An Incomplete History of the Chicago Poster Scene

Part I: The (Very Brief) History of the Global Poster Art Resistance Movement As It Applies to Chicago

by Kathryn Born

Poster art is the grand prize-holder of public art. Much of its power came from the ability to anonymously distribute a graphic message for the public. From governments to revolutionaries, everyone churned them out, slathered wheatpaste on a wall, and ran as fast as they could.

The French pretty much invented it (I’m wildly generalizing, look here for a real history of poster art). However,  I feel no one kicked poster-art butt quite the way Soviets/Russians did. Amazing graphical works were used by everyone – propganda and dissent, for and against –  Lenin, Stalin, the Bolsheviks, The 5-Year Plan, not to mention some beautiful Gorbachev-bashing fodder. Without a free press, it served as a makeshift alternative media outlet.

Soviet poster from Anti-alcohol campaign (1985)

Randomly skipping around, here in Chicago, in the late 60’s, AfriCOBRA, a group that could be considered the visual arts arm of the Black Power movement, utilized posters for equally populist purposes – with an emphasis on positive imagery and reaching a wide audience. Some of the artists created artwork they could sell as posters for $10. It was a perfect match for artists like Barbara Jones Hogu, for whom words and graphics in combination was essential to her art.

But with mass distribution of information, and the corporatization of all things rock and roll, posters just became glossy, manufactured corporate billboards on a smaller scale. Instead of fighting capitalism, they embodied capitalism, in the form of Boy Band promotion and mainstream movies, peaking at inspirational messages for the workplace.

Unite by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Ok, now class, whenever things become manufactured and mass produced, what happens? Yes, you in the front? A handmade movement arises! Correct! Just when they nail the factory furniture, people take up woodcarving.  And that’s where we transition to Kevin Kent’s piece about the poster scene. In most art scenes here, there are turf wars about who rules, but in poster art, I mean, feel free to chime in, but it certainly seems like it’s Jay Ryan and Steve Walters, hands down.

Steve Walters trained Jay Ryan. In fact, Walters trained so many people – literally hundreds – that he ultimately opened Screwball Academy and made teaching a part of his art practice.

Entrepreneur Magazine, of all outlets, wrote a nice piece about Walters and Ryan:

Ryan is at the forefront of a renaissance in rock concert art, also known as gig posters. It’s a tradition that flourished during the late 1960s, when San Francisco-based illustrators Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson defined the eye-popping, brain-warping iconography of the psychedelic era.  Screen-printing gave way to photocopied handbills in the ’70s, as Flower Power faded and punk ascended.

Babe the Blue Ox by Steve Walters

But with the emergence of grunge in the early 1990s, screen-printed posters again blossomed.

The Internet has galvanized poster art, connecting designers from across the globe with fellow artists, bands, promoters and venues. The web also is responsible for expanding the appeal of poster art to small-business marketers–and for forging an entrepreneurial community of poster artists.  Limited-edition, signed-and-numbered prints from fan-favorite artists such as Ryan, the one-named Emek, Rob Jones, Tara McPherson, Brad Klausen and Aaron Horkey now routinely sell out in minutes.

People want a physical artifact they can hold or put on their wall to show off their musical taste,” says longtime poster artist Steve Walters, whose Screwball Press has launched the careers of a number of Chicago-area artists.”

Among Steve’s prodigies, local artists Bob Hartzell, Kristen Thiele, Mike Benedetto, and Jason Frederick.

And oddly, here’s a podcast of Mike Benedetto interviewing Ryan and Walters about the scene for additional information.

Part II: The Poster Art Gap

by Kevin Kent

Jay Ryan

Thirteenth century impressionistic art might not be the first comparison you make as you stroll down the street, passing by abandoned buildings boarded up with the rock posters that sell you on the latest alternative band. Yet rock posters draw a large fan base, within the alternative to the alternative indy scene, there is a market for the poster art of Jay Ryan and Screwball press’s Steve Walters.

The next generation garage band trios, are visually inserted to the mind of a music fan due, in part, to the splash of artistic origination. In Chicago, as soon as you see one, you recognize the style and associate it with the local scene. It’s so emblematic, Walters’ posters are often hanging in the background in the movie, “High Fidelity”. Inspired by Frank Kozic, who resurrected the form in Austin in the 80’s, Steve has picked up where Mr. Kozic and others have left off. In the 90’s the “gig poster” market was failing to thrive when Walters entered the scene and started teaching a new generation of poster printers the handcrafted art of authentic rock posters, and creating a tight-knit community, with Jay Ryan, one of Walter’s student, developing a large following for his work in the mid-90’s to this day.

The competition is not between the poster-makers, but a healthy competition to keep music awareness and hand-printing alive. As Walters firmly states, “You have to be in it to create art, not to create dollars and cents.” He’s even opened Screwball Academy, a training ground for new recruits.

Frank Kozik, 1999

Designing an image for silkscreen printing takes a lot of time and creative input from both the client and the creator. Hand-printed posters are not just thrown together in a few easy steps, as training, artistry and technique are critical to even the most basic printmaking, let alone the complex designs that Walters and Ryan undertake.

Walter’s business operates out of a building tucked away on the city’s north side, far away from tourists, on Irving Park and Rockwell. Ryan is even more off the beaten path, making creations in the quiet suburb of Skokie. Steve has commanded this creative ship and has steered it into the twenty-first century using old school tools. He loves what he does, he’s happy with his creativity as expressed in the final products but would advise others looking to combine opulence with art to take another route. The rewards “are the creative freedom”.

Among the perks he describes, he never mentions the legendary status he and Ryan will hold, or the next generation of poster-makers who will owe a great debt to the mentorship of these humble, yet authentically hip, craftsmen.