Poster Boys

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Lindsey Kuhn, a left-handed artist, can't feel the fingers on his left hand.

Yet he stands in the middle of his lower-downtown workshop -- a 1,200-square-foot abandoned warehouse at Park Avenue and Market Street -- and downright laughs at the thought of his drawing hand going on the blink.

He doesn't fret, he doesn't complain -- he doesn't even search for the deeper implications of his current predicament.

Has the devil come to collect for all of Kuhn's success? Is Kuhn all washed up at age 31? Will Kuhn remember this as the moment when things turned for the worse?

No, no way, and of course not.

Kuhn just looks at his left hand, pokes at it, and plays with it as if it has been transplanted from one of his toy Japanese robots. He's curious about it, really.

"It's fucking weird," he says. Last winter, a snowmobiler ran into him while he was snowboarding; the accident injured his left elbow, and he couldn't work for two months. This afternoon he clunked the back of his hand on the corner of his press. The pain made him nauseous, and he had to sit down for a few minutes. He smiles, casually touching each numbed fingertip with his thumb as if he were practicing a sobriety test.

Last year Kuhn designed and sold $50,000 worth of punk-rock posters, T-shirts, CD covers, skateboards -- nearly anything that came between him and his press. Since he began printing eight years ago, roughly 200,000 of Kuhn's posters have appeared on tavern windows, college-town telephone poles and the bedroom walls of pre-pubescent punk rockers. He's designed posters for Marilyn Manson, Jane's Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins.

So when Kuhn slid into Denver last year from Dallas, Texas, he brought his machines, his prints and -- most important -- his talent. He has quickly and quietly raised the bar for local artists who want in on the poster action.

In essence, he's turned the city of Denver into a blank canvas for poster artists.

One thing about punk rockers: They like to debate about who was there and who wasn't -- who's one and who isn't -- who's doing it and who's not. It's all part of the scene.

Punk-rock poster art follows the lineage of punk rock music. It began as an immediate, nihilistic expression in the late Seventies and has evolved into an easily digestible genre.

Art Chantry, a poster artist from Seattle, compiled one of the first punk-rock poster collections and published it in 1985's Instant Litter. He says the style has origins as far back as the early 1900s and the work of dadaists, but the contemporary genre can be traced -- if necessary -- to a performer named Tomata du Plenty who in 1972 rocked in glitter bands in Los Angeles and New York. Du Plenty fashioned himself after Iggy Pop and promoted his bands, the Screamers and the Tupperwares.

"It was the classic do-it-yourself-I-haven't-got-a-clue attempt at promoting his show. He wasn't trying to be professional; it was just total 'Fuck you,'" Chantry says.

Early punk-rock fliers relied on cut-and-paste lettering and images such as skulls or politicians that could easily be photocopied and mass-produced. Costs were cheap -- especially if the drummer worked at Kinko's.

The craftsmanship evolved as the genre developed into the Eighties, but the scratchy DIY cut-and-paste look remained. At the end of the decade, an Austin, Texas, artist named Frank Kozik began using the psychedelia usually associated with Sixties rock and the Grateful Dead and married it to the punk aesthetic, putting a sinister kink in the feel-good construction.

"It was artists like Frank Kozik and Lindsey Kuhn from the Austin scene that launched the contemporary psychedelic poster," Chantry says. "When the punk rockers moved into psychedelic, it ended up very dark, very brooding, very scary. It was a lot more like bad acid. When they used images, it meant the opposite. If they used a happy face, it meant something else."

"It was not a very political scene," Kozik recalls. "It was like, 'Let's make fun of everything that we can.' The whole scene was based on that. There was a lot of dressing up in costumes. Shows weren't something to take seriously -- they were more like, 'Let's see how retarded we can be.'" The posters reflected the blackened sense of humor in the music.

By the mid- to late Eighties, fliers trumpeting a punk show had morphed into a strutting, flashy art form. No longer was it simply a photocopy of a skull and some words. Unfortunately, Chantry says, the genre had left the hands of the do-it-yourselfers and become monopolized by artists like Kozik.

"Frank Kozik killed the art form because of the way he did the business," Chantry says. "He would see a show he wanted to promote and would print, say, 500 copies. He approached the club and said, 'I'll give you 100 for free and keep the other 400 and sell them at my rate.' All of a sudden, punk-rock posters switched over to art prints."

"It was never a programmed thing; it was very organic," counters Kozik, who now owns a record label and is able to sell his posters -- some of which are considered fine art -- at galleries across the country. He says he was in the right place at the right time and opportunities found him -- not the other way around. By the early Nineties, venues and bands were requesting Kozik prints, which were now easily equated with punk shows. And once the suitors came calling, Kozik knew what to do. "I'm pretty opportunistic, so when I got the ball, I ran with it."

Kozik could afford to offer the first hundred prints for free because he owned name recognition and the equipment to do the printing. In effect, Chantry says, local poster artists in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Austin were at a loss to compete with Kozik: "People who did punk-rock posters, not only did they have to do them for free, they also had to do these amazing four-color extravaganzas to compete. After a while, [Kozik] developed a name so big that they would accept anything he gave them. That's a wonderful thing if you can pull it off."

After-market collectors spawned a new wave of poster artists. "So many people started collecting, it lifted the demand," Chantry says. "There were so many people doing the medium, so much of it was low-quality -- but there was sure a lot of fucking posters out there. Twenty-five years from now, they might be solid gold. Right now they're not worth shit.

Kozik disputes the claim that his style is flooding the genre. "There's 100 shows every night, and all of them need a poster. A lot of cats got pissed off because they thought they'd be making money, and there's no making money in the poster business." Unless you're Frank Kozik -- or, maybe, Lindsey Kuhn.

Kuhn grew up on a skateboard in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

"If you wanted a 'zine, you had to write it. If you wanted a show, you had to play it. If you wanted a ramp, you had to build it. You couldn't buy one punk-rock T-shirt. You had to make your own. The Misfits, Independent, Minor Threat -- we made 'em all."

Kuhn's SWAMP ramp, a twelve-foot skate ramp, was the flashpoint for the Deep South punk rockers. Skaters like Jeff Phillips and Craig Johnson and artists like Pushead were creating a gritty atmosphere that would eventually lay heavy influence on all of punk rock.

And Kuhn was all over the place. He was a sponsored skater, he made bootleg T-shirts, he held weekend-long ramp jams. In January 1990 he took the DIY aesthetic and moved to Austin, Texas. The same year, while working at a silk-screening T-shirt shop, he attended a record convention and met Debbie Jacobson, owner of L'imagerie Gallery. Jacobson introduced Kuhn to Kozik. Not long after, Kuhn dropped by the ArtRock Gallery where Kozik worked.

He found that Kozik didn't know how to use a printing press. After Kuhn watched Kozik fumble with the complexities of running several colors, Kuhn stepped in. "I was like, 'Look, dude. Don't freak out, but have a seat.'" Impressed, Kozik hired him.

"I learned a lot of tricks from watching Frank," Kuhn says. "He's the Warhol of the Nineties. He takes an image, makes a mockery of it and throws it back at you."

While at ArtRock, Kuhn ran prints by artists like Robert Williams, Robert Crumb, Big Daddy Roth and Suzanne Williams. "I was just a kid skating, collecting records and toys. I never thought about the art. Then, I'm printing this shit, and I'm looking at it and I'm going, 'This is fucking cool.'"

With Kozik's encouragement, Kuhn started designing his own posters, and in 1991, he promoted his first show when Green Jell-O and Tool played a concert in Los Angeles. "It sucks," he says of the piece now. "It's two dinosaurs fucking in a patch of mushrooms."

But, Kozik says, "where everyone else was getting slick, Lindsey was staying raw. He was very punk, very physical. It comes from a very manic, skateboarding place."

By 1994, Kuhn decided to leave Kozik and try it on his own.

The impetus for Kuhn to leave Kozik's tutelage came when members from the band Tripping Daisy repeatedly phoned Kuhn, begging for a poster. Kuhn says the "shitty band from Dallas" called him early in the morning and often, waking him several times. Finally, Kuhn told them if they wanted a poster, they'd need to call ArtRock. Kuhn thought he was done with the obnoxious requests. Two weeks later, Kuhn rolled into the shop and Kozik handed him the sketches for a new poster -- a poster for Tripping Daisy. Kuhn laughed at Kozik and called him a sellout for accepting the project from ArtRock execs.

"He felt stupid for doing it, because he was getting told to do it. And I was laughing at him for it. That's when the wall came up."

Kozik claims not to remember the split quite the same way.

Kuhn's departure "was really the natural course of events," Kozik says. "At that time, the last half of '93, early '94, I was pretty tired of everything. I had a lot of stuff going on, and I was getting ready to move [to San Francisco]. Lindsey just wanted to do his thing more and more. It was a natural, gradual thing."

In 1995, Kuhn's name was mentioned in a Rolling Stone article profiling Frank Kozik. It anointed Kuhn as one of the up-and-coming poster kids. While the issue was still on the stands, Kuhn was hanging out in New York City and found himself at a party thrown by Arturo Vega, manager of the Ramones. Vega pointed to the Rolling Stone article and asked Kuhn, "This is you?" Kuhn proved that it was, and Vega cut a check for $5,000 for Kuhn to buy a press. In return, Kuhn and then-partner Don Rock designed the silk-screen poster for the Ramones' twentieth-anniversary tour.

Kuhn moved his shop to Dallas, but the continual heat and limited punk community made running a poster shop impractical. "We had ninety days straight of 100-degree weather. We were waking up early just to print posters and couldn't work once it reached noon."

Denver, Kuhn says, happened by accident. Business partners who have since gone under convinced Kuhn to make the move last September. Since arriving from Dallas, he's been impressed by the accessibility of Denver's punk scene. "People say Denver sucks, Denver this, Denver that. It's like, 'Dude. You have one of the best all-ages scenes going on right now.' You can't get 300 kids in Texas to sell out a show like you can here."

What's more, Kuhn says, speaking of the punk rock artistic ethic, "people are doing it. They put it out there whether it's good, bad or whatever. It doesn't matter. They're taking it and just kicking it out there. At least they're doing something."

Until Kuhn's arrival in Denver, local punk-rock artwork mirrored the music: A few people did it, and not very well. But true to the persistence of punk rock, it was still getting out there.

At that time, says Scott Campbell, a booking agent at the 15th Street Tavern, the person who printed up fliers for shows was the person closest to the copy machine -- usually himself.

"It was me or whoever, just taking an image from an old movie and scanning it onto a flier."

Last week Kuhn shared telephone-pole space with another local artist, Jay Vollmar. Campbell commissioned both artists to make posters promoting the Queens of the Stone Age show at the 15th Street Tavern.

"We've got two excellent artists. We can afford it. Why not make it a novelty?" Campbell says.

Since January, Campbell has been using Vollmar as the Tavern's in-house artist and hires Kuhn on special occasions.

"Lindsey is usually too busy. And this is something Jay does just for fun. I just ask them to do whatever they want to bring somebody else's talent into my own business."

Vollmar only began printing in November and still holds a day job. Yet both artists' Queens of the Stone Age posters were ripped from walls and storefronts within days. The culprits were either punk-rock kids looking for a cool poster, greedy collectors, or city sweepers who consider the urban art form not only an eyesore, but also illegal.

"The better I do my job," Vollmar laughs, "the less the show gets advertised."

Jay Vollmar reprinted his Queens of the Stone Ages posters inside a west Denver carriage house that's not much bigger than the stage at the 15th Street Tavern. After the first posters were swiped, Vollmar needed to print more; he hoped to use the extras to finagle trades with the band for CDs or T-shirts.

Unlike Kuhn, Vollmar attended art school and works as a professional graphic artist. Like Kuhn, however, he grew up skating, jamming to punk rock and going to all the shows. And he also grew up in a small town: Waukesha, Wisconsin. DIY was mandatory.

Vollmar began printing posters in the bedroom of his Capitol Hill home. He made space for the silk screens by pushing his computer to the side of the desk. When he finished inking the still-wet prints, he spread them on the floor throughout the house to dry.

"I'd walk down the hall, lay them down in a roommate's bedroom and run back to do the next one." Now things are on the up for Vollmar: He can afford to pay $100 a month for the tiny carriage house as a work space. But he still uses the carpeted floor instead of drying racks.

While Kuhn's printing machine cost $3,500, Vollmar's cost about $50. So when Vollmar found the adhesive spray he was using to keep the poster from sliding off the table messy and unpredictable, he drilled tiny holes through the face of the table and duct-taped a mini-vacuum cleaner underneath to create suction. Now when he runs his ink across the posters, they don't move a millimeter.

Though their tools of the trade differ, Kuhn and Vollmar share a taste for distorting images that are comfortable to the eye. "I like taking images and corrupting them," Vollmar says. Decades-old advertising is always ripe with material. "At one time it was taken seriously. Now it seems silly."

For the Queens of the Stone Age poster, Vollmar wanted to emphasize the stoner-rock sound of the band, so he drew a Seventies-style van -- "the kind of van you would get stoned in." He wanted to add pot smoke coming from the windows, but the design was growing busy. Instead, he wrote "Smoker" along the side of the van and called it done.

"What happens a lot of times is that these posters fly together out of the desperation of saying, 'I don't have anything done,'" notes Vollmar. When the posters are completed, though, there is a small, hey-that's-my-work feeling when he sees them around Denver.

"I've spent all this time on this totally disposable art form. You see them shredded or water-logged or all mangled up. Every once in a while," Vollmar says, "I see a corner of mine, still tacked to the pole, beneath all the others."

When he completes his current run, Vollmar takes his screens into the bathtub to hose them off. It costs Vollmar $2 to make each poster, and that's exactly what he gets paid by the 15th Street Tavern.

It's a situation that Kuhn can empathize with. Last year, after record sales, Kuhn broke even. "I know he's not making any money off it," Kuhn says of Vollmar. "He's doing it because he thinks it's cool."

Vollmar and hundreds of punk-rock kids around Denver may think it's cool, but the authorities consider it illegal.

Both Seattle and Austin were once known for thriving poster-art scenes, thanks to the prolific music there. But flier-filled streets became a political platform for city officials. The artists called it a continually changing urban landscape, but city officials called the posters eyesores. The city officials won.

To get rid of the posters, the Seattle city government decided to cut down telephone poles and demolish a fence along streets with punk venues, where artists plastered their work. In Austin, the city scraped clean Guadalupe Street, a mile-long, postered phenomenon known as The Drag. Both cities eradicated the art form -- exterminating the artists in the process.

In Denver, where hand-made posters are splattered along 13th Street near the various Wax Trax stores, the city has been relatively lax in its efforts. Since 1985, according to Denver's Municipal Code, it's been illegal to "post, paint or attach, or to directly or indirectly cause to be posted, painted or attached in any manner, any handbill, poster, advertisement or notice of any kind upon public property except by permission of the manager of public works pursuant to established rules and regulations." Five years ago, bands competed to see who could get their posters highest on telephone poles, says Dave Kerr, who has been a Wax Trax manager for seven years. But in the last few years, citizens' groups have taken it upon themselves to remove fliers and posters in the area.

"Every few days the neighbors come along and rip them down from the poles, but you're not going to stop the kids from stickering them up," Kerr says. "The neighbors, I've noticed, have been getting lazy lately. And the kids are winning."

Inside his brick warehouse, Kuhn stands among stacks of more than 10,000 punk-rock posters, countless buckets of gooey poster ink, bulky silk screen and printing machinery. If word got out that Kuhn had a bum wing, who knows what it could do for business?

Hell, when Lindsey Kuhn muttered to a friend a few months back that he was interested in doing a Tom Waits poster, desperate collectors called him within hours, offering to buy the entire run.

A Kuhn poster for a June 21 Brian Wilson concert at the Boston Symphony Hall sold on eBay three weeks after the show for $75, surprising even Kuhn.

"I looked at that and I said, 'That's not right.' It kind of pissed me off," Kuhn says of the price-gouging. In fact, if Kuhn sees a private collector overpricing his posters on the electronic auction house, he'll e-mail the bidders and offer a lower price.

Now, both Kuhn's style and his client list are expanding. He's starting to draw his posters freehand instead of relying on the clip-art images that have defined the punk-rock poster aesthetic.

Kuhn's prominence in the art form has allowed his appeal to cross into the mainstream. He now finds himself working on a poster for, of all people, Linda Ronstadt.

"Why would Linda Ronstadt want some punk-rock poster guy to do a poster for her?" Kuhn asks. Then he says, "I'm going to do it because I think it's funny to do a poster for Linda Ronstadt."

Kuhn is also working on a limited-edition CD cover that he'll ship to Japan. He uses a noisy, generator-powered water gun to blast ink-stained screens and squeegees. Eight hundred of the prints will sell in Japan and only 100 will stay in the States.

After he finishes washing his equipment, Kuhn pinches his left hand at the knuckles of his ring and middle fingers. Now he shakes the hand. That's it, he says. He won't work anymore today.

Now he'll go drink a beer, maybe skate around town, maybe take in a show. He can afford the break.

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