by Art Chantry ( email@example.com)
years ago i wrote (more like assembled) a book about the history of seattle punk culture posters titled “instant litter”.. it covered roughly the years 1976-1984 (it came out in 1985). of course, all the bands that got famous were forming right about the time the book came out, so i missed that superstar grunge period entirely. in fact, one of the last posters in the book was a street poster that said “seattle scene found dead.” that particular summer of ’84 was so dead and dull that it felt as if all the punk energy had finally evaporated into the thin air it seemingly came out of. oops.
since i wrote that book, i’ve been able to make corrections and flesh out the earlier history much more completely. it seems that seattle had a real honest-to-god “DIY” classic punk poster look going on everywhere since as early as ’70-’71. in fact the very earliest truly punk rock style cruddy xerox poster i ever found anywhere was by seattle’s tomata du plenty. to the untrained eye, you’d think it was a total jamie reid rip off. except that all of tomata’s seattle posters pre-date the sex pistols (and jamie ried’s famous work) by as much as 5 years. strange to consider.
of the many artists i tried to high-light in my book was a woman named helena rogers. this is one of her posters i show you. she was one of the earliest folks in seatttle to start silkscreening her posters herself. there were others silkscreening before her (naturally). many psych posters (including the earliest psychedelic poster from seattle i’ve ever seen) were printed using silkscreen. and punk posters were often created in basements and and apartments using home-made crude silkscreen contraptions. it was cheap and it was easy and fast once you leanred how.
some of the others using silkscreen to print up posters were people like carl smool, and ze whiz kidz (tomata du plenty and gorilla rose and few others). i’ve found early punk silkscreen work by obscure poster people like ‘james babyteeth’, who xeroxed a bunch of porn onto a small poster and then actually silkscreened ON TOP of the xerox in the first “multimedia” poster i’ve ever seen. it really blew my mind when i saw it on a telephone pole. (the band? The Fags, of course).
but, helena was the one to really popularize silkscreen in seattle punk. her work was so odd and so dynamic and so shockingly colorful and peculiar, that when one of her posters was stapled to a wall next to other punk posters, it was the only one you saw at all. and they looked like nothing i’d ever seen before (or since). this poster i show you is a great example of what i’m talking about. this dates from 1980. it’s two colors “seattle parks dept.” green and dayglo peach. the paper (some trimmed endscrap salvaged fom a dumpster behind a print shop) is glossy white (pure happenstance). the poster image was obviously supposed to be an 8 1/2 x 11 poster, but she never bothered to trim off the excess paper – or maybe she just liked it that way. so, it was posted around town looking just like this.
it’s a poster for The Enemy (a now forgotten early poppy punk band that was actually very important in the history of seattle punk) and helena’s own band, Student Nurse. the rainbow tavern was an old hippie hangover tavern in the u-district in seattle that had just begun hosting punks as well. in years later, the rainbow became an extremely important venue in the creation of the seattle ‘grunge’ scene.
the dots and lines in this desgn make no sense to me at all. i just don’t “get it” at all. i think only helena knows what this image was about. most of her posters were obscure to the point of being snidely obtuse. it was as if she was trying to present an alternate dimension of time and space where everybody who belonged would understand what this meant. all the arty hipster punks in the downtown seattle scene would recognize this in an instant as a place to go on tuesday night – the tribe was having a meeting. everybody else would turn away in confusion or ignorance – “not for me”. in effect it was a sort of brillant anti-graphics marketing idea – and attempt to target ONLY the people you wanted to show up. the rest you simply wanted to scare away. but, i doubt this was done intentionally or consciously. i imagine it just FELT right. pure instinct.
in my old book, i stated that helena’s work was the result of DIY ignorance – that she was an untrained primitive who simply started to DO and this is how it came out. a sort of amateur genius. after the book was released, she got in touch and immediately informed me that i was wrong and that she had a degree in fine art and this was not some “savant” at work. so, i take this moment to correct that comment. sadly, the book never saw reprint, so she got saddled with my mistake for a long time. sorry, helena. my bad.
i love this poster (i’ve kept this copy for over 30 years). everything about it screams “i don’t give a shit” while at the same time caring deeply about what she was doing. please note that those little spiral swirls printed in dayglo orange sit NEXT to the green dots in every single instance. the green ink was printed first and the dayglo orange ink was printed ON TOP (in professional circles, t
#8217;s just plain backwards). i’m convinced that those spirals were supposed to sit squarely on the center of the dots they now sit next to, not alongside like you see printed. so, i think this poster was printed OFF-REGISTER about 1/2 inch! i imagine it was at first an accident, but helena liked the way the accident looked, so she continued. or maybe she didn’t give a shit. either way is fine.
helena’s peculiar work was so inspiring to me that she primed me for the mayhem that was to come in the ensuing post-punk era. i began to look for this sort of ‘broken’ thinking everywhere and found it in spades. the work of barney bubbles may have been lost to me if i hadn’t seen (and thought about) helena’s work beforehand. she was my teacher. i still use ‘broken’ thinking in all my work. there is always a little chaos in my stuff, some little ‘thing’ i have no idea what i’m doing or how it will turn out. i may be the only one to ever see it, but it’s there every time. it scares the shit out of my clients. so i long ago stopped mentioning it to them. they never see it anyway.
after all, this is my ART, right? even though it’s done for a client, there has to be SOMETHING there for me, too. am i right? otherwise, why bother doing it?
AC: …just realized that this is actually the ubiquitous color scheme of the the washington state ferry system back then. green/white/orange. do you suppose…?