The Haight Street Art Center is currently exhibiting over 150 posters by illustrator and graphic artist Emek, who has designed album covers and posters for everyone from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top to Iggy Pop. PKM talks to Emek about his influences, his process, and working in the medium of posters.
It was bound to happen, especially on Haight Street, the one-time heart of the so-called hippie revolution. “It” is The Haight Street Art Center, an innovative printing facility and fine-art-museum-like gallery space intent on celebrating poster art and poster artists.
If the pot, patchouli, protest and psychedelic music held Haight-Ashbury together, it’s the poster art that survived to visually tell the tale. And the art center, a non-profit that opened last year, is dedicated to preserving these treasures. The center was conceived by Roger McNamee, a tech innovator, poster aficionado and Moonalice guitarist, and Peter McQuaid, the former CEO of Grateful Dead Productions.
Currently in The Center through late April is an exhibition called “Artifacts: The Rock Art of Emek–A Career Retrospective”, presenting over 150 posters created by illustrator and graphic artist Emek, who has created album covers and art for everyone–literally, from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top; and, culturally, from Iggy Pop to Coachella.
Prominent in “Artifacts” are posters Emek created for the gleefully demented and irreverent rock band Ween, which give a nod to San Francisco’s psychedelic poster originators: Mouse Studios, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson. Also in the exhibition is Emek’s work for The Grateful Dead, Erykah Badu, Pearl Jam, The Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Wilco, Metallica, The Prodigy, Queens of The Stone Age, Moe and many more.
Before we spoke, Emek wrote in an email: “I grew up listening to punk rock, and going to punk shows but my first art inspirations and my first poster jobs were more hippie/psychedelic stuff.”
In person, Emek (pronounced with two short-Es, as in Eh-mek) is enthusiastic and passionate about his influences, his process, his posters and the poster medium…
PKM: What brings you to honor the San Francisco hippie/psychedelic poster scene in your work? Was there an event in your life that set you off in that direction?
Emek: Yes, there was one: There was a garage workshop tool shed on our property when I was about seven years old. My dad was always telling me, “Never go in the tool shed; it’s off limits.” But it had some loose boards on the side, so one day I snuck in, and discovered the walls were wallpapered with all kinds of old Sixties’ posters, yellowed newspaper articles–about the Merry Pranksters, The Grateful Dead and the hippie scene–and lots of Playboy spreads.
It was bits and pieces of weirdness, but I remember being in there, looking at all these psychedelic pictures, skulls and boobs and stuff, and being amazed. Years later, my dad told me the reason he didn’t want me going in there, was because he was afraid of the tools–the pitchforks, and machetes–would somehow hurt me.
It turns out the “other” stuff is what shaped my career; the other stuff was like–YES, that’s what I want to do. I want to be an artist–and now that I am, I’ll end up pasted up inside someone’s Unabomber shed someday [laughs].
“Now big corporations own the radio waves. They own the televisions. They own the big billboards. Posters are street level.”
PKM: What specific works and artists from the 1960s San Francisco scene inspired you and still influence you?
Emek: One of my earliest memories is being bored at a dinner party while my parents and their friends talked about politics, social activism and other things. I set off and explored–I remember flipping through so many different record collections at different people’s houses and just loving all the artwork. Rick Griffin–who did a lot of work for The Grateful Dead–definitely was an early influence. Also, inside my dad’s tool shed, there was a lot of artwork just by Alton Kelley, solo posters and bright collages I haven’t really seen anywhere since. [Editor’s note: Kelley was Stanley Miller’s partner in Mouse Studios]
My dad’s art studio had all kinds of posters on the walls: old, vintage opera posters, World War II propaganda, political protest posters, Sixties’ music posters–colorful ones by Victor Moscoso that had lettering and artwork combined. Growing up, I always drew pictures with text, just like those posters. It was always an attraction for me, combining text and art.
What still stands out to me from that era is a poster by Lee Conklin, one with a face that’s entirely made up of hundreds of ears. That encapsulates listening to music in such an interesting way: from far away, you just see a face; while up close, you see a bunch of ears. That’s my idea of how a poster should work–you see something far away that’s supposed to attract your attention; then, up close, there’s a lot more nuance. If you’re interested, all of a sudden you notice another level. I try to do that in a lot of my work
PKM: About your retrospective: why now and why at The Haight Street Art Center?
Emek: The Haight Street Art Center is something San Francisco has needed for a long time. San Francisco is the Mecca of the rock ‘n’ roll poster, as far as the psychedelic era–Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane–all these bands were playing in San Francisco. The poster artists working then were under the conditions most artists work under–tight deadlines, not a lot of money–but together they created a whole style of art that still influences pop culture–in terms of other advertising and the post-literate language of imagery–and they never have gotten credit for it.
So The Center, which is dedicated to poster artists and their work, is the perfect venue in a perfect place. It’s also my 25th year of making concert posters, so I just felt like it was good timing.
“Growing up, I fell in love with the medium of the poster. They are the medium of the streets, traditionally; now more so than ever. The context of how they’re used is a lot different today than they used to be.”
PKM: What excites you about what you’ve done, now, as you look back on it?
Emek: Every project has some kind of story. And every piece is some kind of a challenge. I always start with an idea first. That’s what gets me excited to draw. It sounds corny; it’s just the way I do things. It’s like an assignment: I listen to the band’s music before I go to bed. It influences my dreams and my ideas, and then I wake up with an idea that’s triggered by the band.
The bands, they let me do my thing. They’re like, “Do something that our fan base will like.” It’s up to me to interpret their music, or their vibe, however I want to. It’s always exciting to see what I come up with, and how that idea develops on paper–or, not onto paper, but onto wood, or velvet, or fabric, or plastic, or metal, depending on my idea.
Working with deadlines is part of the inspiration: you have to beat the clock. Then, once the time is done, you don’t dwell on it, you just move on to the next thing.
PKM: What’s one project that you still go, “Wow! I can’t believe that happened?”
Emek: [laughs] Yes. I did an album cover for Erykah Badu [musician and activist]. She’s like, “I know this deadline is really tight, so maybe you could just design some lettering for me, or something.” Then, I was listening to the music, and it was really inspiring, and I just said, “No. I’m going to do a full album cover.” I didn’t sleep for several days in a row, and made the deadline, and it’s a piece I’m really proud of, and a piece that I don’t think I can repeat it, because it was so exhausting. I’m always surprised that I was able to get it done in the amount of time that I had.
Certain bands lend themselves to being a little bit more social, or political, which is an element I like to put into my work. It’s a vehicle for me to express my thoughts or concerns on different subjects.
I did a poster for Pearl Jam when they played in Alberta–that’s the home base of the tar sands and the origin of the Keystone XL pipeline–where the oil companies are pushing native people off their land and polluting the environment. I combined that imagery into a poster I’m proud of.
PKM: How would you describe the power of posters? How would you describe what it does for you, and what the poster can do for people?
Emek: Growing up, I fell in love with the medium of the poster. They are the medium of the streets, traditionally; now more so than ever. The context of how they’re used is a lot different today than they used to be. Now big corporations own the radio waves. They own the televisions. They own the big billboards. Posters are street level. It’s more direct to talk to people that way–like they used to say in the Sixties: “If it looks too psychedelic, or if you can’t read it, then it’s not for you.”
As a creator, I like to think my posters have a life beyond what I’m creating it for. If you look at it one way, it’s just commercial advertising: it’s “come to this, spend your money, buy something.” As an artist, I’m hoping, “Maybe people will stop and think. They will see one message from a distance, but they might see some more if they come in closer.”
Again, a poster has to work on that level–attracting someone’s attention with all the clutter of everything else that’s going on around it. Whether it’s on a window of a record store, or a coffee shop, competing with all kinds of other things, or it’s at a merchandising booth, competing with a bunch of t-shirts and records that are on the wall. As an artist, I’m trying to make a connection to the target audience. And also, I’m pushing the boundaries, trying to expand the audience’s vocabulary, but still staying within the vocabulary of the poster. You can take out the word “poster”, and put in “art”, put in “music”, I want to expand what people are aware of.
PKM: What excites you about what you want to do next?
Emek: I always did artwork; I was always known as “the art kid”. I used to say, I was a frustrated musician, because I have friends in bands. I couldn’t play music, but I loved music; I was doing flyers for my friends’ bands, garage bands, local shows. That’s where I got my start. I went from a frustrated musician to being a frustrated fine artist at one point. I would think of ideas, and tell myself, “That would make a great painting, or an interesting print. I should be doing that.” Instead, I found myself using the idea for a poster, because that’s what I like to do, and I now see that the poster is a faster, more effective way of getting my ideas out into the public.
It’s humbling to know that people appreciate, collect, and are interested in what I do. When you make a poster, it’s like a business card–it just goes out into the ether, and you never know where it’s going to end up. People see it in so many different ways.
What’s next? I would say, the short answer is, more posters. I love making posters, because it’s about commemorating a tribal gathering, something where people come together for the same purpose. And we’re all riding that wave of energy–back and forth–between the tribe and the band. I like posters and I’m still riding that wave. If it’s no longer fun, then I won’t do it anymore.
Emek: In His Own Words
Iggy Pop Lolita
This Iggy Pop poster was pretty straightforward: the tour was called “Post Pop Depression”, so I played off the reference to Pop Art and its pre-Lichtenstein origins of old pulp romance and crime comics, and added some depression to it, making it “Post Retro Depressionism.” The image is inspired by the song “Break into Your Heart” that’s on Iggy’s Post Pop Depression album. Lolita is a great story to riff off of and it has great imagery: here Lolita is kind of the victim…as her boyfriend has betrayed her…or, maybe she has a thing for the undead? Or, is it girlfriend that’s cheating, with a skeleton?
In any case, I wanted to put heart imagery throughout the poster. I wanted the reflection in the glasses to tell the story of betrayal, and I made the glasses heart glasses and the gun a heart gun.
Tool’s Cyberman was an exercise in some negative space restraint, which was difficult for me. It’s meant to show a person feeling alienated, and also not under their own control, per se. It’s also kinda based on a Harlan Ellison short story called, “Demon with a Glass Hand”, in which the last man on earth being chased and doesn’t know that he’s synthetic.
I wanted to do the poster in grayscale, in shades of gray–which, again, is a departure for me. When the album came out it right after I finish the poster, it was also in grayscale, and it was cool to see we were on the same vibe. [Editor: the Tool album was called 10,000 Days.]
Grateful Dead – Winterland 73 Boxed Set
For the Grateful Dead Winterland 1973 boxed set, I wanted to evoke a big tripped out eyeball full of memories–a giant gathering with all kinds of historic and iconic figures along with people “big” that year, all in attendance. In the art, you’ll find Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin the ghost of Pigpen and Duane Allman, Bill Graham, Albert Einstein, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Che Guevera, an Apollo astronaut, Cornelius from Planet of the Apes and many, many more.
Ween San Francisco Set (Mouse, Griffin, Wilson, Moscoso)
The vintage tribute series came about because Ween was playing in San Francisco, the birthplace of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll poster. I came up with this idea and pitched to the band.
When I was growing up, a lot of my friends who liked the Grateful Dead and jam bands, also really liked Ween. I see a progression from bands like the Grateful Dead to modern day jam bands like Phish, whose lead singer Trey has actually performed with the Grateful Dead.
I wanted to do this series as tribute to the poster art and the artists that inspired me to become a poster artist. I wouldn’t be here without the Legends that came before me and inspired me, but I also wanted to also add some satire and parody to my tributes, in essence, To “WEEN-ize the artwork”.
I started with the Ween song “Roses are Free” as an inspiration for my tribute poster to the artists Stanley Miller (Mouse) and Alton Kelley, and their iconic Skull and Roses poster from 1966. I changed the skull from the original poster to a skullified version of Ween’s logo (the Boognish) and added some other trippy stuff: I turned the Family Dog logos into “weenises” with the band’s two lead personas on them.
I did four posters for Ween in SF, each one tributes to the original masters of the psychedelic poster. At the bottom of each poster I put a biography of the original artist, so that any new fans not familiar with the artists would be able to have an understanding of where my inspiration came from. I wanted to become a poster artist because of those classic Sixties posters and I was excited to do this series of tribute posters to honor my heroes.
I thought a band like Ween would be a perfect fit because they are serious musicians but have a sense of humor and appreciation of poster art. Hopefully, I didn’t piss off my poster making heroes too much.
Pearl Jam Robot Indian Alberta
Pearl Jam is a band committed to social causes. This show took place in Alberta, Canada, home of the environmentally devastating tar sands and home to affected native tribes who have lived there for centuries. The tar sands are at the origin of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Extracting and converting the tar sands into usable fuel is a hugely expensive energy-and-water-consuming endeavor that involves strip mining giant swaths of pristine land and creating loads of toxic waste, and air and water pollution.
In my depiction, the figure is proudly made from old discarded spare parts needed to withstand his diminishing environment, and his headdress is made of solar panels.
New Amerykah Album Cover
The New Amerykah album cover was hand drawn in black and white (black ink pens on white paper) and colored in on the computer (photoshop). I did all the artwork for the album, including the booklet with 10 pieces in it and three singles covers and the lettering and posters and jacket in her video. My brother, Gan, who is also an amazing artist, helped me on two of the singles covers.
The New Amerykah album cover won several awards, including Associated Press (AP) album of the year, and one of the top 50 greatest album covers of all time.
Look close, there’s this one scene inside Erykah’s hairdo, where policemen beat up some guy. It’s based on the infamous Rodney King incident–since that was just one example of a long history of such incidents– and its drawn in a way to represent the general climate of a police state if the authorities want to inflict their will upon you. I know; I have seen such occurrences in person.
What’s this angel-like statue on Erykah’s forehead? That is Erykah’s Ankh (the Egyptian symbol of life power.
What’s that scene (on the right side of the picture) where that guy is standing on the roof of this wooden building (a church?) holding a square object? That’s
Hurricane Katrina–the building has a symbol for New Orleans on it: It’s kind of meant to look like a church, but it’s just a typical New Orleans small house. It’s sinking in water. The guy is on the roof holding up a “Help” sign with an exclamation point and a question mark: he needs help and he wants answers.
Erykah has a lyric to her song on the album, Soldier-“baptized when the levee broke”, but I did not know that at the time. I just knew that Erykah was very personally involved when Hurricane Katrina happened, and helped out a lot of folks. Honestly, when Erykah asked me to do the cover, this was the first and only idea that came to my mind right away: a classic feel of vintage album covers, mixed with modern elements.
Erykah said, she knew that the deadline was really tight, and if nothing else, maybe I could design an interesting border to go around a photograph of her for this album cover—but after talking with her about the social justice and
political inspirations behind the album, I knew what I had to do: make her tough but vulnerable; determined; a fighter with those fists, but a healer with those eyes and lips.
There are lots and lots and lots of messages in her hair: a TV camera is pointed at her, but its also pointing away, ignoring the suffering of the Katrina victim. The media is more obsessed with celebrity trivia than with real issues. But at the same time, since she does have that camera pointed at her, Erykah uses that to speak up for justice. Or, it could be taken that camera just another surveillance tool–spying on all of us.