Plowing through the slice of chocolate cake that is serving as his lunch, poster artist Frank Kozik stares me down through big safety-style glasses. We're sitting in the Potrero Hill warehouse that holds his printing business and blossoming record label, Man's Ruin Records. The high walls are covered with posters, of course — 1950s pinups, World War II recruitment fliers, a sexy Boss Hog promo by Coop, two huge Nike ads, and dozens of designs and images of his own making. Between bites, Kozik discusses his artistic independence.
“All my life I worked for other people. My life depended on their business succeeding, on whether they liked me or not. Now, instead of having one boss, I have a couple thousand [of them],” he explains, referring to his body of fans. “So if one or two of them don't like my stuff, or even decide they don't like me anymore, well, I still have [the others].” Fans as bosses? It's a strange reversal of roles, but Kozik, one soon discovers, never does things the normal way.
A glance around my own apartment reveals a few of the thousands of artifacts bearing his signature graphics — the Magnet magazine logo, a Zippo lighter, a Joykiller CD cover, a Kennel Club poster — good examples of a style that for 13 years has made him a quintessential force in the nation's college-radio and independent music scenes.
Kozik's “bosses” now have a way to bring the best of his posters home with us, without staple holes or beer stains: Man's Ruin: The Posters and Art of Frank Kozik, a 94-page retrospective just published by Last Gasp, is a comprehensive, full-color tour book of his works, focusing primarily on silk-screened and offset posters from 1982 to the present.
Spanish-born Kozik came to the U.S. in 1976; later he dropped out of high school, entered the service, and found himself in Austin, Texas, one of several American cities where the punk rock virus was incubating. In 1987, after “a million blue-collar jobs,” Kozik landed another one as a doorman and flier-maker at Austin's Cave Club. A move to San Francisco and hundreds of designs later, Kozik finds himself at the top of the indie anthill as the most sought-after “rock 'n' roll poster guy” in the country. He's received commissions from bands and promoters around the world, and curated exhibitions of his work in Los Angeles. He also canceled a publishing and distribution agreement with Artrock, a San Francisco print brokerage. “I only want to concentrate on positive shit,” he says, shaking his head repeatedly when asked about the severed ties.
Man's Ruin traces Kozik's labor-intensive journey through posters that are truly unforgettable. One for Helmet features Lee Oswald's famous gut-clenching grimace, but with a microphone superimposed rock 'n' roll style near his open mouth. A 1992 Killdozer poster stars an adorable pink pig that coyly bats her lashes while concealing a long, freshly bloodied knife behind her back. Elsewhere, a black-maned she-devil pins Christ to the floor in the name of the Melvins, and Hitler weeps behind big Keane eyes on a flier for an early Jesus Lizard concert. It's some twisted shit, a uniquely skewed vision that happens to perfectly complement whatever music it's plugging.
Kozik explains his backward methodology. “I find out first from a band what they don't like,” he says. “Then I'll create a few different examples to choose from. It's not like art — it's like I construct things.” He pauses. “A lot of artists I know have some sort of 'real' training — like they went to art school” — his voice has a touch of irony — “and they'll get a job and do some beautiful painting, but how the fuck do they reproduce it? I take the opposite approach: I learn about the technology so that the design I do reproduces really well.”
Man's Ruin opens with Kozik's “Obligatory Rant,” subtitled “How to Drop Out of High School and Make a Million Dollars.” “Looks easy, don't it?” he writes, “well guess what — it is. … All I do is consume the mountain of pap that surrounds us and extrude it in a more palatable form. No ideas are involved.” Throughout the book, the author's running commentary accompanies each poster — a line or two about the band, the advertised event, or a technique or image Kozik connects with (“I found this little darling while on LSD”). It's a nice touch, a reminder of his modest belief that “it's all about the music.”
Equal parts artbook and yearbook, the retrospective's sole drawback is its five differently authored introductions, which would have benefited from some heavy editing. Yet critic Carlo McCormick's prologue is crucial: He suggests that Kozik's images “act as a pictorial introduction to a musical experience,” an important point. For those of us who dig Crash Worship or Jon Spencer or L7 or the Beastie Boys or Dinosaur Jr., Kozik suggests what the music might look like: simultaneously threatening and comical, a backspew of modern culture, pap turned from product into art and — this is Kozik's signature ability — back into product again. In that sense, Kozik's works are a pure 20th-century form.
“I've always tailored my work to the reproductive process,” Kozik says. “It's not so much that it's great art, but when it's printed and finished, it kind of works. I've been doing it for a long time, and sometimes I get a little bored. Eventually the poster thing will die; it can't last forever.” His future plans include creating an animated TV commercial, a tote bag for Gatorade, and building up his label, which has released singles by Blag Dahlia, Protein, Steel Pole Bath Tub, and others. There's also an upcoming second poster book, which promises to be more visually complex and fully digitized. “It's gonna be the artsy one,” he says, using the a-word with caution.
After lunch, as Kozik sits and chain-smokes, he poses the question that most other artists would have asked much sooner: “So, did you like the book?” Sure did, Frank. Guess we'll let you keep your job.