In her film, American Artifact, New York-based director Merle Becker charts the history of one of the true American artforms: the rock music poster. Inspired by the current resurgence in gig poster printing in the US, Becker sets off to talk to several of the leading practitioners; from the now legendary figures who made their name in the nascent scene of the 1960s, through the Xerox-based DIY generation, to the contemporary artists who are taking traditional craft skills into the digital age.
In her film Becker discovers that while the imagery and aesthetics may change – reflecting the era in which the art is made – the rock poster continues to be a resolutely democratic medium: “powered by the people”, she says, and one issued as “a challenge to the status-quo”. American Artifact: The Rise of American Rock Poster Art premiered in the US last month, in the place it all started, San Francisco.
As a filmmaker Becker is, by her own admission, an outsider looking in on the poster scene and reveals that Paul Grushkin and Dennis King’s book, The Art of Modern Rock, ignited her interest in the current poster movement. “I had thought that this kind of art came and went in the 1960s,” she says. “But no, I realised there was this whole thing going on today and it struck me that all these obscure bands that I was listening to were commissioning art for their music.”
Acting as a kind of historian of the gig poster in the film, designer and collector Art Chantry likens his work to that of an archaeologist, archiving these gloriously technicolour prints, or scratchy, photocopied flyers, as documents of a bygone era. Yet, as Becker establishes, far from being a relic
of the psychedelic 60s, the gig poster is thriving again in the digital age, helped not least by the internet. There are currently 105,933 posters (submitted by some 8,332 different artists) on the most well known poster art website, gigposters.com, and the web has enabled communities of designers, printers, not to mention collectors, to share, trade and talk about their work.
The emergence of the rock poster goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of the modern rock concert over 40 years ago. In the mid-60s, many emerging US musicians like The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were denied mainstream radio play, so posters were printed up to advertise their forthcoming gigs. Interestingly, as Chantry notes in the film, the American printing traditions that they were to exploit went even further back, well into the 19th century. “We think of rock posters as these glorious full colour things that support an event,” he says, “but they came out of the folk scene – the posters for boxing, drag races, rodeos, horse races, wrestling; that’s what rock ’n’ roll posters emerged from.”
In the 60s, the gig poster was more than just an ad for a concert; it became a medium through which to organise gatherings of like-minded individuals. Posters communic-ated to particular coteries and were effectively a means of organising the counterculture via music. Paul Grushkin, also interviewed in the film, puts the thinking neatly: “There’s a theory in both psychedelic art and punk art, that if you can’t read it, or if it offends you, maybe you’re not supposed to go. If you can’t read the words ‘Big Brother And The Holding Company’ on a Matrix [Club] poster, then maybe it’s not for you.”
In Becker’s film, this way of ‘talking to our friends’ as psychedelic designer Victor Moscoso has it, continues through the emergence of punk in the late 70s and early 80s, new wave and, later, grunge as bands used artists and designers to communicate directly with their specific fanbase. “I’d learned the wrong lessons for doing these kinds of posters,” says Moscoso of his art school education. “I turned [the rules] upside-down; the lettering became as illegible as possible … a poster should irritate the eye. My aim was to grab people from across the street, make them come over, look at it and figure out what it said.”
Becker does a good job exploring both the ups and downs of the US rock poster movement. When a particular scene burnt out, or was co-opted by the media or corporate culture, the posters died away too. As rock bands got larger, the venues got bigger. Instead of playing four nights in several smaller venues (each requiring a poster) a band played one night in a stadium.
In the 1980s, however, the rise of moneyed arena rock led to a more diy approach to the production of posters and flyers for bands in the emerging punk scene. Budget restraints, in fact, meant that a trip to the local copy shop could potentially generate hundreds of black and white flyers in no time at all.
The lo-fi visual aspect of the punk scene was, as Dead Kennedys’ front-man Jello Biafra says in the film, essentially “anti-advertising” whereby “the ad man’s talent was put towards advertising rebellion or insurrection.” Artists like Mike Martin, Lindsey Kuhn and Emek talk of photo-copiers as creative tools, enthusing over the tonal qualities of different machines, and how effects could be achieved by yanking the paper out of the machine as it printed,
or moving the paper over the copier glass.
As her film moves into the 1990s and beyond, Becker hints at a resurgence in the market for rock art, with posters produced for music fans attending particular gigs, not necessarily as functional paste-ups, but rather as works of art in their own right. Kevin Bradley of Yee Haw Industries talks
of “reintroducing the poster as a viable thing that bands could sell as merchandise”.
Art Chantry and the inimitable Frank Kozik emerge as leading exponents here: both use found material and a great deal of irony and irreverence to inject something fresh into a now fairly established under-ground artform. Kozik’s famous poster for The Cranberries, for example, features knife-wielding cartoon pigs; while another for Gas Huffer depicts a polar bear casually munching on a small child. Meticulously produced, of course.
The Bird Machine’s Jay Ryan and Mat Daly, both of whom feature in the film, are indicative of the contemporary small studio approach. Their posters are beautifully produced pieces of art and suggest that the gig poster scene is not only in rude health, but has finally shaken off the ‘lowbrow’ tag that has followed it around since the 1960s.
“I don’t like the term lowbrow,” says poster artist Tara McPherson, defiantly, at one point in the film. “There’s nothing low about it. It’s awesome.” Check out Becker’s film (details above) and some of the designs on gigposters.com and you’ll see why.