From embattled streets to the cover of The New Yorker, Eric Drooker's images mix politics and passion
Wherever I go, I get the biggest drum I can find,' says artist Eric Drooker. 'I like to be out there making a lot of noise.'
A lifelong resident of Manhattan's Lower East Side until his recent move to San Francisco, Drooker says he is 'obsessed' with fighting police brutality, displacement, 'economic cleansing,' the prison-industrial complex, and other formidable opponents.
During his long involvement in the anti-gentrification battles on the Lower East Side -- including a bloody struggle for control of Tompkins Square Park, a longtime refuge for the homeless, street artists, and musicians that was cleared out and fenced off at the behest of developers -- Drooker's posters, fliers, and zines informed people about the underground battles going on between the haves and have-nots and stirred many to action.
Drooker's work (www.drooker.com) has popped up on lampposts and walls around the world, and he has been featured in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Spin, and Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. He has also published several books, including the graphic novels Flood! A Novel in Pictures (Four Walls Eight Windows) and Blood Song: A Silent Ballad (Harcourt).
What is the artist's role in society, particularly right now, in the midst of the war on terrorism?
The artist's role is a subtle one. Artists perceive reality in ways that most people are oblivious to. They see the world with a kind of X-ray vision that enables them to construct aesthetic works, layer by layer. Art is much more than self-expression. It's an actual language -- a universal language with which one can communicate. The simple act of self-expression as an end in itself, like jerking off -- a pleasurable yet temporary relief of pressure -- is ultimately unsatisfying. It's too solitary, too self-absorbed. Great art communicates to the masses, utilizing the vivid details of common experience and transforming them -- condensing them -- into works that enable people to see through society's endless layers of bullshit: its lies, obfuscations, official myths, propaganda. Art cuts to the quick. The truth can be funny as hell and make you laugh out loud, but it can also make you cry like a baby. It's beautiful.
Your art has always been connected with on-the-streets activism. In fact, your book Street Posters & Ballads was intended to be used as a sort of toolkit for making stickers and posters for progressive event organizing.
Street Posters & Ballads is an anthology of political graphics I created as poster art; the graphics were plastered on walls throughout my neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I decided to publish the collection as a book after realizing that virtually all of the images transcended the local issues I had been illustrating: real estate speculation, AIDS, police brutality, jail solidarity, and organized resistance.
The concept of the book was to share these hard-hitting graphics with activists throughout the country, so they could be freely reproduced, without any hassle or concern over copyright. My policy is spelled out on the book's copyright page: 'Progressive, nonprofit, activist groups may freely lift, reproduce, and disseminate contents as they see fit. . . . Status quo opportunists who reproduce contents without permission will get their asses sued off.' With the advent of the World Wide Web, a lot of my work is now online, much of it in high-resolution, print-quality form, for easy downloading by activists. The site has been a great resource; I see my images used all over the world as posters and fliers, and in underground publications.
Your work is easy for activists to put in new contexts because it is evocative without using words.
Pictures are the earliest form of writing. As a species, we've been at it for over 40,000 years! Images speak to us on a primal level. As children, we view and interpret them long before society teaches us how to read and write. They are our native tongue. As an image maker, I've set out to create epic tales, adventure stories, and full-length modern novels written in the ancient language of pictures. My books can be 'read' by anyone, regardless of age or background. There's no language barrier.
How would you describe the state of political public art today?
I've seen a dramatic shrinkage of public space in our cities in recent decades. In New York and San Francisco, which have long, vibrant traditions of public gatherings and street oratory, there has been a gradual yet persistent crackdown on political and cultural expression. Parks are closed at night and curfews rigorously enforced. Police order groups to 'break it up' and 'keep moving.' More and more, cities are taking on the appearance of shopping malls and yuppie theme parks. The vibe is unmistakably 'If you don't got the bucks, beat it!'
Socially conscious artists continue, however, to make their voices heard, and street posters and stencils continue to be a viable means of communicating on lampposts and walls from coast to coast. Of course, we need more -- much more -- enlightened art with thought-provoking content. Infinitely more! Right now, all I see are occasional sparks of consciousness, here and there. I've long maintained that, actually, we are surrounded by political art everywhere we look. Don't forget: Advertising billboards, signs, and commercials, which bombard us at every turn, were all designed by artists who went to art school. But what is the political message of all this art? Consume . . . Be Cool . . . Be Aloof . . . Be Sexy . . . Be Self-Obsessed . . . Get Drunk! Creative people need to question how they may be prostituting their talents -- and who their pimp is.
Excerpted from Punk Planet (Jan. 2003). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 4229 N. Honore, Chicago, IL 60613; www.punkplanet.com