|Maximum Rock and Roll interview for December 2000 issue (# 211)
- conducted by Ben Meyers - tech wizard of Autonomedia & slide tromboneier extraordinaire of the Hungry March Band - in May or June 2000 I think, at my house with fellow artist Seth Tobocman.
Part II | Part III | reviews index
Seth Tobacman: You wanna talk about how you started drawing?
Fly: I can't remember. I just always did it. So there.
Ben Meyers: How about you, Seth? How did you start?
S: I was drawing basically before I could write or read, and I didn't stop. A big part about that was that when I was a little kid we lived for a while in Israel, so I was around people whose language I couldn't speak, so a lot of my time in school I spent drawing pictures. Then when we came back to the States I was a pretty unpopular kid, and basically spent time by myself drawing pictures.
B: How old were you when you came back?
S: First grade. We spent one year kindergarten in a place where nobody spoke English. I always drew, and a few years later I found comic books, and I was always drawing comic books and had my own world with artwork and stuff like that. And it stuck with me. How about you?
F: Well, I started drawing funny pictures for myself when I was a little kid, because I went through a period of time where I had intense nightmares, really really bad, so I would be afraid to go to sleep, so I would try to draw these pictures to keep myself awake for as long as possible. Eventually I would fall asleep.
B: And now you have these nightmares coming up in your comics.
S: I think kids do that a lot. I drew a lot for revenge as a kid, I'd draw these really horrible violent scenes and incidents because there'd be some guy who kicked the shit out of me, and I knew I couldn't kick the shit out of him, but I could draw a picture of somebody getting the shit kicked out of them.
B: Were you propelled by horror comics?
S: I think I started out reading Marvel comics, which nowadays isn't a very good recommendation, but I identified a lot with those characters, who were real to me because I was a little kid. I have to say, if you compare superhero comics to the books they want you to read when you're a little kid, at least for me, the superhero comics are more realistic in relation to your experience, because the so-called children's books are about these nice happy families and these nice happy kids who have this great time, which is what parents want to buy for their kids, and the adventure comics are basically about violence and betrayal and conspiracy and the things that 8-year old kids actually do. So that's one of the reasons kids get obsessed with comic books, and with violent comic books.
B: (To Fly) What about K-9? Where does that stuff come from?
F: Good question... She's every age. I've done comics with K-9 at any age. Let's just say that K-9 is someone who I know really well, and whose experiences I can really relate to. So that's why I started doing her stories. It's a very female experience in that comic, and I think that a lot of women have had very similar things to deal with. There's a lot of problems K-9 is always having a crisis. It's just that I happen to do comics about those points, it's not like her life is just this big crisis, but these are certain things, and I think a lot of people can relate to what she's going through. But the thing about K-9 is, the stories can be violent, or scary, or whatever, but there's always a sense of humor about them too, because there's always funny things that happen.
B: Yeah, this is a thing with all your comics, and in your book it's funny, while it's totally serious, there's all this funny stuff that happens too. Whereas your book, Seth...
S: I'm not a funny guy.
F: He just wants an enemy that he can throw a brick at! (I'm sorry... that was a line in some review, I think)
S: No, that was a line in the book, that people were looking for a simple enemy that they could through a brick at. That's actually a quote from John the Com, the activist. We were having a discussion about the rainforest, and he said he couldn't relate to the issue because there was nothing he could throw a brick at, and I said you could throw a brick at McDonald's. He said yeah, that's a point.
B: You want to talk about different forms of activism? Like squatting seems really proactive it's really political, but it's not about demonstrations or campaigns.
S: It's more real, more material. It's what every socialist government that's ever existed said it was going to do. It's taking the property away from the people who are wasting it and giving it to the people who are needing it, except we just go ahead and do it instead of trying to get into power first.
F: Because supposedly you ARE the power behind the power anyway.
S: Also, it forces people to get a lot more organized and deal with their own contradictions a lot more, because in most situations we don't have any power. We're basically complaining to some authority. When people are squatting, then they're in charge and they have to deal with if they'll do things any better. So they become responsible for something. I think that's an important step for people in general we need systems or structures where people start to take responsibility for things, and operate things collectively. I think part of the reason that we haven't overthrown capitalism is because people aren't ready to govern themselves, and always wind up putting someone in charge.
B: You want to talk about how that's happened in any of the buildings you've been involved with? Any of the problems that have come up and how you've dealt with them?
S: The building I was involved with had a lot of difficulty. We were one of the more organized squats, with a lot of house rules and procedures, but we had a lot of trouble being consistent about them. You could say "Ok, it's against the rules to do hard drugs here," but there would be certain people who, because they were popular and the in- group, could break those rules, and everyone would be like "cool, he's an ok guy." So we wound up in a lot of ways very much like the American legal and political system, where you have a set of laws that aren't really enforced, where certain people have a kind of privilege. Where a much higher percentage of African-Americans wind up on death row than white guys. We wound up with a very similar thing happening among ourselves, where we said that we were running things very well and we had a set of rules, but certain people didn't have to obey them, and certain people ran up against them every day. That was something we were learning about. We had no experience running anything.
B: How did that eventually play itself out?
S: For that building? That building's pretty racially mixed now. I'm not sure how it's running now, because I'm not there, but for me, it became something that after a few years I wasn't emotionally able to deal with it, so I backed out of the situation and concentrated on my artwork. I don't know if I'd do it again I might, with the right group of people.
F: I think this building is a little different, because when I first came here the building was in such bad shape, and there weren't many people living here and not many people were attracted to want to live here, because there was just way too much work to do, and there weren't really places that you could live. The whole east wing was completely gutted there were no ceilings and floors, and you can't really live without ceilings and floors. So the core group of people then had to be really dedicated. I'm not saying that we didn't have problems we definitely had problems, and we did have to kick some people out of the building who were getting incredibly violent, threatening and attacking other people, and that was a really difficult thing to do. But basically, with the core group of people , we're very practically oriented in getting the building to a point where it was habitable, and to a point where if inspectors are going to come it, you're not going to be immediately evicted. At that point, the building was in really bad shape, so it was a long way to go.
B: Have inspectors come in?
F: We've had inspectors from the fire department, and have had the Con Ed come in to check out our basement.
B: How much information flow is there among the squats, as far as people from different buildings helping to arbitrate difficulties?
F: I feel like there used to be a lot more, and now there's not much of that going on, and I think a big part of that is that a lot of the buildings have come a long way and are a lot more together, and people are more settled. There's not so much of the heavy work that needs to get done, and people are more concentrated on their home life. Everything just seems a lot calmer.
S: Yeah, [Seth's former building] started out with just about 6 people, and now it's a fully occupied 20-unit building. It was a much more political, much more underground kind of scene, and now it's more like people with kids.
F: We've got a lot of kids in this building.
S: It became attractive to people who might not have wanted to deal with it when it was that raw.
F: Yeah, and the thing that kills me now is when people say "How did YOU get a space in that building? That's such a great building." You know, when I moved in, it was really a scary place.
B: You didn't move into this space, right, because it wasn't here.
F: No it didn't quite exist yet. I lived in different little corners and nooks and crannies of the building, which were really very raw spaces, until I got this front room built. I'm still working on my space. I've been living in the building about 8 and a half years. It's been a gradual accumulation of people coming in. You come in to the building and do your three months of work days, or however long, and there's a vote to see if you're accepted as a member. So it's not like people just come in and ask for a space and we say yes or no; it's important to have people you can work with and trust. Trust is a very important thing. We have taken some people in emergency situations in, and regretted it when we really got fucked over. The woman and kids were running away from this guy who turned out to be violent and insane or whatever. We had a hard time getting him out. But this building has been my main experience, and I have a lot of respect for the people I live with, and I think we work really well together. I'm really glad to be in this space.
S: I'm impressed with how well you guys hang together, actually.
F: I think it's really impressive because I think there's a lot of different types of people, and all different age groups and ethnicities, and people are interested in completely different things. But we seem to be able to work together really well.
B: It's not all crusties and beerdrinkers?
F: Not any more. It never was actually...
B: So in the book you're working on about the summer of glass, it seems like there's a heroic bygone squatter era in the lower east side.
F: Kind of heroic and anti-heroic, the complete antithesis of the hero, the crusty fuck-up, being noble in some respects...
B: Is that Stew Pitt?
F: Stew Pitt is kind of the prototype, the amalgamation of all crusty stupidity. But he's growing up and starting to get a political awareness. There's all this crusty stupidity, but there's potential in all that. Like people who can put themselves out on the street and just live in the gutter, there's a lot of potential to just do anything. They can stay in the gutter, totally fuck themselves and other people up, or they can do some really great stuff. There's serious potential to go both ways, and I've seen both of those things happen. I've seen people die in the gutter, and I've seen people do really incredible things, like learn how to build and work together, learn how to do plumbing and electricity, and get really politically active.
S: I would say there was a period when the LES was more visibly active in terms of a housing movement that wanted to solve basically the problems of everyone, the entire problem of homelessness for all of society. That was maybe a little overambition, and the pigs really came down on us for that stuff.
F: They were overambitious too they wanted to be on TV!
S: ...and I think now a lot of that same energy is manifesting in other ways, in other types of organizing and campaigns that's not specifically around housing. But I think there was a certain period of time when we really believed we used to joke about this that we could put a barbed wire down Second Avenue and have an independent state!
F: Like in Avant Gardening...
B: The Peoples' Republic of the Lower East Side!
S: Yeah. Actually, it was Third Avenue, that's how ambition we were! But we used to joke about it, and say we could be like a little independent country here and run things our way even though Reagan was going to take the rest of the country in the other direction. Eventually what they showed us was that when we got in their faces enough, that they had the resources to come in here and put cops around Tompkins Park 24 hours a day. When our people would get tired and go to sleep, they'd bring in another line of cops, and another line after that. They could bring tanks down here if they wanted to, and they probably had five more of those. So the idea of solving our problems on a strictly local basis I think had its day, and people are looking now to connect with other neighborhoods and even people in other cities and other countries, and deal with the issue on a broader level.
B: A while ago, when you were talking about Okra's book, you were talking about how a lot of the younger people on the scene don't want to have a locality, you know, where they're fighting the Man, and instead these networks of travelers have developed; you saw some political implications in this.
S: Well, yeah. I've been in this neighborhood since 1979, and the initial impetus for the movement in the LES was, we live here, we're here in the summer when everyone else leaves; this is our community, and we don't want people from the outside coming in and fucking it up, whether it's the police or the gentrifiers, and it was very much based on being rooted in one place, maintaining it and trying to get some power coming out of that. And I think that because of the fact that it's become so expensive to live here and so difficult to squat here you know, people open building, and they get knocked over in a couple of years (though a few of them survive ten or fifteen years like this one) but it's a lot more precarious than it was in 1988. Because of all that, I think people are focussing their energies differently, and not identifying with one place. They can't identify with one place. They identify with some kind of cultural thing that is transferred from one place to another.
B: You think that reflects, you know, the new transglobal structure of capitalism?
S: Yeah, probably...
B: You know, that power is rhizomatic, and so its opposition has to be rhizomatic as well?
S: is WHAT?
B: Rhizomatic, like the root system of a potato, where it's not vertical, it's not like a tree, it's more like a web. The idea is that opposition has to have a whole bunch of different fronts, and can't be centralized because power is no longer centralized. Capital flows no longer respect borders...
S: That sounds pretty good. I'm not sure about it. In a way I think the system doesn't want you to identify with any one place or one thing, it doesn't want you to develop a real sentimental relationship to anything. It wants to pulverize the value of everything, where one thing is just as good as the next. I felt that for a lot of people in the LES the struggle was always to say "This is a special place, this is a special set of relationships we have, which can't be reduced to a commodity," and that that becomes a form of resistance because you're not supposed to feel that way. Like the way people feel about their gardens here; they've taken a vacant lot, and cleared away the rubble, and grown a garden there, and now they've got a certain relationship to it, it's not just a piece of land now. They've put something into it, and they want to keep that, and the city says "That's a unit of land, and we can exchange it, and your relationship to it doesn't matter."
F: I think that capitalism wants people to have relationships, but not so much with individuals, but with brand name products, and certain ways of doing things. People are a lot more transient these days people's lives are a lot less permanent in a lot of respects but you can go all over the world and stay in the same unit, the same cardboard box, and eat at the same place that will give you virtual nutrition, McDonald's style, and that's the kind of relationship that capitalism wants people to have. They want people to have a very structured way of doing things and not really understand that there is another way. And I think that a lot of the people who travel, who are trainhopping and so forth, that's a whole way of existing that most people have no idea what it's about or how they would do it, or anything about surviving on their own.
B: And it also enlarges the struggles within localities. You were saying that you could go anywhere in Asheville, and people were asking about Esperanza.
S: Sure. A lot of people came to the LES to fight for the LES who had no real history here, and that was always a very complex situation, because a lot of people who did grow up here said "Who are these people, and why do they care about the police closing TSP? What's it to them?" We always found ourselves mediating that discussion. I think that the people who traveled and came through were really valuable. A lot of them took a lot more risks than some of the neighborhood people who had a lot more reasons to be afraid of getting arrested...
B: Because they had this sense of permanence.
S: Yeah, and because, say, people in public housing can lose their housing if they're arrested, because the police will sometimes do worse things to them if they get ahold of them than they would to me and Fly. For all those reasons, the travelling anarchists and radicals who come through here have been a really important part of the struggle here. And that actually has a tradition behind it, it's not new. I talked to my friend Lanny Kenfield, who ran a stat shop on 10th Street for years, and homesteaded a building here in the 1960s, and he printed some of the first publications of "Howl" on mimeograph machines coming out of the LES. There's been a history of a type of white counterculture that moved through this community and several other communities in this country for 30 years, and that is manifest in different neighborhoods here, and the Haight, and Soho, and Greenwich Village, which is now largely an area where lawyers live so that's been a very basic part of the struggle.
B: There's the slogan "Tompkins Square is Everywhere." People drifted through in '89 and then opened up that struggle in the next place.
S: I think that slogan started being used when we started to get other parks to drop the curfew, and it became a concept that was all over the place.
B: That leads into the question: what do you think when you see your illustrations being used all over the world?
B: You showed me that postcard from South Africa.
S: Yeah, I did a drawing for the December 12 Coalition. They had a call for a general strike in NYC in 1988 or 1987. It was a black nationalist organization in protest against police brutality, and I did a drawing of this hand made out of buildings, and it closed into a fist, and it said "We are the city we can shut it down!" The guys in the December 12 Coalition insisted that the hand looked white, and they didn't want to use it. They said "Can you redraw it as a black hand?" I said "It's a nonracial hand," that's what I thought it had a black outline, but I didn't think of that as, I don't know, I was adverse to redrawing stuff. So they never really used it, but the African National Congress in South Africa used it, except they turned the buildings into smokestacks, and said "We're the economy, we can shut it down." Then that graphic got used everywhere on people's fliers it got used in Seattle and it's kind of traveled around. It just took on this other life, because it's a line shot, it's black and white, very simple, so you can make a fifth- generation xerox and it'll still read. That style of drawing can move around easily. And I guess because the symbols are fairly universal. That's been something that's happened with a lot of my pieces, particularly from the mid-1980s, the ones which are in the book You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive the stencil pieces that got made into patches and flyers, tattoos...
F: I've seen, in Europe, banners of your stuff flying in some of the squats.
S: I think that's a good thing. One of the things that attracted me to punk in the 70s was this sense that the people who were into the music were somehow, it became part of their life. It wasn't just a piece of music they were listening to like a pop song. Most people liked pop songs to be just in the background. With this, they wore it, they fused with it somehow, it became this very tribal thing. You look at the sculptures produced in Africa and pre-Columbian America and you can tell that that sculpture was really significant to people, it had a role in the community, so that's a really great thing that people will pick up this artwork and make it part of what they're doing. As long as their not using it for some financial end...
B: Have you ever seen that happen?
S: I knew Sascha was making patches out of them and selling them, and I finally confronted him on it and he just gave me a bunch of patches and said "You can sell them too." So that was pretty cool. But he wasn't making a fortune on it.
B: But you haven't seen it in a big way?
S: Not in an exploitative way. And if it was, I still have copyright on the material, and I'd put pressure on those people to share the money. But more to the point is the way it's been used as a social and political thing, and it's really exciting to me in a lot of ways. It's interesting that people sometimes put their own interpretation on things, like, there was a guy in the LES who would take my drawings and put a gun in all the characters hands because he believed people should be more militant. That's funny, except one day he put out a pamphlet saying that a group of people that I happened to be a part of, he accused us of being undercover cops. The cover was one of my drawings. And he somehow didn't understand the irony of this. Also, I know that one of Peter's drawings got used as a cover illustration for a White Aryan Resistance paper. He had a drawing of a white guy behind bars, which I guess worked out real well for White Aryan Resistance. So when that happens, it gets out of your control, and people are putting their own interpretation on your work. I think for the most part it's a real positive thing, though it does get into some strange areas sometimes.
B: That's one of the things that impressed me a lot the first time I saw You Don't Have To how a single page contains so much meaning, and was also so easy to reproduce.
S: Simplification is a real powerful thing. If you can take something and narrow it down to the minimum amount of information that also takes away from it extraneous detail that separates people from it. You know, a stick figure could be anyone we're all a stick figure so a stick figure is very open and attractive, where a guy with a blue shirt, brown pants, glasses and a hat is not. That becomes a specific person, and all of a sudden they're over there, and you're over here. Breaking it down to a very simple thing can sometimes make it open for a lot more people. And that's the good part of it. The negative part of it, the downside, is that people can add their own interpretations that you might not agree to, they can use it to endorse policies you might not be down with, or an idealism that's false, or a universalism that's false. That's been done with things I've done too. We do have a specificity, and that's important too. I'm not a universal man, I'm a white guy of a certain age, all of those things, so in a way you can't talk about society eliminating all those things and really be accurate. That's why in my more recent work I've kind of broken with that style for certain pieces.
F: I wanted to ask something. Comparing the two books, the second book is a lot more personal, and a lot more factual in the sense of using these characters who are based on certain people and recounting specific histories. I'm wondering how you see that transition going from... Like you were saying, the first book was very simplified, a lot of the images could be used for many things depending on interpretation, and now your next book is a lot more defined as to specifically what is going on.
B: More like journalism.
S: Okay, so for the first book, I was still in my twenties when I did most of that artwork, and I hadn't really... I mean, the left in the early 80s, let's face it, was really pathetic. There was nothing going on, and we had to start things, to make things go on. I didn't have any real experience in terms of putting ideas into practice, so I was mostly talking about ideas. I was doing illustrations for The Guardian, and I did some illustrations for Maryknoll Catholics about situations in the Third World, which were abstract situations that I had never seen. And I was talking in very broad terms about society we did some actions against the invasion in Grenada and stuff like that but there was really no movement to speak of that I was a part of, and no real experience behind the work, so it was really, what do I think about society. I think if I tried to write a more detailed story with characters, I would've had to make it up. I wouldn't have been able to talk in an interesting way about my own life, which wasn't to me that interesting. I would've essentially been making up fiction, like a superhero comic or something. So I chose instead to speak in this very generalized and simplified way, which condensed what I felt. There were like road signs or something "Let's do this, let's do that, society's doing this, we should do that about it." Which is really good for propaganda purposes. The second book came out of four or five or six years of political activism in the neighborhood, with the squatters movement and with the anti-police brutality movement and the Tompkins Square movement, which at a certain point I looked at my own situation and the things I was doing, and said "You know, this is actually interesting. If I was somebody else watching me, I'd want to see what was going on." So this was actually worth recording, which led to a different type of artwork which was the second book, breaking down how things actually played out, and that became more critical because I wasn't talking about what I'd like to do, I was talking about what actually happened. In the early work, there's sort of this universal man. (I thought it was a universal person, and I look at it now and think "Actually, that looks kind of like a white guy.") But it's this universal person, who's everyone and fighting this all-encompassing system and being oppressed in ways that everyone's oppressed everyone's yelled at by their parents, everyone's yelled at by their schoolteachers...
F: Is that the guy with the big globe for a head?
S: Sometimes (laughs)
F: I love that guy!