May 24, 2008

Visual Vitriol: A Not So-Secret-History of Punk, the Intro

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:03 pm by visualvitriol

by David Ensminger

There was a feeling that you didn’t need any special training to create a project if you had a good idea to express…
One of these outlets was for a band member or a friend to create a different
poster for each performance. It didn’t matter whether a punker had art
training or not- DIY, do it yourself, was in the air…Objects d’art were
being made by people with very little capital.
-EAST BAY RAY (Dead Kennedys, 1998).

The posters were a declaration of war against art. These posters screamed
ugliness all across town- designs made to address an army of disaffected youth. These were the rats’ ears of the city fighting the consumerist ideology of the mainstream…
-Malcolm McClaren (1998).

The posters…reflect all that vitality, sense of absurdity, even the occasional dark optimism that accompanied the whole scene

-Robert Newman (1985).

Snatch greedily the big healthy chunks of young brutal art that we give to you.
-Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurists Gazette, 1918).

In almost every large city in America, vestiges of flyer art remain on traffic and light poles, kiosks, the sides of buildings, cramped record store spaces, and just about anywhere that one can use glue, wheat paste, tacks, thumbnails, tape, and staples. These works, whether intact or ripped, shredded or faded, embody a living, not-so-secret visual history of a generation, and sometimes reflect months, even years of diligent, ongoing work on the part of artists and bands; hence, one can peel back the past like a sequence of skins. The works, whether punk, rave, or heavy metal, are the ephemera and detritus of subcultures and serve as temporary, instant, and insurgent vernacular expressions. They chronicle and mirror shifts, such as technological and cultural convolutions, in historic reality, and represent a break with the past. Products of self-taught, naive, or adeptly skilled artists, they often look like nothing before them. They don’t mirror the boxing style rock’n’roll posters of the 1950s and early 1960s, they don’t mirror the organic, curvy, bright lines of psych posters; instead, they unveil a new language of rupture and roughness, though they sometimes reflect minimalism and pure utility too. Artist Winston Smith summarized their ethos accordingly: “They are potent examples of how one can use a ball-point pen, a little glue, some typing paper, and a photocopy machine to help change the world” (1993).

As a means to an end, they embody different graphic forms, and as social texts, they pay witnesses to punk’s ceaseless and potent tenet — Do-It-Yourself — a metaphor for punk’s challenge to watered down corporate mentality, and its identification with change, hope, irony, and humor, which is often overlooked. Such pieces, to borrow a few phrases from Holland Cotter describing collages, may be imbued with a sense of “implied anyone-can-do-it modesty…lack of high artiness … and resistance to monumentality” while feeling “more like keepsakes than like art objects” (2008). Yet, they are urban folk art objects, reflecting the collective consciousness of early punk, including its desire to undo delusions of grandeur and miscalculated seriousness. As Chris Salewicz attests in the liner notes for Burning Ambitions, a punk compilation, “It was both rebel music and very funny: a broad, baroque vein of humor ran through it whose closest comparison lay in the brief satire movement of the early 1960s” (Cherry Red: 1982).

Seen within this framework, punk’s sneers worked in many ways. Even though the urban folk art of punk captures such style, including the emphasis on being “filthy, ugly, unpalatable, unruly, disturbing, and disgusting,” Rhodes and Westwood remind us, they also were created in “your image … it is your social systems that have consitituted us … your institutions that have left of us ‘pretty vacant’ … and pushed us over into anti-style” (167: 2008). This seems to capture the point-of-view of songs like “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (1983), a hardcore “classic” now played on broadband and satellite FM radio. The vexed young narrator desires to sit in his room, and drink a Pepsi and think “about everything … and nothing” but is misunderstood by his family, who want him to undergo psychiatric treatment. In the end, he fights their accusations, reminding them that, “I went to your schools, your churches, and your institutional learning facilities.” Yet, they want “to give me the needed professional help, to protect me from the enemy, myself.” The song deftly recounts and balances a sense of fomented, blistering anger and family meltdown with an edge of humor that was personally experienced in households across America by thousands of young punks during the initial waves of punk and hardcore, which still may be the case today, for some parents are simply unable, or unwilling, to understand how social, cultural, familial and economic mores shape youth.

Flyers reflecting the punk and hardcore generation are at once exercises in supposedly short-lived forms that are once intimate and impersonal, invested in a host of ideas laid down with frankly devotional sensibility. They reveal punk rock as alien consciousness in the engulfing barrage of pop culture — alien because it seduces some viewers by being strenuously “oppositional,” unleashing a 8 x 10 gig poster that reveals all the bracing, difficult, possessive, and hungry postures of a counter-culture clamoring towards anti-authoritarianism with guillotine glee. Punk is a history lesson, in part, of being bilious and vile, of enlightened and half-starved. It invoked a republic of Xerox, forged by principled provocateurs trumpeting a politics brimming with indignation. It’s a politics rooted in music that “is always the gristle. That doesn’t break down in the crucible of pop culture. Almost everyone in [first generation] punk was descended, within one-two generations, from some social injustice somewhere” (Nylons 136: 2007).

The migration and dissemination of punk art, especially flyers, can be understood as revealing the essence of DIY culture, long before one could purchase the Design It Yourself Deck and Guerrilla Art Kit at huge retail “box” bookstores. Throughout the last thirty years, punk flyers have often been posted illegally, since most communities treat flyer art as trash, vandalism, and even a form of graffiti. Hence, the spread of these flyers can be understood as events, often done late at night, by street teams or artists who wish to spread information about shows but also infiltrate hegemonic culture by producing instant art with political or social content that combines a sense of agitprop and agitation. In the case of bands like Black Flag, who routinely “co-opted” or kidnapped the designs of Raymond Pettibon and made thousands of copies that were furnished to high school kids, the flyering process was furtive, marked both by purpose and “kicks,” resulting in hordes of Xeroxed or offset press flyers stuck on city walls, train bridges, and utility poles, some weathered but still visible for years. As bass player Chuck Dukowski noted on the liner notes to their double album Everything Went Black, “We…plastered the city with our posters…with a literal vengeance” (1982). Four of these Raymond Pettibon posters frame the back sleeve of the record, revealing cops, priests, horned men, and the invocation to “Creepy Crawl” at the Whisky Au-Go-Go, the early hardcore dance, and the name of their 1980 pre-Henry Rollins national tour, that soon made its way to NYC, and could be heard being invoked by the band Cause for Alarm during their Rock Against Reagan set in 1982 at CBGBs (“Creepy Crawl NYC style y’all!”). Variations abounded even within Black Flag lore, such as “Creepy Crawl the Starwood. The Starwood must be creepy crawled” and “Creepy Crawl a Slumber Party” with a picture of a teenage girl carving a cross into another’s girl’s forehead. When asked by Al Flipside in 1980 about the meaning of the phrase, Dez told him it was “an exercise in fear, give someone the shakes,” with a reference to Manson family “crawls” in middle-class homes during the night, re-arranging furniture.

While Flag was going hit-and-run style in the bowels of L.A., the same process was being simultaneously sought in Canada, where Joey Shithead, then with the Skulls, but later the singer behind the three decade spanning punk band DOA. In folkore, this tendency is dubbed polygenesis, in which two different geographical and cultural areas give rise to the same related phenomena. According to Shithead in his autobiography I, Shithead:


I would jam my backpack full of posters, squeezing in a bag of four and staple gun, and take along my trusted bucket. Then I would hop on a bus and go to it. When there was nowhere to use the staple gun, I would stop at a gas station for some water and mix up a thick, gooey mixture of water and flour. I’d spread the goo on some metal light standards with my hands, and stick up the poster. (Some of those posters stayed up for years, which is saying something considering the long periods of rain we endure on the West Coast). After a short while my jeans and leather jacket were so covered with the shit that I looked like a drywaller. (36: 2003)

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One of the posters he hung, featuring a show with the Skulls and the Lewd, had a huge image of the word PUNKS lettered in graffiti style across the top half, replete with drippage, amplifying the links between both forms of street art.

During the same time frame, the Final Solution zine staff, based out of New Orleans, reported that in Texas, the leader singer of the Hates was chased down by locals for flyering in Houston, while a member of the Re*cords was sought by the FBI in Austin for printing flyers on the back of IRS forms in 1979. By the early 1983, Dave Dictor, singer for Millions of Dead Cops informed Suburban Voice that the band Crucifucks made a poster filled with images of dead cops promoting a concert with the two bands in Lansing, MI; in response, police shut down local punk shows and attempted to squelch the community.

Even the Clash have their own flyer lore. Broke after a night of flyering London with gig handbills glued to surfaces with a mixture of flour and water, they ate from the same bucket to quell their hunger. As described in the book Babylon Burning, guitarist “Mick Jones had already worked for fashion designer Zanda Rhodes, [and] hit upon an original flyer design that used the technology of colour Xeroxing and juxtaposing discordant images to catch the eye even when no larger than A4. It defined a handbill style that would endure through all the hardcore years” (Heylin 194: 2007). Thus, if a myth of origins exists for punk flyers, it might reside within such episodes.

Flyers were also used as mailers, letter stock, or easily reproduced and packaged promotional tools. For instance, Mike Muirs from Suicidal Tendencies used flyers as letterhead to fans, and the label BYO would include a handful of flyers when shipping items to buyers across the world, with a handwritten thank you note. SST, the label behind Black Flag, Husker Du, and the Minutemen, would also regularly provide free posters, stickers, flyers, and tour dates, as would Alternative Tentacles, who produced the Dead Kennedy’s, Dicks, Butthole Surfers, and many more. Also, by the mid-1980s, Dirk Dirksen, infamous show promoter for clubs like Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, who also managed the Dead Kennedys, established a flyer art mail-order service that featured both original copies and reprints on heavy stock paper. In fact, I ordered vintage prints of Dead Kennedys and the Damned flyers from that service. Also, magazines like Maximum Rock n Roll and Flipside would regularly feature flyer art in the design layout for articles, as would some record labels when designing LP materials. For instance, the Live at the Deaf Club LP features flyer designs in the liner notes, which is one of the only means of documenting the unique club’s short-lived existence. Lastly, in the age of the Internet, digital flyers, which may only exist as virtual designs and never printed, are often emailed to fans via email sites or more fervently on social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook. However, poster street teams still operate in most cities, such as Portland, where one poster distributor earns five cents for every poster he is able to affix to wooden and metal utility poles or to windows in local businesses.

Yet, the business of promotion may actually be secondary to the conversation that these posters enable: “While flyers do not work as successful advertisements for specific shows – they do not draw people into the clubs to see bands they have never seen before – they do work as another way to display aspects of a band’s image to those willing to pay attention … Some bands use their flyers to carry on public conversations with critics, with booking agents, and with other bands…(Shank 4: 1994). Thus, the medium represents not just a temporary slice of DIY art that slides innocuously into a sticker and paper beehive of city features, but a communicative medium endowed with back-and-forth interrogations of youth issues.

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I believe that the wellspring from which punk poster arts have emerged is deep and wide, not simply a byproduct of late-capitalism’s rampant youth cultures. It’s much older, and reflects, for instance, the illicit production and iconography of woodcut printed cards from four hundred years ago, or the anti-Nazi “modernist” woodcuts of Gerd Arntz and the work of Frans Masereel, beloved “wordless novelist” and Flemish painter, the expressionistic woodcut maker Albert Hahn, and finally the native Washington state Communist Richard Correll whose woodcuts graced the weekly Voice of Action. Other antecedents include late the robustly executed 19th century advertising posters that “decorated the once gray streets of Paris. Long before the age of mass media, the posters were the principal means of advertising products, stores, theaters, ballets and local performers. Although they were created by the leading artists of the period, the posters were primarily ads” (Lyons: 2001). Shortly after their inauguration in the city of light, collecting them became a quick and easy way to “bring the ‘museum of the streets,’ into homes. It was a modern, inexpensive way to decorate — the posters could easily be ripped off outdoor walls and kiosks. Serious collectors hoarded the advertising posters with a vengeance, amassing an average of 500 to 600 posters each” (Lyons: 2001). Punk posters, long before the Internet became accessible, also seized the public’s imagination, though often not in the form of charm and splendor, but in the form of distaste and condemnation, although fans of either the bands or the art were also driven to collect the “instant art” to preserve or decorate their own dwellings.

At least in their early rugged forms, flyers serve as an inverted update of this advertising trend, transmutated nearly one hundred years later. Instead of responding to the gray city pall with rich tapestries of color and willowy, organic lines, punk art actually mirrored the rust-tinged, scarred industrial landscapes and attempted to penetrate deep into the recesses of the modern “hive” — the city. Like the Ramones’ first record was a “bold swipe at the status quo” (Sculatti: 1976), punk posters were a bold swipe at the workaday routines and habits of life in the bustling but conformist grid of cities, testing the boundaries that constitutes “space as territory. As such, borders are usually conceived spatially from within a jurisdiction and are conceived functionally as limits. Even where their precise location is arbitrary or subject to negotiation, borderlines are a location and locus of political certainty imposed on an often-recalcitrant topography” (Shields: 2006). Even when business and civic groups, neighborhood watch groups, or concerned neighbors band with police to monitor street art — graffiti or postering – what they are really monitoring are the borders, and the recalcitrant artists that utilize the topography to their own ends, include even simple acts of commemoration, though spiked with social commentary, such as in Salt Lake city during the late 1980s, where “along the side of the viaduct ramp, you’d see graffiti reading, ‘This ain’t the summer of love, this is the summer Jim died,’ with a stick figure dinosaur painted beside it” (Anderson: 2006).

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In addition, punk and new wave (“new music”) posters have roots in other various periods and genres, including: the harsh political machinations unearthed by painters like Goya, Munch, and Grosz; the solidarity-inspired, bold geometry, and intense color of Russian constructivist designs from the 1920s; the stylistically varied and vibrant W.P.A. posters of the 1930s, the style and mass commercialism of movie handbills and advertisements, including most notably the work depicting horror movies; the naïve and art brut philosophy and tactics of Dubuffet; the collage and cut-ups of Dada, and the sordid and widely loved comic transgressions such as Tales from the Crypt, Zap Comix, and Mad. Barry Jones reinforces this notion: “The cut-up…doing collages was great. I was really into (teen) comics at the time…and I’d just discovered colour Xerox. I’d just discovered how it changed the textures of the colors – how it gave it this look – so I started just pasting things up (Heylin 374: 2007).Others in New York were creating fanzines with a similar technique, including the founders of PUNK, who used their “collective media-drenched consciousness …” inundated with a diet of “comic books, Mad magazine, science fiction novels … grade B movies …. and Saturday morning cartoon shows …” and “dissected and rearanged” them until they were “regurgitated into new forms” (Hager 1, 5: 1986). John Holstrom, one of the founders of PUNK, provides his own perspective, telling an interviewer for Kicking and Screaming, “We thought we were going to be the new Banana’s magazine or the new Mad magazine. Like a Mad magazine for rock’n’roll” (#12: 2005) On both sides of the Atlantic, such denizens of punk were fast becoming the eye-witnesses, chroniclers, promoters, and visual art mavericks of the so-called punk first wave.

Still, a poster is not a sum of references to other eras and trends, an amalgam of clip art. This would reduce flyer making to mere assemblage, like a puzzle, with little distinct style or felicity. Punk poster art did not dwell in this ghetto. As noted by Chon Noriega in a survey of Chicano street posters, “The medium is the message. But if the medium is poster art, and not television as referenced in Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, the message is the community. The poster exists somewhere between the unique art object and the mass media. It blends the formalities of both in order to reach an audience neither cares about: urban exiles in search of a community. As such, the poster’s message is inherently complicated…” (23: 1977). One way to understand how flyers mediate this sense of community is to examine how flyers link to graffiti, perhaps the closest kin of punk flyers.

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