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The Collage Art of Sonny Kay

Sonny Kay is a late 20th century and new millennial musical and artistic Renaissance man. He’s founded and run everything from bands to distros to labels and is currently taking a hiatus from his own musical projects to focus on his multi-textured digital collage pieces, many of which color the covers of your favorite band’s latest albums, but which also stand, in their own right, as amazing examples of contemporary, often somewhat psychedelic collage art. Effluvia Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Sonny, straddle the digital divide, and talk music, art and politics. Read on for Sonny Kay’s insights into art, information on his trajectory from post-punk innovator to fine artist and thoughts on the role of the artist in our post-industrial milieu.

Female Demand (cover of the self-titled 12″ EP by band of the same name)

Effluvia: Talk a little about your formal training in the arts as well as the more “practical” experience that you must have accumulated playing in bands, creating album art and participating in running the label you founded, GSL?

Sonny Kay: I studied printmaking at CU, though “studied” is a little bit of an overstatement. I was present, I did what they required of me, and that was about it. At the time, really establishing myself as a visual artist or developing my “thing” was not even remotely on my radar. I was aimless in terms of visual art, beyond the aesthetic purposes of the bands I was in. I had nothing to say or share that I couldn’t utilize song lyrics or an album sleeve design for. I appreciated design, but contemplating art and creating art were both something of a chore to me. I developed as a designer slowly, over the course of the 14 years running GSL (we closed the doors in 2007). It wasn’t until the label was done that I felt mentally prepared for the responsibility of “artist” and set about exploring exactly what that meant.

E: Did your “formal training” in printmaking in college inform your later work as you transitioned from doing music-centric art to developing as an artist with a more finely articulated aesthetic?

SK: My training in college familiarized me with the idea of embracing the process. In other words, none of what I was focusing on was very immediate. The various printmaking processes are a little tedious and time-consuming and that helped re-calibrate my sense of patience (or impatience). But outside of the purely mechanical knowledge required to get a lithographic print onto a sheet of paper for example, we were left to our own devices, conceptually-speaking. My development as an artist, when that eventually began taking place in what I consider a serious way, was galvanized by the possibilities inherent to digital formats. In that sense, my nuts-and-bolts printmaking knowledge was almost useless. 

Cabinet of Curiosities (cover art for the Jacco Gardner album of the same
name, out soon)

E: Much of your work has been featured on album covers and other music-related objects, how did music and GSL factor into your development as an artist?

SK: I guess that being into punk and hardcore, and DIY culture in general, I was far more focused on music than I was on art. My whole life revolved around music – playing in bands, booking shows, touring, and eventually putting out records. That was all I was interested in, for years. Eventually, I started a distribution company to get GSL stuff into stores more consistently, which forced me to focus on the business end of things a little more seriously. But from about 1995 until 2007, nearly all the art or design stuff I created was in service of either my own bands, or for GSL. My peers were other bands and labels, the “galleries” I visited were actually record stores, and when I did conceive of something visual I felt compelled to create, it was always in a square. I never imagined my work hanging on a gallery or museum wall, but I constantly fantasized about seeing it in LP racks.

Animal Pharm (currently unused by will likely be on an Omar album,
possibly using the same title)

E: Are you still active in music since the closure of GSL, if so, in what capacity?

SK: Yes, I am still involved in music in the sense that 90% of the art I create is coupled with music in the form of album covers, t-shirt designs, etc. I am the art director for Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s label, formerly the in-house art dept. for Sargent House (LA-based record label), and I’m routinely commissioned by bands (more than any other type of client) . I haven’t played in a band since 2008, the short-lived OPTIONAL BODY (who never played a show but actually have a 7″ finally coming out next month My old band THE VSS just reissued our album on Sargent House. There was talk of some reunion shows, but it’s actually looking kind of doubtful now. Unfortunately. I’m not really itching to play music anymore, but I’ll never say never.

E: How did the transition from music-based visual art projects (e.g. GSL-related) to taking yourself more seriously as a visual artist, with more freedom to create, come about?

SK: Well, in so many ways, it was just an extension of the sort of “attitude” I’d been cultivating with my various bands, and with GSL, for the fifteen years leading up to that transition taking place. Thankfully, and crucially, I had the support of creative people close to me (ie. bands) whose work I respect, so I kind of had a leg-up in that I didn’t feel like I was out on a limb or anything like that. Maybe I’d even developed a small community of people (I hesitate to call it an audience) who were familiar with me already from one thing or another, who were somehow “primed” to accept me as a visual artist. The initial reaction to work I started doing at that point was very encouraging, so that kind of put the wind in my sails.

Gift Giver (created for the album Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings, and
used inside the album package)

E: As you begin to develop a style and a refined methodology as a visual artist, and devote more attention to practice, do you find yourself moving away from music-inspired imagery and toward an aesthetic that feels closer to what you want to be outputting as a visual artist, regardless if it shows up on an album cover?

SK: Sometimes, yes. Naturally, I want to develop my abilities, and I enjoy that challenge. On the other hand, I still very much embrace the idea of creating visuals to accompany a non-visual experience, like music. I guess that might be because I was so thrilled by album art myself when I was young, I still romanticize that idea. Now that I’ve had the experience of seeing my work hang in a gallery, or on someone’s living room wall, I can say without doubt that the satisfaction for me is with the image itself resonating with someone, connecting with a viewer. The LP jacket or CD booklet is incidental. Having said that, I think the combination of a great album with a great album package creates a temporal experience unlike any other.

Menagerie (cover of the RX Bandits album Mandala)

E: Here’s the inevitable “process question.” What various methodologies do you use to execute your art? Do you tend to work predominantly digitally, or do you prefer hand-crafted/painted or printed imagery… or is it more of an amalgamation?

SK: Most of the art I create, at least that which people might be familiar with, is digital. I collect photographs and collage them together, but I employ all sorts of digital methods to achieve different kinds of results. Occasionally, I do ink washes on watercolor paper, then scan those and layer them in as backgrounds or that kind of thing. Lately I’ve begun drawing with pencil again, something I haven’t done with any regularity since I was in school (so a long-ass time ago). I’m not sure what’s going to happen with it, but it’s good exercise and provides a kind of satisfaction that the digital work just doesn’t. It’s sort of the artistic equivalent of going for a long hike.

E: Where do the majority of your source your images from initially? I’ve read that some are the result of scanned thrift store books? Is all media fair game when it comes to visual sampling and digital collage? Do you ever hand-paint or draw your own elements and situate them amidst the other elements from your image archive?

SK: Almost entirely from the web. Like any good magician, I won’t reveal my tricks, but a little common sense and creativity with your search criteria goes a long, long way. People just assume web images are tiny and pixelated, and for the most part, they are. Nothing worth anything comes quickly, there’s an enormous amount of time invested in searching for source material. And yes, I scan old books and things occasionally, but those are normally to achieve a certain kind of texture since printed images are generally half-toned and poorer quality than digital photos. As for what’s “fair game” or not, well, that will be for the judge to decide. I change the images and their context greatly. I think there’s a lot of historical precedent for the spirit of my work, and the technique, in all sorts of mediums. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” to John Heartfield to sampling and everything in between. As for hand-made elements, I don’t use many aside from the india ink washes I mentioned, but that could always change.

Solar Gambling (cover image for the Omar Rodriguez Lopez album of the
same name)

E: Do you separate “fine art” from “commercial art” or is it all just about executing a vision?

SK: Exactly, executing a vision is a good way to put it. I don’t really classify my work as one or the other. If someone perceives something as commercial, I suppose that might result in me getting paid for it somehow, which I very much support. But what I do is what I do, regardless of whether there’s a client or not. 

E: You are well-known for the vibrant digital collages discussed above, work that has often functioned as album cover art in the past, but that stands just as well on its own visual strength and that serve as arresting visual objects in their own right. More and more these days we are seeing artists’ work displayed in “digital galleries.” Additionally, I’ve seen some interesting objects that you’ve turned out lately (e.g. throw pillows) that might seem surprising even to those familiar with your work, especially given its occasional counter-cultural cues or, for lack of a more concise description, an aesthetic that disrupts or challenges some of our society’s economic values and commercial norms. Can you discuss these more commercial objects and place them with respect to your overall artistic output? Where can peoples find quality prints of your work available for sale? Are archival prints available on the web?

SK: You mention the throw pillows. Those aren’t something I take very seriously and, honestly, I’ve never even seen one in person. I use that site ( because it allows people to pick and choose what product they want to have my imagery printed on. It’s very convenient, costs me nothing out of pocket, and the accounting is very straightforward and simple. The throw pillows are just the newest item they’ve come up with. I thought it was kind of funny seeing my images on their mockup, but it’s not a product I necessarily endorse – it’s just something fun and kind of ironic (to me, anyway). Overall, I sell very little “merch”, although the society6 sales are certainly picking up. I also have some shirts and things (such as the iPhone cases) available from 

I did some giclée print editions a couple of years back, some of which are still available online from Hello Merch, who also sell a few t-shirts for me and some other odds and ends. Last year I began putting my work on Society6 which seems to be more useful for younger people and has all sorts of options since they don’t print editions, but rather one piece at a time. They do archival prints on paper, t-shirts, tote bags, and like you mentioned, throw pillows!

E: Is there anything more that you would like to say about art challenging cultural mores and societal norms, especially given your roots as a hardcore/punk/DIY participant? How do you feel visual art (or sonic art for that matter) should function in a post-industrial, consumer capitalism-driven culture where visual objects (especially higher-end gallery art) often seem to be valued more for their financial status, or ability to appreciate as investments, rather than their aesthetic, information content and the dialogue that they help create?

SK: Well, I think art is as useful a tool as anything when it comes to influencing peoples’ thought processes and attitudes. On a mass scale, it probably isn’t really competition for corporate media and television, but on an individual basis, I think it’s quite powerful. The thing about art is that it’s different things to different people. It can serve one function for one person, and an entirely different one for someone else. People spending thousands of dollars to collect work in order to turn a profit aren’t juicing the same kind of purpose from it as, say, someone who may print out a jpeg of the same work and pin it to their cubicle. I don’t know which of those is right or wrong, if that even applies, but I do know I respect the sentiment in the latter far more. In recent years, I’ve begun to understand that, in a sense, all art is magick (with a K). The simple act of creating something and putting it out into the world creates an energy that is nobody’s property and that carries with it the ability to affect human thought, and ultimately, to affect the holographic consensus reality we each contribute to. If anything, I think art (especially in this country) should be valued for its inherent worth, rather than systematically disregarded and marginalized. 

Laguna Botos, Parque Nacional Volcan Poas, Alajuela, Costa Rica

E: What do you think the proper role of the “artist” is? How does this role relate to your personal artistic process and aesthetic agenda? Your pieces, while often somewhat abstract (in the sense that repetition and a sort of psychedelic quality – that comes out in their attention to color, placement and geometry – pervade and infuse the images), are also quite representational (simply by virtue of being collages), occasionally including explicit features (e.g. a soldier) that serve as pointers to the culture at large and remind the viewer of political or social context. What feels most urgent for you to communicate with your audience? As the creator of your work, are there specific narratives being told, or is your dialogue with the viewer more loosely fabricated, allowing for them to bring more of their own ideas and stories to the interpretation of the pieces? I suppose what I am really asking about here is narrative distance…

SK: I think the role of the artist – beyond the innate, simple act of self-expression – is to seed ideas in the culture at large. Television and media do it, with great degrees of manipulation and a consumerist/imperialist agenda. Artists, musicians, and authors wield the same sort of power, on perhaps a smaller and more “human” scale, but ideas are ideas regardless of the media amplifying them. Worthwhile concepts tend to percolate upwards. As for my own process and how it relates, well I guess that in many ways, the medium is the message. We live in an age when old rules are becoming obsolete and I think work like mine helps redefine possibilities and expand peoples’ cultural and aesthetic vocabulary. I prefer to think of my art as open to interpretation rather than delivering any specific agenda. You can never predict someone’s interpretation of an image. For example, “Confession” (the image of the soldier and the enormous ostrich head) was intended – for me – to be critical of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hung a print of it in a bar in San Diego, along with a dozen others. As I understand it, the only person to show interest in buying it, was a soldier from Camp Pendleton. (Ironically, it was stolen from the bar before that could happen.) To me, that says it all. Who knows what kind of discussions might have taken place in that guy’s apartment, simply from the presence of that image? 

E: In closing could you tell us a little about the various projects that you have been working on recently that you are most excited about?

SK: First and foremost, I’ve been piecing together a comprehensive book of my art that will, hopefully, see the light of day sometime later this year. In the meantime, I just got back from a month in El Paso where I was set-designing for Omar’s current film project, Sharks in the Gene Pool, though there’s no telling when that will be finished, much less released. Currently I’m working on the packaging design for Bosnian Rainbows’ debut album, which is an incredible record and something I’m very pleased to be involved with. Not sure what’s around the corner…

Sign Painters – Faythe Levine and Sam Macon (forward by Ed Ruscha)

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon have broken new ground with the first real study of the handcrafted signage that decorates and educates folks on the businesses that operate and the products that they sell. The book is published by Princeton Architectural Press and runs the gamut of sign painters from young folks like Steve Powers, transitioning from other mediums and genres, as well as old timers like Doc Guthrie, who runs the country’s only sign painting program at LA Trade Tech. (With a forward by Ed Ruscha.)

Sign Painters interview with Fayth Levine and Sam Macon.
by Kevin Casey


What was your methodology with respect to finding sign painters, both young and those with decades of experience? Did you allow word of mouth to guide you in your hunt or did you have particular masters of the trade that you knew all along that you wanted to speak to?

Faythe: We started out with the group of younger people I knew from the 90’s in Minneapolis who are all working sign painters and went from there. From there it was a combination of referrals, getting the word out on the internet and then people contacting us through out website. There was far more people interested in speaking to us than we had expected so it became a matter of figuring it out as we went. 

Sam: We wanted to paint (excuse the pun) as accurate and all encompassing of a picture as possible. It was important for us to 
represent as many key components of the trade – different methods, different styles, different trajectories, etc. That desire dictated some of our choices. For example, we knew we wanted to explore the connection between the fundamentals of sign painting and the current state of graphic design. That led us to the folks at House Industries. Ken Barber of House appears in the film, and draws a really interesting distinction between “lettering” and “fonts.”

You have stated in a recent piece in Wired magazine that, “Graffiti is one of several gateways that the young crowd has gotten into sign painting.” Effluvia recently interviewed ESPO/Steve Powers (who you profile in Sign Painters), one of the first graffiti writers to turn his attention toward a unique take on sign painting that fuses both traditions in works such as his love letter projects. What (ex)graffiti writers attracted your attention and how did they serve as an introduction into your present investigation into the sign painting tradition?

Faythe: N/A

Sam: There’s a tendency for the “younger crowd” to fixate on the whole graffiti angle. Though I can understand the fascination, the sign-painter-by-way-of-graffiti thing is rare. Even amongst the younger sign painters we talked to, very few of them came at it from a graffiti standpoint.


Will you discuss how your early relationship with Phil Vandervaart and his mentorship of your friends in Minneapolis ignite your interest in sign painting?

Faythe: My friend in Minneapolis sought out the person responsible for the signage in the neighborhood where we spent most of our time (the West Bank) and it was Phil Vandervaart. At that time my interest in letters was in full force and finding out that there was someone who made a living as an actual “sign painter” was really exciting. It was during this time when I found out through my friends who had begun hanging out at Phil’s shop what a maul stick was and that the signs I had been painting were pretty much the worst thing ever. Shortly after that I moved to Milwaukee and aside from some chalkboards and menu’s my sign days’ were put to rest by the time I was 21, the rest of them kept at it and are all full time sign writers with active shops around the country and in Stockholm. 

What, in your opinions, after speaking with all the craftspeople that you have, separates quality sign painting from lower quality work?

Faythe: what I quickly learned as we interviewed just a few journeyman sign painters is that what I aesthetically may be attracted to, vernacular or folk signs are not necessarily a good sign. Often the best signs are those we don’t even really notice because they are doing their job so well. Justin Green was the one who articulated this the best during his interview when he had Sam and I meet him under “the best sign in Cincinnati” which was a very bland black on white church parking lot sign. I have learned that to be a skilled sign painter it takes practice and the willingness to learn the correct way.  

Sam: Going off of what Faythe said, what really separates a “real deal” sign painter from the rest is their ability, and intuitive sense of design. A lot of designers can make an aesthetically pleasing sign. They can maybe even paint it in a way that passes, but a truly accomplished sign painter can do it better – and maybe more importantly – faster. Speed is a big deal for a working sign painter. A journeyman sign painter doesn’t need to slave over a computer finessing a layout… The fundamentals are just hardwired. I’d say there is an effortlessness to what they do, but that would be ignoring the decades it takes for someone to reach that level.    

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 9.43.03 PM

Sign painting seems to be in the midst of something of a revival. More and more people are appreciating the hand executed / DIY flavor of a well executed hand-painted sign to the vinyl and plastic that dominate much urban space. What do you attribute this to?

Faythe: DIY and the interest in handmade has perpetuated all my work including my last film and book Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY Art, Craft and Design. Over the course of the past 6 years it’s been interesting to see the general public turn interest towards process and gain awareness of where things are coming from, who’s making the and why. I believe there are a number of reasons this has happened a few being that we are tired of seeing the sameness that has taken over our daily lives and handmade allows individuality, another reason may be that we are tired of sitting at our computers and having a tactile connection with something makes oneself feel good.  
Sam: There’s without a doubt a renewed interest in process. More and more people seem to want to know where, and how things are made. I think sign painting has benefited from this in a small way. However it’s important to note that sign painting was a huge industry. It employed thousands if not tens of thousands of people all over the country. There were schools, unions, trade publications, etc. Only a fraction of that exists now, and it has totally impacted the way our world looks. 
This is a recent, and in my opinion unfortunate, shift. I was shocked to learn that vinyl didn’t start taking over until the mid 80’s. That makes people in their late 20s and early 30s (people like myself) the first generation of young entrepreneurs and consumers to grow up in a mass produced, digitally printed, vinyl dominated landscape. I think for anyone who cares about how our public space looks, a backlash is inevitable.


Do you think there is room in the signage market for more enterprises like Colossal Media? Or do you think a small number of specialized / boutique hand-painted mural companies will dominate the market? How far do you think the public interest will move in the direction of hand painted signage?

Faythe: I believe that the more visible and accessible hand paint becomes the more it will get utilized. We’ve found that people are interested in hand painted signs but don’t know where to look for a painter. In regards to the larger market I’m personally not educated enough about the industry to know if multiple companies similar to Colossal Media could co-exist, it’s important to point out however that there are existing companies that do hand paint that have existed for many years- they just don’t utilize social media outlet’s and reach a younger demographic like Colossal Media has. Taking advantage of reaching a younger audience is to me the smartest thing a hand paint company can do these days- using the computer as a tool to reach out to clients that may not know you are an option. 

Sam: I think there are a lot of unique elements at work in regards to Colossal and their success. The key component is their commitment to quality. New York being such a huge market is certainly factor… The growth of the market, and the future of sign painting as industry is reliant on business owners and advertisers waking up and realizing that the best way to get a great sign is to have a knowledgeable sign painter make it for you.

How has the reception to your work on documenting sign painting been so far? Are you happy with the interest and the folks that are educating themselves about this great folk culture via your print work and documentary film?

Faythe: From the second we started working on Sign Painters the reception has been fantastic. People are very interested in learning more about how people paint signs and once they see the brush hit the surface they are hooked.  

Sam: Doc Guthrie of LA Trade Tech (the last university offering a degree in sign graphics in the country) told me that since the book came out he’s been receiving calls from people all over the country wanting to know how they can join the class. That’s he best response to the project that I can imagine.

What was the genesis of the Sign Painters project? Can you talk a bit about the history that each of you have with the medium?

Faythe: Pretty sure I covered this above a little but it basically stemmed from my art back ground combined with an lifelong interest in letters which started for me with making zines and flyers for bands when I was a teenager. 

Sam: I came at the project from the standpoint of a design conscious filmmaker. Faythe and I had worked with each other for years on various projects, and when she approached me about doing a documentary on sign painters I thought to myself – I’ve NEVER thought about sign painters in my life. I’ve always been interested in signage, lettering, design… but I never gave any thought to sign painters as a group of people. That’s how I knew this was something we should do.

In closing, what would you like most for your audience, in either print or
film, take away from your project?

Faythe: With all my work I am aiming to urge people to look around themselves more and think about the space that surrounds them- taking in why things look the do and how they got there.

Sam: Exactly, I’d love for people to tune in and pay attention to their environment. Ideally, people will see this film and when it comes time to open a business, tell someone where not to park, or advertise a product… they’ll hire a sign painter to do the job. 

A Love Letter for You: An Interview with Steve Powers aka ESPO

by Kevin Casey

(See more photos at Arrested Motion)

Stephen Powers is an artist who came up writing graffiti in Philly and NYC, as ESPO (“Exterior Surface Painting Outreach”). In 2000 Powers gave up writing graff to focus on studio and public art. Many are familiar with Powers’ work as ESPO, as well as his more recent installation art (e.g. Street Market as exhibited in the recent LA MOCA: Art in the Streets show – Powers alongside Todd “Reas” James and Barry McGee in an update of their 2000 Street Market show at Deitch Projects). But just as pathbreaking is Powers’ work, along with the ICY Signs crew, in his Love Letter projects that began in Powers’ hometown Philly, and then migrated to Syracuse and Brooklyn (and dovetailed with work in Sao Paulo, Dublin and Belfast).

Love Letter has included books, youth outreach and a number of satellite projects that enlarge the scope of the project beyond the murals and sign painting that anchor it. Effluvia had the opportunity to discuss Powers’ Love Letter projects, the politics of art, the geography of public art and a number of other interesting topics. Powers’ intellect, keen wit and sincere approach both to our discussion and his work were inspiring and refreshing.

Here’s the results of our chat with Steve Powers aka ESPO:

Effluvia: You’ve stated (e.g. in the video interview piece A Love Letter For You) that for the Love Letter projects, it was vital for the work to be a reflection of the community. How did you incorporate this emphasis on the community and feedback and information from the local neighborhoods into the paintings? Were the communities’ involvement in shaping the underlying messages and, ultimately, the text painted, implicit and the result of casually absorbing life in each location, or was it more explicit? For example, was any of the text directly quoted from local community members?

Powers: We talk to communities and ask about life and living it and we translate those conversations into visual communication. Sometimes it’s abstract, sometimes it’s literal, but it’s all direct from the people to the walls and back again.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: Various cities across the country are having widely different responses to muralists these days. Here in Los Angeles (where Effluvia is based) there is a well documented, and controversial, moratorium on muralists’ work, while cities like Detroit are embracing mural art as a way of beautifying the urban landscape and enriching the city. Is there anything you can say, in general as an artist that executes large-scale paintings in public spaces, about painting in the various locations you have chosen?

Powers: I go where I’m asked to go. And if called, I will serve. So the cities choose me, and typically it’s because they are trying to turn an area around. I work to highlight what’s there in the hope of reminding people of what’s being replaced. In Brooklyn, it’s the residents and businesses being priced out and in Vardo Norway, it was the fishing industry that is fading away.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: In Philadelphia, you worked with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative), in Brooklyn your work was originally commissioned by Macy’s whose parking garage was transformed into a large-scale piece of public art. How has interacting with groups (both nonprofit and corporate) like the above affected your work, and in what way, if any, has such interaction impacted the form or message of your pieces? Has interaction with community groups enriched the projects at all when it comes to their underlying message, that is, has it had any baring on the messages you convey to the communities that you work in, or is working with such groups simply just a part of doing art on a large scale in a community of a certain size?

Powers: What was interesting about MAP and Macy’s was they both requested that I work with the community to come up with the messaging I was painting on the walls. And in both cases I came back with words that made the organizations nervous. I held my ground and said, “If I’m asking the community how they feel, I’m obligated to express that feeling.” They relented, but in Macy’s case, they were really uncomfortable with it.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: You have stated, in the case of the Philadelphia Love Letter project, that you were drawing on at least two traditions: the local sign painting of West Philadelphia, as well as graffiti (at least historically). You said in interview, “We drew from the sign tradition that was there. We drew from the graffiti tradition that was wiped out, but was there in my mind and my heart.” What guided your practical and artistic choices here? How did you find the appropriate blend of aesthetics when drawing on these two powerful and quite different folk traditions?

Powers: Both sign painting and graffiti succeed in communicating with the public when painted clear and beautiful. What we did was sign painting, but we mostly used spray paint, which yields a softer line and doesn’t age well. But to honor all the writers whose steps I was following on these rooftops, I used spraypaint. And there’s a real sweet irony in people worried about the paint fading, when people usually complain about the “permanent destruction” of graffiti.

(See more photos at

Effluvia: Were there differences in working, in say, in Brooklyn, Syracuse and West Philly? Brooklyn and Philly both have strong, but quite different historical traditions with respect to graffiti, and varied histories when it comes to sign painting as well, differences that might not be obvious to those not steeped in the traditions of graffiti and sign painting. Were there any interesting nuances that you noted when executing your Love Letters (or even going back to your work in Coney Island) that you’d care to note?

Powers: We went heavy with the graffiti implications in Philly and Sao Paulo because it was present and had a deep legacy in both cities. Brooklyn has that of course, and we used a little spray paint, but we really focused on the hand painted lettering that was all over the interior of the garage. Everywhere else we painted, we drew on the sign painting history that was there. Philly, Brooklyn and Syracuse had a tremendous legacy of industry that is largely overseas now, and the ghost signs haunt deserted commercial disticts. So for us to paint industriously and connect with that legacy included drawing on amazing resources in order to make the work. Painting in Coney Island was a practical way to add to the visual glory of Coney Island and extend it for years to come.

(See more photos at Arrested Motion)

Effluvia: While working on your Fulbright pieces in Northern Ireland, the NYT reported that you were intentionally transforming the content of the local political murals in locations like the lower Shankill area in Belfast, retaining some of the aesthetics while changing their message. The paper quoted you saying, ìIím taking the form of the murals, which are insanely powerful for all the wrong reasons, and trying to retain some of the power and use it in a really good way.î In working in the various cities that you have executed the Love Letter project in (or in your Coney Island sign painting work), how important has it been to work within the tradition established by local muralists and sign painters? Do you find yourself repurposing form, using at least some of the local tradition as a visual constraint for your work but deviating when it comes to message or content?

Powers: Working in the visual vernacular of the community I’m painting in establishes it as a product of its environment. Most public art is beamed in from a remote location and retains a distance. The work we make eliminates distance between the work and the viewer.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: In Ireland, there are clear political ramifications when it comes to murals and other forms of public art, and indeed when looking at what many refer to as “street art” generally, quite a bit of the earlier 20th century work had much explicit political import (e.g. poster graphics from the pre-McCarthy days). How, if at all, does political thought, viewed personally or from a larger vantage point, inform the work you have done, whether in the Love Letter projects, or in other public works? In projects where love for community is emphasized, it seems that there might be some contact points between the political economy of the neighborhoods that you are working in and the art that you produce?

Powers: Politics are temporary when viewed through the telescope of history. The murals in Belfast were interesting to me beyond their message to the mechanics behind the messaging. On the Protestant side, they were deliberately painted by guys whose primary occupation wasn’t art, so they have this rough hewn quality that is tough and direct. On the Catholic side, the murals are cinematic and really skillfully done, and they look soft in comparison. So when painting there, I tailored my style to the neighborhood I was painting in.

(More on Powers’ Fulbright work in Ireland at the NYT)

Effluvia: How has ICY Signs gifting signs to local businesses, youth training in sign painting and similar acts functioned as a political, albeit quite personal, gestures? Do these aspects of your projects feel like political actions or more like expressions of love for communities that you have a deep appreciation for?

Powers: Communities don’t need art, they need thriving economies. Signs address that need directly and concisely. We also paint signs because it’s a good way to influence the look of the block, something I’ve always been interested in.

Effluvia: How important has documenting your process (in book and film) been to the Love Letter projects? Do you view it as an extension of the art itself or something different, like a way for the public to access the projects and appreciate them from a distance even though they might not live in West Philadelphia, Brooklyn or Syracuse?

Powers: Documenting is less important now because the work lasts and there’s literally thousands that are documenting the work for me. But I try to document the creation, because that’s fleeting and easily forgotten as we move on to the next project.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: Outside of purchasing your documentation, is there a way for the public, regardless of location, to become involved in your Love Letter projects?

Powers: We’re always on the lookout for good words, most of the time it’s a miss, but we encourage people to try and hit the mark. Short and to the point is best.

Effluvia: Are there Love Letters on the books for other cities that you feel deeply for, or has the project run its course?

Powers: We have a few cities in the pipeline, but it’s usually a 5 year process from.the initial idea to the reality. So we’ll continue the Love Letter, but where and when are unknowns at this point.

(Photo courtesy of

Effluvia: Any parting remarks, regarding the Love Letters, working as a muralist/sign painter/artist in varied locations or anything else that you would like to share?

Powers: Service is my only product.

Make Something with Aaron Rose – DIY Series #3

Recently Effluvia had the opportunity to chat with Aaron Rose about the origins and future of the “DIY school” he founded in the wake of his touring gallery show, book and documentary film Beautiful Losers. Rather than waste the money they had to market the project, Rose and company decided to redirect the funds into an innovative art education program that takes artists, some of whom are featured in Beautiful Losers, and pair them with kids for workshops that explore everything from sign painting and shoe design, to zine making and silk screening. They called it Make Something, and they’ve been hosting workshops, making beats, painting murals and building homemade tattoo machines while reinventing arts education ever since! Now they have plans to create a physical school located in Los Angeles. Read the Q&A with Aaron to find out all the details.

Click the below for the full interview. Thanks Aaron!
Make Something with Aaron Rose

From the Make Something website:

Make Something!! began in 2008 as a series of youth creative workshops held in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Tokyo. Working with public school art programs and youth mentoring organizations, the goal of Make Something!! is to partner world-renowned creative personalities with young aspiring artists with the intention of giving hands-on practical skills. Our focus is on connecting the ideas behind DIY (do-it-yourself) creativity with the artists of tomorrow incorporating elements of art, design, music, fashion and film into our programs. Since its inception, over 2,000 high school students have now taken part in Make Something!! workshops. We have plans to open an LA-based permanent creative schoolhouse in the near future.

Counteract Collective – DIY Series #2

Counteract Collective is an amazing new all screen printed distro and skill-sharing organization. They print everything under the sun and have a huge assortment of silk screened patches for the punk, post-punk, ex-punk and straight up anarcho-crusty.

Effluvia had the opportunity to get to know one of the founders, Rio, over the interweb and he cheerfully agreed to a little call and response via email… Technology actually connecting people and serving the purpose that it was intended for, a genuinely great digital epistolary interaction! There is also talk of CC/Effluvia collaborations in the patch and poster departments… Stay tuned for some DIY screen prints. Thanks Rio!

Here’s the exchange:

Counteract Collective is a self-described “press and distro of hand-printed radical art.” When and how did the distro/press begin and who are the names behind the collective? What roles do you play and how does work get divided up around the collective?

My buddy Zac and I (Rio) started dreaming up ideas for a distro in late 2011. Printing patches was a start, and because I had blockprinted in the past, we printed our first patches on scrap canvas from hand-carved linoleum tile. That met our immediate needs (cheapness & accessibility) but we soon outgrew the medium for screen printing. I learned everything I could about screen printing, built a press and exposure unit for $50 in my attic, and I’ve continued learning since.

Since the primary focus is currently screen printing, I’ve been handling most of the operation from printing to packing orders. Zac plans to assemble a zine distro (screen printed, of course!), which will give Counteract more roles to fill.

Through outlets like your zine “Pulling Ink” as well as workshops like those you’ve facilitated at Portland State University, you not only create and distribute screen printed art but teach others to do it themselves. Was this always an underlying motivation for Counteract, that is, both producing as well as info-sharing? Can you talk a little about the satisfaction you get from passing on the tools of the trade to screen printing neophytes?

I’m a self-taught screen printer with no small thanks to a rad community of printers who have shared information. In the spirit of DIY culture, my limitations (space, money, and experience) have been a guiding force to make this art form low-cost and accessible. I’ve always made zines over the past eight years, so naturally I recorded what I learned in zine form. Through zines and workshops, I hope to pass on to others what I’ve been lucky enough to have passed on to me!

After that workshop at Portland State, a participant told me that she used to design t-shirts for a company that printed and sold them. Now that she had seen how easy screen printing is, she plans to start designing and printing her own shirts. Awesome.

There is an emphasis on radical political messages and iconography (as well as a bit of humor – e.g. “Bagels Not Hegel”) running through Counteract Collective’s work. How important is developing a sort anarchist praxis with respect to the output of CC? With messages as varied as Foucault boosterism to advocacy for reading, to the smashing of patriarchy and the good old standbys: the circle A, circle E and the anarcho-syndicalist flag, it seems that the patches and other creative output of CC exist to promote a definite socio-political agenda, as well as to disseminate the means through which others might replicate the production of similar artifacts. Learning by doing and teaching by example look to be Counteract Collective staples. Is this an intentional product of the collective’s mission?

That’s a lot of credit given— thanks! Zac and I come from a punk background, so some of that iconography is what we’re used to. This is a culture of learning about a band through a patch on someone’s jacket, or about a political movement from a zine left on the couch. Our interests, like Situationist International or Michel Foucault, exhibit in Counteract’s work. I don’t think that means being too heavy-handed about it, though—a black metal “Foukvlt” patch probably won’t educate the masses. Poking some fun at our strange little subcultures is a good way to keep ourselves in check.

So, in short: there’s no agenda to indoctrinate, which can be the best way to indoctrinate after all.

What are some of the more exciting collaborative pieces that CC has been engaged in? What about favorite custom work? (Effluvia’s personal favorite might be the queer metal jacket patches complete with penis upside-down crosses.)

In my perfect world, I’d only listen to the music my friends record, read the books they write, buy the art they make. In the meantime, I feel lucky to collaborate with such talented folks as I have, both old friends and new! Just yesterday I printed patches for a friend travelling to DC to table the Animal Rights Conference. The design is taken from Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon about the disunity of British American colonies— the snake cut up in to pieces, you know the one. This patch featured animal rights groups in place of the colonies, giving the familiar design an awesome contemporary context. Art with a relevant message— love it!

Outside of patches/textiles, what other hand-printed objects (e.g. zines, book jackets) has CC been involved in? What are some that you are most proud of?

This month I’ve done two printings of covers for my friend’s novella (The Growling Mouth). His name is Adam Gnade, a supremely talented writer & musician, and the cover is a stark design, printed gold on black cardstock. At cheaper than the cost of a photocopy, the cover looks classy and helps lend his work credibility on a budget.

I hope to work more with books and posters, since water-based inks are amazingly versatile (and who wants to print trucker caps and koozies, anyway?).

Does Counteract Collective deal exclusively in screen printing or do you use other handmade methods to apply inks/paints to surfaces (e.g. letterpress, woodblock printing, etc.)?

For two years, I ran a radical bookstore that shared a space with a letterpress, offset printer, and screen printer. There’s never enough time to learn it all! Screen printing keeps me busy with improving what I’ve created so far: building a line table press, improving my washout setup, assembling a drying rack, and so on.

What’s in the works for Counteract Collective? What areas would you like
to see yourselves involved in soon?

Zine distro! More workshops! More collaborations! A distro with little money and lots of energy grows slowly and grows strong.

What’s the best way for people to ask you to facilitate skill-shares and get a hold of Counteract goods? (It looks like most of CCs work is available on Etsy.)

Our website is the best way to see what’s going on, and besides the Etsy shop, folks can always drop us a line to order through the mail. My awesome friend Matt Gauck, a fellow screen printer of patches on Etsy, is teaming up with me to create a print catalog of our patches, so watch out for that, luddites!

Thanks so much for your time! Any last shout outs to other collectives/distros/zines/affinity groups?

Much love to my buddies at Microcosm Distribution, Chris at Printed Matter Screen Printing in Portland for showing me how to use a scoop coater, and to the friends I’ve made over the Internet (of all places!) who needed some screen printing done. Thanks so much, Effluvia!

Book Thug Nation – DIY Series #1

This is part of a new series that Effluvia is doing on independent booksellers, info-shops, distros and other collective and individual exercises in the dissemination of “alternative” media. As the behemoth B&N adds more kitsch and subtracts more books from its brick and mortar stores and moves more of its business online, we at Effluvia hope to see a resurgence of DIY/indie shops dedicated to the printed word (as well as other art).

Who better to kick off the series than the infamous NYC-based Book Thug Nation!?! BTN is a bookstore with roots on the street corners and in zine culture, that is now a booming bookstore and all around force to be reckoned with! Please check out our short interview with the Book Thugs, and visit their store, in person or online.

RISK Interview

by Kevin Casey with Wes Trbovich

Effluvia had the opportunity to get down with one of LA’s graff legends. Here is his account first hand of the gallery scene, bombing, and the connection to the international community, surfing and the deconstruction of the letterform!

Read the interview: Risk Rock

Stay tuned for the Effluvia Graff Gallery in the works. We have hundreds of photos on deck (including tons of exclusives from RISK – thanks brother!) The gallery should be up in the next couple of weeks!

In An Instant – Creative Nonfiction by Brittany Michelson

Check out some new creative nonfiction by Brittany Michelson

Brittany Michelson on herself:
My prose and poetry has been published in Sleet Magazine, Speech Bubble Magazine, Glossolalia Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Backhand Stories, Bat Terrier Journal, Bolts Of Silk, Flashquake, and other online journals. Print work appears in PMS Magazine and an anthology by Bona Fide Books, and is forthcoming in The Poetry Of Yoga anthology.

In An Instant

Pixel Ruffage… Video Salad by Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee spits some the the most amazing chopped pixels we’ve seen in days… Effluvia got the chance to catch her between salads and get the low down. Her blog bubbles at supmaggielee.

Read the interview here .

All of Anarchism in Your Backpack: An Anarchist FAQ

An Anarchist FAQ
By Kevin Casey

A couple of years ago An Anarchist Frequently Asked Questions (AFAQ) migrated from the internet to a 555 page tome, put out by Effluvia favorites AK Press. Iain McKay’s excellent introduction elucidates the general goals and motivations of the project: to stand as a resource for those interested in anarchism and to convince people why they should become anarchists.

The book was compiled by working anarchists labouring in their spare time to produce a collective text, and as such, it embodies anarchism in action. Its very pages are the result of a living breathing anarchism.

Read more the full piece in Mixed Reviews.

NO HEROIC MEASURES – fiction by Melissa Ann Chadburn

Effluvia Magazine is excited to publish a piece by Los Angeles based writer Melissa Chadburn. Her NO HEROIC MEASURES is, at turns, provocative, informative, poignant, disturbing and uplifting.

Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Splinter Generation, slake magazine, and she is a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. She interns at dzanc books and is a proud member of the Advisory Board for Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket.

Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) or follow her on twitter:!/melissachadburn

No Heroic Measures – Melissa Chadburn

What It Do (vol. 2 issue 2) – THE WRECKLESS PRESS

by Kevin Casey

In Mixed Reviews.

What It Do (vol. 2 issue 2)

Review – What It Do

Tattoo the World: a film review

by Kevin Casey

In Mixed Reviews.

For the full review of Tattoo the World click Tattoo the World.

Jost Hochuli: Detail in Typography and Designing Books

by Kevin Casey

In Mixed Reviews.

Detail in Typography and Designing Books by Jost Hochuli

MoCA – Art In The Streets

Art In The Streets

Mostly True

by Kevin Casey

In Mixed Reviews

Mostly True

The Sextine Chapel

by Kevin Casey

New Translated Literature in Mixed Reviews Mixed Reviews

Hervé Le Tellier

Q&A with Artist Richard Taylor


Xpres Q&A

The Silence of Violence

The Silence of Violence
What is said, unsaid and transmuted in the intersemiotic translations of Cormac McCarthy’s later work.
by Kevin Casey


McCarthy Transmutation

Souvenir: Skye Parrott


Skye Parrott