Post More Bills
Against most city by-laws, telephone poles and hoarding in major cities are covered in a mixture of commercial advertisements and handmade posters for local events. Dave Silverberg explores the culture behind poster making, from its DIY roots to its semi-mainstream popularity and collectability
In Calgary, a telephone pole is wrapped with a screen-printed poster for an Ian Tyson gig, displaying a man riding a horse over a translucent image of the Canadian flag. In Portland, a cartoonish poster for The Shins features two characters with their heads floating away from their necks. And in Chicago, the downtown streets serve as a concrete art gallery for a light-orange Milk at Midnight poster, showing a man giving CPR to another man who collapsed after drinking a glass of milk.
These are both the trailers and the detritus of rock shows around the world. They give passers-by an eye-tug to get them to see the gig details, and they later give the band’s fans a loot bag to remember the sweaty show. Rock posters aren’t just being thrown away anymore once the final crash cymbal has been smacked; now, more than ever, they have become prized possessions for rock fans, art lovers, poster connoisseurs and modern-day historians who want to track this obscure DIY aesthetic.
To put it bluntly, a thriving network of artists are using the tools of concert promotion to indulge their creative energies. Making posters for shows is nothing new. It’s been around since the psychedelic ’60s, when artists plastered their imagery with swirling neons and trippy smoke-rings. The ’70s gave us matter-of-fact Motown posters and Zeppelin-style fantasy. Punk was the major game-changer as its don’t-give-a-fuck roots propelled rock posters into the hands of hungry fans looking to plaster their lockers with signs of evenings past. The grunge era brought Nirvana and Soundgarden to the mainstream, but the underground designers gave the poster cliques a less conventional approach.
Ever since the ’80s, poster art has been seen as raw and rebellious, wild and colourful. Politicians and neat freaks hated posters clogging every spare inch on city streets, while the kids gobbled up everything they could rip off of telephone poles.
But now rock posters are positioned in a strange place: are they simply promotional tools, or artifacts revealing a slice of time, however small? Are poster artists taken seriously, or simply dismissed as hobbyists with a penchant for exploding heads and bubble fonts? And as the Web continues to connect fringe arts groups, how have poster artists banded together continent to continent?
Surveying the poster scene in North America, it might be glib to declare that creating posters is one of the last bastions of artistic independence. Much like zine makers, poster designers do it for the love of the craft, for seeing their work on display, to extend a kudos to the bands they love.
Big promotion houses don’t control the glut of rock posters flooding the streets; the work is done by fanboys in basements or art school shops, by painters who want to flourish beyond the canvas, by graphic designers jonesing to partake in a snack-sized bite of tweaked imagination.
Some designers believe they have one foot in art and one foot in commerce. Art Chantry, one of the best-known poster artists in the US, ekes out a living with his posters and graphic design work. Some of his posters are sold after gigs privately. He’s not misty eyed about his work: he creates posters for the money, and for the love of it. Because there’s so little money in poster sales, he’s honest about his motivation. “I know I exploit bands, but I’m also trying to help them,” says Chantry, based out of Seattle. “It’s more complicated than it looks.”
So is the argument of art versus artifact. Chantry calls his portfolio “advertising artifacts,” a label echoed by Eileen Yaghoobian, the filmmaker behind the rock-poster documentary Died Young Stay Pretty. “These posters are becoming valuable commodities,” she’s noticed. “The artists can express themselves in any way about a band and get away with it.”
Artists take advantage of that freedom. They don’t need promoter approval. An Of Montreal poster’s main image could be a woman masturbating (Cats Cradle out of North Carolina). Or a Foxfire Forest poster could position a dying fox on a blazing fire (Fort Polio from Toronto). Only rarely do posters get signed by top-label bands, such as the Ames Brothers working exclusively for Pearl Jam.
Because rock poster designers don’t need the thumbs-up from anyone, they can letterpress, screenprint and Xerox the images they think will blend well with the band’s personality. It can be crass and inappropriate, perhaps veering far from anything remotely related to the band or its tunes. The designer can go literal, like with the Fox-fire Forest poster. Careening down the Chantry route might mean cutting and pasting from old newspapers and magazines, pasting disparate images into a chaotic collage that becomes more cohesive the longer you look at it.
Many rock poster designers prefer to shirk any idea of matching artistic modes. Peter Diamond, who’s created posters for Three Penny Opera, Reversal of Man and Junto!, says, “I know when I do a poster I’m thinking things like ‘what colour is going to make these letters pop?’ and ‘here’s the perfect chance to use that great idea I’ve had in the back of my mind.'” He adds that the “best rock poster is a beautiful piece of artwork that packs a visual punch for a lucky band. The worst rock poster can make a great band look bad.”
Paul Hammond of screen-printing team Yo Rodeo! from Halifax, puts it another way: “In a sense it’s sort of like collaborating with the bands playing the shows. We’re making a visual component to the music that they’re going to be playing, something to get the attention of people and get them to come out to the show.”
So when that shows ends, how can that memorabilia live on? Gigposters.com has become the top online destination to browse and buy rock posters. Based in Calgary, it began in January 2001 and accepts up to 500 new posters every week. Gigposters.com is credited with bridging the gap between poster-design communities, finally giving them a hub to share and discuss.
The site has become a library for what was once thought to be lost, notes Yaghoobian. Chantry calls it a “clubhouse for crazy people,” and says the site is weighed down with a lot of “derivative crap” but believes the cream will rise to the top. Like any Web phenom, savvy users need to comb through the lame to find the gold.
But Gigposters isn’t the only headquarters for poster designers. They can meet in the flesh at poster shows, such as Seattle’s Flatstock, staged at the Fisher Pavilion. “Sometimes you can’t even walk in the aisles, it’s so packed,” Laura Stalions, director of Flatstock, told the Seattle Times.
Toronto’s James Ryan Halpenny puts on a poster show every year, “in order to create a tight community of these artists.” He plans on organizing a poster show in September 2009 in downtown Toronto.
In Died Young Stay Pretty, designer Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records questions the attitude of a subculture trying to gain notoriety above ground: “Jesus Christ, invent your own new thing. Let’s go forward! What happened to the fucking future?” In fact, many poster designers are trying to look to the future to crystallize their place in art history. Maybe their scene is too small or too weird. Maybe it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
“I think that visual art is undervalued in general,” Diamond says. “It’s sadly common for artists to work for free or for next to nothing when working with bands, and it’s no surprise considering that musicians are generally just scraping by themselves.”
Hammond would like to see music fans move away from Facebook message boards and jpegs on MySpace and consider the beauty of a hand-crafted screen-printed gig poster. It may take some reeducation for the younger concert-goers, but he wants them to value the under-stated craft of poster art. “Look at how accessible posters are. They are literally wrapped on poles, so people can take them down after gigs and put them on their walls.”
Yaghoobian says posters are the closest art form to punk. But punk is dead, she adds. So where does that leave the appreciation of poster art? If it dies a slow death, it might not be pretty. We could see a deluge of ugly and uncreative Xerox’d posters enveloping city walls, promoting the next Eminem schlock. Oh wait. That’s happening already. It’s been happening for years.
The true DIY spirit of poster design will exist in the crevices of urban artscapes, straddling both the visual and musical media. You might not see a gorgeous poster for blocks and blocks, but once you feast your eyes on an 18×26-inch piece of lovely, it should remind you about an eccentric pursuit practiced by a few and appreciated by many.
David Silverberg gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers’ Reserve program.