|Born in Los Angeles California in
1953, Vallen has been creating
socially conscious artworks for
as long as he can remember.
Being a teenager in the 60's
sensitized him to politics, and
like many of his generation he
became inspired by the civil
rights and antiwar movements.
|By 1971, at the age of 17, he had already
published cartoons in the Los Angeles Free
Press newspaper. In the same year he published
his first street poster, a pre-Watergate artwork
titled, Evict Nixon!
In the late 70's and early 80's Vallen became
actively involved in the nascent punk rock scene
of Los Angeles.
|Both of these banners are made by Mark.
|Interview with Mark Vallen 2006. By Jang Lee
Tell us about the Los Angeles art scene, are you part of it?
As an LA artist I have little choice in being involved in the city's
art scene, but it's as diverse and multi-layered as any other scene. In it you have amateurs, wannabe's, hacks,
poseurs and professionals; people who are lacking talent and others who are truly gifted; those who pursue their
craft for lofty reasons and those who seek nothing more than fame and fortune. The art world itself is divided into
spheres where people are categorized by motivation, ability, education, connections and much more. There's a
huge difference between an artist who sells art in the park and one who sells in galleries or is collected by museums
- it's all very politicized. It's always been part of my nature to go against the grain, so I never really had much interest
in developing a "career" as an artist, I just did what came naturally - which was to draw and paint. I've only just
recently begun to pay attention to the elite art world of galleries and museums, but I mostly see them as walls to be
You used to do street wheat pasting and the city gave you a big fine. How did they catch you?
I refuse to testify under the protection afforded me by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
of America. We still have a constitution, don't we? I'm not sure what parts we are still allowed to use - I'll have to
check with Homeland Security. But all seriousness aside, yes, I used to engage in street art by wheat-pasting
posters on the walls of the city. In fact, I was the first to do so in Los Angeles starting in the late 1970s. My work was
largely anonymous and sometimes bilingual, but I gave up street postering after I saw others in LA were building a
damned career out of the practice. I took great offense at that, as I believed (and still do), that the best street art is
always done incognito - it's not about ego and careerism - it's about imparting ideas.
I've seen some of your work on t-shirts, books, and cd inserts. How do you feel when someone uses your art work
without your permission.
It's always disrespectful to have the fruits of your labor used by someone else without permission, payment or credit.
I think that not receiving credit for having created an artwork is the worst insult to a visual artist, and I see this
happening all the time. If a single image created by an artist is good, then why not credit the artist so that people
can look them up to see their entire body of work? It's like repeatedly hearing a great piece of music on the radio but
no one every tells you who it is!
Is there any type of music you listen to while you draw? Or do you need silence?
That depends on my mood, sometimes complete silence is what I require. Most often though I'm listening to music,
and my girlfriend Jeannine tells me that people would be shocked to know what I listen to, which is just
about everything - folk, blues, movie soundtracks, jazz, world music, opera, punk. you name it. I was around eight
years old when I purchased my first record, Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suites," followed by Tchaikovsky's "1812
Overture." I still listen to European Classical music today - it's standard fare in my home. On the opposite end of the
spectrum there's my passion for punk. Mostly I like the late 70's sound from the UK and Los Angeles.
Pistols, X-Ray Specs, Siouxsie and the Banshees. that sort of stuff. But I also love the "peace punk" sound
exemplified by UK bands like Crass and Discharge. Since I'm an LA boy I naturally favor the hometown bands that
started it all in '77... Bags, Weirdos, Germs, Fear, Screamers, Black Flag, that crowd - all of which I saw in
performance and will never forget.
What art classes did you take in college and what influenced your work?
I went to Otis Parsons Art Institute in the early 1970's where I wanted to study drawing, painting and print-making,
however, I wasgreatly disappointed in art school. I was expecting training in traditional methods of art making, and
instead the teachers kept dissuading me from that path, insisting that I pursue the abstract and conceptual. After a
while I simply lost interest and quit art school, so for all intents and purposes I can say that I'm self-taught.
Nevertheless, my self-education was extensive and rigorous, a mix of endless reading and applied theory and
practice - a process I'll continue to the end. The bestadvice I have for aspiring artists is to study, ready everything
pertaining to the arts, devour it all - history, theory, and technique. But fuse that knowledge with real life experience,
because making good art depends on what you know about life.
You used to do work with 70's punk bands. What is some of the stuff you did that we should know about?
I'm most well known for the covers I created for Slash Magazine, one of the very first and most influential punk
publications in the US. I was always drawing portraits of people involved in LA's punk movement, and most of
those artworks have never been seen - someday I'll get around to exhibiting them. I also did lots of work quietly
"behind the scenes" so to speak - like creating flyers for various bands or events. I also did some post - production
work on The Decline of Western Civilization documentary by Penelope Spheeris.
What about in the 80's? What work did you do in the punk community and the activist community?
Those were the Cold War years, when President Reagan and allies like Maggie Thatcher of England where
expanding their nuclear arsenals in preparation for an atomic exchange with the Soviets. Another big issue for me
was the US-backed wars raging in Central America and the tens of thousands of war refugees flocking to safety
here in Los Angeles. Stopping the nuclear madness and assisting the poor people of Central America was of
paramount importance to me, and all of my artworks at the time were devoted to those ends. During that period I
worked to bring punks closer to the activist community, and visa versa. I remember showing up at LA's first
demonstration against Reagan wearing my best punk outfit; black bondage pants, day-glo yellow shirt, black leather
jacket, combat boots, a crew cut, wrap around black plastic sunglasses and plenty of spiky bracelets. Mind you, it
was 1980, and out of around 10,000 people I was one of a handful of punks at the rally - everyone else wore earth
color flannels, sandals, bell bottoms, and sported long hair. Most reacted as if I had just landed from Mars. but a
certain number of people were excited by my presence. The "movement" needed to be invigorated with punk
attitude, and so my friends and I handed out antiwar flyers at punk clubs and agitated at punk concerts.
Sure enough - it wasn't long before large contingents of punks started showing up at antiwar demonstrations!
What has changed now compared to the 80's. Like the punk scene, street protest and politics?
Everything has become much worse! Punk started by thumbing its nose at the mainstream, today it is the
mainstream! My worst fear in 1980 was that the US would attack and occupy Nicaragua as it did in the 1930's - but
today we occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. The masses are full of fear, governments and leaders are more deceitful
than ever before, the corporate media keeps everyone sedated with lies, our civil liberties are disappearing, we are
all teetering on the brink of an ecological disaster, things are quite a mess - yet, I still haven't given up on the idea of
a better world. I think that as long as people maintain a positive vision, and actively work towards it - all good things
Tell us about your most recent project?
I've been developing plans to supersede world governments with artist's councils, but the biggest stumbling block for
the project so far has been in acquiring enough paint to repaint all former government buildings in rainbow hues.
that and filling international parliament and congress halls with artist's easels. My plot is almost ready for
implementation - soon, artists will be running things!
Any other radical artists that we should know about?
Artists have always been free thinkers - and throughout history they've made enormous contributions to the
expansion of freedom and liberty. I'm especially fond of artists who create in times of great duress and upheaval -
like the German Expressionists of the 1930s. Artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and the others who made art
during the rise of the Nazis, did so at great personal peril; but they also managed to express the deepest humanity
at the moment of civilization's darkest hour. I've also been deeply influenced by the Mexican Muralists of the 1930s,
whobelieved art could be integrated into the daily lives of people through the creation of monumental works of public
art. Everyone should make an effort to study the life and works of artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera,
José Clemente Orozco, and the other revolutionary artists from that time. If your readers are interested in knowing
more about such things, I encourage them to visit my website, Art For A Change, located at: