A group of famous Bay Area poster artists made a rocking contribution to people in the Occupy movement by designing and donating thousands of large color posters at demonstrations.
At the Nov. 2 General Strike in Oakland, the artists, printers and others gave away about 6000 “Occupy Oakland” posters in the downtown area and at the West Oakland BART station.
The poster artists made three designs for the General Strike. They added seven more designs for the West Coast Port Shutdown in December and as of February 2012 are now up to eight posters with 13 designs. Five of the eight posters have different designs on each side and the other three posters have the same design on both sides.
Alexandra Fischer, who designed four of the posters, said, “There is a certain personality attracted to being a poster artist which makes the jump from rock poster art to Occupy art pretty easy. (Poster artists) are not necessarily anti-establishment, but they’re definitely people who are ready to express an opinion and they often have strong political views.”
For those outside the subculture of concert poster art, the names or faces of Alexandra Fischer, Chris Shaw, Ron Donovan, or Chuck Sperry may have gone unrecognized when they passed out posters at the General Strike, but their non-Occupy portfolios are instantly recognizable to music fans.
Between the seven poster artists, they have designed hundreds of Fillmore and Warfield concert posters, and posters for concerts by eminent artists like the Black Keys, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Primus, Oasis, Jewel, the Dead Kennedys, the Grateful Dead, and Eric Clapton. They have made posters for the Summer of Love Anniversary, the California State Fair music exhibition, and album and t-shirt art for bands like Green Day and Santana.
For many of the artists, making politically-charged prints, ‘zines, and paintings is as personally essential to their body of work as is their rock art. Chris Shaw jokes that in that political arena, “We’re professional shinkickers.”
Shaw said that he and Fischer were watching the Occupy movement unfold they realized that “there seemed to be a lack of a single defining message in the Occupy Wall Street movement. And we realize that the ‘many-message 99 percent’ is one of its strengths, but we still felt we needed something to mark an event and do it in a mass way. Posters could help do this.”
After witnessing the Oct. 25 events in Oakland when the streets were filled with flying objects and teargas, Shaw knew he had to make a poster in response. He has lived and worked in Oakland for over 20 years and has been making political and rock art for just as long.
Shaw’s experience painting giant concert sets, screenprinting and familiarity with enormous entertainment events led him to try a new set of specs for the Occupy posters.
“Some essential design elements were… the poster had to be big enough to be seen in a sea of protesters and posters, the text had to be legible from far away, and they had to be visual enough that a photograph would carry the message,” he said.
Shaw’s instincts were right: even mediocre cell phone photography could be used to spread the posters’ messages. The posters are easily identified in the Occupy footage taken from television broadcasts and posted on YouTube.
“We’re coming from rock posters: we know how to strip down text to an essential message,” said Fischer.
“People always give you a lot more text than is comfortable and part of our design is to compress and rework wording so it fits, but you still have a strong image so the whole message is clear.”
Occupy Poster Art
According to Fischer, today’s rock and political posters are the offspring of two generations of Bay Area poster traditions: the illustrative intensity of the 1960s psychedelic posters and the taut syntax of punk-rock handbills.
The Occupy posters have the superlative design from the rock poster tradition supercharged with instantly recognized words and images: General Strike, Our City, Bulls**t, the clenched fist of solidarity and Rosie the Riveter.
From the punk-rock tradition, the messages can be inflammatory with phrases like “The 1% is harvesting our future.”
The designs have evolved over time, gaining message complexity. The final poster from the January 20 “Occupy the Banks” day is a visual sound bite about bank foreclosures that moves beyond the vague concept of “subprime mortgages” to the real-life plight of neighbors being evicted from their homes.
The physical poster prints are an innovation of a media-savvy concept: double-sided printing. Shaw realized that, “The poster needed to be printed on front and back because of the cameras who are shooting both sides of the poster, often from the back of the crowd.”
Winston Smith, who created one poster with two designs, wrote in an email, “Chris (Shaw’s) idea of printing on both sides of the protest poster doubles the chance(s) that our message will get across.”
Smith is known for his artwork done for the seminal punk rock band the Dead Kennedys. He has been making rock and political art since the 1970s.
Bay Area Poster Tradition
Shaw’s lead in organizing the Occupy posters is influenced by his unique role in the printed poster microculture.
He is the poster art director for the band Moonalice, which plays about 100 concerts a year, and whose love of gig posters is unique in the live music world. The band is legendary among rock poster lovers because they make a unique poster for every show and give them away as freebies.
Shaw has a roster of 18 to 20 poster artists who are part of the Moonalice poster crew. In addition to supporting the poster artists, Moonalice is covering the printing cost of the Occupy posters. When activists ask if they can donate money to the poster effort, Shaw and friends are able to say thanks, but give your money to the movement.
Because of the support given to the art director and the participating artists by Moonalice, the posters are known as the Moonalice Occupy posters, although the band doesn’t have any visible impact on the posters.
Shaw’s political poster design and organizing builds on the work of another politically-active artist who taught him screenprinting and poster making at Oakland’s CCAC in the 1980s.
“We had a great teacher, Malaquias Montoya, who taught us how to keep it smart – (he) helped us make our work not so punk-rock,” said Shaw.
Montoya now teaches at UC Davis and is a legend of the Bay Area 1960s and 1970s Chicano poster movement.
Shaw, Occupy poster artist Ron Donovan, and many other important local poster artists like Jon-Paul Bail and Dave Hunter studied and screenprinted together at CCAC where Montoya taught screenprinting, and a poster class for the ethnic studies department.
In addition to teaching since the 1970s, Montoya has been printing and hanging posters about underrepresented community issues for the past 50 years. He has led multiple print collectives to teach poster and print making for community outreach. A Minnesota University Press book on his life of art activism was published in August 2011.
He is enthusiastic about the Moonalice Occupy posters and the continued dedication of his students and the arts to promote the issues of the 99 percent.
“Posters play an important role in organizing. Posters can say what newspapers can’t,” Montoya said. An example of this is Donovan’s provocative “Wall Street – where failure is rewarded. And that’s bulls**t.”
Lessons from the Past Guide the Present
Artist Dennis Larkins agrees that it’s no accident that art, music and politics mixed their inks together in the Bay Area again for the Occupy movement –confirming that the 1960s poster art is influencing the 2011 posters– Larkins said in a phone interview.
He believes that each generation of social justice activists are linked to one another and that the knowledge of each generation is transmitted through the art and music made by people like himself and Montoya, in the 1960s up to the present.
Larkins recalls that many concert industry people who worked for Bill Graham Productions in the 1970s were politically active with a shared anti-war mentality and there is a resonance between the two eras.
“Occupy has come around full circle from the 1960s. I’m pleased to see that the young generation is trying to gain some control of their own lives – it’s a fight for their survival,” Larkins said.
Larkins created and painted stage sets for many Bill Graham concerts, including the Day on the Green concerts, and is a co-creator of one of the most famous Grateful Dead images in the entire catalog, the “Radio City Music Hall” poster.
Poster artist Winston Smith is also contributing his poster designs from a historical perch.
Smith’s history with the Dead Kennedys and singer Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles was just a part of his lifetime dedicated to a strong stew of politics, art, and the printed world.
From the 1970s up to the present he has been recognized for his political insight. His art work has been on the cover of the New Yorker and in BBC journalist Greg Palast’s book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.”
Smith feels honored to participate in making this set of posters and is encouraged by the “scale and sweep of the Occupy Movement worldwide,” he wrote in an email.
“I’m glad that the posters got to utilize the images I created a long time ago back in 1982-3 when I could see that Reagan’s de-regulation moves at the time would eventually backfire and implode the economy.”
The New Poster Collective
The Bay Area poster artists appear to be making the best of the graphic artist’s collective, in the model advocated by Montoya he calls a “taller de artes gráficas, or TAG.” The idea is to print and design together, sharing ideas and printing resources both within their micro-community and with the larger world with meaningful art.
All of the rock poster artists will continue to print posters for bands on presses they own and share, in small runs for collectors –like those who love rare Jimi Hendrix memorabilia– or in larger runs for the Moonalice fans. In this way the rock and poster artists can continue to maintain their independence and contribute poster art as both artists and as citizens.
Many of the rock art posters, especially those by Donovan, Shaw, and Sperry, are signed, limited prints; and when they sell out of prints, they become collector’s items. These rare rock posters are sold directly to individuals and no level of big box retailer ban could distort their demand so these activists are free to print without censorship.
A commitment to political engagement in the graphic arts is an essential ingredient for many of these artists. And it’s reciprocal according to Shaw, “Politics will always need posters.” Whether they’re campaign lawn signs or scathing social commentaries people use posters to share thoughts and opinions in the street and society.
Shaw is not sure if there are more plans for future posters but he thinks there is great strength in the essential ideas of the “99 percent” and “Occupy.” He and Fischer are planning to visit New York in April and will take boxes of posters and see what happens.
At a fundraiser to save the San Francisco Firehouse Number 8, where artists Ron Donovan and Chuck Sperry started printing together, the Sperry-signed Widespread Panic prints were sold for of dollars. But by the front door, next to the guest book, was a stack of his Occupy poster of warm yellows and orange, “This is our city…” – free to anyone who walked by the open front door.
Moonalice hosts poster fairs all over the U.S., like the one in Brooklyn on April 8. Small poster images are all online at the Moonalice website at http://moonaliceposters.com/2012/02/occupy-art-by-moonalice-poster-artists/.
The annual event of the Rock Poster Society in San Francisco will be an opportunity to see the Moonalice Occupy posters and it’s typically in the fall.
Other poster associations, especially any related to “gig art” or “rock art,” host poster events but rarely advertised in the mainstream media. Hangar 18 hosts a blog of poster art-related events in the Bay Area and Inside the Rock Poster Frame blog is actively updated with news and events.