Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Artistic Archive of SoCal Punk: A Q&A with Marco Almera

All photos courtesy of
Artistically, who inspired you?

Marco Almera: For the most part, Rick Griffin, when it comes to color, black lines and symbols.  He did a lot of surf and psychedelic art, and at the end of his life he did a lot of religious pieces as well.  There’s even a point where he turned typography around, where he was writing abstract letters that said nothing.  He was just drawing these warpy words that said nothing, but still got the point across.  There was a famous Jimi Hendrix poster he did that way….it didn’t even say ‘Jimi Hendrix’ on it. That was a high point for type because he broke out of the whole box of actually saying something with his type.  He was very radical for his time.  Plus he surfed, was into motorcycles, and was into Jesus and all this other cool stuff so I totally identify with him.  I’d say he’s my number one influence.  He used a lot of brilliant colors and a lot of contrasts, which I do also.  He was a cartoon artist and everything had a strong black line.  I come from that school of ‘everything being defined clearly’ as well.

You can tell how much time went into Rick Griffin’s art.

Yeah, you can tell he liked drawing.  He would surf all day, get all faded and chill in a hammock in Mexico or whatever and draw.  You can tell how much he loved his work, because he drew whatever he wanted, and you can feel how much he cared for every little thing that he drew, and how much he was experiencing while he was drawing.  He was probably stoking himself out creating, just as much as we are looking at the art.  There are a couple other artists that I liked, and what bridged the gap for me was probably Frank Kozik.  He did some of the original posters from the Austin punk rock scene, and a bunch of skate-punk stuff.  Then he started doing bold-line art, screen-printed rock posters, and used a lot of controversial symbols and stuff like that.  He influenced me by making me realize that I could do that as well.  Whereas Rick Griffin was a generation before and did a lot of psychedelic art; Frank Kozik did more punk rock and garage and in-your-face art, kind of like the early Xeroxed punk flyers.

When you were a youth, were you already beginning your art career?

I was drawing ever since I was young.  It was just what I did.  I drew waves on PeeChee folders, the folders from grade school.  You would have the PeeChee with the girls playing tennis on it, so I’d re-draw the girl’s tennis racket into a machine gun.  If you look at the old school PeeChees, they always had images of sports figures and you could kind of doodle on them and change them into your own thing.  The guy relay racing with a baton, you could turn that into a German hand grenade or a gun.  That’s what everybody was drawing on and there were some kick-ass PeeChees.  Fast Times at Ridgemont High probably referenced PeeChees at least once.  We’d put Vans stickers on them and draw waves.  So ever since grade school, I’ve been drawing little figures, characters and symbols.  I’d draw the AC/DC lettering all perfect, or Led Zeppelin.  Some people would play video games, I just drew. 

Do you feel like certain people have a natural inclination to go against the grain?

Absolutely….and I’m in that boat, for better or for worse.  I’m always going against the grain, no matter what situation, even at my church, haha.  I’m the church guy who will drink a couple beers, who has tattoos, and who might accidentally drop an F-bomb in front of the Pastor.  And then around my surf and punk rock bros, I’m the guy who doesn’t puff herb or do drugs , who always goes to bed early Saturday nights to make it to church in the morning.  I’ve always had that gene to go against the grain.

It must be tough, especially here in Orange County, because it’s so fast and everything is at your fingertips all the time.

Especially down here.  It’s fast, and also in any situation, any scene, there’s a lot of pressure to conform and fit in.  Not just conform, but you gotta know what is popular. Newport is like high school for adults. It’s tough to maintain your individuality, when a lot of people kinda vibe you if you don’t dress cool or don’t follow certain trends.  Like, ‘Who wears shoes like that?’  People get rad here, but a lot of times, they wait until everyone else is doing something, and then they try to do it a little bit more. Kinda like, ‘I’m gonna put a curly-que on my mustache.’

The mustache movement is pretty hysterical.

I realize that I have one, so I guess I’m part of it.

You’re in the clear, that’s definitely a full beard.  So let’s talk a bit about the process of your art.  I notice the intricately layered details, but also the tendency towards a clean solid-line style.

I’m a very technical artist and illustrator.  I’ve tried to not be, because art these days is a lot more distressed, layered and outside-the-box.  People like the elements of the design not clearly defined.  But for me, “clearly defined” was my training.  Everything had a crisp, clean black line around it.  So for me, having to break out of that cleanness has been my biggest challenge over the last couple of years. I started doing a blacklined—almost a pinstriped—style.  Pinstriping, blackline-art, cartooning, painting with a brush and India inkthat was the basis of my first posters.  Everything was crisply defined and illustrated…and now things have far gone away from that.  There’s no defining lines; everything is just broken and smashed and cracked and just hinted at, which is really hard for me to do ‘cause I am not subtle at all.  Trying to add subtlety to my art has been very challenging…but also very positive, and it has brought me to another level.

Although at times, the images you project are much stronger than broken, messy ones.  You’re not distracted by the scratches and tears.

A lot of people like the scratches and tears—the distressing.  People seem to want everything layered and jumbled up, especially now—they don’t want things clearly defined.  They seem to want everything in this kind of ‘grey area’ with a lot of mystery, a lot of ambiguity, presented in a way so the audience can interpret it for themselves.

Like a Rorschach?

Yeah, exactly.  And I think there’s an element of truth to that.  People want to make art to let people fill their own story behind it.  Whereas in my art it’s like, ‘Here it is.’  It’s very clear what it is.  But that’s the only way I know how to make art.  The story I tell is the story that I want to tell.  I’ve been trying to break out of that a little bit, and be not so bold and definitive.  I’ve had some success doing that lately.
Tell me about the women you portray in your artwork.

I’m attracted to strong women.  My girlfriends have always been strong and smart, and they definitely are the type that stand their own ground.  To me, that’s the ideal woman.  I like very European women, and European women are very independent.  They have an old-school, old-world elegance and beauty to them.  Although they’re beautiful, they’re down-to-earth and reliable, and you can trust them in a pinch.  Those are the women that I try to portray in my art.

Have you been in Orange County your whole life?  You’re work seems eclectic in the fact that it encompasses so many aspects of Southern California lifestyle.  It’s great that you’re archiving that history.

Yep, my whole life. Through my art I guess I have been archiving the Southern California experience that I’ve lived since the ‘80s.  It’s been a fun ride; I love what I get to do for a living.  All of my influences, you can find it in SoCal.  I might paint some scenes from Hawaii, or Santa Cruz, or another country, but you can always find an element of SoCal in there.  There’s no ice hockey in my art.  There are really few mountaintop scenes in my art, because it’s nothing I’ve really have experienced in depth (besides Mammoth).  Whereas the bands, I’ve seen all those bands.  Every band I’ve done artwork for I’ve seen live. And the old Xeroxed punk flyers; I used to see those bands around here, Long Beach, and L.A.

That Primus poster with the tight-rope walker over the flames is pretty amazing to deconstruct.

(Laughs) Yeah that was tedious.  I’m trying to get away from that style because people appreciate it, but they aren’t buying it much right now.  Right now people want a lot of free-form thought, with things a bit more ambiguous or undefined, and a lot more textured and layered.  I think they appreciate the old posters like the Primus one, but not the exactness of a cold-line drawing.  I’m sure things are going to change…in ten years, line art will be popular again.  Old always comes back.  But as of now, people don’t like to be told what to do, and they don’t like to be told what to do in art.  When everything’s so defined, it takes the mystery and the fun out of it.  It’s a challenge for me because I grew up creating symbols, and symbols are very sharply defined and it’s very clear what each symbol means.  As an artist, I’m someone who mostly works with symbols, ‘cause every piece of art I create, there’s an amalgamation of different symbols—whether it’s a car, a girl, a star, or a cross.  They all symbolize something, and I’ve noticed some of the more popular symbols right now really don’t mean anything.  Like the Volcom Stone, I would say that it’s gotta be the coolest symbol ever, but what does it mean?  It’s a hemisphere, it’s a diamond, it’s kind of a ‘V’, it’s kind of an arrowhead, it’s black and white, it’s equal halves, it’s a bullet.  That thing is awesome.  It means so many things, just like Volcom means so many things.  But what does it say?  It says kick-ass, punk rock, think for yourself, push it to the next level, be rad.

Youth Against the Authority, right?

That’s right.  As a symbol, it’s very powerful, but it’s still undefined what that symbol means, compared to the symbol of an arrow pointed up.  You go straight or you go forward, and that’s a very clear symbol.  Trying to create symbols that mean nothing, but still do mean something—that’s a tough challenge.

That’s the idea of phenomenology?  A good logo should be noticed, but the action of absorbing it should be unrealized.

It’s like the bunny rabbit in street art.  The bunny rabbit has emerged in street art, in collectable toys, and in graffiti as a symbol.  This innocent little creature that you can bastardize and turn into a monster.  Frank Kozik did the smoking bunny, and when you go and look at these other Japanese toys, there’s always some kind of version of a bad rabbit, or an evil little bunny doing something it’s not supposed to do.  But it’s still a bunny, so kids can have it.  That symbol has emerged, and graphic artists use it, street artists use it, t-shirt artists use it.

No matter what, the bunny is still cute.  Street art has been around more than two decades now, and you got to witness it in its upbringing.  What do you think of street art becoming the norm these days?

It’s pop culture.  I remember when Frank Kozik ran a record label.  Some interview I read, he was talking about how kids under the age of 25 don’t know rock music.  They only know what they’re being marketed, but they didn’t grow up with rock and roll.  They didn’t have older brothers listening to rock and roll, they had older brothers into hip-hop.  When their sister went away to college, she came back with hip-hop and dance music.  A lot of kids under 25, hip-hop culture has been their whole life.  So street art and the urban type of music and art movement, is basically all they’ve been encompassed with.  At the same time, there’s been the rise of cell phones, computers, internet, Facebook, and all that—which is basically pushing the same thing.  So it’s basically just hip-hop & pop culture presenting itself as street art. But it is the most popular style these days.
Just like the Punk movement, it was supposed to mean ‘fuck authority,’ right?

For me, the whole street art and hip-hop thing—that is the new authority.  Every other commercial has the guinea pigs dancing hip-hop, or the ironic white man rapping, or the urban kid in his own world listening to hip hop on his iPhone. Then you get Shepard Fairey trying to sell it as rebellion with his ‘phenomenology.’ He’s saying, ‘Obey, Obey, Obey,’ and people are obeying and they are buying.  He is the new guy on top, and again, it’s pop culture.  Some of it’s cool, a lot of it is B.S.  The part I think is ironic is how he’s supposed to be all anti-capitalist and for-the-people and all that, but all the money he’s making he’s putting into those evil capitalist banks and probably investing.  No one is putting money into a collective for people to share equally.  That’s capitalism for you, and he’s a capitalist.  As a graphic artist, and as a smart-ass, and as a DIY guy, he won.  He’s very clever, and he was able to kind of trick everybody.  While not being able to be the greatest hand-drawing artist, he was still been able to trick everybody into believing his concept.  In that way, my hat’s off to him.  Now all art is concept.  He has used and bastardized so many symbols, that symbols don’t mean anything now.  They have this other meaning.  It’s like when he took the Misfits Fiend Club, and then he put Andre the Giant into the Fiend Club, it was like the double whammy.  It was like the Andre the Giant Fiend Club making fun of the Fiend Club, making fun of Andre the Giant, and then making fun of you.  That’s genius.  At first I was like, ‘Hey, he’s ripping off the Misfits.’  And now I realize, who were the Misfits ripping off?  As a graphic artist who gets ripped off, that bums me out.  But the fact that he has stuck to just one symbol of Andre the Giant’s face to make his millions, that’s pretty clever.

There always seems to be more than one layer in Shepard Fairey’s artwork.

Yeah, he’s broken symbology up, and as an artist who works in symbols primarily, it’s mind-blowing for me.  He started with this one symbol, and then he put ‘Obey’ on it.  And then the Motörhead symbol said Obey.  Ok, I see that, whatever, he’s ripping off Motörhead.  If I did that, I’d be in court!  Fortunately for him, he has a more powerful lawyer than me, so he can get away with it.  But it’s evolved past that, and what he’s done with symbols, he’s broken them down and given them double meaning.  It’s kind of cool, and only Any Warhol had done that before him.

I’m looking at the symbols thinking, that’s cool, but then I’m obeying.  In a way, he’s making fun of us by using the same type of propaganda style that stemmed from WWII—but now not to inspire support for war, but rather for pop culture.

There’s always been propaganda.

It depends on who is controlling it that makes it dangerous or not.

You can see how everything is mass marketed and promoted, and everybody is kind of jumping on the bandwagon—no matter what the bandwagon is.  Even the anti-bandwagon-bandwagon—everybody’s on that bandwagon (laughs).

Tell me a little about your education in art?

I started out as an independent mind in the punk rock scene, the surf scene, and the skate scene locally.  When I went to college, they didn’t have computers.  They didn’t have a Graphic Arts degree because it was just Fine Art.  So I didn’t go to a design school, I went to UC Santa Cruz, so it was just painting and sculpture and water-color.  I mean, who water-colors?  I had an upper-division water-coloring class, seriously.  Computers were not part of my formal education, so after school, I had to educate myself in 1994 to use computers, and the internet didn’t come around until 1998 or so.  Whereas kids today are wired their whole college experience.  Papers can be turned in digitally, you have your teacher’s email, you have cell-phones to talk to your friends.  We didn’t have any of that, and so my education experience was classic fine art, no computers, no on-line.
It was all analog.

If I had half of the tools that I use now daily, back in my college days, I would have taken way different classes.  I would have been more graphic-art oriented.  I had a typography class when I was at Cal State Long Beach that was related to computer fonts.  But we were drawing individual letters, and everything had to be measured out by hand.

Designing by hand seems more amazing these days because of the technology crutch.  Because artists have certain programs, they can cut corners, whereas you were actually measuring, cutting, and drawing with your hands.  Same idea goes with music.

Certain bands stand the test of time.  Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis.  Those guys wrote music, played guitar, and made record albums on wax.  They didn’t have the modern computer age.  They created the music that pretty much, we—and all the first punk and rock bands—still listen to now.  Subhumans and some of those early punk bands were pure music, and they were anti-technology, and everything was limited-edition pressings.  They were innovators that everyone is starting to copy today.  So there’s something to be said about the old way.  I’m kind of in the middle, because I was raised in the ‘80s, and my music was all from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I grew up when things were starting to become more digital, and the concept of a computer started to come alive.  I was playing simple computer games when I was a kid, like Asteroids and Atari.  So I was on the bridge between the old pre-computer generation, and now, where everything is computerized.  Little kids have cell phones and email accounts now.  As an artist, I’m glad I have the formal training, but I’m also glad I’ve taught myself to adapt to the new modern edge.

The markets call for people to work faster, and the only way to be faster is to have the computerized technology.

You can do your research way faster these days.  You used to have to go to the library and photocopy.  People these days have no idea.  You would have to go to the library, bring a bunch of dimes for the copy machine, and then photocopy—in black and white—every image.  That’s why the first punk flyers were black and white; the original images were pulled from books of Reagan or Elvis and had to be photocopied at the library.  Then they would go to another photocopier and arrange it and cut and paste the type.  That’s the original way. That’s why everything looked so raw.  They didn’t have Google.

Or Photoshop or Illustrator.

Yeah, they took images from the Vietnam War or Nicaragua from the library books and newspapers.  It’s funny because with a lot of art now, people are trying to go back to that.

Seems like technology is now engrained.

It’s everywhere; and I do say it’s a good thing, because I sure do like emailing sketches to my different clients around the world.  It sure saves me a lot of time and hassle.  I use the computer everyday for my art, but it’s diluted the art world a bit because anybody can be a graphic artist nowadays.  I’m hoping that my formal art training, in the long run, will set me apart since I have that fine art background as a painter and a printmaker.  And maybe that’s why I can’t connect with street art so much, ‘cause I’m about a half-generation older than that concept, and I grew up with clean lines, pinstripe dagger strokes, oil painting, acrylic painting, printmaking, and sculpture.  Everything has to register with the intent to be printed, and my fine art training taught me that things need to fit square on a canvas, things need to be framed, the edges need to be clean.

A little bit of order is good.

True. But street art, what’s cool about it, is that it has challenged me to break out of my old way of thinking.  My education in school and the beginning of my professional career was based on everything being clean, registered, organized, and balanced because that’s what an illustrator is taught.  Street art throws that whole idea of the canvas being square out the window. 

The street art movement seemed to arise because people were pissed and wanted to say what they thought without any boundaries holding them back.

I understand, as someone with a punk rock background, that immediacy of wanting to express your self.  But I grew up in La Habra, and there was graffiti from the Hispanic gangs and the cholos, so I always hated graffiti, because it made me feel like my neighborhood was shitty.  So when I see graffiti, it still bugs me.  That’s another reason why street art and the hip-hop thing for me just always made me think, ‘This sucks not being able to get away from these dirtbags because wherever you go because they’re always going to move in next to you.’  It’s funny because a lot of suburban kids coming from nice families and nice homes go to live in the city because they want dirt under their fingernails.  Not me, I want to move to the suburbs where the streets are clean, there’s no crime, there’s no one breaking into your cars, and no one spraying graffiti everywhere.  That’s why I’ve lived in Newport Beach.
All that negativity makes it hard to live a healthy life.

It takes away from a real life.  If everyone is walking around trying to be some hard-ass ghetto thug, no one is walking around just being real people.  And that’s why I talk about the loss of good fathers for these inner-city kids.  They’re being marketed to be this hard-ass thug hustler playboy.  It’s so far removed from who a man really is, and it’s destroying inner-city America.  You can take all the money from all of the rich people in America, and it still won’t be able to change that.  Those images and ideas are over-marketed to American kids, so that’s a conflict for me as an artist when it comes to pop-culture.  I like speed, I like aggression, I like intensity, I like power, I like surfing well and skating rad.  I love all that kind of stuff.  But when it comes to living, really living, I want peace, balance, and—I know this sounds corny—the integrity of the family.  To me, that’s very important.  I think a lot of hip-hop & pop-culture tries to tear that apart.  Maybe it always has.

It seems more prevalent today with communication being so much quicker.

I agree with challenging convention, but some conventions shouldn’t be challenged.

They should be respected?

They should be respected, and improved upon.  You know, evolve for the better.  Maybe I’m just getting older and I don’t feel the need to destroy everything, or tear everything apart, or smash everything.  Now being older it’s like, ‘Now I’ll protect my stuff and value my relationships.’

You get what you give, right?  The more destruction you evoke, the more destruction comes back at you.

Totally. If someone paints a mural and then someone else goes and sprays his tag on it to deface that mural, I mean, that’s just punk-ass.  I have no respect for that at all.  Street art guys are clever and they always want to be one step ahead.  I’m hoping and I’m praying that as new kids emerge, maybe they will have some respect for convention.  Maybe even a Christian artist will emerge as the street artist of the next era.  Where he’s clever and dope and his angles are smart and his art blows people away, but he’s talking about loving God and being righteous…and being respectful.

Not debasing?

Exactly.  I’m hoping that will change, but who knows.

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