Celebrate Columbus

By 1992, most design studios were working on a Mac IIsi, or better yet, a new Quad. I was not as quick to respond to the technology craze. The only computer I had access to was one at my girlfriend’s job. I would sit there, after hours, chasing little boxes of type around a small screen. This proved little fun. I preferred, and still prefer, working with my hands. I’d use scissors, paint, and preseparated mechanicals that I sent off to the printer complete with hand-drawn crop marks and layers of vellum and tissue, all held down to a Bainbridge board with wax, white tape, and the occasional cat hair.

I had moved to New York to become a poster designer, not knowing this position didn’t exist as a paying gig. It still doesn’t. But in my youthful idealism I was a believer. I felt I was privileged to be working in the design field. I thought graphic design was the most important work in the world. And I wanted to make work that was dangerous; otherwise it was not worth doing. But the truth was, I was making book jackets, not posters. These were not terribly dangerous. And I was being art directed, sometimes heavily.

In the fall of ‘92 I read an article in The New York Times about the celebrations New York City had planned for the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. Now, I am no expert on Christopher Columbus or Native American history; what I know is what I remember from grade school: The Indians met Columbus, Pocahontas saved John Smith, then they all had Thanksgiving. But now some questions were raised. Where were the Indians today? What had they been doing? Why did I not know any? I felt the need to add to the conversation. What about the pox-infected blankets? What about the genocide? I knew the odds of The New York Times printing a satirical letter in strong opposition to the festivities were low. And I also knew that the freedom of the press belongs to those who own a press. So I turned to print. No sketches, no client, and no money, except what was earmarked for rent. I pressed on regardless, paid the printer as well as the “official” company that hangs posters throughout New York “Post No Bills” City. Thus began my obsession with posters. And a bad business plan.

I was still an apprentice at the time in Paul Bacon’s Carnegie Hall studio, a few blocks from Columbus Circle and ground zero for the big parade. Across the street was a construction site, where six of my Columbus posters were dutifully hung between Calvin Klein ads (featuring scantily clad teenage models frolicking in a faux wood-paneled basement) and posters for Lethal Weapon 3. While I was out one day admiring my work, two things happened that solidified my relationship with poster making. First, I saw people on the sidewalk stopping in front of my posters and reading them. Actually reading the damn things, even craning their necks sideways to study the fine print. I had made someone stop. A miracle — and something I was told in school would never happen. Second, the police came. They stopped as well, but not to read my posters. It was to scrape them off the wall with an old mop handle, being careful to leave the Calvin Klein posters unharmed. I was confused. Didn’t I, too, pay for the right to be on the wall? Had I not used a commercial printer, sought the right format to print on, and followed the rules? I refrained from asking the cops these questions.

Republished from “Victore Or, Who Died and Made You Boss?” Abrams

A side note: The recoil of spending money earmarked for rent was that I then could not actually pay rent… for awhile. Consequently, every few weeks, the buzzer would ring and waiting downstairs was a man in a suit. “You are served” was his only line as he would hand me eviction notices. At the time I was both surprised and a little ashamed. I threw the papers away. Thinking back, I wish I had kept them — these legal notices were proof of my conviction, the price I had to pay to make posters. My girlfriend who was living with me at the time did not like eviction notices. She, too, became the price.