Ocular rock


Many of the platforms for static visual art linked to rock ’n’ roll have seen better days, if not the last of their days. The foot-squared cardboard sleeve of the 12-inch vinyl record, which hosted so much iconic rock imagery in its time, has all but vanished and its runt of a younger sibling, the CD cover, is on its way out too. The classic headbanger’s concert jersey, where roaring dragons and armoured barbarian babes once cavorted, are reserved for those over 40 or the terminally ironic. Lunch boxes and pinball games? Those came and went with Kiss. That leaves little other than one of rock music’s oldest and most reliable visual outlets, one of its most practical too. In honour of Frank Kozik, a modern titan in the realm of the gig poster, SAFEWALLS now takes a look at the evolution of the art form.



Though some cool designs did surface during the R&B era of the late 1950s and early ’60s, the true primordial period of the gig poster’s development was the drug-soaked daze of the late 1960s, primarily in San Francisco. That’s where R. Crumb’s ZAP! anthology, crucible of the underground “head comix” wave, was happening. Its cartoonists — the great Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, for instance —joined the likes of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley in crafting hallucinatory playbills for rock shows, delirious distortions of art nouveau’s opulence. These vivid retinal riots were the ocular equivalent of the heavy psychedelic sounds the Grateful Dead, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane were generating at the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore West.



As the ’70s crawled along and the brash young bands of the Age of Aquarius aged, they came to dominate broadcast and print media. That left lampposts and brick walls as the telecommunication system for the new punk movement of the late ’70s. Punk’s angry, underdog attitude came through in its gig posters, cheap photocopies with ransom-note typefaces and abrasive imagery (rendered even more so by deliberate degradation through multiple generations of photocopying). Though punk began as a nihilist exercise in crash-and-burn culture, it succeeded in igniting self-aware indie culture.



By the ’90s, that independent music culture was doing quite well, thanks, as slacker chic and the Seattle-centered grunge rock of the Sub Pop label — Nirvana’s first home — blew up. Rock posters became hot property again. Big names in this game were Art Chantry, who fused the punk poster’s raw and bleeding edge to the bold, disciplined design of classic advertising art, and Frank Kozik and Chris “Coop” Cooper, whose clean-lined graphics draw heavily on funny-animal cartoons, retro porn and hot-rod kustom kulture — adding raunchy and subversive twists to the mix. The lowbrow scene was kicking into high gear.



The new millennium, the Y2K bug didn’t bite, and enabled in great numbers by the arrival of widespread internet use (check gigposters.com just to get a sense of scale), a new generation of poster artists drew on all the ideas of previous waves of rock posters — and so much more. Solo or in teams, artists like Seripop, Tara McPherson, Aesthetic Apparatus, Diana Sudyka and Patent Pending took the poster to strange new places. In some cases, even more than the psyched-out sights of the ’60s posters, the actual information — the who, where, when and whatever of the rock concert in question — became obscured, even secondary. The rock poster as an artwork in and of itself had come of age.


Learn more about the rock poster American scene with this brilliant documentary: