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Exhibit showcases the message and art of music posters

This poster by Kathleen Judge for Hideout Block Party is part “Graphic Noise” exhibit Lillstreet Art Center.

This poster by Kathleen Judge for the Hideout Block Party is part of the “Graphic Noise” exhibit at Lillstreet Art Center.

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◆ Artist reception: 6-8 p.m. Friday; exhibit runs through Nov. 25

◆ Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood

◆ Admission free

◆ (773) 769-4426;

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Updated: December 2, 2012 7:12AM

Music posters were one of the first forms of social media.

The artform dates back to 1879, when the Hatch brothers of Nashville began making letterpress prints promoting minstrel shows, vaudeville acts and, by the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

The Lillstreet Gallery takes a contemporary look at music posters when “Graphic Noise: Gig Posters From the Chicago Printers Guild” opens with Friday at the Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood. Opening-night live music will be offered in a collaboration between the Maharishi and Liza Berkoff on the third floor of the art center.

More than 200 posters will be on exhibit through Nov. 25, featuring the work of 15 artists from the non-for-profit Chicago Printers Guild. The posters advertise performances by Jeff Tweedy, M. Ward, the Melvins and others.

“Will they still be around?,” asked Kyle Baker, who is owner-operator of the silkscreen Baker Prints in Chicago and a board member of the printers guild. “That’s an interesting question. The chief reason posters are viable economically is the desirability of an art type in music, which has been diminished. We went from big LPs to thumbnails on an iPhone.

“What you have to remember about the modern-day gig poster is that it is the merchandising ability that drives the commerce behind it. For anything but the biggest of concerts, you couldn’t afford to have an artist come up with the creative, produce it and print it themselves.”

Of course, prints of the posters in the “Graphic Noise” exhibit are on sale for between $20 and $30, as is a limited edition “Graphic Noise” letterpress

print made by Starshaped Press in Lincoln Square.

The artists, familiar to regular clubgoers, include Kathleen Judge (known for her upbeat work at the Hideout) and Dan Grzeca (heavy on line art for alt acts like Andrew Bird and the Afghan Whigs).

Most of the works in the exhibit are silkscreen.

“Letterpress uses individual pieces of type, made from wood, lined up on a press and inked up,” explained Kate McQuillen, director of the Chicago Printers Guild. “With silkscreen you can use a photographic process. It gets burned onto a mesh screen and then the ink get pulled through the screen and onto the paper, which creates a positive.”

“Graphic Noise” goes beyond music posters. “It’s mostly music gigs, but we have some film posters and readings,” gallery director Jessica Mott Wickstrom.

How much input does a musician have?

“There are no rules or particiular process,” said Baker, who has made colorful posters for the Zac Brown Band, Umphrey’s McGee, Todd Snider and others. “I almost always work with the bands or the artist. Sometimes I work for promoters, and that’s a whole different can of worms. Some people are hands-off: ‘We want a tour poster, whatever you do is great.’ Some people come to you with a certain idea: ‘I want a bird on a branch, scratchy style.’ And a lot of it comes from the artist themselves. A lot of these people have a style I can spot from 50 yards away once you’re familiar with their stuff. You know what you are getting when you hire someone like that.”

The Chicago Printers Guild is a nonprofit that has 80 members, mostly small print shops, studios and co-ops. With more than 30 different poster printers in the city, according to McQuillen, Chicago has proud tradition of music posters.

“Chicago has more printmaking poster artists than any city in the world,” Baker said.

“A lot of it has to do with Screwball Press going back to the early ’90s and Steve Walters running a co-op and teaching people to print,” Baker said. “At the time there were only a handful of people actually making posters themselves, and it was mostly silkscreen. Steve was in early on the revival.”

Walters’ muse was developed at the deeply intimate Lounge Ax music room in Lincoln Park. Even the legendary Hatch brothers began in a print shop in Prescott, Wis., before moving South. The Hatch brothers’ slogan: “Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.”

The late ’60s and early ’70s saw “an explosion of poster artists in the Bay Area [Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore Ballroom],” Baker said. “That spread to London, Detroit and New York City. When arena rock came in, the viability of that poster wasn’t the same. There was a cultural shift.”

But now acts like Bob Dylan, Wilco and the Black Keys have posters for every concert. It is part of their Americana aesthetic.

“The market has been growing in the last 10 years,” Baker said. “I don’t know if it will sustain that growth, but posters aren’t going anywhere soon.”

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