The self-determination of underground culture is such that every fully formed tribe has its unique indigenous features, and as with the often self-taught nature of underground musicians, many of these tribes have spawned visual autodidacts – those with little formal training, capable of generating the war-paint, totems and other artistic ideologies that encapsulate the general disaffect.
Some of these names – Raymond Pettibon, Gee Vaucher, Nick Blinko – have crossed over into the defacto art world, while others – Pushead, Shawn Kerrie, Away, Sean Taggart, Mark Rude – are an inseparable part of the legacy of noise they illustrated.
I was always fascinated by the Glen E. Friedman photos on the cover of the first Suicidal Tendencies album… a multitude of individuals in white thrift-store shirts, the backs of which were adorned with crude hand scrawled skulls, death riders and demons, along with the ST band name or “Suicidal Cycos” and “Venice” written in a very regionally specific style of lettering. On close inspection, it seemed like either willful laboriousness, or over enthusiasm – apparently only Black Flag could afford to get real t-shirts printed.
The majority of these shirts were illustrated by Ric Clayton (although most likely not the really bad one that says “Suicible Tendancies”), a skater friend of the band who had begun hand-drawing flyers for early ST gigs along with artwork for other local bands in the same musical circles.
Although Ric Clayton’s art focused on a definite morbidity, it had little in common with the stereotype of professionally airbrushed rock and metal fantasy art… Instead, it seemed to embrace its own primitive instinct, developed from crude marker drawings, school desk vandalism and punk teen-scrawl into a fully formed and energetic street style.
Published in Mid 2018, WELCOME TO VENICE maps out this development in all its unapologetic glory. What initially drew me to this book was the collection of punk flyers – Such was the fragmentation of that world that no one voice or opinion could encompass or represent it accurately. Where the truths, falsities and fables of it all develop their own viral reach, it is often left to ephemeral remnants to provide a level of clarity and accuracy.
The section of beautifully reproduced flyers (in all their yellowed and folded glory) documents a community of local bands in an era of punk and trash crossover ’82-86 – Suicidal Tendencies, Beowülf, Neighborhood Watch, Excel, Clayton’s own band No Mercy. But apart from the urgency of the wonderfully coarse and lowbrow art, it’s the apparently trivial details that really make these flyers fascinating – various line-ups of bands, venue directions and rough maps shoved into available space, and even warnings about avoiding local police.
The book progresses into a sequence of skeletons in Venice street-gang attire. The drawing style is much more refined but there’s an underlying menace in the repetition – Bandana wearing skulls, flipped-up caps declaring band or local allegiance, Pendleton shirts with only the top buttoned up. This is well documented as the sort of image that alienated Suicidal Tendencies and their cohorts from the wider punk scene. Suicidals dressing in the distinctive street clothes of their area were seen as propagating gang culture and bringing an ugly violence into punk in the 80s. I know very little of this history but there now a number of books on LA’s punk gangs if it’s the sort of information you’re after.
Beyond all of this there are excursions into skateboard art (it’s curious that there are only 2 images of his Dogtown decks), beautiful surfer art (I wish there was more of this!), graffiti calligraphy, tattoo flash, biker art and photos of THOSE shirts. Clayton’s drawing style progresses throughout, but is convincingly visceral and maintains a credible line right back to its roots.
One thing this book lacks is some sort of supporting text. The argument could be made that the images dictate their own story, but Ric Clayton’s own words or an interview conducted by a 3rd party (asking the right questions) would certainly have enhanced the content. Clayton’s personal trajectory through all of this, from longhaired skater to spiky punk to musician to tattooist to biker, is mapped out in intermittent photomontages. It’s more than clear that the artist has engaging stories to tell, but judging by the reproductions of court papers at the beginning, along with scans of various memorabilia from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there’s also a darker personal history here – one that is hinted at rather than spelt out.
The unpasteurised accessibility of Ric Clayton’s unique and seminal style means that it has been much appropriated and copied by “professionals” in the skate, surf and apparel industries. With this in mind, it’s nice to know that those who remember their roots respect them – Suicidal Tendencies maintains a “RxCx RIC CLAYTON COLLECTION” as part of its not inconsiderable merchandising operations.
Nowadays, a street artist is some mumbling gimp with skinny jeans hanging off his boney arse, spray-painting morally compliant or sponsored dirge in the beer garden of a craft brew pub for a couple of IPAs and the currency of “exposure”…
…Ric Clayton’s vibrant and singular vision of locality and identity somewhat accidentally had a far reaching influence, and is ultimately street art in its most raw and unadulterated form…
224 pages, Hardcover, 8 1/2″ X 11″, ISBN: 978-1-58423-632-0