Sex, Death, and Animals: The Art of the Rock Poster


Lee Conklin, Steppenwolf, Grateful Dead; Fillmore West 1968

If you had to represent rock music in poster form, how would you do it? What images would you pick? Ever since the birth of the tour poster in the fifties, artists, musicians and their managers have been wondering the same thing. And while this art form may have had a utilitarian start, it has since developed into a unique and definitive genre. The art of the rock tour poster has come a long way since the fifties when it consisted of three toned prints, the band’s name and face or perhaps the odd guitar or treble clef. Nothing too tricky going on, simply a promotional contrivance. In the sixties however, with technological advances and a burgeoning psychedelic subculture, the tour poster became art. Artists like Bob Masse, Mouse & Kelley, and Wes Wilson began borrowing ideas from previous movements such as art deco and modernism and incorporating abstract images into the band name and venue details. Animals, women and the swirling, fractal patterns associated with psychedelia began to appear in the posters. Colors too became more vivid with the advent of certain inks and techniques. Combined in garish pairs, the colors created an illusion of movement within the image and produced a visual impact, making these posters impossible to ignore on the billboards and poles they decorated. As the artistic merit increased in these seemingly disposable items of promotion, so too did their value. Since they first came into being, the rock posters of the Sixties have been highly collectable. The Joint Showof 1967, a pioneering event in the life of the genre, featuring the works of the “Big Five” designers (Wilson, Mouse, Kelley, Griffin and Moscoso), was the first time the contributors to the genre were ever regarded as artists. As time marched on, the genre slowly moved away from psychedelic influence and gave way to the more mellow, Seventies vibe. Images became more realistic and less stylized, different art genres were introduced, and the posters reflected pastoral and folk inspired themes. And as with all things, the images and fashions of the past began to repeat, in variations. In the Eighties, the gaudy colours and block lettering from the Sixties came back into favour and the Nineties saw a mild return of the pastoral influence of the Seventies as more organic imagery began to resurface. After fading in popularity somewhat, the turn of the 21st century saw the rock tour poster revived to its former glory. With a quiet movement that had been building since the Nineties, the artists who reached their zenith in the new millennium seemed to be more prolific than ever.

Emek, The Mars Volta, 2008

In the Fall of 2002, in Seattle, a two-night showing of the work of prominent artists, Emek, Jermaine Rogers and Justin Hampton (founders of the Post Neo Explosionist or PNE Movement) laid the foundation for an all out revival of rock poster art. With the aid of the Internet and the endless potential for online exposure, rock tour poster art has become a formidable genre. Many of the artists embrace screen-printing for their medium of choice. Australian Illustrator Joe Whyte, chooses this medium because:

It has a tactile quality, slight textures where inks overlap, little imperfections that vary from print to print etc. This all adds to the character of the print, it adds a human element that isn’t found in offset printing, making each print feel a bit more special; a piece of art, which has been laboured over, rather than churned from a machine.

It seems rock poster artists have favored sex, death and animals since the beginning of the genre. We find animals in the form of partially naked women, skulls and a dazzling array of forest animals, although not necessarily all at once. These images are portrayed again and again in a variety of ways, as if a certain mythology were at work behind them. Color and style, tone and texture, varies, even as the posters adhere to the pathos of each generation. Typically the images are saturated and dramatic. They evoke angst and violence or raw instinctive beauty, just like the music they represent. The work is sometimes lurid, evident in the urban and sexed up style of the PNE artists; and sometimes poignant and illustrative, seen in the more elemental, organic imagery of artists like Ken Taylor, Dan McCarthy and Travis Bone. The Indie rock scene of the last ten years seems to have to contributed to a less violent rock poster, one that favors meticulous detail and innovative design. The rock poster art that is shown today eliminates any doubt as to whether this genre should be considered fine art. The aesthetic values far outweigh the utilitarian ones.

Rock Poster Art: Then and Now

Bonnie MacLean, Yardbirds, Doors 1967

Victor Moscoso, Incredible Poetry 1968

Bob Masse, The Doors 1968

Bob Masse, Byrds 1968

Bob Masse, Ace 1970′s (Gassy Jacks Series)

Alton Kelley & Stanley Mouse, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service

Jermaine Rogers, Queens of the Stone Age, 2007

Justin Hampton, Bad Brains, 2007

Marq Spusta, Moe, 2008

Marq Spusta, Widespread Panic, 2009

Ken Taylor,The Decembrists, 2010

Rodrigo Sommer, James Orr Complex

Nate Duval, Monsters of Folk

Nate Duval, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros 2009

Lara Cory recently completed her first novel and she’s starting a food blog. She’s always been interested in music, writing, art, film and books. She studied Communications and Music and lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and two small boys.




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  • http://www.24exp.co.uk/ Chris Henley

    Great piece, I recently researched Wes's work for a poster commission, love the poster and handbill art from the 60's ever since seeing the walls at the Filmore. :)

  • http://twitter.com/olmocs Manuel Olmo

    Music poster art has always been fascinating to me. Great post!