From Concerts to Campaigns, San Francisco’s Resident Poster Creator Lil Tuffy
Interview with Lil Tuffy By Derek Tobias
To hear the audio version of this interview with Tuffy & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where each week you will hear a new interview with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.
Lil Tuffy: The story of how an east coast born artist, made his way to San Francisco for the music scene, wound up working in tech till he quit to be a bartender and then finally found his calling in producing pop art inspired gig posters.
Derek of AusformMag.com: Tell us a little bit about, your upbringing and the area that you were raised in.
Tuffy: I was born just outside of Detroit and we moved, every couple of years. So I grew up in like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cincinnati, and then went to college in Pittsburgh. I have a BFA in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon, and I moved to San Francisco shortly after that.
A: So were you, artistically inclined as a child, or what kind of inspired you to do art originally?
I’ve always been drawing and making things and doing stuff like that. It was kind of a toss-up whether to go into art or English. My mom was an English teacher and then my dad wanted to be an engineer and an architect. But design is where I finally settled.
A: Were there any specific artists that motivated you to go in that realm?
I’m really into a lot of pop art, so Andy Warhol was a big one. That was partly why I decided to go to Pittsburgh for college. and I was influenced a lot by Transworld skate Thrasher, and like a lot of David Carson stuff.
A: What brought you to the Bay area originally?
I worked for a financial oriented.com in the mid-nineties, and they were eventually bought by Quicken. So I got transferred out here, and I was working down in mountain view and Santa Clara and I burnt out on it pretty quickly. it wasn’t for me. I eventually quit and started bartending and doing posters as kind of a hobby.
A: What motivated you to get out of the tech industry and into something more kind of creatively fulfilling?
I was just super unhappy. I was spending all my time working and commuting and didn’t really have time to enjoy anything that I moved to San Francisco to do. I wasn’t really fulfilled from design standpoint. Everything that I was working on was really rigid and conservative. And, the tech environment was not for me.
A: And shortly after that you moved into bartending. How did you get started in the gig poster realm?
I had collected them for a while and, I was working at a bar called the Parkside and helping to book bands and things like that. So for my birthday party, I made a poster. And, from that I got a couple of other venues interested and I started doing stuff for Bottom of the Hill. And, I met the guys from the Firehouse, Ron and Chuck.
They used to hang out at the bar, so kind of defended them and they were headed to Europe for a few months for one of their summer tours and gave me the keys to the studio and said, see you in a couple months. So I suddenly had access to all this stuff, and that’s basically how I got started.
A: Was that your first experience, with screen printing or had you done screen printing before that?
I didn’t take any classes in school, but some friends of mine that I used to like break into the screen printing studio at night and bootleg tee shirts and make other random junk, drank a lot of beer.
A: know a lot of people that start out, doing flyers for bands, it’s usually on the computer. It’s printed out at Kinko’s. What pushed you to start doing full on screen-printed posters.
Mostly from collecting artwork from like Archie and Coop and The Firehouse and Frank Kozik and a lot of these like nineties resurgent poster artists. That’s where my interest came, and then when I finally had the opportunity to do it firsthand, I just kind of lucked at it.
A: Do you remember one of the first posters that you were paid to produce?
I was working for a booking group here called plane and fog and I can’t remember who the band was, but they were paying me to do some stuff very early on. And then Jay Segun from the red devil lounge, Jay Segun Presents. I started doing stuff for him and I still do stuff for him now. 17 years later.
A: Have there been certain artists that, when you got the job, you thought to yourself, “Holy shit I’m doing a poster for this artist?”
I think pretty early on I did a poster for CBGBs 30th anniversary and The Dictators were doing a live DVD filming. I was pretty stoked about that. The first time I got to do something for DEVO was pretty amazing. And luckily it still happens. I still sometimes get an email and I’m like, wow, I can’t believe I have the opportunity to do this.
A: Do you still have any bucket list artists that you would love to do posters for?
I missed the opportunity to do stuff for Prince twice and I really wish that would have happened. I’d still love to do something for Bruce Springsteen, New Order’s on my list. Those are the big ones that come to mind at least.
A: A lot of your posters are more symbolic and sometimes they’re more photographic in nature. How do you determine what style you’re going to be doing for the poster?
Originally it was mostly due to budget. I couldn’t afford to do huge colored posters because I couldn’t afford to do a lot of films. So I ended up with very limited palettes and a very generous use of negative space. Nowadays I ask the client which style they would prefer to work in. Otherwise I just try to suss out what the most relevant approach is for that certain band or whatever the song is that I’m working on.
A: Do you have a certain process that you go through to determine what the theme of the poster will be?
No, I usually just jump right into it and put on whatever the latest release is. I try to keep it most relevant to what the band is doing presently, rather than a greatest hits approach. And I try to pick a certain song or a certain lyric and go off that. Very rarely do I throw that first concept away and move on to something else.
A: When you’re working with the client, do you have much interaction with the artists themselves, or is it the Art Director at the promotion office or the venue?
I only really work with the one art director at the Fillmore. So for almost everything else I’m dealing directly with the band. And part of the reason I started doing this was to get away from dealing with creative directors and un-creative people that had opinions on things. One of the things that turned me off from the tech world was getting opinions from people that didn’t really have the background to make those decisions. Having the chief technical officer tell you if he doesn’t like this color or something like that. So a lot of times I do work, I let them know that I pretty much just want to do my own work. I don’t want to be a tool for someone else.
A: I think a lot of people don’t really understand what all goes into screen printing. Can you walk us through what the process of that is?
When you’re screen printing you’re printing one color at a time. It’s an additive process where you’ll print your first color and you can print another color on top of that, and if you have overlapping you can create a third color. And you keep adding to that. So when I start designing I start with usually a blank piece of paper, which is either white, off white or black. And then I pick a limited color palette. I usually work with two to four colors. I think the most I’ve done is 12 but I have to keep a lot of that in mind while I’m working. I have to understand how all the colors are going to interact with each other, how they’re going to print over each other and what order they should print in.
A: You also do a fair amount of apparel and accessories, that you’ve designed for fun and promotion. do you do any merch design for other bands or do you just stick to the posters?
I‘ve done tee shirts for bands, I’ve done album covers, I do hats, I can do patches and pins. I’ll do pretty much anything except the website.
A: Going back to your displeasure with working with art directors and creative directors. Have you done any work with ad agencies to do more commercial work or is that just something that you’re not really interested in?
I do that occasionally as well. I just don’t put it on my Instagram. It’s just portfolio work and it depends on what my contract is with them as well. But I’ve done a lot of stuff for various agencies. It’s been one of the things that has kept me alive during this situation right now. luckily, I had a really good agency contract the first week this was started, so I’m not worried about running out of money while we’re sheltering in place. I’m just glad that the agency work came out of my poster work, and I had this reputation doing independent work. Luckily when I work with an agency I’m a known quantity. They know what they’re getting when they work with me.
A: South by Southwest and Flatstock is a huge event for the poster community. And everyone essentially had to cancel everything this year. what have you been doing to manage or minimize the loss in revenue from those events?
I went to Texas anyway and we were trying to schedule a small show to take its place but unfortunately the corona virus ended up shutting everything down. So now we’ve been talking about doing a virtual show. I’ve been really hustling myself online, trying to do deals and raffles and things like that. So the Flatstock stuff should be doing something soon, we have a couple of people working on the possibility of zoom galleries and things like that.
Our July show in Chicago is still on, but most of us have a feeling that nothing’s going to happen for the rest of the year, but hopefully we’ll get back to it in the fall.
A: The live concert experience is up in the air for the foreseeable future. And lots of people are trying to understand how it’s even going to get back to normal or how it’s going to work once everything gets better. Have you had to shift your way of thinking about work in the future to adapt? And how have you been managing to stay creative?
I’ve been working with a project called Erase Covid, which is a group of artists doing PSA style posters for that. As far as the rest of the year goes, I don’t know. I’m just kind of doing it month by month right now to see what happens and just trying to adapt to figure out how to pivot or whatever the word is they use these days.
A: You’ve lived in other cities similar to San Francisco on the East coast, down south. What is it about San Francisco that keeps you here and keeps you motivated?
When I was in Pittsburgh, my housemates and I had to drive to Cleveland or Wheeling West Virginia or Morgantown, New York and Philadelphia to see shows. There were so many bands that would just skip Pittsburgh altogether or come there once and never come back. And the first time I came to San Francisco, just looking through the local paper and seeing what bands are playing. Every night there was a band playing that I thought I would never ever have a chance to see. So that’s probably what’s kept me here. It’s such an amazing live music city. There’s always something going on here that you rarely have a chance to see anywhere else in the world. When I moved here, The Residents would play every Halloween. I saw Tom Waits play twice, and he’d play Berlin and Tokyo, and San Francisco. So it was just the weird opportunity to see bands like that. Prince would also do his crazy after shows here, and I think he has done some other cities, but San Francisco seemed to always get these crazy after shows that wouldn’t start till like four in the morning.
A: You started a project on Instagram recently called sf_flags where you’re creating flags for all the different neighborhoods of the city. How did you come up with that idea and have you been working on new flags recently?
A friend of mine and I were talking last year about other things we could do. We were talking about various book projects and other kinds of things. And my work was a little bit slow and I saw another city that had just done a flag project and redesigned their flag. And San Francisco has these micro neighborhoods that people have so much pride in even though the residency of the neighborhood might be like 220 people. I just thought it’d be a good project to explore for myself when I had some downtime. And surprisingly, I’ve been so busy during my quarantine that I haven’t had a chance to really go back and revisit that, but hopefully I’ll get back to it soon.
A: We’ll do a few rapid-fire questions to wrap things up.
Burgers or tacos? And What is your favorite place to get either?
That’s tough. Burgers. Lately, I go to Wes Burger quite a bit. That one’s pretty good.
A: Top three dive bars?
A: Favorite record store in the city?
Aquarius. (Now known as “Stranded”)
A: First three places you want to go when everything goes back to normal?
Foreign Cinema, Great American Music Hall, and my pedicure place.
A: Three other artists that you recommend people following,
Pink Bike Ralph, he does a lot of like koozies and t-shirts, really simple stuff that has a really good sense of humor, a lot of great pop culture references. Drew Millward is a British illustrated poster maker. His stuff is always great. I love his CMYK pallet that’s incredible. And locally, Jason Munn, his style’s always just been incredible. He always has such simple and really effective designs.