Drawn To The Show: A New Golden Age Of Poster Art
A herd of water buffalo stampedes across rooftops, churning up debris. Technicolor fish swim with musical instruments beneath the icy surface of a Michigan lake. A microphone is the body of a butterfly. This is just a micro-dose of the many visions developed in recent months and years by artists from around the country for the large and growing world of show posters, one-night-only pieces of useful art that unite bands and fans.
The show poster, a venerable fusion of show business and graphic design, goes back well over a century, but the art form is enjoying a years-long comeback in 21st century rock and roots music. Stacks of hand-made, limited edition posters are flying off merch tables at shows, and more touring musicians than ever are commissioning original work, so I wanted to find out who these artists are and how they do their niche jobs.
I first noticed a recent surge in custom rendered gig posters through the varied and intense graphics of jamgrass star Billy Strings. As colorful as Billy is on his own, with his abundant tattoos and his physical, visceral stage presence, the posters add a new window into the aura he and his team are building around his career.
“It’s tradition,” says Strings manager Bill Orner. “If you look back to the 1960s and psychedelic art, or even back farther, it's just the way we promoted concerts, and it's something that I've always loved.” Now that the internet does the work of informing the public about the when, where and what of shows, gig posters are largely souvenirs. Orner says, “What we do now is one poster for every show, and we limit them to one per person. There's a long line every show, and it just makes sense. It's what the fans want.”
“Posters have become commemorative,” agrees Celene Aubry, print shop manager at Hatch Show Print, the world-famous letterpress operation in Nashville that’s coming up on its 143rd anniversary. “They’re for an artist playing the Ryman Auditorium for the first time, or for somebody like Paul McCartney coming to town for the first time in 2010. Or (they’re) celebratory. Different venues and different artists use them in different ways.”
For illustrators and printmakers, this trend is good for business and for their art. Mike Tallman, who recently moved from Denver to Los Angeles, says the gig poster business feels “very closely adjacent to fine art. But it’s very functional. It’s not quite like having the freedom to just paint whatever you want on a canvas. But it’s not that far off from it, if you’ve got good clients who trust you to do what you do. It’s a special world to work in, and I love it.”
“It is a trend that’s been picking up,” says Brian Bojo, South Carolina artist whose work is displayed below. “For the bands, there’s a lot of revenue in it. For the consumer, there’s a lot of hype in it because they’re getting something unique that somebody tomorrow night won’t get. And it’s something they can hang on the wall and say: I was there.”
Luke Martin grew up in Maryland’s rural eastern shore and moved to Baltimore for college in 2015, where he learned screen printing. Unlike some artists he knows who stumbled into gig posters after pursuing other areas of commercial art, Martin says he focused on the music sector from the beginning, pursuing smaller bands and working his way up the the acts he dreamed of helping. Today he works out of Baltimore under the brand Suburban Avengers, and he’s done commissions for a range of artists, including Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Robert Plant, The Avett Brothers and the Grateful Dead, the latter leading to some of his most elaborate and impactful work.
This spectacular illustration-based poster was for a long-coveted show that wound up having to happen with no audience. Billy Strings was booked for his first headlining show at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Boulder, CO, a career landmark. With a live crowd ruled out due to Covid, Billy and team brought the show to the internet via livestream. And Martin was given leeway to come up with a creative way to mark that unusual event.
“I really wanted to lean into the streaming element of it with the movie projector. And then with Red Rocks, you always want to try to find a way to incorporate the rocks in there somehow. So I took the movie set theme, constructing this makeshift red rock structure behind them. The goats are a Billy Strings motif. I think Billy Strings fans call themselves ‘goats’. So instead of a human film crew, what if I did a goat film crew? I thought that would push that narrative a little more and make it a little more interesting.”
Martin’s Dave Matthews poster was done not for a show but as part of a series of Covid-era merch based on popular songs, in this case the longtime hit “Ants Marching.”
“The whole premise of the song is that so many people spend their day to day just doing the same thing in the same routine, not changing anything, like worker ants, punching in punching out. I was kind of just focusing on the whole idea of an actual city of ants going to work and taking care of business. It was an ass-kicker. It was in May of 2021, before gigs came back, so I didn’t have much else going on. So I was like, I’m gonna spend a month on this. And it really beat me.”
Animals figure heavily in the work of Los Angeles based Dave Kloc, whose specialty in the chain of poster creation is illustration. This guy can really draw, because he’s been doing it for fun since his school days and he started college to be a medical illustrator. Then his interest in posters was piqued when he apprenticed at an LA printmaking shop during years when his main job was tour management. “I didn’t know how to do either (illustration or printing) when I started,” he says. “My printing skills would get ahead of my drawing. And then my drawing skills would get ahead of my printing. They kind of played tag for a while. Then I focused enough on drawing so that I couldn’t print my own work. So I have been outsourcing my printing for about four years now.” He’s done poster art for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Goose and Eric Church among others, and they are as meticulous as they look. The posters shown here took him about sixty hours each, he says.
Michigan quintet Greensky Bluegrass approached a number of artists in 2021 to solicit ideas for the cover of their upcoming album Stress Dreams.
“My interpretation of stress dreams was looking out a window on a rooftop and a herd of water buffalo are running across roofs at me. It’s one of those dream-only scenarios. I thought it would be a nice way to fill a page with sky, animals, which I love, and the action and flow of running, plus the debris kicking from the feet. They liked it but went a different direction for the album art. They said put a pin in it, and we’ll come back to it for a poster.”
Klok says he and the team behind jamband superstars Phish worked through eight concepts on their way to this epic desert scene.
“It was a bit of a fantastical image but it was also about some weird historical lore from that area,” he says. “Under the city – Rogers AZ – the Spanish stored a bunch of gold in caves. I went with that and like a weird Dr. Seuss world. And I thought it would be an opportunity to use actual gold ink. It’s tough to photograph but if you hold the poster and give it a tilt, the gold ink actually shines.”
Iowa native Mike Tallman studied graphic design in college as a fallback career idea for what he really wanted to do, which was play guitar and make music. And he has played a lot of music professionally, touring the country with funk/soul band Euforquestra since 2003. But some dabbling in simple promotional posters led to a commission for a gig poster for the New Mastersounds, which sold out over a three night run in New York. Tallman calls that “a turning point” toward his gig poster specialty. Recently relocated from Denver to Los Angeles, Tallman works under the brand Add Noise Studios, where he’s done posters for the Allman Brothers, Warren Haynes, Gov’t Mule, G. Love, Lettuce, and dozens more.
Here’s a very different take on a Billy Strings poster, executed by Tallman in late 2021, one of three posters he did for a three-night new year’s eve run.
“If you follow him, Billy Strings is an avid fisherman. He loves to fish. So I thought, well, the shows are in Grand Rapids, MI. I was trying to play off of themes or regional ideas up there and around Grand Rapids, where you can ice fish in the winter. So it’s an abstract take on what's happening below the surface if you were ice fishing. It's a bluegill and a perch, which are actual fish you might catch if you were ice fishing around the Grand Rapids area, according to my internet research!”
A different challenge lay in telling a visual story for emerging pop sensation Lizzo, who had a show at the historic Fillmore Auditorium in Denver.
“She had just put out her record, and she was blowing up. I’d heard a couple songs but I didn’t know much about her really. I started reading album reviews, and I found one in Pitchfork. The review was actually not that great, but at the end, they said what’s really amazing is she’s inspiring people to change and be the best version of themselves and to do what you need to grow as a human. And that’s what inspired the microphone/butterfly concept. One little quote from what was a pretty bad review. That’s one where, to me, the concept landed and one I’m really proud of.”
Brian Bojo is unique among the artists profiled here in that he does all of his projects end-to-end, from drawing to color separations to screen printing, which he does on a manual press in his South Carolina home. “It’s a pretty involved process,” he says. “There’s a lot of science in it as far as color mixing and timing of your exposures. For me I have a hand-pulled press. I pull the squeegees by hand. So everything is very analog. I touch every print. If there’s five colors I touch it at least five or six times. And there’s quality control making sure everything lines up. It’s a lot of fun being a printer and designer. If I don’t like a color, I can on the spot make those decisions. I have a lot of control.”
Bojo often works in more abstract and geometric territory, as we can see in this tour poster for the Infamous Stringdusters in 2018.
“My wife at the time was doing those adult coloring books that have a lot of design and pattern and all those little pieces. And I kept looking at those, thinking those are really neat. So you can look into certain windows or certain portions of that and see more geometric, more organic shapes - things that kind of were inspired by that adult coloring book world.”
Bojo is a talented illustrator as well, evidence this dragon drawn for the Arizona-based jam band Spafford. It speaks to the many sources of inspiration he will tap for ideas.
“Sometimes I'll research the venue and pull up certain things from there, or I pull elements from the city. This one was actually that date. I looked at the calendar and was like, oh, Chinese New Year. Got to do something. Spafford doesn't have any songs that speak to that or anything. It just happened to be on that date. And I don't even know if the customers, would clue into that. But I do.”
HATCH SHOW PRINT
As the OG, as they say, of show posters, Hatch Show Print in Nashville has almost 150 years of experience helping artists tell their story, and they bring a timeless and iconic look drawn from the fact that they use the same hand-set wood type and letterpress process they’ve been using for decades. That means Hatch has more constraints on the ultimate look, and they’ve got to be creative within those confines. Manager Celene Aubry says, “We are working within a 143-year legacy and tradition. But we don't tie ourselves to the past. We use the past and bring it forward into the future to remind people of the origins of these posters and the fact that live entertainment was the only way you could hear music for so many years. So for us, it's sort of in our blood for (the posters) to be celebratory.”
This matched pair of posters celebrated the release of Sturgill Simpson’s two bluegrass albums, which he released in 2020. While there was a live streamed, no-audience performance of this music, these posters were strictly about the recording concept, playing off the album art.
“He worked with Corey Wasnewsky the designer on these to create something that had the feel of Americana, but was a little tongue-in-cheek, because it’s Sturgill Simpson. And Corey came up with the American quilt idea, with a riding lawnmower in the middle. This was all hand-carved in wood and was done through a reductive process, where you carve a bunch of blocks, and then you print them, and then you take the blocks off the press and you carve a bunch away and then you print some more to make some nice overlaps and things like that.”
We close with the glorious color and bling Hatch was able to bring to Yola’s recent two-night run at the Ryman, executed with crafty typography over a pink and purple gradient effect hand-made with a technique called “split fountain” ink applied to the rollers.
“Her tour look this year was very neon lights, with bright pinks and purples. And so we translated that into the posters. Nick Larson and Heather Moulder worked on these, and they took our typography and turned it into neon by adding some white lights and some racing gold. This is creative typography, because really what you have here is a V, a U, an I and a D on top of an I, a U, an L, and two more I’s. And it makes YOLA. So you know, it's not just straight-up type. You get to think about the type in different ways, which is kind of cool.”