What We Do Is Public
Art, Design and Music in the Motor City
Published: May 29, 2013
“It’s got to be on the street in order to do its job,” says Chris Fuller, co-founder of Eastern Market-based design/apparel company Love It To Death and organizer of an upcoming art exhibition titled, “What We Do Is Public.”
Fuller’s show isn’t some illustrious collection of highbrow impressionism, but a retrospective of “gig posters,” an art form employed to promote music concerts.
Sleek designs, provocative (sometimes hallucinogenic) imagery born from hours of meticulous sketching, stenciling and painting are poured onto these 11-inch by 17-inch canvases.
“This is a bit of a blue collar art form,” says graphic designer Shawn Knight; accordingly, all displayed artworks available for purchase are affordably priced.
“This is art that’s intended to inform, not to hang in an art gallery,” says Fuller, manager of the busy touring-rock outfit The Electric Six. Fuller co-founded Love It To Death a year ago with that band’s keyboardist, Christopher Tait and their friend, graphic designer Tom Deja.
(Deja is renowned, locally, for his poster art depicting landmark gigs at the Lager House and Gold Dollar in the early years of the new millennium.)
Tait provides a music fan’s perspective: “(Deja)’s posters have the power to grab your attention and get you excited before a show,” he says. “Then they come to define the night of [the] show for you, afterwards.”
In Tait’s eyes, as the world grows increasingly digital, and mediums like “album cover art” go unnoticed, the art of gig posters only increases in vitality for a music scene.
The poster art renaissance began in the early 1990’s, with Deja and Fuller growing up in the thick of it, seeing (or playing) shows in the 1980’s for punk bands being plugged by cruder renderings, namely fliers.
Things evolved into more sophisticated styles, including posters, thanks to talents like Frank Kozik, Chris “the Coop” Cooper and local talents like Mark Dancey and Mark Arminski.
These artists, says Fuller, helped the genre bloom into a “much more sophisticated” art form from a design perspective. “Sophisticated isn’t a dirty word … to me, at least,” Fuller adds.
Deja, who played in various punk-oriented bands through the mid-1980s and published a DIY fanzine during his days at MSU with his roommate, and fellow graphic design artist Scott Sendra, says the single thread through all of his illustrative efforts has always been a love and obsession for music. “Especially punk rock,” Deja explains, “and the places that that love took me.”
For designer Jason Abraham Smith though, his inlet was skateboarding.
“As a kid, I’d go to the skate shop near my house and just stare at the art on all the decks,” says Smith, who was raised in a conservative household but specializes in art-adorned, skull-shaped boards.
Smith was introduced to a counter-culture of art and music that he’d otherwise never have known, thanks to skateboarding. He’d also never have met fellow skater Jay Navaro (of The Suicide Machines), inevitably leading to creating his first gig posters. During the first DIY Street Fair in Ferndale (2008), Smith saw graphic designer Shawn Knight’s work and “… was blown away. I said, ‘Fuck, that’s what I wanna do!’”
For Ann Arbor-based Jeremy Wheeler (and his design company, Bang!), his cue was comic books. He drew comics throughout college and wound up getting into poster design when he moved from Pennsylvania to Michigan in 2000; inspired, again, by all the great music and musicians based in the area.
Many artists in the Public exhibition agree: Detroit’s the place to be for artists. But Knight says he feels more like it hasn’t attained a unified identity quite yet, that they’re part of a national/international poster art scene. But this group might change that, Knight says.
“What We Do Is Public,” opens at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 1; 2572 Michigan Ave., Detroit. More information can be found at loveittodeathapparel.com.
> Email Jeff Milo