Frank Kozik makes no bones about it. He likes “fucking with icons”. Not in the biblical sense, you understand, but in the Robert De Niro “don’t-fuck-with-me-asshole” sense. Kozik’s reputation as the graphic designer who reinvented the American rock poster is largely based on his fondness for taking 20th century icons – from Adolf Hitler to Fred Flintstone – and giving them an image makeover.
So we get the clean-living Flintstone, immutable template for Mr Middle America, transformed into a snarling Sid Vicious-like punk with a skull and crossbones tattooed on his shoulder, a spiked leather bracelet on his wrist and a syringe oozing heroin in his hand. Kozik confidently expected a lawsuit from Hanna-Barbera, owner of the Flintstone archive, but it simply asked him not to do it again… if he did, then it would sue.
Kozik doesn’t go looking for trouble, but his fevered imagination sometimes runs away with him. If a mutilated kitten suggests itself to him as a suitable subject for a poster, he doesn’t flinch. Indeed, he takes pleasure in the thought that others might. Not surprisingly, his often uncomfortable images have as many detractors as admirers.
“I love the clash of extremes. I’m obsessed with bizarre juxtapositions,” the tall, neatly bearded Kozik, 38, tells me from his studio in San Francisco. “My workspace is ultra-modern, light and full of technology, while my home is quite sombre, full of heavy gothic Victorian furniture and religious paintings, with no phone, no TV. I love going from one to the other. It’s the same with my work.”
Kozik spent most of his formative years in Spain – his mother is Spanish – when it was under the Fascist rule of General Franco. “My stepfather was a big, wealthy Fascist, with mistresses and stuff. And both my grandparents were killed in the Siege of Madrid, fighting the Fascists, so I grew up with these two opposing factions in my family. I’d spend summers with the left-wingers and winters with the right-wingers. My stepfather always made me go to the Fascist parades. I was fascinated by it all from a visual and visceral point of view, but I’m sure that that exposure to state Fascism gave me a deeply ingrained loathing of authority.”
The young Kozik retreated into a world of art and music, visiting the famous Prado art museum in Madrid as often as possible. “I grew to love those huge, dark, classical paintings of biblical events. I’d spend hours in the Prado every weekend, just staring at those heavenly bodies,” he says.
He also became fascinated with design and propaganda, and has amassed, over the years, a large collection of propaganda posters from the First and Second World Wars.
“I’m drawn to stuff that is either very intricate and personal – art in other words – or stuff that’s been pared down for mass appeal: posters, cartoons, advertising, packaging, all that everyday stuff.”
Settling in Austin, Texas, in his mid-20s, Kozik started out wanting to be a rock star. “There was a lively punk rock scene in Austin, and I’d hang out with these guys, hoping I’d suddenly acquire some musical talent. But I never did, so I had to find some other way to contribute, to be creative. The answer was the posters. By day I’d drive delivery trucks, do labouring jobs, and at night I’d sit listening to the radio, designing posters for the bands – for free. I did that for years. I started doing silk-screen work and I learnt how to use a camera. The posters were my validation,” he says.
By the early Nineties, a whole rock-poster sub-culture, first evolved in the Seventies, had been revived and Kozik’s limited edition large format silkscreen posters had become collector’s items. He was also featured in the influential Rolling Stone magazine.
Six years ago he moved “on a whim” to San Francisco. Here, says Kozik, “you’re either old and you have money, or you’re young, with no money and lots of style. There’s no in between.” Kozik didn’t fit into either category, so he decided to create his own cultural oasis.
“I wanted to do something that would bring me back in touch with musicians on a more direct level, so I founded a record label called Man’s Ruin (the title is from a popular US tattoo design from the Thirties) to make my musician friends happy. I knew a lot of bands who were always getting fucked over by recording companies. The point about Man’s Ruin is it’s small and it only puts out vinyl,” he says.
In its first year, Man’s Ruin sold $50 000-worth (£30 000) of records, and last year $1.5m (£90 000).
“All of a sudden everyone was saying ‘Hey, this is the coolest thing around’ and bands were queuing up to record with us,” says Kozik. “We have 30 bands recording on the label. I now employ 11 people, we have a big recording studio and I have unlimited flexibility to design whatever covers and posters I like. Once again, a hobby has become an industry.
“I don’t really consider what I do to be work any more because I have such freedom and fun doing it. One day I might be doing an ultra-clean op-art design, the next, something completely satanic and OTT, the next a photographic shoot with pin-up chicks wearing fetish gear… hey, it’s beyond my wildest fantasy.”
Kozik’s prodigious output – he claims to have designed more than 1000 posters, and at least 500 album covers – shows no sign of diminishing. He says he’ll carry on working within the world of underground music as long as he can understand and anticipate its ever-shifting sands.
Despite the current London exhibition and attempts to elevate his poster work to the status of art, Kozik remains realistic and workmanlike about his output.
“In many ways I still regard myself as an amateur. I’ve had no formal training. There is no way my stuff could be described as art. To me an artist is somebody who can sit down with a blank canvas and from the innermost recesses of his mind, create something that’s completely new in the world, and convey some emotion through it,” he says.
“My stuff isn’t even about me developing a personal style. It’s about making something work. I never do anything as boring as a picture of the guys in the band. I do something that makes some sort of sense of what you’re going to see or hear. The questions I ask myself are these: Does it inform someone who has never heard of that band or that record? Can you see it when you’re driving past in your car? Does it do the job it’s intended to?
“The point about my posters is that there is an intricate, inside joke with every one, which is why it never ceases to surprise me that they have this mass appeal. They were never really meant for more than the thousand or so people who knew about a particular band. Every day I’m amazed that I make a living from this.”
An exhibition of Frank Kozik’s work is on show at The Last Chance Saloon, London SE1 until 31 December