Rise of the Machine! — Updated!

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I never thought it would happen, but lately I’ve developed a certain appreciation for the widely-derided art and general sensibility of the Image artists. No, really. Yeah, Even Rob Liefeld… No shit.

The eye-opener, so to speak, is a German graffiti artist, KACAO77, whose art book Universes was published earlier this year and has since been burning its way through the graff community, into a soon-to-be-published second printing.

Judging by his alias, KACAO77 is a couple of years younger than I. He was therefore probably more receptive to the Image “revolution” than I was, back in the early 90s when Spawn, W.I.L.D.Cats, Youngblood and the other Image books hit the shelves, wowing many a youngster — and even more speculators — with their razzamatazz.

I was a little too old, I think, and was never quite won over by these books, even if I found especially the work of Todd McFarlane attractive and owned three copies of his Spider-Man #1. Nowadays, we all know how these fanboy artists contributed to the boom and bust of the American comics market through the 90s, and showed the world that the crreation of amateur comics were not solely the domain of grade school recess, but could actually be big business.

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Graffiti, with its literal synthesis of image and text, has always been related to comics — not only was Vaughn Bodé one of the godfathers of subway art, but the characters that tend to flank graffiti burners are more often than not aerosol cartoons, often literally having walked off the comics page.

What KACAO77 does is integrate many of his individual pieces, which feature characters and imagery clearly derived from the Image era, into an ongoing story of a cosmic war fought by heroes harrowed by their own power against “The Machine” — an oppressive cosmic force. Although he often captions individual works, the story is suggested rather than told, leaving us to piece it together from disparate bits of information, and glimpses of recurring characters, that never quite cohere into a totality.

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In many ways, this is an artistic statement on the most prosaic level — KACAO77 hand draws, letters and colours all of his very elaborate sketches, never resorting to digital solutions. But beyond that, there’s a certain persistence of belief in the power of these symbols, this imagery, that is insistent enough to convince as an expression of personal integrity in a way the work of the Image artists never quite managed.

KACAO77 is a highly imaginative letter designer — his vividly realised contortions carry a distinct feeling of anxiety, as well as visual dazzle — but a rather pedestrian figure artist, just like his fanboy forebears. He is not exactly sensitive in his approach to colour either, garishly slathering his pieces in synthetic flash, painstakingly rendering by hand what the 90s comics colourists hacked out on their computers.

All of this, however, is what makes his work so fascinating, and a partial rehabilitation of the Image aesthetic. There’s something unrestrained about it — a wild, crassly articulated appropriation of trash culture in the service of a personal vision that may be inflamed by equal parts anxiety and abandon, but seems first and foremost driven by a sense of independence and an palpable urgency or expression.

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KACAO77 — Universes, Mainaschaff: Publikat, 2008. Get it from the publisher here, check a PDF preview here, and go to my man Lars at I Love Graffiti for a video preview.

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