue, or one poster artist. Among collectible rock poster artists, Todd Slater is king. Finally, you can get his best work in one super high gloss coffee table tome from Flood Gallery. It’ll cost you $60, but hunting down and scoring one of his many hard to find prints will run you a heck of a lot more than $60. Three years ago, Christie’s auctioned off one of his limited editions for over $3,000.
If you know nothing about art but something about rock music, you are ready to enjoy Slater’s work. If you know something about art but nothing about music, you’re still equipped. Slater’s work is equal parts accessibility and near divinity. The book is arranged chronologically from 2004 to present, so there’s some sense of his evolution. The posters exhibited in this collection also aggregate to define an artist with a clear design eye and arc of interests. Slater’s work is enjoyable on its surface, but it also bears deep and repeated examination. Whatever kind of music or art fan you might be, Slater is as good as it gets.
In 2004, he caught the eye of promoters at the Gypsy Ballroom as well as several venues in Philadelphia. Between indy tastemakers at the storied Dallas venue and those in Philly, he built a reputation for stark three-color schemes with classic layouts. He worked in black and white plus one fierce red or pink, sometimes tacked on a golden ochre that would later become a signature color. He kept the band names big on top, often incorporating it into the margins of the main image, the venue names smaller on bottom. In the middle, there was either a super busy montage or one bold eye-catcher. His strong sense of symmetry would grow to be a constant feature of his posters, everything with a parallel element or at least a well-balanced series of offbeat images.
The next year, he’d already hopped to the UK. Never one to take their collective finger off the pulse of what’s cool, Sleater-Kinney encountered Slater’s designs at Philly’s Trocadero and then brought his work to their Manchester show. He leapt from smaller, working class venues to the artwork for Bonnaroo, quickly gaining notoriety. In the two or three years that followed, he started getting work from bigger venues and bigger bands, simultaneously developing a loyal set of commissions from the unusual likes of Elvis Costello, Jack White and Ween. This is because Slater’s work always showcases the personality of a band or an album. The artwork is in service to the music, not just a signature bit of Slater’s preferred imagery.
He does have some common threads amongst his images over time. There have been a lot of tigers: MC5, Neko Case, the Black Keys, the Flaming Lips, Ben Harper, just to name a few. In 2005, he began to experiment more with negative space or black space. He also tried a few extremely busy, straight-up CYMK-colored layouts for Sonic Youth and the Mars Volta. By 2007, Slater’s work began to proliferate southeast from its foothold in Oklahoma and across New England from its foothold in New Jersey. He briefly shifted to stark two-color designs and committed to a lot more tiny detail work for the long haul.
There are a lot of skulls in Slater’s posters, which is at least in part a functional reflection of rock music. He uses them darkly but also with humor. He piles them up, too. He piles up skulls, or televisions, or bricks, building shapes that resemble people or some that look like stained glass. In 2008, he went through a phase where he used one face to stand in for another: Cat Power watching a television with Bob Dylan on it, the Dandy Warhols portrayed as Lou Reed, the Raconteurs portrayed as Emily Dickinson, Weezer as a host of eight holy rock music gods from Kiss to Cobain, Wu-Tang Clan as a fight between the Chicago Bulls and the Philly Sixers basketball teams.
In 2010, he went through a smoke and fire phase. In 2011, he went back to intricate color-blocking in huge mosaic pieces. In 2011, he went in for surrealist cartoons: Tom’s head on Jerry’s body, Speedy Gonzalez on the Roadrunner’s legs, Bullwinkle Papa Smurf, Marvin the Martian plus Foghorn Leghorn plus Bugs Bunny plus Pepe le Pew, some Dr. Seuss animals. Animals generally are pervasive in Slater’s work. In 2012, he has a bird phrase: owls, peacocks, the phoenix, even butterflies. In 2013, mostly predatory mammals: wolves, panthers, lions.
He finally achieved some West Coast presence in 2014, and with that came a lot of water imagery: Dave Matthews Band as a bunch of jellyfish’ Pearl Jam as a series of tidal waves. But all this is simply the surface of the image. You can spot these elements in a Slater poster at 20 paces. How I would have loved to see some of Slater’s work up close while waiting in line for my buddy’s bathroom for ten minutes. When you get right up to one of Slater’s posters, that’s when the magic happens. As in: hey, that’s not a butterfly; that’s a cat with wings! Or: hey, that’s not a three-leaf cover; that’s a snake! Or: is that Satan playing skee-ball?
He leads your eye at a distance differently than he leads your eye up close. Some of the approaches are psychedelic and other are gothic. Sometimes he’s leading you right to the core of the thing and sometimes he’s trapping you in a busy maze that goes nowhere. He’s fond of Alice in Wonderland references and mirror images. He has some cool ideas about tall, narrow fields on vertical half-sheet posters. This is a book you can flip through in 15 minutes or pore over for very many hours. After going cover to cover, I went back to check the evolution of a few main bands, and then also tried just opening to random pages. All three methods yielded fresh insight.
Slater’s work is full of surprises. It reminds me of the Where’s Waldo children’s books, because you can really look deeply into the designs, whether you know what you’re looking for or not. There’s a richness and completeness to Slater’s work that stands above other perfectly decent rock poster artists. There’s an attention to the band’s lyrics and personality that is hard to find elsewhere, as lesser artists will simply go for general rock music attitude or overall vibe without bothering to get into more timely specifics.
Slater’s work is a cut above and he’s still pushing himself, honing his best features while trying new tricks. His design sense is so strong that you absolutely know a Todd Slater poster when you see one. This book is perfect for helping you see more of them—and more in them.