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The Sketchy Scene

art by James Reitano
Artwork by James Reitano

The vitality of the local music underground depends on illustrators and artists who do more than just bang on their instruments

By Michael Mechanic

SOMEHOW, DESPITE ALL ODDS, THE Santa Cruz underground music scene has managed to stay viable. It's not that enthusiasm is lacking. The trouble is an absence of small venues willing or able to book non-mainstream local acts and a scarcity of affordable halls in which independent promoters can stage small shows.

Apart from 50 or so active bands, a few promoters and a handful of guerrilla performance groups, those perhaps most crucial to the survival of the struggling local scene are those multi-talented individuals who combine noise-making with other creative talents, from elements of dance and theater and graffiti art to the graphics that adorn album and video covers, concert posters, skate decks, local zines and underground comics.

It is these artists who build a visual and contextual backdrop for the sonic mayhem this town has to offer, although it is a rare occasion that people can see their work concentrated in one place.

To remedy this, Curiosa, a downtown Santa Cruz store that specializes in subculture, is hosting a show featuring work by 11 of these local characters--opening on (wouldn't ya know it?) Friday the 13th.

The show runs through the end of January and will include work by the artists profiled in this article, as well as Mia Osaki, bassist for the Muggs, Greg Davis and John Diaz from performance art band Saw and singer/guitarist Tait Reed from Junk Sick Dawn.

Here, then, are the other notables.

James Reitano

AT 15, JAMES REITANO bombed his first wall, behind the late Club Culture, just to prove to his homies he could paint. Originally inspired by the connection between graffiti writing and hip-hop, in which he was then immersed, the teen-ager later became more interested in other musical forms. "Our whole take is that it wasn't just a hip-hop thing," he says. "Hip-hop adopted graffiti and not the other way around."

An easygoing guy with a slightly olive complexion and a ready smile, Reitano sings and plays guitar for local rockabilly trio Buddys Riot. His off-the-wall drawings, particularly his comic Blurb, incorporate numerous categories of music and different cliques of street dwellers who operate within a graffiti-laden cityscape.

Two years ago, he and his pal Nate found themselves in the clink for bombing an illegal wall. "We were sitting in the jail and a cop came over and says, 'Hey, why don't you guys use your skills to become graphic artists?' " Reitano recalls. "And Nate says, 'He is a graphic artist!' and the cop looks at me and says, 'Dude! What are you thinking?' "

Currently employed in the art department at Santa Cruz Skateboards, Reitano, at the advanced age of 27, has pretty much retired from the risky writer's lifestyle, though he remains one of the co-conspirators behind Hole in the Ozone, a zine for graffiti writers. Reitano and other locals also were recently featured in a graffiti art show at Atelier Gallery called Ignite the Fuse, for which opening invitations closely mimicked the form of an SCPD citation and were surreptitiously plastered on car windshields of unknowing friends.

He still gets teased by hip-hop­ oriented writers over his change in musical taste, but none can rightfully slag Reitano's noted skill with a Krylon can. "I wanted to add a little more to it than the 'Yo! Fresh!' thing, and I started meeting other people who shared my outlook," says Reitano. "I've met hippie writers, punk writers, whatever."

art by Jimbo Phillips
Artwork by Jimbo Phillips

Jimbo Phillips

FOLLOWING IN HIS father's footsteps, "Jimbo" Phillips, 27, has made a name and career for himself in skateboard and rock poster art. Never a musician himself, Jim Phillips Sr. made his name in the 1960s, '70s and '80s doing skateboard art and show posters for the likes of the Doors. He currently does posters for Bill Graham Presents.

Jimbo, who picked up drums mainly to fuel the fire of local punk band the Undecided, draws in a style influenced by his father and cites the influence of artists like Basil Wolverton (Mad magazine) and Robert Williams, who is known for outrageous paintings, comics and album covers.

"I'd say the music affects the outcome. It's drawn me toward skate art," says Jimbo, who has drawn for companies and labels including Sessions, Thrasher magazine, Flapjack Records, NHS and 60/40 Skateboards. Some of his posters and deck designs were recently featured alongside his father's in a skate-art exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

"With punk shows, I try to do something outrageous to grab you," says Jimbo of his strident work. "The computer printouts get the point across, but they're boring."

art by John Connell
Artwork by John Connell

John Connell

THE LAST time I interviewed local renaissance man John Connell, he was intensively focused on learning to play the sitar. He was also playing guitar in a quite unusual local group called Violet Skull Troupe--consisting of himself, a keyboardist and two dancers--who entranced audiences with strange lighting, elaborate costumes and droning Eastern-influenced music.

But Connell, 31, is too much of an explorer to stick to any single art form. VST is now defunct, and Connell has given up the sitar. For the most part, he has also left behind the underground comic world, where he once regularly drew in his characteristic bold, sharp, black-ink-on-white-paper style, influenced by the likes of comic artists Jim Woodring, Charles Burns and R. Crumb.

"I used to like to drink and draw. I did a lot of real gross pornographic comics that people liked a lot," Connell says. "I don't think it's funny anymore, but I'm infamous for how sick I was."

Connell, who started drawing at 3, has done show posters, comics, and zine and record covers. He has dabbled in print making, painting, bronze sculpture, dance, theater and DJ mixing in addition to his other musical instruments. "I like performance, because you can integrate all the things you like into one thing," he says.

To that end, Connell recently was involved in a local dance production in which he danced, performed live original music on guitar and piano innards, and used his newfound DJ talents to mix the recorded portions of the soundtrack. He hopes to soon perform with his turntables, using them as musical instruments, and play the guitar simultaneously.

"I don't just like music, I like building stuff," says Connell. "I love all the art forms, but I'm most interested in music because it's accessible to almost anyone."

art by Mat Fitzsimmons
Artwork by Mat Fitzsimmons

Mat Fitzsimmons

MFITZ, AS HE LIKES to sign his drawings, is a friendly, somewhat reclusive fellow who draws and sings for his band, Herbert, both with a high degree of intensity. Mat Fitzsimmons is a protégé of the "comic-book influenced" school of art popularized by poster artists Frank Kozic and Coop and practiced by Jim and Jimbo Phillips, whom Fitzsimmons cites as a strong influence.

The singer works mostly in black ink, using bold, sharp lines to create the sorts of images of skulls, alien idols, twisted characters, grinning devils and buxom she-devils that are popular with members of the skateboarding community. "Skateboarding and skate art are both real visual experiences," says Fitzsimmons, 23. "It's an activity where people will be checking things out and they see the work on the boards. It's a real bold graphic type of art, and it's meant to capture the eye."

Fitzsimmons, who has been drawing seriously for 12 years, makes his living airbrushing Ward Coffey surfboards and has produced graphics and fliers for local bands, zines and skate equipment manufacturers.

The tortured lyrics he writes for Herbert tend to reflect his darker thoughts. "People have told me when they read my lyrics and look at my artwork they see a connection--I don't so much myself," he says. "A lot of the time it can be drawn back to similar sources. I'm interested in the occult and witchcraft and organized religion, sometimes in the falsity of Christianity."

art by Chris Gonzales
Artwork by Chris Gonzales

Chris Gonzales

IT'S OFTEN HARD to pinpoint Chris Gonzales' location, since he lives in a van and has no phone. His music and artwork are equally difficult to peg. Gonzales, 25, plays drums for local band Exploding Crustaceans and is the guitarist and lead singer for Gorehounds, a punk-metal trio who initially had videos playing onstage containing the most violent and gory clips from numerous horror and slasher films (they stopped doing it after realizing the videos were stealing the show).

Last Christmas, Gonzales distributed to friends a homemade four-track demo--Chris Gonzales: The Man, The Myth, The Dummy--containing dozens of his own side compositions. Similarly, a glance through the sketchbooks of the Stockton native reveals multiple drawing styles, a taste for the truly perverse, the cynical, the haunting, the humorous and the ironic. There are mechanized cowboys gunfighting, punk-rock archetypes, penises on horseback, faceless drone people, vaudeville dancers, people's heads being blown off--you name it.

"It's mostly venting out anything that is violent I might have about my character. That's my outlet," says the artist, "I'm sure there are people who don't get it or get offended."

Humor and depravity are also key elements in his music. Consider Gorehounds opus "TV Sucks," which complains the medium isn't violent enough, or their pop song, "I Can Eat Bagels Everyday" ("I like 'em best," sings Gonzales, a Bagelry employee, "when there's some kind of salmon or tuna right on the top").

"I think a big part of my life is to keep humor integrated with everything and I think that's going to be inherent in all I do," he says.

art by Cheri Lovedog
Artwork by Cheri Lovedog

Cheri Lovedog

OUTSIDE HER small tattoo studio on Ocean Street, Cheri Huber, known by just about everyone as "Lovedog," sits at a small table reading a copy of a high-school zine, The Finger, and smokes a cigarette in between dealing with customers. Tattooed across her fists, one letter per finger, are the words "PRAY" and "PREY," perhaps fitting symbols of her current art and her past life in Hollywood, which she calls "violent, crazy, weird."

"I've seen people murdered and stabbed," she says. "You start living with it. My writing and drawing is definitely reflective of that ugliness."

Huber, 38, cut her teeth as a rhythm guitarist 15 years ago in an all-girl punk band also called Lovedog (no coincidence). She is now the guitarist and frontwoman for all-female rock trio X-Girl 13.

"When I do anything for the band, I have real strong visuals that go with it," says Huber of the connections she finds between her art and music. "I've also taken song titles or words and incorporated them in drawings."

Influenced heavily by the old "Sailor Jerry" tattoo style, Huber's work is iconographic, based around bold lettering, intricate patterns and religious symbols. Though Huber is not Catholic, and calls herself agnostic, she regularly incorporates the crucifix, the sacred heart and images from the Mexican memorial holiday Dia de los Muertos.

"I'm compelled to draw religious stuff because I'm always searching for something beyond, and also in music, you write about what you're searching for," she says. "Music is a form of expression that's intangible--you play it and it's gone. But art is there forever."

art by Johnny Mojo
Artwork by Johnny Mojo

Johnny Mojo

THE NOW-DEFUNCT Diesel Queens once provided the ultimate in punk performance art and, as the band's drummer and artistic scribe, John Munnerlyn, a.k.a "Johnny Mojo," was in the thick of it. "Our reputation far exceeds reality. It gets all twisted and blown out of proportion," recalls the 32-year-old. "Basically, there was nudity on stage and bodily fluids involved. We just wanted to offend everyone and make fun of ourselves, mostly."

For nine years, Mojo has worked at Santa Cruz Skateboards, where he now heads the art department. He started playing guitar at 13 and switched to drums for the Diesel Queens. "I had the opportunity to start from scratch and learn to play on stage," he says. "It was a total nightmare."

Mojo, who wears his brown hair in a modest rockabilly-style coif, has drawn since childhood, and much of his artistic energy has been directed toward music and skateboarding. His repertoire includes record covers, T-shirts, skate decks and show posters. "With art, you can totally control the outcome," says Mojo. "Music is way more energy. I enjoyed playing live more than doing art."

Actually, with the Queens, Mojo had the opportunity to do both. He made backdrops for the band, remote-controlled "Femme-bots" and live lyric sheets. "Diesel Queens were a whole performance spectacle," he says. "We had a song, 'I Like Cheese.' I illustrated the lyrics with drawings, and Velvy would peel them off as he sang them. Those became collectors items. After a while, we had so many shows I had to photocopy them."

The show of local artists/musicians opens on Friday with a reception from 8 to 9:30pm. The free exhibit runs through Jan. 30 at Curiosa, 703 Pacific Ave., SC (423-3208).

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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