The Picasso of Protest

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

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