Mr. Rogers' neighborhood
Poster artist rocks Manitou
by Matthew Schniper
So you don't know Jermaine, the elusive rock-poster artist who has fostered a diehard base of collectors across the world.
He's produced artwork for hundreds of popular artists, from Henry Rollins, Morrissey, Ween, The Flaming Lips and Tool to Radiohead, David Bowie, The Shins, Built to Spill, Queens of the Stone Age and the Deftones.
He's created symbol-rich narratives played out in his works by iconic, 7-foot tall teddy bears with vacant stares and leering grins, and a mythic, cherub-faced, pig-bodied boy.
Still don't know Jermaine?
Never fret. You will. He's your new neighbor in the land of make-believe or Manitou Springs, as we know it. If his roots grow deep in the mountain soil, he someday could even become the town's successor to Charles Rockey: a figure of mythic proportion, quietly toiling at his craft inside his own universe of legendary creatures and lore.
Even now, he's inarguably one of the world's top dogs in his craft, exciting not only poster collectors but toy fans and fine art enthusiasts alike. There's a good likelihood Jermaine has done a poster for at least one band on your CD shelf or iPod.
His celebrity status precedes him, commanding top dollar on eBay, daily. As one of the featured artists in Art of Modern Rock, a widely hyped, national who's-who, he's at the forefront of what many critics have hailed as the next pop art movement.
Suffice to say, he's a big deal.
So what's he doing here?
Jermaine Rogers, Houston-born and now 34, essentially is self-taught; he didn't like what his art-school teachers had to offer. He absorbed more from his upbringing in the '70s, inspired by Sid and Marty Krofft shows, like "H.R. Pufnstuf" with larger-than-life, colorful puppets.
"The teachers told me, "Don't waste your time trying to be an artist with name recognition. Your chances are slim to none.'"
So Jermaine now known largely by first name alone stuck to drawing every day.
"I can't remember missing a day since I was 10," he says. "That's almost 25 years now."
And he put the statistics out of mind.
"I lived in a 10-by-10 studio, eating Vienna sausages and crap every day, keepin' it real, you know," he remembers of life in his early 20s. Ultimately that wore on him, but not before he'd caught attention through posters he'd started doing for bands.
Then he met and fell in with perhaps his biggest mentor, legendary poster artist Frank Kozik, to whom he was frequently being compared by altweeklies and other publications. Kozik was the guy whose posters Jermaine was pulling from telephone poles and venue walls and collecting under his bed.
"What I admired about Frank was that he proved you could do exactly what you wanted to do and make money," Jermaine says. "It was liberating for me, to see that it could be done."
So Jermaine kept on, rising from smaller bands like Fishbone and The Cramps in '95 and Cowboy Mouth, Mudhoney and Blur in '97 to even more prominent acts like Modest Mouse, Ben Folds Five and ultimately Radiohead in '98 which he considers his breakout year. From there, he was of the caliber in 1999 to attract Neil Young, Tori Amos and Rage Against the Machine, among others, alongside bands that he sought out, as a fan of their work.
His Web site, jermainerogers.com, reveals ever-lengthening lists of top bands annually, culminating in highlight after highlight. In 2004, he contacted David Bowie's entourage, requesting to do a poster for Bowie's Houston gig.
"I said to myself, "I've got to do a Bowie poster, or I'll regret it' I've let things slip by," Jermaine recalls. "I kicked myself the day Elliott Smith died. I never [created] a print for him, and I had the chance at least a dozen times."
Bowie's people were a go. Later, while Jermaine was at the show enjoying the opener, his phone rang in his pocket. It was an invite to meet Bowie after the concert. For a man with fans of his own, keen on the excitement a celebrity creates, he turned to textbook emotional mush. Even now, his voice changes as he retells the story. "He was just soooo cool," Jermaine says, "... and he told me how great the poster was ..."
Fast-forward to present, and Jermaine has a standing invitation to submit designs to the Bowie team whenever he feels. He's currently designing a Bowie T-shirt that will sell at Target stores later this year.
Which begs the question: "Target stores? They're corporate. Isn't that selling out?"
Man vs. the machine
"Dude, I sold out a long time ago," Jermaine says, with a glowing smile to rival his famous bears'. He's heard the question, plenty. It fails to insult him because he has a perspective on how to use the system that uses you. That, and he says he has friends inside Clear Channel, the monstrous multimedia and concert-booking conglomerate.
"You can stand outside the machine and throw rocks at it and think you're doing something but you're not doing anything," he says. "I'd much rather climb inside of it and start ripping stuff up."
Jermaine traces the money trail a Robin Hood trail of sorts explaining he takes the money from a Clear Channel job and then does a poster for a band he loves, but that could never afford him.
"I know a bunch of guys who will "stay true' to whatever, but now they're in their 40s, workin' retail somewhere, and they have story after story of how they got screwed," Jermaine says. "While I think you can keep your principles, if you have the opportunity to be paid and exposed with that kind of work, you can push your agenda."
That's why he admires activist and hardcore icon Rollins, who will hop on every stage possible to push a different perspective because people in control are pushing their agendas, too.
"So to me, it's all about being balanced," Jermaine says, adding there are jobs he wouldn't do in his early days that he still won't do he's had big tobacco offers and jobs he let slide by at 24 or 25 for "keepin' it real" reasons that he would take now.
"I feel a responsibility to myself, my creator and my family," he says, adding that he stays away from politics in his work. He's more concerned with making people think about their socialization, actions and belief systems.
Don't talk about the force
Jermaine agrees with his contemporary, New York-based artist Alex Grey, who says artists "are like the modern-day shaman," interpreting events for the tribe and ultimately establishing a historical record of how we feel about our world.
He likens art to his biggest muse, his young daughter Gabriella. "Art is like the human race's resident 3-year-old," he says. "You've got to be prepared for five minutes of "whys?'"
He wants those who partake in his craft to question everything they've ever been taught to think, "Maybe everything I know is wrong." Rather than easy vehicles like nudity, violence or obscenity, he uses juxtaposition to lift eyelids.
Like in his 2006 Sufjan Stevens poster: Why is Abe Lincoln pictured with a creepy clown (who one eBay seller recently noted looks a lot like John Wayne Gacy)? And what's with the highly popular 2001 image on a Propagandhi poster of Ghandi, with Lion-O from Thundercats?
Jermaine gets e-mails daily with such questions, as new people come to his work. And he never tells. All he'll say is "that in the Jermaine poster world, these things happen. Lion-O and Ghandi worked together on the people's movement in the 1940s in my universe, it happened."
His secrecy creates intrigue, dialogue and, best of all, hype.
"One of the biggest mistakes George Lucas made was when he tried to explain The Force," Jermaine says. "You had Yoda in Empire talking about "we are luminous beings,' and then [Lucas] tries to explain it [in later films] with all that stuff about mitochlorian. You never take the mystery and magic away from your story. Art in its most powerful form is open to vast disparities of interpretation. You have to realize that when you let it go, it no longer belongs to you."
That's the first time Star Wars came up in conversation, trumped later by every boy's fantasy come true. But we aren't there yet. With a parting thought on the aim of his work, Jermaine offers the payoff:
"If you can break down one hard-core, socially taught boundary, then you'll find you'll start hunting around all the rooms of your life, kicking the walls to see if they'll cave in."
It's all good
Jody Goodall, curator of Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester, England, which features such artists as renowned photographer Anton Corbijn (iconic U2, Miles Davis and David Bowie pics), says Jermaine "took the mantle from Kozik and created a new world of poster art."
Jermaine Rogers: built to thrill and in Manitou.
"He has a style all his own and is like no one else in the way that the collectors want to get all his work," Goodall says. "He's very similar to [Andy] Warhol in today's art world, crossing boundaries between genre and medium. He creates a mythology around the work and the artist."
At the Goodall Gallery a few years ago, the Queens of the Stone Age, coincidentally in Manchester for a concert, made a surprise drop-in appearance to support Jermaine and a couple of his contemporaries who stock their tours with fresh posters for each gig date.
When asked that night for a quote on his work, Queens lead singer Josh Homme joked to Jermaine, "You can't even go to the airport, because you're the bomb." Jermaine later did a poster for Homme's wedding. (Good luck finding that one.)
Goodall says Jermaine simply transcends his genre: "He keeps the work fresh and important and keeps re-inventing [himself], while always staying true to the Jermaine style."
Meet the princess
In a move to branch out and reinvent himself not unlike his decision to come to Manitou Jermaine began delving into a whole new fan demographic through the toy industry.
"Jermaine thinks it's a new subculture," explains Emek, who, with Jermaine and Justin Hampton, makes up a poster-artist tag-team called Post-Neo Explosionism. "So he feels it hasn't developed the cliques and pretension yet he just feels it's an exciting, emerging scene and he's encouraging me to participate."
Jermaine took his best-known characters, the Dero and Squire, and began creating rotocast (a process by which to make the toys) variations in tightly limited series, which he believes are essential to maintaining integrity. He admits being inspired by everything from mythology to Star Wars to Seven Samurai and even the Bible.
It was at the San Diego Comic-Con that he met a childhood ... um, crush? Jermaine had been caught in traffic and arrived late to find roughly 300 people waiting in line to have their posters and toys signed.
While keeping the line moving, he was interrupted by the president of Strangeco (the toy company that distributes his products), tapping Jermaine on the shoulder and inviting him behind his booth. He tried to politely decline, but the Strangeco executive was insistent.
When Jermaine obliged and stepped back, an excited Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia herself, held out his Squire and Veil-129 toys to be signed. Jermaine describes the moment as a surreal awakening into how far-reaching his toys had become, adding that if you'd told him back in 1980, in his parents' den, that one day he'd meet Princess Leia and she'd buy his toys, he'd have had a "massive coronary."
Tripping the switch
In late January, as Jermaine first begins interviewing for this story, he's been in town only two months and still is getting settled. He admits a bit of an artist's block. But this funk, he says, is nothing compared to his worst. He remembers the first Queens of the Stone Age tour in 2003, for which he was responsible for a batch of eight posters.
"And I had artist's block hard," he says, in a thick, drawn-out Southern accent.
"For me, it throws me into a straight-up depression," he says, which just compounds the stress. And so he does the one thing that's always bailed him out: He starts reading voraciously. Old comics, books, papers, letters ... "whatever I can find," he says.
And then he breaks through.
"I trip a switch and I feel it come on," he says. "The physical sensation feels like a wave of energy that runs through my head, just under the surface an electrical wave. I would feel it as a kid, usually in peak creative moments I'd be building a [pillow] fort or something and I'd feel it.
"[With a Deftones series last fall] I couldn't finish one poster soon enough, because the other idea would be there, just pouring out. I'd put everything else on hold and live with the pencil in my hand."
During a tour of the makeshift studio in Jermaine's home, a box arrives at the door. He cuts the top open to reveal an eBay purchase, the complete series of Out of this World, 25 old, stained books related to the bizarre and unusual. One could only imagine what future poster ideas lurk in those issues.
More striking is the realization that Jermaine uses eBay. On a given day, between 25 and 50 of his items are being sold on the site by others. And that's just the beginning of the eBay irony as it applies to Jermaine and poster artists at large.
Friend or foe?
In many respects, eBay has been the smiling friend with a dagger behind his back to poster artists. Or maybe a better analogy is to liken the site to a steroid: It helped the artists get bigger, but not without costs along the way. Now it's an inescapable reality.
On the positive side, eBay's open market creates demand for artists' work, where collectors around the world can find posters of their favorite bands.
For instance, when hardcore Deftones fans heard Jermaine would be making 10 prints to be sold randomly throughout 30 tour dates, he immediately began receiving e-mail from fans begging to know which cities so they could buy plane tickets "and of course, they swore they wouldn't tell anyone else," he says.
For most, their only hope to collect all 10 would be on eBay in the following months. But the signed, limited (usually between 50 and 250) posters that originally sold for $25 at the show regularly command upwards of $75 to $100 each on eBay. (If rare oldies appear, they go for significantly more.) That's the first drawback for a blue-collar demographic, making much of the work unreachable to true fans.
Jermaine fights the "eBay hustlers," as he calls them, by selling that same poster for $50 on his Web site with a one-per-person limit. He also announces only a sale date, not a sale time, hoping the randomness will make it more difficult for one person to amass multiple copies via friends, family, etc.
"The way some artists handle their stuff," says Jermaine, "they make it easy for eBay dealers. The prices you see sometimes are really inflated, because one guy does something and somebody goes out there and pays it. And that legitimizes his price."
He notes that many up-and-coming artists set their prices "way too cheap," bringing down the whole genre. As an established artist, that doesn't hurt him much, but he argues that it contributes to poster art being considered something lesser than fine art. He says fine-art collectors will look at poster artists' work and want to accept it, but with a $15 price tag, they relegate it to a lesser category of "just rock 'n roll."
That's the stereotype from which Jermaine is trying to steer the industry away. He says he'd be like Andy Warhol if he had his way, making a piece of art for a dollar so everyone who wanted to could buy one. "It's not really about the money," Jermaine says. "I want people to see my artwork."
But a guy also has to make a living.
The ultimate irony is that Jermaine and some contemporaries have used eBay and depended on the poster vultures for another purpose.
"I don't sell on eBay," says Emek, "but I buy my stuff back on eBay."
Emek, like Jermaine, sold off most of his original works back in his hungry days, and now is trying to recollect them. Jermaine doesn't even have Polaroids of some of his earliest stuff. Now he dreams of seeing them pop up on eBay. He and Emek have even put out calls on their Web sites, offering to buy back or trade for missing works.
"I sold everything every poster and the original art," says Jermaine, whose personal archive is full of holes between 1995 and '98. He was elated when one fan in Austin, Texas, appeared with the very first poster the Dero bear ever appeared on, a KMFDM poster from '95. "It's always weird buying your own artwork back," he jokes, "and they know what it's worth."
So, why is he here?
Jermaine says when he creates art, it involves three cycles: "ingesting, digesting and expelling."
A fair encapsulation of why he moved with his wife and daughter to Manitou Springs his favorite childhood family vacation spot is that he's largely in an ingestion and digestion phase right now. He needed to escape from the big city to recluse, indefinitely.
"I'm Wolverine in Japan right now," he jokes during one interview, referring to a running theme in the X-Men comics where the wild-tempered character essentially retreats from the battlefield to get his head straight. In his case, that means regaining a focus on his spiritual rightness within himself, family and true friends.
"The scenery here helps me keep things in perspective," he says. "Texas is where I made my name, and Houston is a big town. My watershed work was done there, but people have come to know and expect things from me, and it can be limiting."
Jermaine goes on to say that he feels in constant struggle between his art and his product. Though he's well-established and has never failed in a recreation of himself, there's always the chance a future project will tank.
"I know what people who collect my work want to see, and it bores me to death right now ... there's this false voice that comes back in these crisis moments and asks, "Do I do what I want, or what I'll know they'll dig? If I do this, it will sell out and they'll love it. But if I do that, it won't sell out what will people think?' I've got money now, and offers, but the voices still say, "You're gonna fall off ... you're no longer relevant.'"
Though he's in this transition phase, maybe even a whole new phase of his career, Jermaine is far from lacking ideas for the near future. He insists he will always produce some concert posters annually. He also aims to complete more fine-art prints (oil on canvas) and possibly assemble a book with a vow to "make poster art relevant again," noting that in pre-photography days, posters were used to advertise almost everything.
He's toying with the idea of engaging Manitou and Colorado Springs at some point, thinking of the impact and hype that screen prints for everything from coffee shops to local industry could create. Not for money just for art's sake.
It's blowing snow outside his family's Manitou home, which doubles as Jermaine's studio for the time being. But the only moving boxes scattered about are filled with blank canvas and paper, stuffed unobtrusively out on his balcony, where he paints. Snow blows in over the railing, just out of reach of a large work in progress: a joint portrait of Andy Warhol and Jermaine's greatest inspiration, Vincent van Gogh.
He will move soon into a proper studio space in Manitou Springs. For the time being, he has spread across the bedroom floor a sampling of posters and original sketch-board drawings pulled from storage to represent a 10-year tour of his life.
As we thumb through the posters, Jermaine remembers which band each design went to, often telling a quick anecdote about each drawing's conception like a proud mother detailing a family photo album. He shows early sketches of the Dero bears, Squire, his trademark bunny rabbits, raccoons and his mythic birdmen. Occasionally, he stumbles upon an unused drawing; some may sit for two years or more, he says, before the timing is right.
In a pinch, with only an hour before deadline, he says he's knocked out a full poster in about 35 minutes. No one ever would be able to distinguish it from one of the full-day or longer-nurtured pieces, and he'll never tell which one it is. To inform a fan that a piece was a rush job, or one that was aging on the shelf, might diminish their experience of the artwork and the trial to obtain it.
A couple of his posters hang in Gabriella's room, next to a Pixar Cars poster that, he jokes, she likes better than his. He says if she grows out of his posters, she can just sell them on eBay.
How's that for allowance money?
Still a mystery?
If you still don't think you know Jermaine, just study his work. It's all there, between the lines. All but the answer to what the number 72 scrawled on foreheads and hidden throughout his work means. He wouldn't say, and if he did, you wouldn't see it here. That'd ruin the mystery.
His work captures key moments in his life the early nail-a-poster-to-a-phone-pole days, the hungry years, his blowup, finding out about his wife's pregnancy, the birth of his daughter and watching her grow it's all in the posters alongside the bunnies, bears and rock stars. He has managed to slip his messages under the radar, all along.
As asserted by everyone close to him, Jermaine proved to be generous and humble during the interview process "a true Renaissance man," as Emek says. I leave his studio feeling a somewhat better grasp of what makes the icon tick.
That is, until later, when I'm nagged by his line at the end of one of our interviews: "But remember, everything I've just said to you is wrong."
Elevation, featuring original paintings, line art and works by Jermaine, and also works by Emek, Justin Hampton, SHAG, Jeff Soto, Joe Sorren and many more
Limited Addiction Gallery, 825 Santa Fe Drive, Denver
Open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. and by appointment; show runs through March 31.
Visit limitedaddictiongallery.com or call 303/893-4234 for more on the show. Visit jermainerogers.com for more on the artist.
Bear, Hare and Scare
Three figures in particular have emerged in Jermaine's work that have left fans salivating for more: The Dero bears, Squire and a horde of lop-eared bunnies. The Indy asked Jermaine to tell us a little about the conception and story of each character:
"When my wife and I were first married six years ago, she wanted a pet, because at the time, we weren't planning any children. I couldn't get a cat or dog because of my work, so we got a rabbit instead and we just fell in love with it ... So I'd sit around and draw him, and I ended up putting him on a poster one time for a pretty big band and everybody loved it. Eventually they took on a life of their own. I started telling stories of this little group of rabbits being led by this being named Squire."
"Squire came from a little ad I once saw, from like 1905, an ad for some tonic. It had a drawing of a pig's body with a little boy's head on it and said "It will make your kids as fat as hogs.' It was a weird little image. It reminded me of story that my mother used to tell that her grandmother would tell them, about being out in the country late one night with her mother, and she was walking home on the dirt roads and saw this little dog coming toward them, and when they got close, they saw that it had a human head and it spoke to them and said, "How're you doing tonight?' And that always stuck with me. So Squire developed. For some reason, he brought under his influence this herd of rabbits and was influencing them to do things like, they raided a raccoon den and destroyed it."
"I started drawing them in '95. I drew a fanged bear with split-pupil eyes on a leash, being held by a priest and flanked by a cop and politician. People in Houston and Austin really liked it. I was really influenced by Sid and Marty Krofft ... and the McDonaldland cartoons, with people in big suits. I tried to draw like that, like this big thing that someone could almost be inside of. I started calling them The Dero, and every time I put them on a poster, people responded ... "No teddy bears are supposed to be cute' ... It's the juxtaposition of them that people find weird or creepy. But that's the secret of a lot of the best stuff I've done, and the best rock 'n roll poster art. Frank Kozik taught me that. He'd take some hard band like Killdozer and the image would be some cute doggie with flowers it screws with your mind. I don't think my work is creepy it's a different world, but not creepy."