Poster Boys

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.

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Justin Berton