Justin Green 1945-2022
Before I was anything else, I was a comic book nerd, steeped in the arcane knowledge of the medium, enough that I knew of Justin Green. In the mid eighties, when I was really piling up the comics in my room, I never saw his work, but I read the critical appraisal that he was an important figure in the underground comics scene. I was lucky to be collecting when the first alternative comics showed up in the shops. I couldn’t commit to Flaming Carrot and the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I loved Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s RAW Magazine, completely and unconditionally. In RAW I read an odd and affecting story by Justin Green about two kids who see a retired track coach’s failed attempt to run up on one kid’s mother, a former track star protégé of the coach. It was grown-up weird, summoning feelings on the first read that I didn’t want to know, so I pushed it off and read the next story on offer in the issue. Eventually I understood how deep and dark it was, and what a tremendous craftsman he was in telling the story. But I was still maybe 20 years old, dumb enough that I couldn’t fathom making such work from disappointment, which was Justin’s forté, but I was wise enough to appreciate that one day I might, so I filed his colorful name away and went about my business being (cue Supergrass) “young and (small g) green”.
It was 10 years later, after green turned blue and black and back to green again, that I was called by Tamara Harkavy to create an artwork at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital with a group of motivated post high school youts. Tamara mentioned that there was a sign painter in town that could assist me named Justin Green. “The famous underground cartoonist and creator of Binky Brown?” Tamara did that thing that you do when you have no idea of what is being talked about, “I think so?, yes, that one.” Tamara only knew Justin as a sign painter, but even still knew enough to offer cautions about Justin’s personality, but in the air of a small town matchmaker, she knew we’d figure out our differences. How we figured out our differences was fighting in front of 15 young adults. Ahhh, remember your first time seeing trusted adults turning into dysfunctional babies right before your eyes? Unforgettable.
I was teaching a group of 18 year olds how to use one-shot paint. One shot is a toxic enamel paint that is a mess to deal with as one sign writer in a familiar work area far from a June classroom of 15 novices wearing respirator masks and gloves, but we did our best. I would teach what I knew, and Justin, like an anti-hypeman, would undercut every instruction I would give with an exasperated sigh, or a barely audible, but cutting, “noooo.” I respected him enough to talk through his anguish at me not cutting rags into 4” squares, or sketching on aluminum in lead pencil instead of a stabilo pencil, or not teaching mechanical vs optical letter spacing, but I finally yelled at him after he criticized how I described the proper mix of paint. I said it should be like melted ice cream but he said it should be like cold butter milk. I flipped, really yelling, and rather than discussing the merits I just cited the case precedent of myway v. highway. He can’t undermine me in class, even if I’m wrong, and I’m not wrong, I am just showing my way to make the work we are going to hang in this hospital, it’s not your sign, it is my art. Justin pushed right back, grimacing “this isn’t the right way to learn the fundamentals, you are going to set them back when they try to paint signs on their own!” It was my turn to let out an exasperated sigh. “Hey, show of hands, how many of you want to grow up to be a signpainter?” No hands went up, but one funny guy, seeing the chance to stir the pot said, “I would like to learn the right way.” “Ok cool, you can join me and Justin after class, we’ll be drinking beers and painting signs the right way, in the meantime let’s make this art.” Suddenly, funny guy remembered he had better things to do after class. Not me, I never had anything better to do than paint signs the right way with Justin Green.
When I started sign painting, it was to make signs for an art show, and it wasn’t sign painting so much as it was painting graffiti in sign paint. In 1998 sign painters were as hard to find as new vinyl LPs, so I was on my own. I saw Pearl Paint had the paint and the brushes, and I had a great book titled Street Signs India, and I tried to teach myself how to apply a medium to a surface, for the second time in my life. In three years of doing it my way I achieved enough renown to land a really cush commission with a prominent pediatric hospital, so I went to Cincinnati to teach what I knew, but ended up being schooled along with the rest of the class.
Justin showed me that sign painting is a hundred good habits that manifest good results. Preparation, organization, and deliberate execution form a pyramid of practice. Within those blocks are a thousand and one tricks of the trade. Some will be revealed by your own effort, the rest have to be learned from other, better sign writers. There are no shortcuts, you only get out what you put in, and every sign painter pays every due, unless they are a dilettante artist that is squatting on the craft of signs to affect a “look” in their work. I was that dilettante, but I wanted to do the work, and I was lucky to be working with the best sign painter who just happened to be a former dilettante artist. In what was another absurd coincidence in this Cinci summer, I met the titanic personage of Tod Swormstedt, the founder of The National Sign Museum which had temporary tenancy in the same building I was teaching in. He asked what I was doing and when I told him he looked away and said “just what we need, another artist painting signs.” Justin was the other ‘artist.’ Tod lumped us together, but we had a deeper connection, bound by our similar backgrounds. Justin and I both used art to slingshot ourselves out of teenage misery, and we both worked in mediums that were not considered art. Underground Comix and Graffiti were both expressions that had no rules, no expectations, and no chance of making a lucrative living, if you’re doing them to depict your damage. Justin and I both had a good rep in our respective dead-end expressions, and we both jumped into sign painting as a way forward into an honest living.
The damage Justin depicted was his own severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In fact, he is one of the reasons I don’t have to explain what OCD is. He wrote a rigorous study of his own symptoms and the rituals he devised to combat the symptoms, not for a medical journal, but in an underground comic book. Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary is an anguished, unflinching depiction of a teenager’s sexual awakening while OCD drops the hammer on the narrator/artist’s every perverted thought. After decades of knowing about the comic, I found a copy. I thought I was well prepared to read it, but the depth of the darkness required a few attempts to read it through, and once finished, I would not reread it. There’s a famous story that Pauline Kael read the script to Taxi Driver, and was so bummed out about it, she placed it between the folded sheets in her linen closet, maybe to influence the sullied sheets of typewriter paper into cleaning up their act. Having no clean sheets of my own, I sent my copy of Binky back to Justin. He didn’t have a copy himself, having given/sold every scrap of artwork and ephemera to devoted fellow sufferers/fans who took great comfort in his work. He also refused to pay, like I did $100 to buy a copy of his miserable life story he barely got paid for in the first place.
That transmutation of trauma into artistic achievement won Justin a lot of respect among his fellow artists. He gave Robert Crumb the key to his own kingdom, along with every other cartoonist that draws autobiographical comics, they all copied Justin’s master key. Justin’s great reputation didn’t add up to one dollar in royalties, so he used his prodigious schnozz to sniff out a profession that would reward the overwrought thought he put into every aspect of his life. He started sign painting, and inside of a few years he had a flourishing sign business in San Francisco. He told me how he ended up in the city we met and started our mentorship, “Dont mess with the white witch, it’s the fastest way from San Francisco to Cincinnati!” He only said this to me because he heard me order a coke at Skyline Chili.
We got through that first Cincinnati summer in style, the work turned out fine and I learned what I could when we had time and beers to share. It set us up on a great twenty year working relationship. I brought him out to Coney Island to make a gold leaf sign for the museum. I introduced him to all of my sign painting friends, and we all were amazed at the depth of his talent and his willingness to share it. He became an essential part of what grew to be ICY SIGNS, a dream team of semi-reformed reprobates and journeyman sign painters. I found a spot for him on nearly every sign job we had going forward. In Miami Art Basel in 2006 Jeffrey Deitch gave us the run of a space in Wynwood when it was just “The Art And Design District.” All Justin had to do for a week in Miami was paint paper signs, and talk to curious art lovers. He couldn’t believe his luck, so he worried like crazy about the machinations of my career, which if it failed, might have me moving in with him in his drafty house behind the Cincinnati zoo. I patiently walked him through how I was going to sell all the paintings and we would win the eye of a curator who would give us another show. Justin was incredulous, “how can you be so sure?” I said, “as easy as you can worry.” Not five minutes later a prominent collector walked in, asked for a price list, and when it was presented to him, said “I dont want any of it” and left. As he walked out, Matthew Strauss walked in and immediately decided to give us a show at White Flag Projects in St. Louis. In the showdown of Justin’s worry vs. Steve’s manifest we had a draw! The whole amazing sequence of events took fifteen minutes, and it was the first fifteen minutes Justin Green was absent from the gallery space in seven days. Justin was hiding in the back painting a sign, “$2 WHORE, CAN YOU BREAK A $5,” that he was too shy to paint in public. I decided from then on to not fight or ignore his worries, but make the worry work for me. If Justin is worried I will act to counteract his worry, and I will manifest the best for the rest. Sounds like a plan, let’s see it through.
We put the plan in action when we next worked together in Brooklyn. We were painting the Macy’s Garage and simultaneously making work for a gallery show in Manhattan. The gallery show was an ICY SIGNS group show, some of whom were pushing to make art, the others I had to push, but everybody was universally psyched to be getting face time with Justin Green. For a week we all hung around him like a six pack ring on a single can of Ballantine Ale. Justin had a beloved brother who was a New York art dealer and who died young. I’m not sure if Justin respected the art world before his brother passed, but he definitely had less than zero regard for the NY gallery scene afterwards. He only agreed to participate in our group show on the condition that he would only paint signs and only be represented as a sign writer. Easy. Mike and Mike built a double decker sign bench, and we placed Justin up top. He sat up there for a week, a white haired swami that was brushing out signs. Occasionally someone climbed up to gain some wisdom from the mountain man, and Justin would send them back down with a paper sign depicting actor Chris Farley in his iconic role as motivational speaker Matt Foley with Chris’s name and birth – death dates. I’m sure every sign pilgrim that went up the mountain came back down thinking, “Ahhh such wisdom, thank you oh great one.”
In 2015, our brilliant run of sign painting art gigs culminated with a show at The Brooklyn Museum. I seized the opportunity to show off everything ICY SIGNS had learned in the years since Matt Wright and I opened our first shop in Coney Island. It was a sprawling multi-level marking scheme that ran for nine months, the entirety of which featured Tim Curtis, Eric Davis, and/or I painting signs in the museum every day. It was the biggest circus we put on, but this time I saved Justin the stress. I set him up to paint letters in my studio in Manhattan and Uncle Ken let him stay in the apartment above the ICY SIGNS shop in Brooklyn. It was autumn in New York and it sang to Justin’s heart in the voice of Billie Holiday. The lyrics referenced the show’s opening, so Justin spent the week blissed out like he was twinkling piano keys in Lady Day’s song. I thought he was just being groovy, and he was, but he was also having a profound moment of peace that all his work and worry made us successful and we were sharing that success. Justin, even at his lowest, could find a silver lining in a fart cloud, but he was really happy the whole week. We had a last supper at Bubby’s in Tribeca, where eating luxury comfort food, he fulfilled his own ideal of the well-fed and well-paid signman rocking on somebody else’s dime. It didn’t last. Right after dinner he nearly wandered into traffic, he was physically fine but it brought on his neurosis full force. For a long time after he said, “I think I was hit by a taxi that night and l dreamed the whole week as I was dying, it was too perfect. I think I might still be dead!”
My birth father was a stranger to me, which was a curse as a youth and a blessing as an adult. I never had a dad, so I never had to accept him for who he was and wasn’t. I wrote that fool off like a bad debt. What I did in his stead was be my own dad, and try to do the right thing in the absence of a back up. In full disclosure, I did a lot of dumb shit too, because sometimes I was an absentee, like father like son. I only wanted to learn sign painting from Justin, but in order for him to teach the one thing, he had to teach me everything else, like wardrobe. “What you want to do is get 3-4 flannels, two pairs of jeans, a dozen heavy white socks and work boots. You can get it all at Wal-Mart.” His instructions for bid negotiations were always to deploy his exact words in a tight formation, like a regiment advancing across a bargaining table. He was always right, in spite of the eons of time since his last big score. He had precise formulas for coffee, gold leaf size, and brandy to workday ratios. He would say gold leafing a window was as easy as making an omelette, but what chefs can gold leaf a window? and what sign writer made a better omelette? Let me know. I think of Justin as a father because along with the gold, I accept all the coal. He was consumed by conspiracy, bedeviled by disbelieving, he was a real dumb drag to deal with for a long time. I persisted in reasoning with him, read the articles he sent me, sent him articles back, tried to see it his way but it was all motor oil and shit on my windshield. I didn’t hold any of it against him, I thought it was another manifestation of his beautiful, terrible neurosis. I dropped a couple of his calls, but in December I found myself in a real crisis, I had lost faith in love and I wasn’t sure where to turn, so I reached out to the guy who made an emotional Chernobyl out of his own life, and I asked him to help me prevent my own nuclear reactor from exploding. He was touched that I would ask and he gave me all the strength I needed to avert disaster, and then if that wasn’t enough, followed up with a handwritten four page letter offering further advice for dealing with every potentiality. I received his letter in the run up to another show, and since the missive demanded a dignified response, it had to wait until I got home in ten days. On the ninth day I got word he passed, I cried my eyes out in a cool little restaurant on Lake Como. The love of my life and perfectly operating cooling tower kept me from total meltdown. The waiter, seeing my distress, asked me, “whats wrong?” I said “my dad died.” He said , “ahh too bad, have a limoncello shot!” haha no grazie, but please thank Justin for sending the shot.