Photos by Jeremy Asher Lynch and Nick Gullo
Lean over an antique letterpress and it’s this mad mix of kindergarten simplicity and industrial-era gears and rollers. Lean closer and it might just rip your hand off. Kevin Bradley, garbed in a coonskin hat and plaid pajamas, cranks the handle of his contraption—a monstrous machine custom-built by Takach, roughly 4’ by 10’—and out rolls a poster.
Like I said, simple.
Inside the Church of Type, Kevin’s new studio in Santa Monica, posters cover the walls. Sardonic advertisements. Political pieces. Old-school fight and wrestling bills—and it’s these, in particular, that drew my interest. Last month Kevin relocated his operation from Tennessee to the West Coast, financed via Kickstarter, and the contemporary art community, which thrives in this Culver City-ish enclave, immediately embraced him. “Bro, you’re into fighting,” an artist friend called to say. “You gotta come check out this guy’s setup.”
Under the rows of posters, ramshackle shelves house trays of wooden blocks carved with custom letters and images. These blocks, nearly five thousand, are the stock of Kevin’s trade. And it’s this unique collection that sets him apart. Like a doting father, he loves each and every block. Which is why on many a weekend he scours abandoned warehouses and even flea markets for lost kin. Forget Photoshop and Illustrator; the computer is the devil of last resort. This is Fugazi. This is Sherlock Holmes. Steampunk or die.
Here’s how you create a poster: first, design the thing, and as this step is a creative and mostly subjective endeavor I won’t attempt to describe it, so let’s just call it equal parts voodoo and blood letting; second, select and arrange your blocks in a metal tray; then choose an ink color; then insert paper; then crank it out.
Watching Kevin amble through the shop, trading stories about New Orleans, my hometown, laughing aloud, and offering a bottle of Bullet Rye, numerous storybook characters come to mind, a few being Daniel Boon and Willy Wonka. But leafing through a bin of his posters, and given the snarky political messages, I’m thinking more Banksy, or Shepard Fairey.
The history of printing mirrors the rise of civilization. Really, spawned everything we know. Think about it—without books we are little more than talking monkeys trading stories around the fire. No electricity. No mass education. No transference of complex ideas. Forget advanced mathematics, medicine, astronomy, etc., etc.
It all started with monks locked for decades behind monastery walls, sipping wine and copying texts. Over centuries this mass scribbling gave way to woodblock printing, moveable type, and with the start of the Renaissance, circa 14th century, the printing press.
Which is when the oppressed grasped the power of this new contraption and started distributing leaflets decrying various iron fists. Give us liberty, or give us death … which of course led to the very public, very gruesome, hang-drawn-and-quartered drill—if you are unfamiliar with the punishment, consider Guy Fawkes, who, for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, was interrogated, tortured, then sentenced to emasculation, disemboweling, beheading, and dismemberment. And to further salt the proverbial wound, the monarchs seized the press and began pumping out their own flyers. Thus, propaganda was born.
But I’m here for posters. Fight posters.
I pull up a stool, uncap the Bullet, and peruse the Church of Type archives. For a fight fan, it’s like the Library of Alexandria, revealing the most amazing stockpile of boxers and professional wrestlers: Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay, George Foreman, Alex Scotty Mack, Leon Spinks, Big John Tate, Larry Holmes, Church Wepner, Bill Superfoot Wallace, “Bullet” Bob Armstrong, Harley Race, Lou Thesz, Minnesota Wrecking Crew, Andre the Giant, Rick Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Fabulous Moolah, Diamond Lil, Giant Baba, Ox Baker, Antoni Inoki, Fritz Von Erich, Nikita Koloff, Terry Funk, Waldo von Erich, Chief ‘Wahoo’ McDaniels, Jack Briscoe, ‘Dirty’ Dutch Mantel, Tony Atlas, Trully Blanchard, to name a few of let’s say one thousand.
Fight promotion is a two-way street. The promoter seeks to spread the word and stoke interest. The fan--he/she/I--we want that awe. Sports distract from the boredom and drudgery of the 9-to-5, and if you want my cash, do your job and fan those flames until I’m counting down the days, reviewing videos, reading forums, debating and dissecting each fighter’s style, training regimen, physical condition, mental wherewithal ...
I’ve observed and even given feedback on numerous drafts of UFC fight posters, and for me the takeaway is, as with the letterpress itself, keep it simple, stupid. Emphasize a few compelling traits so the message cuts through the noise.
Vince McMahon understands this. Banksy understands this. Even Hitler understood this.
Watching Kevin assemble blocks in a tray, I suddenly feel carsick, as I realize that within this quest for simplification lies the uncomfortable--no, immoral--nexus between fight promotion and propaganda. Propagandists dismiss the complexities surrounding an issue, reducing multiple viewpoints to good versus evil, as though a bout. Selling the agenda becomes the only truth.
I’ll never forget 2004. I was living in the Deep South during the Bush vs. Kerry showdown, and seated in a friend’s kitchen, our families watching George W. point at the camera and decry evil-doers, my buddy’s wife turned from the tube and fanning her face, announced to all present, “Oh, it’s like every time he speaks, I feel God touching me.”
That, folks, is power. On so many levels. Not the least of which is the power to silence all substantive pre-war debate, about, say: civilian deaths, monetary costs, sectarian unrest, economic drain, breaking the spine of our military, long-term care of wounded veterans, et al. Like a fight promoter, Karl Rove laminated Saddam Hussein’s photo on the Ace of Spades, then he spread the word that if you question us, if you dare dispute this characterization, you’re a yellow commie.
But don’t assume corruption only infects Republicans. Let’s circle back to why we’re here—posters. Remember 2008 and that infamous Obama “Hope” poster? Somehow, our current President’s then campaign staff (Yosi Sergant) enlisted Shepard Fairey to donate his anti-propagandist skills to the cause.
No big deal, right? Until you reflect on the utter failure of our mass media, the so-called Fourth Branch of U.S. Democracy, during the lead-up to the war. Not just Fox News. Every major outlet towed the line, so fearful were they of angering advertisers.
That’s why Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Kevin Bradley, and other artist/muckrakers are so important. Point out the hypocrisy via black humor. Dig the knife. Cross the line that few with a public platform dare.
These guys are our heroes, except that Fairey—forget justifications, such as choosing the lesser of two evils—I’ll say it now: Shepard Fairey, I love your work, homie, but you are a fucking sellout. Used your skills to further “the cause,” and in turn we got the NDAA, the continuing operation of Guantanamo Bay, a drawdown of troops in Iraq per Bush’s timetable, and a healthcare bill crafted by Big Insurance. Thanks.
“Why so glum?” Kevin asks. I shrug. “I made you something,” he says.
From under a cabinet he lifts out a poster. It’s mock-up of my storied tussle with UFC fighter Joe Lauzon, in which I was thoroughly whooped on and made the fool.
I snort and walk away, then I turn and tell him to forget that stupid bout; how about a campaign poster? I’m sick of bitching, I say. Let’s pull a Shepard/Obama. Make me a "Tooth for Congress, 2014.” But dude, this poster needs to kick-ass, because unlike these other hacks, I’m not sucking from the corporate teet. We’ll do this thing old school. DIY. Sell these things on Kickstarter and shake up the system.
“You put a Jack Daniels bottle on the poster, and I’m in.”
He extends his hand. We shake.
Check out this earlier story by Nick "The Tooth":
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