The logo is simple. Four heavy black bars sitting side by side — one up, one down, one up, one down — creating a wave effect: a black flag flying in the wind of discontent.
Few logos are as universally recognized and revered as the one Raymond Pettibon designed for L.A. punk legends Black Flag — although The Dead Kennedys' "DK" symbol certainly would be a runner-up, along with Crass' circular design, each evoking the band's volatile energy and bold simplicity.
Filmmaker Bryan Ray Turcotte has the Crass logo tattooed on his upper arm, and at the screening for his latest project, he's not alone. As audience members file out of the packed theater at downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art, all three band logos are visibly immortalized: on skin, on T-shirts, on jackets, patches and buttons.
Which is fitting, since tonight's screening is for The Art of Punk, Turcotte's series spotlighting the logos and fliers used to promote the three bands. Turcotte made the three 20-minute documentary films for the Museum of Contemporary Art's new MOCAtv channel on YouTube; all three screen at MOCA tonight, and they're being rolled out online this month, beginning with the one about Black Flag on June 11. The Dead Kennedys' doc will be posted June 18 and the one about Crass on June 25, all at YouTube.com/mocatv.
It's a cool, June-gloomy evening, but the courtyard where Turcotte has assembled a celebratory preview party is stuffy and smoke-filled. There's a bar serving 40-ounce bottles of beer in paper bags, and Copymat-style printed posters of the band logos are taped all around.
Winston Smith and Dave King, who designed the logos for The Dead Kennedys and Crass, respectively, are here. As are other graying punks, who could be your dad, save for their hole-y band tees, which could easily sell for hundreds of dollars at L.A.'s trendy vintage boutiques. There are scene stars (actress Chloë Sevigny in a tattered skirt, art rocker Sean de Lear, DJ/musician Howie Pyro spinning vinyl for the crowd). There's also a new generation of pink- and blue-haired noise rats in studs and denim — kids who get the scoop on what bands to see via the Internet rather than the street "flyering" discussed in the films but who are into the old-school aesthetic.
Turcotte, rocking a style that's more biker than punk, with a beard and bandanna, is running around greeting guests and attending to technical problems. In addition to his new foray into filmmaking with business partner Bo Bushnell, the 44-year-old married father of two owns a publishing company, Kill Your Idols, which released the films. He's also partner on the indie label Teenage Teardrops, and the boss at Beta Petrol, which licenses and composes music for films and advertising. The young punk band playing MOCA after tonight's screening, C.R.A.S.H., is one of the bands he discovered at Beta Petrol.
The films were inspired in part by Turcotte's books. Fucked Up + Photocopied, an extensive collection of punk flyers and art, is widely regarded as the ultimate historical record of its kind. Its sequel, Punk Is Dead, Punk Is Everything, came out a couple years later. Turcotte's Kill Your Idols has since published more books for other authors, including Shepard Fairey's first tome (now out of print) and, recently, 101 Essential Rock Records. His company next plans to release a chronicle of the seminal L.A. music hub Jabberjaw.
"I wanted to explore how art and punk influence each other and always have," Turcotte says before the screening. "Working at Slash Records for so many years, I was always inspired. The No. 1 goal, first with the book, then with films, was to give the medium its respect, as well as the individual artists, while at the same time trying to inspire a whole new crew of artists, musicians, photographers, writers. ... Spreading the 'If we can do it, then you can do it' sort of message."
Turcotte is from San Francisco but came to Los Angeles in 1988 to "be a rock star." It didn't happen. While his band Black Market Flowers had some success (a few records and gigs at all the hot clubs in town), it ultimately disbanded 10 years later.
Though New York gets the nod as the birthplace of both punk music and pop art, Los Angeles has significance in both worlds — which becomes clear in Turcotte's Black Flag segment, when members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski and Henry Rollins talk about the influence of Pettibon's work. It's better known than the band's actual music. In the film, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, himself a Black Flag fan, recounts the power of seeing his imagery on the streets of Hollywood. It meant something.
And still does. Black Flag's bars are said to be the most tattooed logo of all time, although such a claim would be almost impossible to prove.
Ironically, the guys seen in the film no longer use it. Legally, the logo is owned by founding member Greg Ginn, who has been estranged from the rest of the band for several years. That includes logo designer Raymond Pettibon, Ginn's brother. You could even argue that the logo's bars — disconnected, unaligned — represent the band's current state, though the sour relationships are only briefly alluded to in the film.
Turcotte says he chose not to delve into any of the band's legal issues.
"My worry was that the interband problems around copyright and royalties would overshadow the art, the inspiration and the whole DIY-punk beginnings," Turcotte says. "The goal was to inspire a new generation and not end on a downer by overstating what's going on with the lawsuits."
Today, the logos for Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Crass have become so ubiquitous, they can be seen on merchandise at mainstream stores like Hot Topic. Black Flag's, in particular, has been turned into a meme riffing on everything from black cats to Glenn Beck.
Yet, as C.R.A.S.H. break into their screeching set in the MOCA courtyard in front of a crude, spray-painted logo, with kids slamming about and the lead singer continually smashing into the museum's glass doors — to the chagrin of security — it's hard not to feel exhilarated. Punk art has still has power, whether it's in a mall or a museum.
"I think the power is still out there, it just needs true passion behind the creation," Turcotte says. "I see true passion burning right now, but it's just under the surface, trying to come out in full neutron bomb epic-ness.... I'm very interested to see what happens next."