America, capitalism and music influence the art of Winston Smith
by Justin M. Norton
Winston Smith stands outside the DNA Lounge with a herd of tattooed and pierced punkers. With his trimmed gray beard, thick black leather jacket and brown fedora angled rakishly, he looks more like a chaperone than a metal head waiting to get into a music club.
The artist who created some of punk rock’s most recognizable symbols a few decades ago is about to see GWAR, a heavy metal band of former art students known for dressing in elaborate monster costumes and spraying gallons of fake blood into the crowd. At 53, Smith still gravitates to the loud, contentious music he helped popularize with his defiant album covers in punk’s early years.
“You realize that an entire generation has passed you by, but it shows how enduring punk really is,” Smith says later at a [San Francisco] coffeehouse in the city’s North Beach neighborhood.
Smith’s lifelong contribution to punk was recently celebrated with the 20th anniversary of the custom twin fin surfboard. His art was reproduced on surfboards and toured clubs, including CBGB in New York. The boards were auctioned online and the proceeds donated to VH1’s “Save The Music.”
The artist is revered by fans, and invited backstage to visit bands such as Green Day; he designed the cover art for the group’s 1995 album, Insomniac, a montage that features a man playing a violin while getting a chest X-ray and a 1950s June Cleaver-like housewife playing a guitar.
While the Ramones created the angry three-chord sound of American punk, Smith is credited with crafting a lasting album cover aesthetic — montage art blisteringly critical of the establishment. Most famously, he created the stylized logo of the Dead Kennedys, a San Francisco band that for many defined the in-your-face, politically liberal posture of 1980s American punk rock. The logo — with the “DK” letters pointed like spears — has appeared on club walls and notebooks around the world.
Smith’s montage art is a dark hybrid of 1950s advertising and scathing social criticism that skewers capitalism, domesticity and sexism. These days, it’s as likely to be hanging in places like the Varnish Gallery in San Francisco as it is to be stapled to a telephone pole.
His works include such pieces as “Addicted To War,” a montage in which the Statue of Liberty holds a hypodermic needle with the words “WAR” written on it while a shopping cart filled with tanks sits in the background.
Smith’s art was even called dangerous by the Dead Kennedys’ vocalist, Jello Biafra, in particular “In God We Trust, Inc.” Smith took an old crucifix with a removable Jesus, covered it with folded dollar bills and placed a bar code near the top to protest what he viewed as the commercialization of religion.
But the artist known best for his confrontational work is a quiet and gracious man who sets his watch 35 minutes ahead to offset his perennial tardiness. And he’s still challenged by today’s technology — he struggles to figure out a cell phone, which he reluctantly bought last year.
Smith has worked by kerosene lamps in a cabin on California’s North Coast for decades, a fitting remote location for an artist who painstakingly fashions his work by hand and who changed his birth name. His tools aren’t computer programs but an X-Acto knife, musty magazines, old catalogs and glue, materials he uses to lampoon a world where “everyone is a suspect.”
Signs of his punk past include a dog tag on his key chain that reads “Smash the State,” and pins with the names of punk bands.
It’s a long way from his rural roots in Oklahoma, where he was obsessed with highway billboards promoting affluence and a cornucopia of consumer goods following World War II. His parents gave him pencils to keep him quiet and sketching became his form of adolescent rebellion.
Smith traces his strong political views to a time when his father refused to buy him a Hopalong Cassidy whistle cap gun because it was assembled in a sweatshop overseas. His father was politically conservative in many respects but also a union supporter who didn’t want to purchase products made outside the United States. He taught Smith to be analytical and mistrust information from big business and corporations.
“I realized we have this opulence because children in other countries are slaving away so we can have Mickey Mouse dolls,” he says. “When it dawned on me that the American empire was built on the suffering of others, it colored me for the rest of my life.”
Unable to handle high school — in part because of dyslexia — Smith left the United States at 17 and went to Florence, Italy, where he studied art. He tried to paint but quickly decided he was better at manipulating images.
When he returned home in 1976, he was struck by the proliferation of police and security cameras. It reminded him of 1984, George Orwell’s dystopic novel in which thought police “eliminated individuals capable of becoming dangerous.” He took the name of the book’s protagonist, who rebels against a despotic government but is finally brainwashed and shot dead. Smith will not reveal his birth name, partly because he doesn’t want his parents to be ostracized because of his artwork.
“When I left, there were people fighting in the streets and this energized youth movement,” Smith recalls. “When I came back, the whole movement had been defused by the government.”
He wasn’t able to pay bills, so he took jobs as a rock and roll roadie for such bands as Crosby, Stills & Nash and Quicksilver Messenger Service. He spent his free time playing pranks, putting up posters of fake bands with names like “Half Life” and “The Spit Wads.” Unsuspecting punkers showed up only to find empty parking lots. Music promoters were outraged.
A Colorado transplant named Eric Boucher, who took the stage name Jello Biafra, liked the message he saw after receiving a package of Smith’s art, which included altered ads for “Vice” and “Masterscam” credit cards.
“Taking the wholesome role models and illusions forced on us and casting them in a wickedly different light makes us laugh,” Biafra wrote in the introduction to the second collection of Smith’s work, titled Artcrime. “It makes us see and learn. It makes us think.”
Smith’s three art books — Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, All Riot On The Western Front and Artcrime: The Montage Art Of Winston Smith — sell well for small publishing house Last Gasp of San Francisco and have remained consistently in print.
“He’s been a great influence because he speaks to the deep connections between your shrinking pay stub and what goes on in other countries,” said Ron Turner, owner of Last Gasp, which also publishes underground comic artist R. Crumb. “He was so far out from the mainstream and was going for people who understood the street politics.”
Smith is even approached by sneaker and cigarette companies with lucrative offers. The money would be good, but he’s faithful to the principles that anchor his best work and turns them away.
“Winston tried to cram in as many subversive ideas as he could on every inch of every album cover,” said V. Vale, who chronicled the nascent San Francisco punk scene and now runs Re-Search publications, which publishes eclectic books.
“Someone like Winston must have had rebellion coded into his DNA.”