Cover Story: Up From the Underground

Largely unknown in his adopted home town, Justin Green's accomplishments in cartooning and sign painting are put on display

Mar 5, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

Justin Green and Carol Tyler

Print cartoons and commercial signage possess a number of interesting parallels. Both impart their information one stylized panel at a time with an economy of words and an almost invisible complexity of design.

The simplest scene or turn of phrase is the result of a well-considered placement of elements, crafted to achieve the greatest and often briefest impact. And both have a visual appeal that reaches beneath the viewer's consciousness until its intent becomes shockingly obvious or subtly absorbed.

Perhaps these similarities account for Justin Green's accomplishment in both realms. He's a master sign painter with intuitive old-school skills bordering on the mystical, and he's an underground cartoonist whose 1970s work was astonishingly groundbreaking and influential.

And yet accomplishment isn't success. Green has been fleetingly credited as one of the cartoon movement's forefathers — based on his most influential character, Binky Brown — but that acknowledgment hasn't reaped the fame and financial return that's enriched the likes of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez.

In the sign painting arena, computers have largely transformed Green's formidable human skills into an antiquated relic of the golden age of information transmission.

Green clearly deserves wider acclaim, and Darren Blase, Shake It Records co-owner, hopes to enlighten Cincinnati to Green's presence and raise his profile within the twin disciplines he's helped shape for 35 years.

To that end, Shake It is hosting Justin Green: From the Underground to the Basement, an exhibition of Green's cartoons, drawings and signs, including archive pieces and exciting recent work. The opening reception is 6 p.m. Saturday, and the exhibit will continue during store hours until April 12.

Green's work is already integral to the Shake It experience. A glance over the door at 4156 Hamilton Ave. or toward the sidewalk sandwich board highlights Green's sign skills; examples of his handiwork are equally apparent inside the store.

The pair met when Blase's wife Dean collaborated with Green on an ArtWorks wall graphic for Cincinnati Children's Medical Center in 2000.

"I knew his name because someone had hipped me to 'Binky Brown' years before," Blase says. "Then we became friends, and I needed a new sign and hired him."

Since then, several books have detailed Green's work, including a retrospective of his "Musical Legends" pages that ran in Tower Records' Pulse! Magazine for a decade. A "Binky Brown" collection and a compilation of "Sign Game" — his pro-sign-painting-tips strip that's run monthly for 21 years in Signs of the Times, the locally published sign industry journal — both came out in 1995.

Blase carries all of Green's books at Shake It, and he's taken every opportunity to publicize his work since their first meeting. While he realizes that Green's hesitance at self-promotion has contributed to his relative obscurity, Blase hopes the exhibition will garner Green some well deserved and long overdue recognition.

"Nobody else has done it, and I thought it should be done," Blase says of the exhibition. "It's amazing how many people know who Justin is and don't know that he lives here. Everybody knows Peter Frampton lives here. I don't care. I care that Justin Green lives here. That's cool.

"These are the real reasons I opened Shake It, to do this kind of stuff, not just stand at a counter and sell music. I like doing that, but it's all this related ephemera on culture that goes with it that you can expose people to that's so important and is the most satisfying."

'A raw vulgarity'
Even a condensed version of Justin Green's story is complex and circuitous. The 62-year-old artist's personal life is inextricably woven into his work, and the journey that led he and wife Carol Tyler, also an underground cartoonist (and a University of Cincinnati professor on the subject), to the area has been tumultuous.

(See CityBeat's earlier profile of Tyler, "Drawn to Be an Artist," issue of Aug. 31, 2005.)

"A collision of sensibilities" is his description of the relationship between his upbringing as one of the initial baby boomers and the current generation's hyper sophisticated childhood.

"The fact that your average 10-year-old male knows as much as a gynecologist about a woman's body parts is astounding to me," Green says with a laugh over coffee at Sitwell's. "They have these mysteries offered to them at the click of a mouse, whereas we had to go into the bowels of Chicago to get retouched nudist magazines."

Born in 1945 and raised near Chicago, Green was the son of a Jewish industrial realtor and his devoutly Catholic wife. Since his father didn't practice his religion, Green was reared in a strict '50s Catholic environment that would have a profound effect on his future.

"My mother was Irish Catholic and my father belonged to that generation of Jewish males that wanted to assimilate," Green says. "I didn't find out until after he was dead that his real name was Jacob. It was a very paradoxical life."

Green's father had tried his hand at record production but ultimately was just a fan of musicians, many of whom stayed with the Greens when passing through town. Green's worldview was also shaped by his firsthand exposure to the comedy of Lenny Bruce during his most outrageously contentious period.

Bruce's boldly cavalier taboo destruction would become grist for Green's cartooning mill.

"I'm probably one of the youngest people to see him perform live because I snuck into a nightclub in Chicago," Green says. "He was having his act transcribed by a court stenographer who was sitting two tables over. He wasn't being busted for his obscenity, which was still unknown, but for suggesting that Jackie Kennedy was not trying to shield her husband's body, she was in fact trying to haul her ass out of the limousine. That was such a sacrilegious thought that that was his demise in Chicago.

"Paul Krassner said Lenny Bruce died to make the world safe for Saturday Night Live, and that's a great truth. The early transgressors had a raw vulgarity about them, and I'm sorry but I think I'm in that camp."

An early affinity for art (he easily deciphered a kite assembly graphic at age 4 that confounded his father) and interests in the illustrations of Arthur Szyk, the hallucinogenic paintings of Max Ernst and Salvadore Dali and lurid pulp art led Green to paid lessons and ultimately the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He'd long been enamored with comic art, and he began to explore the form, counter to the abstract expressionism being taught in his painting classes.

"The cartooning that had always been my bent I had to put in the closet, as I had pretensions of being a fine artist," Green says. "Even the thought of being a realistic artist at the time I went to school was looked upon askance by the powers that be, who were all tenured abstract expressionists who had a very skewed aesthetic about what constituted good painting.

"In many ways, I still feel bitter about my experience at RISD. I see it as some kind of glorified pyramid scheme, where all colleges are basically corporate businesses conferring titles on their graduates who have coughed up unbelievable sums of money for the right. And I was not even taught properly how to clean my brushes until I went to a painting master who slapped my wrist for the shoddy way I was treating my tools."

After college, Green married and secured a graduate teaching position at Syracuse University, but he became disenchanted with academia and quit his post. Having experienced Crumb's work as a foreign exchange student in Italy during college, he saw his future and announced his cartooning intentions.

His soon-to-be ex-wife disdained his bohemian plans. Her wealthy aunt paid for Green's 1970 San Francisco passage.

"To throw away an academic position and embrace this Bohemian life was horrifying to all senior family members," Green recalls. "It was sheer gamble, and it was also burning a bridge. Back then it was understood that these diploma mills were cranking out too many people to vie for too few jobs.

"Even today, people with A averages and stellar portfolios will show up at a convention and there will be 40 jobs available and 4,000 people show up. For me to have had this fast track to a life in academia and throw it down for a hard life in the nitty gritty world of comics, which was considered the bastard child of the arts, even though it's a unique American art form."

Green immediately fell in with the underground crowd and made friends with some of the biggest names in the burgeoning scene, including the outrageous Crumb. Green's early works had been published in comics back east, and he found a ready supply of publishers in San Francisco as well.

"San Francisco was the epicenter of underground cartooning," Green says. "There were two tabloids, one on the East Coast called the Gothic Blimp Works and one on the West Coast called Yellow Dog, and they were the proving grounds for the neophyte cartoonists coming out of the woodwork in the wake of Robert Crumb's astonishing popularity. I was accepted by both — I was one of the few artists that was — so I felt this sense of affirmation and responsibility to pursue this gift.

"When I finally saw Robert Crumb