| Overcast, 57 F (14 C)
| RSS | |



Arts · Politics · Crime
· Sports · Food ·
· Opinion · NOLA ·


Defender Picks


Punk Flyers as Art: An Interview with David Ensminger

by Osa Atoe

David Ensminger is the author of Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, a book that documents and celebrates punk show flyers from the 1980s to the present. He sees the creation of punk posters as the democratization of visual art. An exhibition of punk posters from David Ensminger's personal collection this Saturday October 8 at 7pm at Trouser House Gallery, 4105 St. Claude Avenue. Recently, Osa Atoe of No More Fiction sat down with David to talk about flyering as expression, New Orleans' recent sign crackdown and the contributions of women, queers and people of color to punk rock.


In the same way that punks often start bands before they know how to play their instruments, we also make flyers without necessarily knowing the first thing about art or graphic design.The results reflect the urgency, rawness, inept genius and humor that is punk rock.  In his book, we get to see flyers for shows featuring The Damned, Adolescents, Big Boys, JFA, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and more.  Ensminger uses these ephemeral mementos to piece together a personal and general history of punk rock, and he makes sure to include the contributions of women, queers and people of color along the way. 


Osa:  Okay, you say in your book that you were inspired to write Visual Vitriol after reading Fucked Up & Photocopied.


David:  Yes, indeed. The book is majestic and utterly the definition of "terrible beauty." I never wanted to compete with the visuals in that book, or the anecdotes. I simply wanted to dig deep, provide context and history, plus use flyers as a folklore departure point to discuss the entire subculture, anchored in handmade DIY traditions.


Osa:  I never got to read Fucked Up & Photocopied, and now it's out of print.  Tell us who the authors were and more specifically what you wanted to add to the conversation about punk flyer art that they may not have touched on.


David:  It's essentially a compilation of flyers and anecdotes about punk compiled by several people. It simply lacked a critical analysis or a historical perspective beyond the memories of a few people, like Jello Biafra and Winston Smith. I wanted to place flyers into a greater arc of street art, from stencils to graffiti, to suggest that punk was about creating media spaces -- to forge empowering outlets in the already contested spaces of cities overrun with images, mostly commercial and municipal. To me, flyers are the folklore of that entire generation: they preserve mini-histories and provided an array of discussion points, including the cost of punk shows, the locations of clubs, the style and aesthetic of the artists, the contemporary news or politics of the time, etc.  Flyers offer us insight and viewpoints, not jut nostalgia trips, not just gore and shock and ugliness. Plus, they help document the participation of women, gays and lesbians, and people of color. They are essentially a way to re-frame, re-assess, and reset the narrative about punk.


Osa:  You touch on the obsolescence of flyers in the age of the Internet. Similarly, there has just been a ban on telephone pole flyering here in New Orleans. How do you think these kinds of changes affect the creation of media spaces you're talking about?


David:  Such closure and lockdown are omnipresent in many cities inundated with monitoring and surveillance. That same restriction is a breeding ground that stirs people's actions. Recently, street art has flourished, in all forms, in places like Houston because kids no longer feel their voice matters, or perhaps they feel their voice is lost in the terrain of the Internet, among the faceless multitudes. Kids will always "speak back," and some will "hide in the light," in the actions of aerosol cans and dripping stencils or peeled back stickers. They will push back, if they can muster the freedom, resources, and sense of voice. To ban their expressions, en masse, is to tell them to find new ways to trigger and explore creativity. Authorities often believe such gentrification is a cleansing cure; kids think of it as a catalyst -- their feats will therefore invite even more attention, the work will be crowded with danger or at least the allure of it, and their voice gain more magnetism among their peers. Authorities literally pave the path to rebellion; instead, they could offer sanctioned public spaces, allotments of important resources, or at least dialogue with them, but most often they choose to turn street art into a form of criminality, not recognize it as a self-made media space being harnessed by both the desperate and the bored, or the talented and the tenacious youth.


Osa:  Where did you grow up and where were you when you found out about


David:  I grew up in Rockford, Ill., the hometown of Cheap Trick. It was a fading industrial rust belt city with strong punk traditions during the mid-1980s. The Ramones and Nerves played there in the late 1970s, so I always joke with Peter Case that he was down the street, literally, while I was in my pajamas, changing the face and content of modern music. I owe my punk education entirely to my brother and sister -- so punk rock was family values, to me, even though my parents were Reagan Democrats. My sister blasted Iggy Pop and David Bowie before high school, scratched my Ramones records at parties, and took me to the local ma and pa record shops. My brother was ten years older, saw both the Cramps and Black Flag during their first tours, and brought me home singles, fanzines, and folklore from the punk rock urban night -- Chicago, in its seedy underbelly glory, when bands like the Effigies and Naked Raygun were forging their sounds. By the time I was in fifth grade, I wrote a bio for class on Johnny Rotten and starting playing plastic potato chip containers as drums, eventually learning "1969" by The Stooges. My life is ... essentially the same now!


Osa:  Reading your book, I realized that our standpoints are pretty opposite in terms of the way we view punk rock.  I am a black woman who grew up in a very multicultural and multiracial environment and found punk to be racially homogenous compared to my upbringing.  You on the other hand grew up in a predominantly white community and found that punk rock helped you meet all kind of people you may never have met otherwise.  What draws you to focus on women, queer folks and people of color within punk rock?


David:  That aspect of my work -- multiculturalism and diversity -- really aggravates many white punks, who let me know, with vitriol, in emails and other forms. They blame me for stirring tension, resentment, and being the real racist for "seeing color."  Being color blind is a myth and fantasy, a hoax, or has often been part of a narrative used to to defend underlying reactionary politics--*not* to make changes, tear down barriers of all types, and seek real institutional and cultural progress and parity. Of course, I do not speak for everyone, nor do I presume that my experiences were shared by others. Simply put, I do not enjoy seeing my friends disappear from the narrative of punk, buried under a heap of cliches, misinformation, or slanted views. I play music, right now, with lesbian and Hispanic women in No Love Less, my brother is gay, and my wives have enjoyed punk, in their own distinct ways, as well. Yet, most texts concerning punk routinely ignore them, as they ignore you, even though I listened to Fire Party, and Red C, with black women, and saw the Bellrays triumph on stage.


On my black punk web archive, I have indexed over 500 images relating to black participation in punk history, and that is the single collection of a lone person, so the actually truth is much more vast. Though I grew up in the Midwest, we lived in a sheltered suburb, so I had only three black friends, and only one in my own housing tract, Chris, who grew up loving theatre and later enjoying Shudder to Think. When Kingface played a gig with my band at the local roller rink, the black drummer was kind, outgoing, and supportive, as was Shawn from Swiz, when they stayed at my parents' house. These were the only two adult black men I had EVER met at the time. They impacted my life. I even gave Shawn a copy of a Big Black record, with Steve Albini. They were critical shapers of my perspective. All the anti-racist positive punk songs in the world matter little compared to actually forging bonds with different people, who can shift your historic perspectives. I could not really gauge my own racism, or simply my immersion in a racist society, until really talking, listening, and sharing spaces with such people. When writing this book, I asked myself -- what has been denied, what has been undiscovered, what has been buried? Women, blacks and Hispanics, and gays and lesbians ... the same people that educated me, that shared gigs and records and dreams with me, that were my proto-family. I am not going to erase them; I will  fill-in the gaps in history, and let people sort out their own versions of events.



Osa: Speaking of your queer friends, you were close to Randy “Biscuit” Turner of Biscuit Bombs. Big Boys flyers always stand apart from other 80s hardcore flyers in terms of their style.  How would you describe Randy's approach to flyer art?



David: Yes, I was his drummer, editor, and close comrade the last six years of his life. We played Austin just two weeks ago, and I dedicated "New Nation" to him, partly because he died lacking resources and health care, which I find shameful, but because he was an embodiment of punk DIY handmade art whose career was cruelly cut short. Randy was old school; he never used typewriters or a computer. His work represents the naive, crude, raw and sophisticated and surreal, at the same time. He really believed in the traditions of the avant-garde, and though of Dali and others as a peers, icons, and heroes. Whereas other artists might use angry wolves, skull-laden death landscapes, screaming terrified victims, or other gore and horror tropes, Randy used poodles having sex, a brain oozing with the words Fun Fun Fun, childlike drawings, wonky collages, and more. There was a palpable sense of joy, not just angst, to his entire output. He was restless, dedicated, and an insomniac who kept a clean house, shopped for trinkets and cast-offs, glitter and toys, and made music that sounded like a church boy raised on gospel and punk. Those traits filtered into his visual aesthetic. He was loose and carnival-like, not tightly coiled, illustrating the mean streets of punk. For him, punk was a dance revolution, an art bomb, not just a reason to sell angry 45's, the rare vintage vinyl of venality and ennui.


Osa:  Thanks for your time, David. Anything else you'd like to add?


David: As Biscuit would say, go start a band, make a zine, create a flyer, move your butt!

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
view counter
view counter
view counter
view counter
view counter
Mardi Gras Zone
view counter
Follow Us on Facebook
view counter
Follow Us on Twitter
view counter
view counter


Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt

B. E. Mintz

Stephen Babcock

Published Daily