Written by Adam Lerner
Mark Mothersbaugh has an important place in the history of graffiti. This may be surprising for people who know him as the musician who co-founded the band DEVO. Even people who know he has been making and exhibiting art continuously throughout his career may be surprised to learn that he began his career making decal and sticker art, which he posted in public places around the Kent State University campus, where he was a student from 1968 to 1972.
Mothersbaugh’s early decals and stickers are meaningful to the history of graffiti because they help fill out the picture of where graffiti comes from. The history of graffiti, focused on now legendary figures like TAKI 183 and CORNBREAD, rightly looks elsewhere outside of art. The fact that TAKI turned down the opportunity to meet Warhol in 1971 indicates just how distant the young wall writer was from the world of art. As he put it, “Why would I want
to meet that guy?”
It is significant that at the same time TAKI started writing his name on the streets of Upper Manhattan, Mothersbaugh made screenprint decals of his name and put them up around campus in Kent, Ohio. Around 1970, Mothersbaugh created a series of three small, water-release decal lithographs featuring a deadpan photographic self-portrait. The two-tone image was deteriorated, so the young hippie Mothersbaugh was hardly identifiable with his long hair. Underneath the picture were the words “Self-Portrait A,” “Self-Portrait B,” etc. and on the other three sides of the picture he spelled out his name in capital letters: MOTH ERS BAUGH.
With his degraded imagery and stiff classification, Mothersbaugh was clearly imitating his hero Andy Warhol, the artist who inspired him to study printmaking. But Mothersbaugh did things that Warhol did not. Warhol wanted to cheapen art by screenprinting his images, producing art like factory production. Mothersbaugh wanted to make art even cheaper by printing on ephemeral decals. And, unlike Warhol but like TAKI and hundreds of other kids in big cities, none of which he had ever visited, Mothersbaugh turned his name into a mark on the wall.
At the very moment wall writing began, Mothersbaugh was taking Warhol to the level of graffiti.
Among his earliest works, Mothersbaugh made stickers depicting a person vomiting in front of a picture of the surface of the moon. It was a very artistically ambitious sticker, especially since it was only about the size of a large postage stamp, but its anti-authoritative point is clear. After the first moon landing in 1969, Americans were gaga about moon exploration and relished its images. Mothersbaugh was like an obstreperous teenager making art as a rebellion against the escapist fantasies of mainstream society. On some level, the sticker was a depiction of vandalism.
Though the moon-vomit sticker addressed popular media fantasies, much of Mothersbaugh’s early decal and sticker work focused on Midwestern themes. In 1969, he made a decal of a grid of cows. They are numbered in a mock classification system but the animals are virtually identical. The point: People are cows. We are bred to be the same. He also made a series of decals of line drawings of potatoes with arms and legs. The reference here was to potato farming in Ohio, a puerile insult of boring, passive Americans. The potato-people decals are what first attracted older art student Jerry Casale to Mothersbaugh. Casale saw them around campus and sought out the artist who made them. They later used the spud imagery in DEVO, the group they co-founded to explore the idea that society was not evolving but devolving. Before it was a band, DEVO was an art collective designed to criticize the direction and values of modern society, a continuation of the issues Mothersbaugh explored with his decals and stickers.
Inspired by the art movement of the time, Mothersbaugh also made mail art, trading postcard prints with other artists around the country. He even advertised his postcards in the classified section of Rolling Stone magazine. A product of the 1960s counterculture, he was suspicious of institutions like galleries and museums and wanted to reach people directly with his art.
Combining the experimental impulses of avant-garde art with the democratic values of the counterculture, Mothersbaugh’s early work signals that early graffiti had loose affiliations with both.
Even though the story of graffiti rightly belongs on the streets, narrowing the origin of the story to the streets alone poses a danger of oversimplifying the history and nudging out the wider forces at play. The narrative that graffiti has its point of origin in artless vandalism, with the evolution into artistic expression happening later, undervalues the power of the artistic ideas floating in the air at the time. What else can explain the fact that it was only four years from when TAKI started writing his name all over the streets of Upper Manhattan in 1969 to when graffiti writers began to spray paint on canvases to be sold in galleries?
Mothersbaugh shared the popular, rebellious spirit of the early graffiti writers. The avant-garde art world was interested in those values but didn’t want to go there, at least not too far. Warhol wanted to meet TAKI but that’s it. He didn’t want to paste his prints in the streets. So it took a figure like Mothersbaugh to bridge the gap.
This is not to say that Mothersbaugh’s world was in any way similar to the world of early wall writers, but it is to say that graffiti partly emerged out of the spirit of the time, a spirit so wide it could cover inner-city New York and northeastern Ohio. And that spirit was at least partly influenced by artists.
15 Lucas Cows Hand printed decals, Screen Printed at the Kent State Art Dept., 1968-1970.