No doubt you’ve seen them—bold, eye-catching, sometimes gorgeous announcements for local rock, punk and hip-hop shows—adorning record store walls and swaddling telephone poles like an extra layer of skin. These days, however, concert posters have gone from disposable advertisement to fine-art collectible. The death of the vinyl album cover (blame CDs), coupled with the rise of Internet music downloading, has spawned a generation of music fans hungry for tactile concert memorabilia. Posters fill that void, and many collectors look to Seattle for some of the genre’s top talent: Jeff Kleinsmith, Justin Hampton and Andrio Abero are among the nationally renowned poster artists who call our city home. “Seattle has a rich history of poster art,” says Kleinsmith. “Our music scene has always been strong, and postering is part and parcel with that.”
Kleinsmith should know. He’s been designing posters in Seattle for 13 years, honing his trademark style: lonely, often sullen cartoon figures amid muted backdrops. The Oregon native is also art director for local super-label Sub Pop Records and co-owner of Patent Pending, a local studio that designs posters for clients ranging from Seattle rock room The Showbox to DreamWorks Records. Add to his résumé a seat on the American Poster Institute’s board of directors, and Kleinsmith easily shines in Seattle’s thriving poster culture. The roots of this culture stretch back to the late ’70s and legendary local graphic designer Art Chantry, who is credited with creating the punk poster aesthetic—a messy collage of disparate images often produced in a decidedly low-tech manner. This style emerged as the standard in underground music scenes around the country and flourished during Seattle’s grunge heyday. Chantry went on to work as art director for The Rocket, the now-defunct local music biweekly Kleinsmith cites as having been a key springboard for many of Seattle’s successful poster artists.
Today, the industry that Chantry pioneered is seeing commercialization through a poster-as-commodity mind-set. Proof of this, notes longtime Seattle poster artist Shawn Wolfe, is apparent in the proliferation of Web sites such as GigPosters.com, a forum where poster artists from around the country can exhibit their work. Although GigPosters itself doesn’t sell posters, interested parties can purchase posters by directly contacting artists and dealers featured on the site. (Depending on factors such as band and artist notoriety, and print run, posters can cost anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred bucks.) If all this has you itching to pick up a memento from that White Stripes gig you missed, don’t despair: Next month, Bumbershoot will be hosting Flatstock, a semiannual poster show that began in San Francisco in 2002. Designers from all over the world will join local artists to show off and peddle their attractive adverts. And if you can’t wait till then, well, telephone poles are everywhere.
Originally published in Seattle magazine, 2005