The Gig-Poster Explosion: Artists and Collectors of Milwaukee, Part 4

Part 4: A Transforming Tradition

The expansion of the gig-poster community has led to the transformation of the poster form itself, its distribution methods and sales practices altered to fit the growing demand for the works. From the emergence of the poster print during the late nineteenth century, collectors have sought the handcrafted works, each print an “extraordinary [document] of popular culture,” “the spirit of places or events”(Wrede, The Modern Poster, 14). The ability of gig-poster prints to evoke memories of specific times and places, sometimes underground events of sub-cultural formations not otherwise documented, has initiated a contemporary surge of collectors. Noted cultural Historian, Neil Harris, describes the appeal of poster prints to individuals of sub-cultural groups as well as mainstream culture: “With their transient political references and commercial specificity, posters as collectibles carry a certain cachet as rescued fragments of a lost past, while their stylistic verve associates current owners with the talents of underappreciated and sometimes anonymous artists. The thrill of rediscovering the obscure and recalling the forgotten is compelling”(Harris, “Poster Collecting: A Fitful History,” 35). No longer proof of one’s participation in sub-cultural events, gig-posters are coveted by participants and simple observers alike, accessible to collectors who offer the highest bids. The popularity of screen-printed gig-posters is marked by the appearance of national poster conventions and websites in the past ten years, such as FLATSTOCK established in 2002, and websites and ExpressoBeans, devoted to the sale, trade, and preservation of gig-posters. In addition to facilitating the formation of an international gig-poster community for artists, gig-poster websites have also bolstered the quantity of gig-poster collectors. The proliferation of collectors has in-turn inflated the value of the gig-poster form, individual works sought after for their connection to top designers, or musicians and performances of noteworthy significance. Eric Von Munz’s renowned 1999 vinyl screenprint for The White Stripes exemplifies this immense rise in value, originally given away free, yet now sold for approximately nine hundred to one thousand dollars a piece. Ownership of Von Munz’s sought-after print is no longer necessarily a badge of one’s attendance at The White Stripes’ Milwaukee debut, instead available to any online buyer who can afford the unique work. When artist Eric Von Munz first began producing print posters for visiting bands, the visual lures were created for the sole purpose of informing the local public of upcoming performances, posted in high-traffic pedestrian areas for greater impact. Yet, with increasing value and collectability of gig-posters, many designers neglect to post their screenprints prior to the gigs they supposedly promote, instead not visible until one’s arrival at the ‘advertised’ Rock concert. The public display of gig-posters has also been hindered by the implementation of ‘sign postage’ laws, as well as the removal of kiosks, during the past fifteen years, in cities throughout the United States, including Milwaukee. As a result, gig-poster artists have found themselves without public locations in which to actually post their posters. City of Milwaukee law dictates that “Signs erected or attached by nailing, fastening or affixing […] in any manner to trees, shrubs, posts, utility poles, natural features, official street signs, or traffic control signs,” (“15.14 Signs”) also known as snipe signs, are prohibited within all Milwaukee districts, considered congruent with graffiti and vandalism. Although illegal, sniping has continued within the gig-poster community, a practice established and upheld by print poster artists such as Von Munz, who emerged from the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Punk scene. Von Munz asserts that screenprints that solely materialize at concert merchandise tables, cannot truly be defined as gig-posters:

“As a poster artist, that’s just product, that’s no different than a t-shirt, to me. Which is why I am so adamant, about putting my posters up. They have to be up, somewhere, maybe not a lot, but they have to be up somewhere. Somebody has to have the opportunity to get one that’s got staple holes in it”(Von Munz, Personal Interview, 2011).

Adamant in preserving the sniping tradition within the local gig-poster culture, Von Munz continues to post his prints along specific streets in Milwaukee. Von Munz describes the public presence of his gig-posters:

“My posters have a 24-hour life span, if that. If I put them on a pole, it’s gone. […] As a bicyclist I have an ace in the hole, I can put my posters up higher than anybody else, because I stand on my bike. At the same time I’ve had people say like, ‘yeah I saw that on the pole, I parked my car on the curb, and got on the top of it, to get it down’” (Von Munz, Personal Interview, 2011).

Over time Von Munz has developed methods to ensure a longer public presence for his posters, posting the prints at night, using glue or newsprint, amused by the knowledge that the works will simply rip if passersby try to remove them. The act of sniping, as well as fans’ initiative in collecting the sought after prints, have become central facets of the art form itself—distinguishing the prints as sub-cultural creations, objects of communication for ‘underground’ musicians and their followers. The Little Friends of Printmaking recall the importance of their posters’ public appearance as well, witnesses to the removal of the kiosks which dotted State Street, the “main drag” in Madison, Wisconsin:

“We were walking to go vote one day, and we saw them putting up our posters for a Death from Above show, and […] so we voted and we started coming back, they were all gone […] That was a way that we knew that people were able to see them, and now it’s like where do you put posters? […] it gets harder and harder, because obviously some of these things like Sonic Youth and Guided by Voices, they don’t really need to promote their show, but when we were starting out we were making stuff for bands that really did need to promote their show” (The Little Friends of Printmaking, Personal Interview, 2011).

Von Munz
Spoon with Jay Reatard, 2009
Screenprint, ed. 27/50

Casey Burn
Spoon and Jay Reatard, 2009
Three-color screenprint, ed. 115/200

The restrictions placed upon public posting have dramatically altered the role of the gig-poster from advertisement to product. The majority of Indie Rock bands today feature a gig-poster at their merchandise table, amongst record albums, t-shirts and pins—a print poster by a different artist sold at each concert, or each city visited during a tour. While demonstrative of a greater respect for gig-posters within the music world, many posters never grace the local streets, a change that has sparked the question among poster print artists, ‘are prints which are never posted truly gig-posters?’

Von Munz found himself faced with this very question after designing a poster for the 2009 performance of Spoon, with an opening performance by Jay Reatard, duly posted throughout Milwaukee before the New Year’s Eve show at the Riverside Theater. Two weeks after the concert, Garage Rock musician Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., better known as Jay Reatard met his untimely death, making the musician’s Milwaukee performance his last. Following the musician’s death, poster artist Casey Burns’ screen-print poster for Reatard’s performance, sold at band merchandise tables but supposedly never publicly posted leading up to the show, became known as the last gig-poster created for a Jay Reatard concert. The battle for recognition raged in poster chat forums on, as poster print artists debated which gig-poster should receive the valuable label of ‘Last Jay Reatard Poster.’ The debate has reached no consensus, artists and collectors alike in continual disagreement of what constitutes a true gig-poster, the simple inclusion of a band name, date and place? Or must a poster be displayed in public leading up to the advertised show? The Little Friend’s JW greatly laments the shift in gig-poster culture:

“Concert posters […] contribute to the feeling of an authentic local scene. They don’t just sit on a merch table, seen only by the people who are already inside the venue. It might seem like a weird distinction to make, but when I was a kid, seeing posters around town helped me decide what I music I was going to check out and what stuff I could avoid. And when you came to a town and they had cool posters hanging up on the street, you knew you were in a town that gave a shit” (Kollath, “The Poster Tube: Little Friends of Printmaking,” Muzzle of Bees, June 23, 2010).

Though gig-posters no longer plaster the streets of the city, the online presence of Milwaukee artists and their work has perhaps become the telephone poles and kiosks of today’s Milwaukee community. Contesting the views of husband and partner JW, Melissa contends, that the convenience of online information has perhaps eradicated the need of snipe signs:

“Nobody is finding out about a show by walking past a kiosk in 2010, just like nobody is calling a concert line and listening to an answering machine read off dates for ten minutes. We all relate to music differently now, and defining posters as merch is probably the best way to keep the culture of concert posters going. It’s not the same, but it’s good” (Kollath, “The Poster Tube: Little Friends of Printmaking,” 2010).

The removal of gig-posters from their role of advertisement has perhaps propagated the fine art status of the form—facilitating a greater respect for poster artists and their work from bands, promoters, and collectors.

Since the appearance of the Rock concert poster, the form has proved an unremitting visual account of its time—as much a fine art object, as a fundamental facet of Rock culture. The contemporary gig-poster reflects the sheer variety of Rock sub-genres that form the current Indie scene. The future of the distinct form is perhaps foreseeable in the movement of gig-posters from the street to merchandise tables, a trend which mirrors the growing emergence of ‘underground’ Indie bands into mainstream popular culture. Although many poster print artists such as Von Munz persevere in upholding the ‘street-roots’ of the gig-poster, the acceptance of the form’s contemporary direction has benefited many gig-poster artists in the proliferation of their designs throughout the world. The visibility of various artists’ designs has inspired the creation of new poster print artists, such as Milwaukee’s P. Chavez, whose work has risen to immense notoriety in just one year. She states:

“I think it’s really different when you see a poster that’s printed up at Kinko’s, versus something that’s been handmade, and kind of mulled over for hours and hours, days and days on end […] You just see peoples’ art work, you see the caliber of work that people are doing, and it’s really inspiring, you know, it really makes you contribute, be a part of it” (Chavez, Personal Interview, 2011).

Though an art form contingent upon the future development of Rock music, gig-posters remain true reflections of the community culture, capturing specific events and times within the city of Milwaukee, products of local artists with the genuine desire to contribute to the city’s musical and artistic culture.

1 Comment

Filed under Portrait

One response to “The Gig-Poster Explosion: Artists and Collectors of Milwaukee, Part 4

  1. like

    This is just the kind of thing I’ve been rummaging for! Fantastic and cheers!

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