Punk Poster Boys: Kozik, Coop & More
It all started with Kozik -- Frank Kozik -- a name that's by now practically synonymous with contemporary rock poster art. Kozik defined the aesthetic, the defiantly unglossy silk-screen surfaces, the Warholian appropriation of images torn from the media-saturated cultural subconscious, the combination of guerrilla art subversion and punk irreverence fused by the old Do-It-Yourself ethic that's fueled rebel-rock in America for the past 20 years. And with his posters he struck and continues to strike the kind of counterculture vein that hasn't been hit so squarely since the glory days of the Old Filmore, when psychedelic poster artists created a lasting backdrop for Haight-Ashbury and the children of Woodstock.The commercial and artistic explosion of the kind of raw, visceral, and often perverse underground rock that inspires Kozik's work -- platinum acts like Nirvana and Green Day as well as noisier underground bands like the Mono Men and Unsane -- has kicked open the door for other like-minded poster artists, the best of whom have developed their own signature and style. What links these artists is their ties to the music they've grown up with, from punk and hardcore to post-punk indie- and alternative-rock. Their imagery resonates with the postmodern irony of Pavement and deconstructed camp of Urge Overkill, captures the grotesque angst and twisted beauty of the Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers, and approximates visually the organic cacophony of a Sonic Youth moment. Most importantly, it rocks."There are definite underlying themes that work with this music," explains Derek Hess, a gifted poster artist from Cleveland. "I mean if you listen to a band like the Jesus Lizard, they're conveying a lot anxiety, pessimism, and decay. And that's what a lot of my imagery is all about."Raised on a steady diet of punk rock and heavy metal, influenced by Silver Age comic book artists like Gil Kane, and schooled at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Detroit Center for Creative Studies, Hess incorporates sophisticated elements of anatomical drawing and lithography into his sinewy caricatures of performers ranging from Joey Ramone and Rob Zombie to Iggy Pop and bluesman R.L. Burnside. Like so many of today's emerging poster artists, he got his start printing up flyers for local punk gigs, a time-honored means of getting the word out on the street. In Hess's case, the shows were ones that he was booking, a job he took on in 1990. Hess gradually incorporated his fine-art background into his flyering until it blossomed into full-fledged poster art. He now has well over 100 posters to his credit. He's also done CD cover art, including an illustration for the upcoming R.L. Burnside release A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Matador). Though less directly influenced by Kozik then some of his contemporaries, Hess admits a debt."Kozik is the guy who brought poster art back in a big way. I mean, we're now in a situation where this art and these posters are documenting our time in the same way that the poster artists of the '60s documented their era."Part of what gives the figures in Hess's posters their distinctive edge is a process that involves using an Exacto knife to scratch lines into the surface of photographic paper to approximate the look of lithography. Though he incorporates some appropriated imagery -- his Iggy Pop is screened against a page torn from a comic book and another poster he designed features a drawing on top of a portion of a map of Boston -- he relies much more heavily on his considerable skill as an illustrator, often creating a visual pun on a band's name. (One of his better known works is a Jesus Lizard poster featuring a Lizard in a priest's collar.)Hess is also breaking new ground by exhibiting his work in galleries rather than alternative spaces, breaking into the hard-to-crack art world through the back door."I'm trying to present my work as more than just pop art or graphic imagery. I mean we call them posters, but essentially they're signed and numbered editions; they're prints, and I look at them as something more than just advertisements for gigs. But I'm always telling kids that come up to me with their sketchbooks that they should call up some clubs and tell the owner that they'll do flyers for free. It's a great way to get exposure for your work without backing from a gallery."Another poster guy who's deservedly been making a name for himself in the wake of Kozik's success is Coop. A Los Angeles-based artist with a fondness for hot-rods and devil dolls, Coop was doing magazine illustrations and album art before Kozik encouraged him to branch out into posters back in 1991. He now prints all his posters for gigs by bands like Boss Hog, White Zombie, and Rocket From the Crypt at Kozik's Man's Ruin press in San Francisco. And his voluptuous horned women and souped-up stock cars are getting to be almost as ubiquitous as Kozik's Mansons."To me the art poster is a way for me to have an excuse to make a cool art print," explains Coop. "And I get to help out a band that I like in the process. Ultimately, though, I'd just like to do prints using the same imagery that I now use in my posters but without any text. I want to start building a market for that. I mean a person can only buy so many goddamn Rocket From the Crypt posters before they're going to say to themselves 'I've got enough Rocket From the Crypt posters.' So I think we ought to start pushing things toward the idea of just doing prints of interesting images. Because as long as the image is arresting people aren't going to get tired of them."Making flyers for punk-rock gigs as a teen in Oklahoma was Coop's introduction to the world of poster art. But meeting Kozik and artist Robert Williams are two experiences that had a formative impact on his aesthetic."Williams taught me about composition, about creating arresting images that assault the viewer. I've always done what some consider cartooning or comic-book art, but I've never been particularly interested in doing comics. Williams was the first guy to show me that you could use comic-book imagery in other formats, that it was just a valid as anything else. And Frank has been a huge influence in terms of content and design. Looking at his posters is a lesson in what a print needs to look like to convey its message most efficiently."Houston's Uncle Charlie (a/k/a Charlie Hardwick) counts himself as another rising talent who's benefited from Kozik's example. His twisted sketches of murderous mutants and drooling monsters have a style all their own. But he credits Kozik with inspiring his transition from playing bass in the punk band Dresden 45 (1982-1987) and drawing flyers, to creating bold, striking poster art."I started doing flyers to contribute to the local punk scene in the '80s," he recounts. "And then I met Frank Kozik and I realized that posters are just a way of contributing to the punk scene on a larger, national level. It fits in for me -- and this is why I like posters -- because, as Bill Graham once said, the poster is the icing on the cake of a rock and roll show. It serves as a communication tool, a promotional device, a work of art, and a piece of memorabilia."Coop, though, sums up the current relevance and resonance of poster artists like Kozik, Hess, Uncle Charlie, and himself, best. "Basically, we're coming from the same background as the musicians. The only difference is that we're expressing ourselves with visual imagery and the bands are expressing themselves with music. We're all living in a culture that's totally influenced by rock and roll. It's part of our aesthetic vocabulary. And I'm someone who grew up in that culture making art that's totally influenced by rock and roll -- specifically punk rock. Punk showed me that I could go out into the world and do things that I wanted to do, that I enjoyed, and find an audience for it. So really, it's all just punk rock."