Free Press Houston Interview
Godfather of modern poster art and prodigal son returns to Houston…for now.
By Omar Afra
Most Houstonian’s are blind to the fact that their very own city was responsible for a resurgence in the medium of rock poster art. There was a ‘golden age’ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s where Houston’s acid soaked psyche and garage rock scenes were propelled into the national consciousness with the help of such poster artists as Frank Kozik, Jason Austin, Uncle Charlie, and Jermaine Rogers. Rogers’ work has since become ubiquitous as he has been commissioned by everyone from David Bowie to Radiohead to Led Zeppelin to create original artwork for tour posters, albums, and just about anything else you can put a mind-bending image on. In 2009 he moved to New York City but has since decided to again make Houston his part time home yet keep his residence in NYC and jump between. We were lucky enough to nail him down long enough for a few questions.
How much does your own personal worldview inform your artwork?
Quite a bit, naturally. That’s the magic of any art, really. When I began doing posters and flyers for bands back in the early to mid-’90s, there was really no ‘plan’. There was no financially sound ‘street art’ or ‘gig poster’ market like the one that exists today. So I had no long-term agenda of any sort in the beginning. I just wanted to have a part in a scene I really enjoyed being part of. And lucky me: I could draw a bit. Those first few years were really about figuring out the craft. Learning ‘the rules’, and then figuring out which ones you want to break. You figure out who YOU are, and you learn to stop copying your idols. You learn to embrace some of your little imperfections on reality: these will become pivotal parts of your ‘style’.
Back in the late 1990’s, when I was getting my first big breaks, I received a lot of criticism for doing artwork that was too ‘self-centered’. I remember doing a poster for an ‘At The Drive In’ show where I indulged in some weird autobiographical imagery. Soon after, another artist (who I won’t name) said, ‘Your artwork should be about the band and not yourself. You’re serving your ego.’ I never bought into that way of thinking.
I remember being so mystified by artists not willing to totally indulge their ego in their ARTWORK. You’re an artist! Say your thing. You know, I’ve always made sure that the artwork I create for shows fit the vibe of the band. The bands were always happy. They always hired me again. That At The Drive-In print? They loved it. I worked for them again. I worked for Sparta AND Volta. Always doing my own thing. When it comes to gig posters in particular, you CAN do both: tag the vibe of the band and the event as well as be very personal and egocentric in your artwork. Raymond Pettibon did it. Frank Kozik did it, and personally encouraged me to keep doing it early on. If the band/client gives you the freedom, take it. Trust that you have the sense to know how far to go and when to pull back. Sometime, your worst impediment is other artists’ opinions. Study the art you like. Study the artists who create it. Think and listen. Train your gut, and then trust it.
Of course, when I’m doing art prints and paintings, I have total freedom. The same is true with my designer vinyl figures and sculptures. I indulge every aspect of my self in these projects. Your art should be the one place you plant your feet and hold your ground. It’s the one place you don’t turn and run from anyone.
An artist/musician/writer/film maker etc. is kind of like the shaman of a tribe. He/she has access to certain talents, which are just beyond the reach of most members of the tribe. He doesn’t necessarily describe events: he interprets them. He helps the tribe understand and process their feelings, beliefs, loves and hatreds. He is a conduit. And every artist is like that. He has his own little ‘tribe’. Call them collectors or fans…whatever. But there is a bond between the artist and his group. Degas called it a ‘trust’. The artist trusts his tribe. They provide for him. They indulge his calling. They give him the space to work it all out in his head and then they watch his journey carefully. They also pay his bills, give him food money, and finance his future explorations. In return, they trust that he will always be true in his work. He speaks for them. They trust that he will always honestly represent the tribe. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.
Trust your views. Shout them out in your drawings and paintings. Sing them and write them. Your tribe is out there. You speak for them. You owe it to them.
What have been the best/worst things you have discovered that have happened to the ‘old neighborhood’?
Well, my old stomping grounds (Montrose/Heights) have definitely changed. But, the writing’s been on the wall for a long time in the Montrose. I remember back in the late ‘90s, you could see things drastically changing. A lot of the artists, musicians and freaks that really made the neighborhood a center of creativity were already being priced out at that point. A lot of people I knew started relocating to the warehouses and old buildings behind the George Brown Convention Center, on the south side of the 59 overpass. A lot of folks moved out towards 5th ward, as well. When they cancelled the Westheimer Street Festival because of ‘neighborhood concerns’, that was a harbinger of things to come. It had never been a problem for the neighborhood before. But you know, things change. It happens. Artists, musicians, writers, and students flock to an area because it’s cheap. Typically these neighborhoods are run down, low-income places, and flavored with ethnicity, culture, and an abundance of truly open minds. In time, ‘young money’ discovers these hoods. ‘Wow!’ they think, ‘Just think how nice this neighborhood COULD be! And it’s so funky and artsy! And it’s cheap!’ Then the inevitable occurs. ‘Young money’ starts buying cheap land, and the big cheap old houses. ‘Old money’ follows ‘young money’ (as it always does). Old houses are torn down and replaced by big pretty, state-of-the-art boxes. And it’s all done in the name of ‘progress’. Meanwhile, all of those ‘funky’ folks who made the neighborhood so interesting? They can’t afford the rents anymore. Sooo, they go to another ‘hood’. And guess what? The process starts all over again. It is what it is. Have fun while you can: it don’t last.
That said, I will admit that the Montrose is SO NICE, now! (Laughs) I mean, when we decided to get a place and live here for half of the year again, I was hoping that the old neighborhood hadn’t changed too much. That said, some of the changes are really refreshing. I mean, it’s nice to see families and see people living and loving out on the streets. I’m torn about this neighborhood, and not ashamed to admit it. Back in the late ‘80s when I began haunting the Montrose, it was a really sketchy place. Part of that sketchiness gave the neighborhood its energy. It was dangerous, depending on where you were and when you were there. The Kroger on Montrose was totally not a ‘nice’ place to shop on Friday and Saturday nights. We used to call it the ‘ghetto Kroger’. I went in there the other day, for the first time in years. They’ve got a sushi bar. Sushi. Now that I’ve got a little 8 year old kid, I like the fact that the neighborhood is nicer. When I was 23 years old, I didn’t mind that the dude who lived next door to me was basically a low-budget pimp. I didn’t mind the kids upstairs who were always on acid and who would play Germs records really loud at 3AM. These days, things would be different. One big shock to me was discovering that the amazing Wilshire Village complex had been eaten by a big red and white thing called H.E.B. I had lots of old friends in that place over the years. A book could be written on the folks who moved in and out of that place over the years. Lots of talent. But things change. Strangely enough, the patrons of that H.E.B. remind me of the folks I see up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Very pretty. Very stylish. Very ‘together’. And they sell fresh praline covered pecans there. Accept it: things change. But, you don’t have to.
How much, if at all, does the city you are in influence your work? If so, how does Houston ‘sneak’ into your work?
There is a certain amount of influence, I suppose. The city you live in has it’s own energy, its own little pocket of zeitgeist. For instance, up in Brooklyn, NY there was a very palpable thing in the air last year when the Occupy folks started doing their thing down in Wall Street, and eventually around Grand Army Plaza (just a couple of blocks from my apartment). It was in the atmosphere, and every other artist I know up there felt it. I instinctively began doing all types of confrontational artwork to support the ideas of the movement, even re-working older designs I had done to better coincide with an ‘Occupy’ theme. Even prints that I was doing for other unrelated events had a subversive air to them. With every piece I was sending to press, I was stripping these ‘Occupy’-type handbills and mini prints along the bottom and printing them out en masse. Those things got left on subway trains, in the parks, in bodegas, and on benches all over NYC. But, there is another point I’m trying to make here. What artists up in NYC were doing during the OCCUPY events was being done EVERYWHERE in the country. Everyone was being inspired by the same events. Geography was irrelevant. And that’s because we’re all connected, more so with each passing year. Due to global communication through the web and real-time information at your fingertips every second, the old geographically based art scenes have really begun to blur into one another. I think it’s a very historic time right now. I know some artists in certain cities who rarely venture out into the local scene where they live. They rarely leave their studios. Their primary contact with the outside world comes via the internet. And that’s a big deal, because the ‘scene’ is actually happening, existing, in a virtual environment. ‘Local’ scenes are being replaced by Facebook friend ‘trees’ and online forum boards. Artists are talking and trading ideas and stealing influences from one another in these very controlled and evolving communities. And it’s all happening in real time. It’s a very new and different thing in the art world, relatively speaking, and it’s happening globally every day. Naturally, you can understand how in this environment, many artists are not finding their primary influences locally. That’s a real development. Of course, there is still some local interaction between an artist and his neighbors and in certain parts of the world, regional heritage is strong. Texas is one of those places. I’ve always kind of worn Texas on my sleeve, primarily ‘Houston’, and have instituted some of that socially taught culture into some of my artwork. Many times, some of the ideology that was present in certain circles here locally is what I would specifically attack in my artwork. I would make artwork meant to chastise and provoke certain mentalities brimming with ancient, right-wing conservative, intolerant, racist, woman-hating, gay-hating, self-entitled bullshit. In the last few years (thanks to the Rick Perry’s and G.W.’s around here), forward-thinking, rational Texans abroad have had to consistently explain to their friends and neighbors that Texans aren’t all ‘like that’.
So, yes…there have been a few times when some vague ‘Houston’ aesthetic has entered into my artwork…but very sporadically. Of course, if there is ever a need or a situation that arises locally where my artwork can assist the greater good or help to educate, I’m all for it. I’ve done that type of thing many times. I am proud to be from here, and I’ll love this town until the day I die. But, I am a citizen of the world. I lived in various places all over the country, and I’ve lived in dozens of other places in my mind. My ‘view’ is so much wider than just ‘here’. And I think that’s how it should be. We’ve all got to start thinking like that. There is an insidious, tribal type of thinking that is crawling up from the mud again. It seemed to be retreating a while back, but panic and fear has brought it back from the depths of the sewage where it belongs. Fear always does that. Artists especially have to model behavior. It’s part of your job, artists. You’re a citizen of the massive outer world, and a timeless explorer of the infinite inner world. So fucking act like it.
I am gonna guess that at one point people assumed the digital revolution would have completely changed rock poster art. Nothing has changed. Am I right?
Well, it certainly has put the ‘gift of fire’ into the hands of many more people. Everybody’s a designer these days. And to answer your question, yes: things totally have changed. It’s easier now for certain folks to say their thing. And the new digital tools that many artists now include as part of their default palette have enabled them to focus more on the idea and basic crafting of their work rather than spending hours on the ‘mechanical’ work. In fact, I remember when I first started doing screen prints, having to create what were referred to in the industry as ‘mechanicals’. You’d do your artwork by hand, take it to some service bureau to have them shoot it into a film positive, throw that onto a light-table and began cutting your separations out of rubylith. This was incredibly time consuming. Hours were spent doing things which software like Photoshop/Illustrator now does in a fraction of the time. Now, there are some luddites out there who will forever argue that the old way was better…and to some degree, I get their point. You certainly understood the ‘bones’ of print making on a more intimate level. There was an art to building the physical aspect of the skeleton of the print. But I’m sure there was quite an art to washing clothes on rocks in a stream, too.
As one who was straddling that fence when things were switching over, I wholeheartedly embraced the digital tools. I remember in 1999, working on a poster for RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, and I finally figured out a roundabout ghetto-style way to do color separations digitally, which significantly reduced the time it took me to do that process. I do not miss the old ways at all. Years ago, artist Mark Arminski told me how the hand-cutting of color separations is what he really enjoys. I just laughed and told him I couldn’t believe it. He’s a better man than me. I hated it.
The answer is never in the ‘black’ nor the ‘white’: it’s in that shade of ‘gray’. True, the digital revolution in poster art has ushered in a glut of mediocre work. It can be a perfect recipe for disaster to a young artist’s development: a copy of Photoshop and the internet, with millions of images at your fingertips. If one is not careful, they can become lazy. The term ‘designer’ is thrown around really loosely these days, though I am pleased to see that there is a modern melding of design and illustration ethos that is in progress. I’m excited to see where it will go. Digital technology is another tool. Artists will always find a way to squeeze every conceivable use out of these ‘extra hands’. They are gifts from the art gods, to help you hit your target…not to replace your ‘aim’.
You have the pleasure of dealing with some of the biggest bands of the planet. Has there ever been a time you wished you could choke one of them? If so please elaborate. If not, make some shit up.
I never kiss and tell. Sure, there have been some forgettable jobs. Sometimes, it was an issue with the band or a band member. Every now and then, you run into a performer who is so good at performing, he believes that he is just as good at ANY art. And, he/she has ideas. Tons of them. Many musicians believe they are incredible visual artists as well. Most of them are NOT.
Sometimes, the problem is with the bands management, or the merchandise managers. For the majority of my career, I’ve been pretty reckless with imagery. I’ve always wanted to make the print that the suit-and-ties in the band’s marketing department would never make. For instance, when I was a kid, my friends and I would love to spend summer afternoons in the den drawing these pictures of KISS. We’d make each band member a half-man/half-monster. I loved drawing Gene Simmons as an actual dragon-faced demon, with a tail and wings and breathing fire. The thing is, my friends and I never could understand why the folks at ‘KISS ARMY central’ didn’t get that this is what we wanted to see! I guess way back then, this battle between me and art-marketing departments began.
Fortunately, for the last half of my career (to date), I’ve been able to be very selective and work pretty exclusively with folks I’ve worked with many times before. The majority of these are people I consider to be friends outside of ‘business.’ So there is a comfort level there. I remember one time going to a show and taking a friend with me. I ended up backstage, and eventually ran into Josh Homme. I’ve known him for a while and have done a lot of work for him: Queens Of The Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, etc. going all the way back to Kyuss stuff. Around that time, I’d been having a problem with some folks in their merchandisers art department really slowing down the process, wanting to ‘approve’ everything. So after some small talk, I tell Homme, ‘Dude, what’s up? Why am I having to jump through these hoops all of a sudden? All this time, and now this?’. I was pretty aggressive, and my friend who was with me looked at me like ‘What the hell?’ Homme apparently had no idea about all of this. He gets on his phone right then, gives somebody the business. Then he calls some manager guy in and basically tells them that ‘Jermaine needs no approval.’ And then we go to some party. And ‘poof’, all those cats who had been hemming me up magically disappear. Homme’s a stand up fella…always has been. And that’s how it is these days. Even if I would tell you a horror story, I haven’t had it happen in years. Besides, in recent years, much of my work has been art prints, paintings, designer vinyl figures and sculpture. So, there is no one to answer to but myself in those cases. And I’m such a delight to work with…