The telephone poles on New York Avenue used to rustle with fluorescent foliage — electric reds and nuclear yellows shouting at your eyes. “RARE ESSENCE.” “E.U.” “HOT, COLD, SWEAT.” “A SHOW YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS!!!” ¶ In the ’80s and ’90s, these were concert posters you simply couldn’t miss. They were the prime publicity tools for Washington’s thriving go-go scene and they were conceived at Globe Poster Printing Corp., the fabled 81-year-oldBaltimore press that brothers Bob and Frank Cicero finally lost to the recession in 2010. ¶ Dozens upon dozens of Globe posters will coat the walls the Corcoran Gallery of Art this month as a part of “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s,” an exhibition commemorating the graffiti, go-go and hardcore punk scenes native to the District. “Globe was the original street art of D.C.,” says Roger Gastman, the show’s curator. “Nobody else was giving go-go a visual identity.”
Former go-go promoter Ken “IcyIce” Moore certainly did his part to bolster that identity. Between 1988 and 1996, Moore says, he hung up around 1,000 Day-Glo posters in the streets of Washington each week — 400,000-ish posters in all.
“Every telephone pole at every major intersection would be draped with Globe posters,” Moore says. “It was part of a routine, or a ritual, really. When you put the poster up, that made [the concert] official.”
But Globe posters weren’t just night-life hype pressed onto cardboard. Over time, they came to exist in opposition to the khaki sterility of official Washington, drawing a line between the local and the federal. They became an emblem of go-go’s refusal to be marginalized, a scene literally declaring its visibility on every street corner.
“They glowed in the daytime, so they seemed to be rivaling the monuments, those things that glow at night,” says Thomas Sayers Ellis, a Washington-born author who has memorialized the posters in his poetry. “They had to compete.”
But eventually, they lost.
MPD began leaning hard on go-go promoters in the late ’90s, doling out big fines to anyone caught stapling posters to tree trunks, or light poles, or street signs, or boarded-up storefronts. The cops wrote out the tickets faster than Globe could print the posters. The fines kept adding up. The posters started coming down.
They were as gorgeous as they were legible. Who-what-when-wheres you could spot from a block away and read from across the street.
Bands’ names were printed in black capital letters on dazzling blocks of color, stacked like layers of radioactive wedding cake, providing a coded guide to the scene’s hierarchy.
“Everybody on the bottom wants to get to the top,” says Bob Cicero, a man who spent 48 years producing enough of these beauties to see Day-Glo inside his eyelids.
Cicero didn’t invent Globe’s aesthetic vocabulary, though. That would be the late Harry Knorr, Globe’s in-house graphic designer who started using Day-Glo inks in the ’50s, when the Ciceros’ father, the late Joe Sr., was still working at the shop.
Since 1929, Globe had printed posters for vaudeville acts, carnivals, movie houses and drag races. In the ’50s and ’60s, R&B promoters started knocking. Knorr knew that Day-Glo inks could make every name on a crowded soul revue poster leap out, and soon Globe posters spread from Harlem to Baton Rouge.
In the ’80s, Washington became Globe’s best market. Go-go thumped seven nights a week, and at the scene’s height, Bob Cicero says, Globe would churn out a thousand concert posters in a single workday. “And bar none, this was the cheapest form of advertising,” Cicero says. “You put one poster up on New York Avenue and you figure 20,000 cars see it on the way in, 20,000 cars see it on the way out. You don’t get that on the radio.”
Friday mornings, the place would be swarming with the go-go’s storied promoters: Joe Clark, Maxx Kidd, Annie Mack, the matriarch and manager of Rare Essence. “Everybody would be here, wheeling and dealing,” says Cicero, “getting their posters for the next weekend.”
Momentarily infatuated with go-go, Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell released a handful of go-go records in the mid-’80s. Their album sleeves mimicked Globe’s bold designs and loud colors. But on D.C.’s streets, the genuine article often took on a sort of damaged beauty.
“They started stapling them to trees and buildings, over top of each other, over time, and the weather would affect them,” says Sayers Ellis. “Half Rare Essence, half Chuck Brown, a little bit of Trouble Funk. The decaying go-go posters were a way of showing a certain kind of progression.”
Or maybe a kind of survivalism. With the fines racking up, promoters would hit the streets deep in the night, hoping police wouldn’t catch them in the act — or track them down later.
“It was around ’99, 2000 when they were really on top of everybody,” says Moore, who ran the Ice Box nightclub in Northeast until 1999. Many promoters switched from Globe posters to cheaper, glossier handbills. Cicero says other promoters tried to dodge persecution by removing their phone numbers from the posters. Soon, Globe’s phone stopped ringing, too.
“You gotta see that as part of the whole gentrification movement to clean the city up, to hide the night life, to hide the natives,” says Sayers Ellis. “You take the posters away and you outlaw [go-go] on a certain level. . . . You take the literacy away from the streets.”
As D.C. was quickly losing its colors, Bob Cicero was slowly losing his business.
By 2010, he and Frank were down to printing between 10 and 15 jobs a week, mostly real estate signs and election placards. “We always paid our debts, but I couldn’t pay them,” says Cicero. “I knew we were in trouble.”
He also knew what he was sitting on a music memorabilia gold mine. Globe’s vintage R&B posters had become iconic, beloved and highly collectible, fetching thousands of dollars at auction. In 2010, a private collector landed in Baltimore and named a mouth-watering price for everything under Globe’s roof. He’d keep some of it and toss the rest. Cicero balked. He wanted the collection to remain in one piece, and ideally, in one place.
“I knew I couldn’t keep [Globe] in the family, but I wanted to keep it in Baltimore,” he says. “My father was proud of being from Baltimore. . . . So we found a place that was older than ours.”
That was the Maryland Institute College of Art — founded in 1826 — whose administration had been listening to pleas from students and community members to rescue Globe. So in 2011, the school purchased Globe’s collection of wood type, letterpress cuts, posters and more, and moved a portion of its new acquisition to its printmaking department. Now, Globe is officially known as “Globe Collection and Press at MICA.” And, at 65, Bob Cicero is an MICA instructor.
“To be able to bring in the history, and the archives, and the posters, and the man who was making those posters — to imprint that Globe style in young artists’ heads and hands is an amazing thing,” says Mary Mashburn, the MICA printmaking faculty member who helped broker the deal.
Cicero seems relieved and rejuvenated as he shows off the posters he and MICA students recently printed to promote “Pump Me Up,” a stack of 200 bound for the Corcoran gift shop.
Snag a copy and hang it in your living room if you want to remember how Washington, D.C., used to look — and how it will never look again.
runs Feb. 23-April 7 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. For more information, call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.