When Frank Kozik left Austin to move to San Francisco in 1994, he had already become one of the country’s best-known rock-poster artists, the undisputed Picasso of punk. Kozik’s work first appeared in Texas in the late eighties, advertising shows for bands like the Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, and Sonic Youth. If you paid any attention to the alternative-music scene then, you would have seen his work on telephone poles and nightclub walls in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. While his style was reminiscent of the rock-poster art of the sixties—and he’s often credited with reviving that art form—Kozik went beyond the standard psychedelic imagery, combining powerful pop culture iconography and bold, fluorescent colors. His garish and often ribald visions took the form of menacing cartoon characters, bawdy pinup girls, and naive, childlike figures juxtaposed with macabre images.
It didn’t seem to matter that the visuals often had little or nothing to do with the bands they advertised. A neon-green-and-yellow Lee Harvey Oswald holding a microphone promoted a Texas tour for national acts Helmet and L7. A coy cartoon pig concealing a bloody knife behind his back beckoned fans to a Killdozer concert at Austin’s venerable punk venue Emo’s. And it was there that Kozik left his indelible mark on Texas in the form of an eyebrow-raising mural depicting characters from The Flintstones engaged in some decidedly X-rated behavior. In December 1993 Rolling Stone magazine thrust Kozik into the national spotlight, devoting three pages to his work and dubbing him “the new rock-poster genius.”
Today the single, 39-year-old Kozik runs his own business, Man’s Ruin, out of a spacious San Francisco warehouse. With eleven employees, the bustling enterprise functions as a print shop, a record label, and the base for his commercial jobs. A typical day might find Kozik working on an ad design for, say, a Japanese cell phone or designing the CD cover for an unknown band on his Man’s Ruin record label. Meanwhile, the silk-screen press cranks out new posters, and the staff fulfills mail orders for posters, vinyl 45’s, and CDs. Kozik’s work is frequently featured in art galleries around the country as well as in Europe and Japan; his collectible silk-screens go for as much as $300 or more a pop. He never dreamed that trading in his Texas digs for a San Francisco address would propel his career to new heights. “I figured I’d move there and have the same type of lifestyle I had in Austin,” he says. “Or maybe do something just kind of different. I didn’t know the career was going to explode. But it did.”
For all his success since moving to San Francisco, Kozik says he still “totally misses” Austin. The reverse also seems to be true. Local music and art types were buzzing with anticipation last year at the news that Kozik was moving back to his adopted hometown and bringing at least part of his burgeoning business with him. Kozik had put a down payment on the Victorian-style house in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood that he had been renting before he left town. But he pulled out of the deal because most of his employees were unable to leave San Francisco, and he didn’t want to run his business long distance. “There was no firing all of them,” he says.
“I really wanted to move. I think it would have been easier financially. And I miss Austin. I miss the hot summer nights, riding my bike over to the twenty-four-hour hippie restaurant and flirting with the cute waitress. I miss the food. I lived longer in Austin than I lived any other place in my life. I view the Austin years as my teenage years even though I was in my twenties. Then it was time to move away from home. And now I have my grown-up life.”
Kozik was born in Torrejón, Spain, in 1962. His mother was Spanish and his father was an American serviceman; they divorced before he was born. He spent much of his childhood in Spain, spending summers in the States wherever his father was stationed. Kozik describes his family in Spain as “a weird, wealthy, super-old-fashioned household” of “fascists” who had a portrait of Hitler hanging in the home. With his father’s encouragement, he moved to the U. S. when he was sixteen and has been estranged from his Spanish family ever since. He got into trouble with the law the next year, and a California judge gave him the choice of doing time or joining the military. So Frank Kozik signed on with the Air Force at eighteen and in 1980 came to Austin, where he was a sergeant stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base. He had never heard a punk-rock band. On his first night in downtown Austin, he spotted a guy with green hair. “I thought, ‘Well, a punk rocker. I’ve read about them.'” Kozik approached him and asked, “Where do you go to punk out?” The hospitable fellow took Kozik with him to Club Foot, fondly remembered by many Austinites as a new wave and punk rock institution on Fourth Street. “That was the first time I ever got to check out the alternative-rock scene,” he says. “It changed my life.”
Kozik soon joined the ranks of the would-be anarchists. He started to dabble in street art with some friends, randomly posting photocopied flyers of “half punk rock, half nonsensical weird stuff,” before designing his first official poster for “this really bad new-wave cover band called Dark Motive.” By 1982 he had started creating posters for shows at Club Foot and later for the Cave Club on Red River, also now defunct, where bands like Sonic Youth and Ministry once played. Kozik left the Air Force after four years, but he remained in Austin doing construction work by day and hanging out in clubs at night. Before long he was earning a modest living just from his graphic designs. A band or concert promoter would approach him about doing a poster, and if he chose to do it, instead of a fee he would ask for permission to sell a numbered edition.
When I first met Kozik, his work had earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the local music scene. It was 1988, and a mutual friend—a University of Texas film student—had cast both of us in his really bad version of a film noir. Kozik, appropriately enough, was a roadkill-eating psycho, and I was the jabbering hitchhiker he picks up. We spent a memorable afternoon driving around the Hill Country searching for roadkill before Kozik, true to the film student’s script, wasted me and stuffed me into the trunk of his car. It may sound silly, but I was actually intimidated by, even a tiny bit afraid of, Kozik’s dark, underworld persona. As he heaved me over his shoulder and carried my “remains” into the basement of an East Austin warehouse, I couldn’t help thinking about his fascination with swastikas, devils, and Charles Manson.
Kozik’s career took off over the next few years. By 1993 he was getting jobs for bigger, national venues and better-known acts, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, and Nirvana, and making good money. But while he had achieved his professional goals, he says he felt personally retarded. He lived alone and had multiple girlfriends and no driver’s license. “I got fat. I didn’t have a bank account. I’d paddle around in a pair of shorts. It sounds idyllic until you actually start living that way. I thought, ‘This is not the fantasy I had of being an adult when I was a kid.’ I knew I had to do something else. I needed to move to a big city and see if my bullshit would float in the real world.”
Kozik initially went to San Francisco for a meeting with Ron Turner, the publisher of his first book, Man’s Ruin: The Posters and Art of Frank Kozik (Last Gasp, 1995), and Turner offered him a small studio space to rent. “He didn’t know I didn’t live in San Francisco,” Kozik says. “So I went back to Austin, packed everything, and moved there. It was a total spur-of-the-moment thing. As soon as I did it I thought, ‘Okay, I just ruined my life.’ I didn’t know anybody. I couldn’t find an apartment. I was staying in the studio, which didn’t have a shower, so I started going out with this girl just to be able to use her bathroom.”
His luck quickly changed. “I landed a couple of huge jobs right off the bat, like a big Nike campaign,” he says. “That wouldn’t have happened in Austin. Austin was great, but while I worked there I was labeled a regional artist. Suddenly I’m getting work in Japan and Europe.”
Although he ranks today as one of rock’s preeminent visual artists, the self-taught, modest Kozik doesn’t think of himself as an artist. “I never did a painting and tried to have a show in a coffeehouse or anything like that,” he says. “I’ve always done advertising; I’m not an artist. I didn’t invent anything new. The thing I do is in support of something else. There’s no great message behind my work. I don’t have any standard technique. I’m not putting my raw emotions on canvas in startlingly beautiful form to convey an emotive state. That’s art. I make posters.”
Kozik may disparage his own work, but there are plenty of collectors, gallery owners, and fans who think he is a master. “He’s the grandfather of it all,” says Doyle Crawford, a 26-year-old Austinite who’s been collecting Kozik’s work since 1993, when he first discovered one of the artist’s posters in a South Austin record store. “It was love at first sight,” says Crawford, who now owns more than eighty Kozik works. Crawford’s lifestyle is remarkably similar to that of the early, Austin-based Kozik. He works part-time, goes to school part-time, and designs posters for shows at Emo’s. His house is less than a mile from Kozik’s old abode and is a veritable Frank Kozik museum: Almost every wall is adorned with his posters.
Last summer I spent another afternoon driving around with Kozik. This time we were in the San Francisco area, and I felt comfortable, even cozy in his company. Kozik was no longer the threatening counterculture figure of more than a decade earlier. Indeed, with his trim beard and stylish fitted sweater, he seemed almost paternal. As we drove north of the city in his SUV, Kozik pointed out the sights: San Quentin prison, Manson’s former home, and some saltwater creeks that run into Tomales Bay. “You can go kayaking out to the ocean,” he told me. And he reminisced about Austin.
“Austin was paradise,” he said. “You could have a part-time job and afford a house with a garage and a yard, so you could have a band and practice in the garage. Everybody had a barbecue party. It was like this perpetual childhood. And being a single male, well, every semester there’s a couple of thousand new girls in town. And they’re looking for attention. But there are two Austins: There’s a real Austin, where people work and have jobs and families and it’s all kind of boring and vaguely redneck. And then there’s the parasite people hanging around the college, like me. I spent thirteen years hanging around U. T., partaking of all the entertainment value, but I never went to college. At a certain point in life, out of self-respect, I was, like, ‘I’m a grown man and I’m hanging around Quackenbush’s [coffeehouse] all day. This is wrong.'”
Kozik has come of age in the City by the Bay, but it’s clear that he left his heart in Austin.