Emek is the poster boy for rock. He has fans flocking from miles away to see his shows, he’s a constant on the Billboard charts, and like all true greats, his art always comes first. But we’re not talking about music. We’re talking concert posters.
“Why limit my art to promoting good and fighting for justice?” thought the California-raised artist. “Why not create something for the resin-damaged rock lover to paste over his rat holed walls? Something colorful and obnoxious that would make my relatives think I was taking drugs.”
Not the noblest cause, but Emek still effectively raised the bar for poster art. His visually stunning work delivers layers of detail and meaning, with each poster personally hand-drawn and silk-screened one color at a time. So a six-color poster means six different drawings, six separate overlays, and several weeks of painstaking work. It also means that when a batch is sold out—which at runs of about 300 pieces, doesn’t take very long—it’s sold out. Period.
A savior of rock ‘n’ roll. Not the music, but the art.
—Quote from “Artist’s gig posters rock his fan’s world” in The Oregonian, 27 November 2006, by Joseph Rose
Emek isn’t doing too badly himself. From having to convince record stores to sell his leftover posters for $12.50 a pop, he now sees pieces being auctioned on eBay for over $2,500. His posters have also exhibited in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, are cited in Billboard Magazine’s Top 25 Rock Posters (for three different posters, to boot), and won first, second, and third place in Pollstar’s Poster of the Year 2005.
Dubbed by popular punk rocker Henry Rollins as “The Thinking Man’s Poster Artist”, Emek’s clients include huge festivals, like Coachella and Rothbury, as well as Audioslave, B.B. King, The Beastie Boys, Erykah Badu, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Thievery Corporation, The White Stripes, and Willie Nelson, to name a few.
“My approach is to make every poster look like a piece of art. I put a lot of thought into the concept, and won’t do a project unless I think it would look good on my own wall,” says Emek. “It’s being true to what a rock poster is supposed to do, yet do something that hasn’t been done before.”
We heard your parents, who were both artists, threw the TV out of the house while you were growing up. How did that affect your childhood?
There was no TV at home, just a radio and a well-equipped art studio. By depriving us of our electronic authority figure, our parents wanted to see what we would do. They trusted that anyone under these circumstances would develop their creative energies. It was a good strategy—we’re five out of five artists, of which I’m probably the least talented. Hence, I do concert posters.
So left with an art studio for entertainment, what mediums did you first gravitate towards?
When I was young, it was crayons, watercolors, finger paints, and even mud. Later, I played around with everything—painting, etching, pen and ink, different kinds of prints and silk-screening, along with clay sculpting and welding. But I guess I gravitated towards pen and ink since I could take them with me anywhere I went.
I was also a fan of political, theatrical, and music posters because of the way they combined the image with the info. In school, I loved to create editorial work—art that had a message, made an interesting comment about society, or just made one think a little bit.
I take it there was a lot of art talk going on at the dinner table?
Growing up, my parents would clear off the table after dinner and put out scraps of paper and markers. My mom would read to us about current events from magazines and newspapers, and we would use them as inspiration for our drawings.
Watching my dad paint and painting beside him was a huge influence. Even now, sometimes when an idea pops into my head, I think, “Oh, that’s something Dad did.” We would also meet a lot of other artists growing up, and always had interesting people visit the studio. More than anything, my parents taught me how to appreciate art. What I learned most is to come up with a concept first—that art should have a story or a message—and be dedicated to craftsmanship.
Did you ever think of doing anything besides art for a living?
My parents always said art was in our blood. It’s something that we all did—my mom, dad, brother, and sister are all artists. So they said get an education, learn about the world, get a skill, and just make art for fun.
I did do a lot of shitty jobs, though: washed dishes in restaurants, stole Playboy magazines from my neighbor’s garage and sold them at school… In college, I worked at a plastic factory. I’d go home at night and see black plastic on the tissue whenever I blew my nose. I also worked at several coffee shops, where I started painting murals. This led to more murals for other establishments and working at an art gallery. But since I never made it to work on time, I knew I’d have to be self-employed. So halfway through college, after years of getting in trouble for doodling in books, I gave in to the family curse.
We live in a disposable culture… mass production and products. I like to think we slow it down a bit.
—Quote from “Back to the Drawing Board” in The Times (England), by Phoebe Greenwood
You ended up becoming an Art major at the California State University of Northridge. Got any interesting college stories for us?
I got accepted into a lot of colleges but was so burned out from school. So I just went to the college that was walking distance from my parent’s house because I was lazy and that way, I could live at home. Once I changed my major from English to Art, I felt like a big fish in a small pond. I really became inspired about my future. I started an illustration club, and we would actually break into campus on weekends and holidays to use the facilities to make art.
I learned the most from being around other creative students. I once asked an artist I looked up to, “Isn’t it great to make art in such an unrestricted environment, when the teachers aren’t around?” And he said, “I couldn’t make it as a musician, so I became an artist to get chicks.”
That opened my eyes to a whole new phase of college life. Needless to say, I moved out to my own place in a hurry. I got all my friends to rent an entire apartment complex near campus. We had a great few years, until the 1994 Northridge earthquake ruined our apartment.
You mentioned liking art that combines images and information. How did this lead to concert posters and not, say, political cartoons?
My parent’s art studio had a lot of old, turn-of-the-century posters, as well as political propaganda and opera posters. But I always liked music, so I gravitated to using both of those styles in my music posters. I did a lot of political cartoons for my college newspaper and other organizations, but music posters appealed more to me—they had longevity and a wider audience, so they won out.
I still do some political posters, though. I made one after the Haiti earthquake, and donated all profits— over $30,000—to aid organizations.
A rock poster has a few simple truths: Name of the band, show date, place, time. So how can I make a poster different? Cut it, scratch it, sculpt, cast… stretch the medium, while keeping these simple truths.
Tell us about some of the more difficult posters you’ve designed.
Prodigy in Singapore and Tool Cyberman were a lot of work. But even the simple posters are complicated. I go through a lot of sketches before finding the right composition. Hand drawing and inking are also very time consuming. The biggest challenge, though, is the math to figure out proper layering and knockouts of each color for silk-screening.
Aside from silk-screening, what are your other methods of choice?
I also like to paint acrylic on canvas. As far as rock posters go, I have laser-cut, embossed, die-cut, burned, stitched, resin cast, and printed on woods and metals. I am always experimenting with new materials to keep it fun for me. But I enjoy silk-screening most of all. It looks much, much nicer. It has more of a hand-done feel—you can see and smell the paint on the poster. I individually mark every poster with a little pencil drawing and hand sign them. I say buy them now before I become really famous or homeless.
Technology’s obviously changed the way people listen to and get their music. Has it also affected your work?
Yes. On one hand, as music packaging gets more digital, more bands actually want to do something more personal— less mass produced, less commercial. They want to be part of the great history of classic posters, so I’m busier than ever creating my handcrafted work.
On the other hand, I would be pretty silly not to take advantage of some of the technology that’s available. My work is still all drawn by hand, but I recently started coloring the layers of film on the computer. It’s not that it saves me that much time, but it allows me to get far more detailed. I no longer have to track little pieces of Rubylith film stuck to my shoes and all over my house. And in a digital age, designers don’t have to be in cities such as L.A. and New York. It’s all virtual now. I can live anywhere that there’s the Internet and Fed Ex. [Note: Emek moved to Northeast Portland with his wife and two kids in June 2006.]
Any other ways your work’s evolved since you began back in 1992?
In the beginning, my work was limited by budget constraints. No one wanted to pay for the art or printing, so everything was only two or three colors. I couldn’t get anyone to share information about silk-screening either, so I had to learn by trial and error. But every piece reveals potential for improvement. People ask me what my favorite poster is, and I say it’s my next one. You can never rest on your laurels—each piece is a challenge.
Can you paint us a picture of your usual working environment?
I tend to get messy when I work. So I start by cleaning my studio, so I know where everything is. After that, I don’t care until I’m done. I listen to the music, dream about it, and wake up with an idea. I work on a sketch and, once approved, I refine it in pencil and ink. Then, I scan the sketch on my computer and color it in in Photoshop. I hand-draw the lettering, which is also scanned and added to the poster.
Once the color layers are complete and the order of each layer is determined, I prepare the image for silk-screening. This is very technical and monotonous “behind the scenes” work that nobody really cares about. It takes a lot longer, but I think the end result is worth it. I’m very neurotic with my art, and re-check all the layers to see that every detail aligns perfectly—that alone takes hours of work. The longer I can take, the better. I always wish I had one more day, I work on each piece to the last second.
I look to political and propaganda posters. When you think about it, all art is propaganda—Rennaissance paintings promoted the Church, and advertising subverts our questioning of reality.
Music is the soundtrack to my day-to-day life, and to all the convenient clichés I like to drop into my interviews. My ideas often come to me in my dreams, while the stress of deadlines gets be out of bed in the morning, so it’s a nice balance.
Tell us about Post Neo Explosionism.
PNE is an art consortium formed by Justin Hampton, Jermaine Rogers, and myself in 2002. All established poster artists, working since the early 90s, we wanted to do large-scale series for entire concert tours. Like the controversial Explosionists, we realize that strength in numbers helps disseminate of our work. As a united front, PNE can document tours from city to city. We can produce a number of concert posters for fans worldwide.
Our first project was concert prints for every date of the Queens of the the Stone Age U.S. Tour in 2003. Lead vocalist and guitarist, Josh Homme, was impressed with the idea, and it was a huge hit with the band and fans—posters sold out before Queens even took the stage. Their online merchandise sales topped The Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews Band, and The Dixie Chicks that quarter. We did the succeeding posters for Queens’ 2005 and 2007 tours, as well as for the Built to Spill U.S. Winter Tour in 2003 and the Audioslave U.S. Spring Tour in 2005.
In 2009, director Todd Phillips commissioned us to make special limited posters for his hit film The Hangover. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy in 2010.
Director Todd Phillips wanted rock art-style prints to embrace the no-holds-barred, reckless abandon of the film. ‘Make the posters just… wrong,’ he said.
So what comes next?
My book Emek: The Thinking Man’s Poster Artist [published by Gingko Press] came out last November, so my plans are to promote it, like through a YouTube series that features my new work. I’ll probably start working on my second book, too.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.