If you’ve seen Chromeo’s “funk” posters for its outdoor concert series Funk on the Rocks, Funk at the Bowl, Funk at the Greek, and Funk on the Lake, then you’ve already been touched by artist Mike Davis. Davis is the designer of the eye-catching psychedelic/‘60s-inspired, pastel concert posters that have the names of the talent embedded in a bikini-clad lady’s legs seen only from the waist down.
Based in Minneapolis, MN, Davis works out of the Burlesque of North America studio, where he is the creative director and co-owner alongside Wes Winship. Davis joined Burlesque in 2003 after moving from St. Louis, where he earned his degree in graphic design from Washington University. Rising out of the ashes of the barrier-breaking Life Sucks Die graffiti magazine, the all-encompassing studio offers design services, screen-printing, publishing, and the CO event space/gallery.
“I feel like graphic artists were doing such strong work just before computers took over as the predominant tools in the industry.”
Davis tells us about four aspects of his design life and four of his posters that satisfy the nit-pickiest of Burlesque’s clients.
Concert Posters Go in 20-Year Cycles
Concert posters’ popularity waxes and wanes. Trends come and go just like in music, movies, food. Concert posters were huge in the 1960s—especially the West Coast psychedelic scene, which is what the Chromeo poster series is based on. They slowed down in the late ‘70s and ‘80s but got popular again in the ‘90s with artists like Frank Kozik designing posters for punk shows.
I’m really obsessed with graphic design from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Everything from psychedelic concert posters to the branding for the Olympic games in those years to late-‘70s TV graphics to early-‘80s video game promo graphics. I collect a lot of books, postage stamps and other artifacts from that era and try to learn as much as I can from those golden years—huge influence. I feel like graphic artists were doing such strong work just before computers took over as the predominant tools in the industry.
I keep a Field Notes sketchbook and a pen on me at all times, and I try to doodle as often as I can. Everything starts as rough sketches. Most of my projects, in their final stages, are drawn in Adobe Illustrator. A lot of it really depends on the style I’m going for. The psychedelic Chromeo posters, for example, were all drawn in Adobe Photoshop, but they were all drawn by hand just using the mouse. There are no clip art elements, and there are minimal effects or other super computery things added in. Plus, the designs will all end up as screenprinted posters, and Photoshop/Illustrator are great tools for setting up files to be printed in our studio.
The Impact of Music on Design
Some people discover our posters through being a fan of the band, and sometimes it’s completely backward: someone will like the artwork and then discover the band’s music afterward. Burlesque is fortunate to have been able to work with a lot of bands and record labels that we genuinely enjoy and look up to—folks like Arcade Fire, DaM-FunK, Peanut Butter Wolf, Atmosphere, tUnE-yArDs. We’ve really liked Chromeo since they first popped into the music world and were excited to finally get to work with them. There have been a very tiny number of projects where we’ve completed what we consider to be successful design/print jobs for bands that we don’t really listen to. Not to say that we actively dislike the band, but we just don’t listen to their music.
“Sometimes the most productive sessions happen late at night once the office is empty, phones aren’t ringing, there are no problems down in the print shop, music is cranking, and it’s just jam time.”
[Winship] and I usually have some kind of audio entertainment on while we’re both in the zone working. Everything from Public Enemy to Electric Wizard to new Fool’s Gold releases to ‘70s library music to Afrofunk to the Beach Boys to Baltimore club and Miami bass. Other times we’ll put on podcasts or radio shows. We’re big fans of DVDASA, Marc Maron’s WTF, and Rude Jude and Lord Sear. I like Who Charted? but haven’t been able to convert [Winship] to becoming a chartist yet. Sometimes we’ll try to listen to music that pertains directly to what we’re working on, e.g., the album of a band we’re designing for, and sometimes it’s completely disconnected. Earlier I was designing a poster for Atmosphere while listening to the Curb Your Enthusiasm soundtrack.
It’s not easy to be creative from 9am to 5pm every day. Sometimes the most productive sessions happen late at night once the office is empty, phones aren’t ringing, there are no problems down in the print shop, music is cranking, and it’s just jam time.
The Customer Is Always Right
[Winship] and I have very distinct design styles and creative processes. It’s so good to be able to bounce ideas back and forth and just do certain aspects that we’re good at to make the whole thing work. We’ll usually talk and sketch out rough ideas, then start attacking it on the computer, sending Photoshop files back and forth until we feel it’s done. Sometimes one of us will be envisioning the poster to look a certain way, and the other will want it to look a different way. There’s always a push and pull. For the most part, we see eye to eye and can come to an agreement fairly easily. It’s the actual execution that becomes the greater challenge. We’re like an old married couple: “Hey, the poster should look like this.” “Perfect. Let’s do it.” “OK.” “Hey, did you finish your part yet?” “Still working on it.” “OK, just send it over when you’re done.” “Dude where is it? Send that shit over!” “Still working on it.” It’s always an interesting challenge to work with [Winship] on a poster, and the results are always great.
“Being a graphic designer is about helping people communicate something to their audience. If that aspect of it is taken out, then I’m just a dude drawing pictures on a computer.”
At the end of our back-and-forth design work, it needs to satisfy the client’s needs. We’re trying to get better at deflecting the projects that don’t allow us to do the kind of work we like to do. The best projects meet right in the middle: they have a specific story the client is trying to tell or some kind of parameters to work with, but also give us creative freedom to get loose. When we were approached by Chromeo, there was a very specific style of psychedelic poster design they were trying to emulate. This was for their first Red Rocks show in August 2014. You can tell just from their music and album artwork how meticulous and detail-driven they are as a band. I really respect that. It’s been a rewarding challenge to work on those posters for them. Dave Macklovich has a keen eye for art and design. As soon as I see his name show up in my inbox, I know there’s a lot of work ahead, but it’s always been worth it. Being a graphic designer is about helping people communicate something to their audience. If that aspect of it is taken out, then I’m just a dude drawing pictures on a computer.
DJ Mike 2600
I will headline the fuck out of EDC! What’s up, ravers? Wanna hear 60 minutes of James Brown? I’ve been excited about music since I was a kid. [It] started with listening to whatever my dad would listen to on the radio and at home: lots of classic rock and the Cats soundtrack. Then MTV came along, and I got obsessed with rap music—like, obsessed. I would see DJs scratching in the videos—guys like Jam Master Jay and DJ Premier. I had no idea what they were doing with the turntables and the mixer, but I definitely tried it. My brother and I made our own rap tapes and had fun messing around, trying to make music together.
When I got to college in St. Louis, I started going out and seeing DJs play at shows. I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do. I started sneaking into the campus radio station between classes, grabbing records off the shelves, and teaching myself how to use the turntable and mixer setup in their production studio. [I] eventually got my own setup and got heavy into collecting records. This was 1996. I gave myself a dumb name, and now it’s too late to change it.
I play out around Minneapolis every couple of weeks and out-of-town gigs from time to time. I put together mixes and tracks and release them on SoundCloud every so often. Most things I release are remixes, but some are originals. I was commissioned by a local software company to make six original 8-bit, video game-style songs for a fake video game they designed. And I enter DJ competitions, too. I took part in the Red Bull Thre3style in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, I won the Midwest regional and went to the US finals. Did not win there. In 2013, I won the Minneapolis local battle and then placed third in the Midwest regionals.
I came up DJing when battling was huge: the DMC competition, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, X-ecutioners. That aspect of it always fascinated and inspired me, but I was never a super technical, beat-juggling kind of DJ. The Thre3style was more about being a well-rounded DJ and putting together these action-packed, 15-minute party sets. To do well in those battles, you have to be technically proficient but also have good song selection and know how to keep the crowd engaged. It’s the exact kind of DJing I love to do. So win or lose, I always had fun putting those sets together.
I love playing classic hip-hop and funk more than anything. I also really like playing house, dancehall, moombahton, and ending the night with yacht rock. One of my favorite recent gigs was playing my friend’s wedding in Mexico. She’s Iranian, and she gave me a ton of Persian music to play for her family. I didn’t think I could at first, but I totally fell for it. I found tracks that mixed well with dancehall and house. It was all brand-new to me, and I really loved learning it and playing it. It was one of my favorite parties I’ve ever played. Everyone went nuts to these tunes. I was blending right from this stuff into Major Lazer, and this one right into dancehall.
Four of Insomniac’s Favorite Burlesque Posters
tUnE-yArDs was fun because that was a scenario where she just wanted us to go crazy. Her videos and artwork are always so wild and out there. We used her “Water Fountain” video as a jumping-off point and just ran from there, trying to work in some of the characters from the videos and making up our own, using those huge letters as the foundation that would tie everything together. Additionally, she sent us some images that would help give us inspiration—things like color swatches, patterns and textures that she thought we could use. It was almost like a mood board for us to play off of. We were basically making our own version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Bonnaroo we’ve been doing since 2006. This year will be our 10th design. That one is a really interesting challenge, since there are like 10,000 band names to fit on the poster. Some years I’ll incorporate the band names into the main design, like doing little logos or illustrations for them, and other years the design is more about the feel of the festival, then the band names will be secondary.
Tools of the Trade started as me trying to make a small art print to use up some leftover paper scraps on our shelf. I had drawn a TR-808 drum machine for a blog post on our site on August 8, 2008 (08-08-08) and then added a few more bits. It ended up quickly outgrowing the original intention and took on a life of its own. We’ve printed about five or six different editions of it. I’ve been blown away at the popularity.
Year of the Dragon I was approached by an art gallery in New York to take part in a group art show about the Chinese zodiac calendar. I was born in the year of the dragon, so I designed a dragon poster. I did a few sketches and ended up going with a diamond-shaped layout. We printed the first edition, then when the actual year of the dragon rolled around a year or two later, we reprinted it, but I made a few minor tweaks to the design that weren’t sitting right with me the first time around.