At the turn of the 19th century, during the Meiji era of modernization in Japan, printmaker Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) revived a dying tradition of the ukiyo-e woodblock print. His intricate works were a fusion of traditional Japanese subject — mores, myths, legends — and contemporary Western innovation in composition, movement, and technique. The legacy of the ancient art of the woodblock print largely died with Yoshitoshi, who passed from brilliance to madness at age 53. His works have survived him as some of the most masterful graphic works of sex and violence, in gory detail — a common theme in ukiyo-e. Indeed, Yoshitoshi's work has reached beyond its culture and continent, through centuries to a young printmaker in our modern city.
Mig Kokinda seems far from the trappings of tradition — especially those conventions of ancient Japan. Yet a sudden smile illuminates his face, and his intelligent eyes brighten when I compare a poster he created in 2001 for the Golden Shower Film Festival, now known as the San Antonio Underground Film Festival, to the work of the great ukiyo-e master. The poster, which features a grotesque goblin skewering a carp on his sword, is as rich in texture and depth as a finely detailed woodblock print, seeped in color and motion. Kokinda avidly admires Yoshitoshi's style, and his own composition was inspired by the artist's work.
I marvel at the similarity in process, coming to a crossroad of understanding as Kokinda juxtaposes the two art forms: There is woodblock printing and stencil printing, both of which require immense care in layering elaborate detail, but the woodblock print is the product of a stamping process, while Kokinda's technique relies upon stencil work.
Mig Kokinda has lived in San Antonio all his life. Well, most of his life, anyway. He frequently escapes the city limits for worldly excursions — five-month-long bike rides throughout Texas or into Mexico, or lengthier trips overseas (sans bicycle). He recently spent two years living in Europe, "mostly in Greece," where he worked as migrant farm labor, picking olives, oranges, or digging trenches. "And I got back by working on a boat," he says. He has an innocent interest in everything: plants, pencil sharpeners, auto body parts, comics, books on anatomy, antiques, and natural history, shrunken heads, tiny tiki heads, taxidermy. He has a stamp collection and a How and Why Book of Animals. And he enjoys puns. He points out a pun on another Golden Shower poster — "You're in for a good time," it reads. "You're in, get it? Urine?" he laughs. "I get my jollies in fucking nerdy ways," he admits. Yet, no matter his questionable compulsions — collecting Pez dispensers, vintage lunchboxes, or even bricks — he is still a cool guy. And yet he is almost quaint, with a gentle Southern demeanor colored with colloquialisms some well-traveled artsy types might be downright ashamed of.
At 33, Kokinda sees things without preconception, he speaks with confident candor, and he listens to people the way you look at an intricate print — absorbing every detail with the greatest of care, and responding just as intently. His art is indicative of this attentiveness, translating the mundane — condiments, a crow, an eyeball, an alligator — into something scintillating, inviting, and vibrant. He gives life to his art, whether it is spray-painted on 39-cent posterboard, mapped out on a mural, or etched into skin.
Kokinda doesn't use conventional canvas, but he is prone to painting on people. As a tattoo artist for Backbone, he has created custom skin art for the past eight years. "Since I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was art and travel, and that's what I'm doing," says Kokinda. "Tattooing is a good living — it's what makes living my life the way I want possible." Before settling into his niche at Backbone, Kokinda worked some waiting gigs at restaurants, tried his hand at silkscreening, and dabbled in school. Ever a wanderer, Kokinda's mind would often meander off to another city — or country. After seven years, he had finally earned enough credits for an associate's degree. He decided he didn't really need school, and took up tattooing. "I've got some scratches on my legs from practicing on myself in the beginning," Kokinda says, "but no tattoos. I never found anything I wanted for the rest of my life. That's why I'm not married." Anyway, he adds, "You don't need a vagina to be a good gynecologist."
HERE IS SOMETHING FOR YOUR EYE
While the process of creating his art is a private affair, Kokinda's finished product is very much in the public eye. There is the infamous pig on Hogwild Records & Tapes, the imaginative murals on Planet K at both Mulberry Street and Austin Highway, and the enormous octopus mural at the Magik Children's Theater. His posters are ubiquitous in the local music and art communities. For years, Kokinda has created custom posters for Adam Rocha's underground film festival, and he is frequently commissioned to do posters for shows — even a show in the pseudo setting of Jim Mendiola's upcoming film, Speeder Kills. Although Kokinda does the occasional art show, he would rather display at places like the Star Seeds Café in Austin. "If you hang in galleries, people won't always go," he explains. "But in a greasy spoon, lots of people will see." In San Antonio, Kokinda regularly hangs one poster per punk rock show or film festival at Hogwild, where it is inevitably stolen. "It's kind of neat that someone would want to steal my poster," he says.
HOW TO (PROPERLY) MAKE A POSTER
"Most posters are usually silkscreened, but I like spray paint. I like the shading," says Kokinda. Silkscreening prints was "a bitch to do," because he didn't have the proper equipment, so the artist took to stencils and spray paint. It is an involved — yet surprisingly basic — process that begins with a sketch. Kokinda enlarges a finished design to posterboard proportion, and pastes it to another piece of posterboard (double layering makes the stencil more durable). He repeats this step until he has enough stencils to work with — some posters require as many as 13. Then the tedious cutting begins. With an X-acto knife (modified with a tattoo artist's needle grip) and incredible foresight and planning, Kokinda slices slight curves and lines from the posterboards, each of which will become one layer of many on a final print. Some stencils are determined by the color of paint Kokinda will use, others by sheer practicality — he needs the stencils to hold together, so some lines can't be cut contiguously. He then numbers the stencils — base to surface, respectively — and the preparation process is complete.
Kokinda paints his posters in his home, spraying them outside on his back patio, and drying them inside on the floors. He has established a rhythm, and will paint for hours — sometimes producing 50 or 60 prints of one elaborate work — driven by the adrenaline rush he gets from doing what he loves.
Inspired by everything from World War II propaganda to '60s rock to art nouveau posters to late-'70s/early-'80s punk rock posters, Kokinda is pleased as punch to be a printmaker — and to promote the dying art of the handmade poster. "Too many artists are moving away from handmade work," he complains. "I hate it when people ask me, 'Why don't you just use a computer?'" He loves the print work of his contemporary, James Cobb. "He is a big inspiration for me. His work blows me away," says Kokinda. "And being around Dan Barnett is really inspiring to me. It's cool to be around people who are hardcore about what they do, excited about it, and good at it." Surely Kokinda realizes that he is the most invaluable inspiration of all.