Interview by Leanne Murphy and Antonis Vradis
Artwork by Nicole Schulman and Seth Tobocman
I first saw Seth Tobocman’s work at the Babel Comics Festival in Athens, where he had drawn a huge anti-war mural together with some other of the World War Three Illustrated crew. Much of his work is a bit of a legend for us Europeans, not least because his artwork – not least his book ‘War in the Neighbourhood’ – is so hard to find on this side of the Atlantic!
So when I went along to the launch night of WW3 Illustrated I was astonished to find the magazine’s new issue along with a copy of ‘War in the Neighborhood’ – and even Seth Tobocman himself. After explaining I was interested in doing an interview on New York’s radical scene, I was swiftly introduced to Nicole Schulman. Nicole has recently edited and contributed to ‘Wobblies: A Graphical History of the Industrial Workers of the World’.
What follows is an interview with Seth and Nicole that took place in December 2005 at ABC No Rio in New York City. Many thanks go to Nicole and Seth for doing the interview and to Leanne for helping so much with it.
LH: Present yourself and talk a bit about the decisive moment that brought you into politics and into comics.
Seth Tobocman (ST): I have been drawing comic books pretty much all my life in one form or another. I am also sometimes a painter, sometimes an illustrator, sometimes an art teacher, sometimes a political activist; but I am first and foremost a comic artist. As for the decisive moment when I became politicised, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘politicised’. I got beat up a lot in elementary school and high school and this probably effected where I look on humanity a great deal. I got educated about the Holocaust when I was in kindergarten because we lived in Israel at the time, where there was a great deal of nationalist energy and so I would say that I knew about the Holocaust before I could read, which is a bit bizarre when I think about it now. I guess my parents were a bit weird or the culture was a bit weird then. When I was in high school, which was in the seventies, there was a lot of gay activism going on and the group of kids I hanged out with were primarily gay kids for some reason, so I was aware of that.
I feel I really got politicised around the Iran hostage crisis. I was in New York going to art school part-time and working part-time. All of the sudden there was this event where the American Embassy had been seized by people in Iran who were overthrowing the government of the Shah and were concerned that the US would stage a coup and put the Shah back in. So they seized the American Embassy and took hostages. The Shah was in Ohio getting heart surgery so they wanted to trade their hostages for the Shah. The US was not going to give him back so they took the embassy and there was this enormous nationalist agitation in the United States which was something I hadn’t grown up with. All of the sudden everybody had an Ayatollah community dart board. At the grocery store that my family always used to shop they were selling this very large button that said “FUCK IRAN” in very big letters. This was startling because these are not people who would normally wear something that said F-U-C-K on it. It gave permission to this whole repressed anger that people had; they could now be angry at Iran for attacking America. The headlines would be like “America held hostage” and it was out of this reactionary cultural agitation that Ronald Reagan managed to become president of the United States. Nobody had taken Reagan seriously as a presidential candidate before that. Out of that came this whole resurgent American patriotism.
I looked at the newspaper and thought “well, if people this ignorant get to write and publish their views I don’t think there is any harm in me publishing mine. I might not be right but I can’t be more wrong than these guys”. Peter Kuper and I were both part-time in art school at the time and were both trying to get work published in the various comics magazines like Heavy Metal. So we said “well, let’s do an anti-war comic book”. We started the magazine at that point. I would say that my politics were kind of vague at the time. I was not that active, but my politics developed from there.
Nicole Schulman (NS): I am an artist in a sort of all-round, general way. I am a cartoonist, print-maker, illustrator. I was born and raised in New York City by left-wing, liberal Jewish parents. My mother is an artist and I was raised and trained as an artist and grew up in the city, went to all the museums and had this sense of what is high art. My mother is an illustrator, which is considered to be “low art” so they were cultivating me to be a high artist. I wasn’t really a teenager who was into comics though I wrote some underground stuff and since I grew up here, I came in contact with World War Three and I was in the Tompkins Square Park punk scene when I was thirteen or fourteen and had some weird experiences with that, dropped out and ended up coming back to it.
One thing I do remember, and have never told them this, is reading World War Three, the one with Kevin Pyle’s comic on the Tuskegee experiment, and being absolutely horrified. I had nightmares about it. The Tuskegee experiment was when African American men diagnosed with syphilis were given what they were told was free medical treatment and were given placebo medications instead. The idea was to see what the natural course of the disease was without treatment. They went insane, blind, their faces and parts of their bodies were eaten away – and this went on for years. That was some part of awakening, into just that the world is a horrible place and it bounced off young political, supposedly anarchist teens whose priority was fucking with McDonalds and veganism, which I didn’t consider that important.
When I was in high school the first Gulf war happened. In LaGuardia High School for the Arts there were massive student walk-outs. That was the first time that I was marching around and demonstrating. My politics were not that developed, except for abortion rights. There were a lot of demonstrations I attended with my mother, who was a big pro-choice activist and there was a Planned Parenthood centre right next to my junior high school and a number of operation rescue demonstrations happened outside it. Me and my friends would go up just to fuck with those demonstrators. And then there was the Democratic National Convention here in New York, and all the big demonstrations. We did clinic defence, got trained and all that. I wasn’t really aware of global politics until I was in college, where I got into contact with people who gave me Chomsky and Howard Zinn etc.
I feel like I evolved artistically with World War Three Illustrated. I started doing more comics in college. I had always worked in scratchboard before. I was a print maker, very much into German expressionism and went into comics and got hooked up with WW3 Illustrated when Sabrina Jones and Anton Van Dalen picked up Jeff Lewis (a cartoonist and rock star) off the street. He was sitting there sketching something, a scrappy looking kid so they told him, “hey you want a drink or a beer? What is it that you are drawing there? We are from this magazine”. And he said “can I call my friend?” So I got invited to the first Land and Liberty issue. That was five or six years ago.
LH: The reason why I started with the question about your decisive moment is because I thought that a magazine like WW3 Illustrated could offer this decisive experience to many people, especially in a country like the United States and the vast areas outside the major cities where people probably don’t have so much contact with radical communities.
ST: When I look through the mail for the magazine a really common and consistent letter will be a letter from someone in a small town who is amazed that they found this magazine in a record shop and want to know what else they can do because they feel very isolated. As far as starting the magazine, Peter and I started it in response to the atmosphere in 1979. I became more involved in the scene in the Lower East Side, which is where I was living. Eventually other people came in like Eric Drooker and Josh Whalen and we developed a bit of a neighbourhood focus in the Lower East Side and eventually we also got involved with the squatters movement in the area. We were one of the first American magazines to cover this movement in detail. We developed a mutual relationship; they gave us material for the magazine and we gave them artwork, which they used in a lot of their fliers, posters etc.
NS: The magazine started coming out in 1979 and I was born in 1975 so I am part of the younger generation that was influenced by the magazine. If you see my style of comics you can probably tell I didn’t grow up reading superhero comics or anything else for that matter; I looked at underground comics. It really is the perfect art form of using text and image together and I never understood the idea of art for art’s sake or that art is art because it has no function. I thought it was important to have work that was easily produced, inexpensive and accessible. That’s very hard to do sometimes if you are into doing paintings but if you reproduce that painting in a book or if you print it and reproduce it 2-3,000 times and distribute it around the world many people can get a copy of it. That is more satisfying for me than having stuff up on the wall in a gallery. This was why the catalogue of Three Cities Against the Wall was so important to the Palestinians; the show might not exist for them and there might be no record of it except from the book.
ST: One of the interesting things about the way published art has moved around is that because we’ve always been operating on a fairly low budget we always specialised in making things that were very easy to print, as we had to deal with that printing ourselves. So I tended to learn to draw things that were black and white without a lot of greys because I saw that printing those was expensive and complicated to deal with. So my work didn’t really have fine touch detail. Partially because of that one of the things that has happened to a lot of the art from WW3, is that people would lift that work and use it for posters, murals, banners and occasionally for tattoo art. These works started to have legs. You could call a lot of that copyright violation except for that most of the people who did it were not making any money out of it. Somebody might have put something in a political flier that they handed out for free. The work took on a kind of a cultural life that grew out of our control. I meet people from all over the place who have a patch with “you don’t have to fuck over people to survive” and don’t even know who did that. I’ve also seen these strange bastardisations of people’s work where somebody decides that the character in this image really needs long hair. And they draw that. Or someone would add something to a comic strip because they thought something important had been left out. This is a very strange cultural phenomenon that I have thought different ways about. It really amplified the power of the political statement that people were making. The statement went out to more people and also, when someone does that, they become part of the process by essentially saying they are advocating it and showing their commitment to it. A piece of artwork someone is wearing is very different from a piece of artwork sitting on a wall. This is something that happened with WW3 art and gave it a different kind of impact than just another magazine that gets put out, or just another comic book. It took on its own life. I now think of some of my early work as kids that grew up and moved away and I occasionally hear from them.
LH: I get this kind of feeling about New York a lot, a feeling that this is not a place like the rest of the country. Would you say that New York is almost like a different country to the rest of the United States?
NS: Yes! I was born and raised here and I am a typical New York Woody Allen Jew kind of type, who is scared to leave. I am a fourth generation New Yorker, my great-grandmother came over from Minsk with her family and worked in a sweatshop in Brooklyn in the turn of the century. Then my grandmother was born in Brooklyn and my mother was born in the Bronx, and so was my father. They moved to Manhattan and they had me. So I am a born and bred New York Jew who doesn’t have a drivers license. My mental picture of the United States is that New York is here, California is there, Chicago is somewhere in the middle and the rest of it is a big vortex where Christian people live and they are all crazy.
ST: Speaking of vortex, I grew up in Cleveland, which had a lot of people from Eastern Europe, not just Jews but also Poles, Ukrainians and a very intense working class history. There was a lot of history of union battles and a number of the major rubber barons had their mansion in Cleveland. You would never think that now, but there are some big houses there that belonged to people who ruled the world for a while. Growing up in Cleveland we always looked at New York. The kids wanted to get away at all cost. They wanted to get out of there; they thought there was no real culture, no real life in Cleveland. Cleveland was in a major recession starting from the seventies and intensifying in the eighties. I was part of a very embattled little community of gay and queer kids who thought we were in hell and that any place would be better than this.
NS: My experience is a little bit different from Seth’s because I am younger and by the time I was at an age to get my own apartment the rents had gone catastrophically high. The Lower East Side had been where the artists and the activists were supposed to be but they could not afford to live there any more. Most people were being pushed to the edge of the city. I live in Brooklyn, 45 minutes from Manhattan. The real estate boom is phenomenal, communities are being destroyed. I can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood I grew up in and even my parents wouldn’t be able to afford to live there, If they weren’t over a certain age and had a rent stabilised department they would be out in the street. So it’s hard, you live in Brooklyn and your friends live 45 minutes into Queens and you have an hour and a half commute to hang out in somebody’s house. It wasn’t like that in the eighties. It also feels very strange when some place is your home town but you have no sense of entitlement to it. You can get out of here any second, this is not your home.
LH: What was New York like in the past then?
ST One of the things that really attracted me to New York the minute I got here was all of the posters and the writing on the walls. One of the things that drove me crazy in Cleveland was that you could walk around for fifteen minutes without seeing anyone. It’s really empty, there’s a kind of a silence and for me in particular that silence meant falling back into my own neurosis. I liked the fact that when you walked up the street you saw all these posters, signs and graffiti and all these people. When I moved here in the seventies there was a supposed period of decay where a lot of stuff was unattended and which meant that there was graffiti on all the subways, graffiti on the walls and posters everywhere. This was simply because the space wasn’t being so heavily policed. Another thing which I was attracted to and I think is still true about New York was the diversity of people – different nationalities living together. When I moved to the Lower East Side it was heavily Hispanic but there were also a lot of Eastern European immigrants, for example there were Polish restaurants for Polish people as opposed to restaurants for tourists. There was a Polish bar where people played traditional music and there were people that had just come over from Poland. I met punk kids from Poland who were selling tapes of Polish punk bands while Poland was under the Communists!
It was also incredibly crime-ridden around here. There was a huge drug dealing operation and working class people living in the building I moved into, had very strong feelings against drug dealing. This probably affected my attitude on drugs for the rest of my life. It was interesting because when I was growing up in the suburbs it was like, “black or poor people bring the drugs here to sell”. While people here felt like “white people bring these drugs here, they come down here to buy these drugs and allow people to sell them”. They felt like this was a foreign invasion; people here would not be involved in this, it was the white people who did it. In fact there was a certain point when people in my building started doing security on the door because so many junkies would come in as the landlord wouldn’t fix the front door. So there were some guys who were unemployed who would sit there and question everyone who came in – and boy they gave my friends a hard time! My friends were all white kids in leather jackets and so they thought that they were a bunch of drug addicts. This definitely made me think about this issue, seeing how working class communities were repressed by other people’s vices and how they had become the playground for the worse aspect of the middle class. I remember having a discussion with a guy who asked me where he could buy some smack and I said “where are you from?” and he said “I’m from New Jersey” so I said, “why is it that I always meet guys from New Jersey here to buy smack, why don’t you buy it there?” And he says, “no man, you don’t shoot where you live!”.
Then the first police clean-up came with the beginning of investment in the neighbourhood. Thinking, okay, we cannot market the Lower East Side to the middle classes as a place to live, but as a place to hang out. That became threatening to us very quickly, this idea that it was to become unaffordable. We were all here because it was cheap. I came here because I was working as a foot messenger, I dropped out of school and wanted to be able to support myself. I didn’t want to feel this was a temporary thing. I thought “I’m an artist, who knows how long I might have to do shit like this”. You might become successful in two years or you might become successful in thirty. I remember once in our building we were going on rent strike because the landlord would not fix the front door and he wanted to increase the rent so we were having a big meeting of all the tenants in the hallway. I had a room-mate who had big aspirations to be a painter. When I went back to my apartment and he said “man, why are you sitting there in this meeting with all these old people?” And I said “well, the building is going on rent strike.” So he says “man, you want to live here?” And I said “well, I believe we do!” and he replied “well, I’m not going to live here, I am going to become a famous artist and live in a penthouse.” Last I heard of that guy he was in the air force.
NS: That is one big problem of the working class issue in the States, this idea that if you are not rich and famous it is your own fault. People think “one day I am going to be rich and famous so I don’t care about this shit work that I am working in nor my co-workers, I don’t want to unionise because I am not going to be here forever, just temporarily”. There’s no thought of the fact that life is a struggle and you have to deal with where you are and you are with other people. That’s how you make a community!
ST: That has affected the situation here at the Lower East Side a lot; at a certain point they tried to develop the neighbourhood as a more middle class one and they wanted to use artists for this. So they had the myth of Basquiat, a Haitian kid who paints some wall, gets discovered by the papers and becomes rich. I don’t think Basquiat wanted to represent that in his work but they were still able to represent that in media and to associate a whole wave of actually pretty interesting artists like Basquiat, Haring and Wojnarowicz with the gentrification of the Lower East Side. So a landlord would rent a store front for $500 a month to an artist or an art student under the condition that they would open a gallery. Chances are the guy was sleeping at the back, that he was probably piss poor. But they would be able to say “look, we’ve got a gallery on this block” and use that to bring wealthier tenants in. Then of course since there is no commercial rent control in this city after five years they would kick the artist out anyway. Artists became very ambiguous figures here. There had been a really exciting underground art scene in New York and the Lower East Side and all of the sudden it became a wedge to the neighbourhood. In the late eighties and early nineties we had a whole series of community struggles when they tried to gentrify the neighbourhood and kick out the squatters and get the homeless people to stop hanging out. At every one of these junctures we had a fight. I felt like we lost something every year.
What we did get from this fight though was that we squatted about thirty buildings and out of those thirteen still exist and are legalised today, people live in them. So we created local housing for about 500 people. We temporarily prevented a curfew on Tompkins Park and lasted for about three years, during which time there was no curfew on Tompkins Park but there was a curfew on every other park in the city. People here had fought a riot to prevent a curfew. Eventually it was imposed and now we have a curfew. But it was an enormous effort from the city to do that. And we got ABC No Rio, where we are sitting now, and which is one of the community victories. On the other hand, we lost a lot. We were not able to effect the overall direction of society. The neighbourhood has become a very expensive neighbourhood, the city has become a very expensive and globalised city. The Lower East Side used to be a very distinct community here that actually felt like it wasn’t part of New York City, it was its own world! We used to talk an almost nationalistic language about this neighbourhood. That doesn’t exist now. They even re-did the districts so that there is no political representation for this neighbourhood any more. Maps of New York no longer show the Lower East Side District. If you look at the map it is completely a-historical and reminds me of the maps of the Wall in the West Bank, because the border literally swings around a particular block. Half my street is one district and half is the other, it’s ridiculous. The council person that represents most of the area I live in, walk and hang out in is not my council person.
We weren’t able to turn the direction of New York or the society as a whole. We were able to create a certain resistance and to gain certain things for certain people, to reserve certain things. We showed that resistance pays off in some way. There are kids now growing up in houses that if they ask their parents “how did you get this house?” as opposed to saying “I sucked ass to my boss” their parents can say, “we fought the city and we got this house”. That is an amazing thing. Maybe we effect the future culture that way.
NS: One thing about real estate prices in New York, not just in the Lower East Side, but also in places like Williamsburg, the whole bohemian scene destroyed the neighbourhood that they thought was so cool. Same thing happened in Park Slope in South Brooklyn where there were a lot of Latino working class, a lot of gay and lesbian coffee shops, the Green party had its offices there and there was the Fifth Avenue housing rights committee. It is all gone now. I was forced to move out because I couldn’t afford the rent. It is all bars and restaurants now. That’s something that I think has contributed to the explosion of comics as an art form: you can’t afford to rent a studio space in the city any more, so you’ve got to turn to something that you can do on your dining room table or on your bed. It has to be tiny, you have to be able to store it and it has to fit a scanner or a photocopying machine – and that is comics. It is small, urban art at its finest.
ST: It is really bad for the younger generation here. What was good for me about the Lower East Side was that you could have an apartment for $150 which was big enough for four people to live in. That meant that everybody was working part-time and you could develop your art at the same time. That doesn’t exist for younger people.
NS: If you are full-time you would have to work forty hours a week, you’d take a 45 minute or an hour train ride home, you stand the whole way, you go grocery shopping, come home, feed your cat, do your laundry, check your e-mails and you sit down and you are dead to the world, you think “I don’t want to draw a comic tonight, I want to go to sleep at 10:30!” It drains all of your energy.
LH: How do you see things today here, is there possibly going to be another Lower East Side in New York in the next couple of years?
NS: I don’t know. I get a feeling that we keep getting pushed to the edges, further and further out from the centre of the city. The transportation is getting worse. The MTA keep raising the fares and the whole infrastructure of the city is falling apart. Trains are falling apart, the MTA board is very corrupt – they earn $250,000 a year and they keep raising the fares and half the time in the weekends the only train in the neighbourhood isn’t running. In the boroughs the working class are getting pushed forward to the edges and it is getting really hard to even think about raising kids.
ST: The shape of things changes. You can’t really recreate a previous period. There is this sense that you cannot recreate the Lower East Side of the 1980s. Something else will happen. It will come out of conditions like capitalism, I won’t even limit it to capitalism: authority, hierarchy; these are contrary to human nature. Human beings have always thought of a way of resisting authority. The forms of authority and the forms of hierarchy change and the forms of resistance change with them. So there will be another form of resistance that maybe doesn’t involve all of us hanging out in the street corner talking to each other, which is how we organised.
NS: It feels like there is this internationalism happening and the magazine (WW3) is taking that direction. Technology and the Internet are making some things so much easier. Someone e-mails you from Europe and they’ll be like, “I like your work, can I reprint it?” And all you have to do is e-mail it to them, and it happens. People are dealing with the same issues everywhere: gentrification, jobs and globalisation. Everything is internationalised and people now have very similar experiences and you can now communicate on a different level.
LH: It will probably not come from the street, right? Most cities cities seem to become more boring; there are less things happening on the street level.
ST: This is true in New York in particular, although the situation is a bit better than it was five years ago. That was the time when Rudolph Giuliani created this incredible authoritarian regime where people would get arrested and held overnight for jay-walking! The theory behind this was a weird set of statistics where they would relate the number of rapes at a particular block to the number of broken windows. A statistical correlation does not constitute causality. So with this they thought if we stop people doing graffiti, from sleeping on the park bench, from pissing on the ground, this will reduce the number of murders, rapes and the volume of hard drug dealing. This created an incredible atmosphere of fear in New York which actually lasted until 9/11. I feel it broke a little after that and that it is not as bad today. I remember people being in jail for 24 hours for putting a sticker on a lamp post. But again, there is repression and there are other forms of resistance and other things that people organise. One of the things that I think is really positive is the whole organisation of Starbucks workers that is going on with the I.W.W. We have had the privilege of being a bit helpful to that with the Wobblies book.
NS: The National Labour Relations Board pressed charges against Starbucks for firing employees for organising. Unfortunately Starbucks can appeal this forever. Starbucks is one of those companies that markets itself as sort of a progressive, compassionate capitalist organisation, when in reality nobody gets a living wage or enough hours. You get harassed and are given incentive to screw up your fellow employees, you have no health insurance or maternity leave. So the workers started organising. There are three or four Starbucks now that are unionised.
We worked on the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) book for the 100th anniversary of the Wobblies. Very similar labour conditions exist now as they existed 100 years ago, except today it is globalised. There is a resurgence of the radical union movement because people are very cynical about unions and for a good reason: they are corrupt, infiltrated by the mafia and willing to make all sorts of concessions. There has been some successful IWW organising; one of the most successful has been in Philadelphia. They organised a huge number of different chain stores on South street so they could just shut down this tourist neighbourhood if they felt like it. It has been very successful.
LH: When did the Starbucks union start?
NS: It’s been two years now. Paul Buhle came to me and said, “we thought it would be cool to do a Wobblies book”. None of us knew anything about the IWW and nobody was really involved with the union movement because we never really had union jobs. So it was a learning experience for us. We all did our own research and we were working against the clock but it came out to be an amazing book. It goes right through to 2001 when Terry Tapp, who is one of the early contributors to WW3, worked at a shipyard in Kentucky and they had a wildcat strike because their mainstream union wasn’t dealing with issues that needed dealing with, such as safety. They were working in the rain on steel plates and people would get killed regularly. The wildcat symbol was used by the Wobblies a lot and so were all sort of visuals and comics. Most of their members didn’t speak English, a lot of them couldn’t read. So the visuals were important. They actually innovated a lot of street art like stickers, which they called silent agitators.
ST: One of the really interesting things in working on the Wobblies book was that it gave me a chance to learn about a history that I didn’t really know that much about. To learn about street agitation and how it works. I went down to Laurence Massachusetts to sketch a lot of the old buildings where the Bread and Roses strike took place in 1912. I went to museums and looked at old mill equipment. Then I went on-line and looked at textile mills in El Salvador today and saw that they use pretty much the same equipment that they used in 1912. Which is very disturbing because that equipment was very unsafe and people’s hands were getting caught in it. So we are today, using cellphones and computers and all this technology but the fabric we are wearing is made in the same way that it was made in 1912. The only thing that changed is that they found a new group of people who have so little rights and standing in society that they will work under these conditions and they can’t say anything about it. Rather than advancing the technology and improving the quality of life of the people they simply find a new group of people to exploit every ten years or so. It used to be Jewish, Irish or Italian immigrants in the United States and then it was black people down South and those people got organised so now it is El Salvador. It’s amazing, I can’t believe that in one hundred years you couldn’t make a textile machine that didn’t have these problems.
NS: An American company doesn’t need to hire strike breakers like they did in 1910. They can have the Indonesian military do it for them and they don’t have to pay a dime for it. My husband is from Korea and we go there a lot. There they went from being an American-backed right wing dictatorship in a sweatshop economy to being a democracy with massively strong unions. In a way because the unions have gotten strong a lot of the manufacturing has gone overseas to Indonesia and China. Employment is at an all times low right now, but if for example the medical employees want to go on strike they will go on strike and stay on strike for a month if they have to, and for the most part they have public support. When the war broke out it was freezing cold but you would still see people in the street with their children demonstrating against the attack on Iraq and other crimes committed by the US in Korea. This is a country that has been through hell for the last century and they don’t take anything for granted. Internationalising dissent is probably the most important thing right now. Maybe these corporations will run out of places to run to.
Seth Tobocman recently released a new book ‘Resistance and Distaster’ through AK Press. There is a review on Last Hours here – http://www.archive.lasthours.org.uk/reviews/disaster-and-resistance/