When Robbie Conal introduced Howard Zinn to Eddie Vedder, moments before a Pearl Jam show, he wanted nothing more than to get in on the conversation. But there was a problem, namely Mike Watt. While the People's History of the United States author and the Pearl Jam frontman bonded, Conal was stuck with (ex-Minutemen) Watt, as he rambled on about the mystic power of the number five.
"They're all having a love-athon, and I missed the whole thing," Conal says, with a hint of remorse. "But me, Mike Watt, and the number five are real tight." Conal may be the most famous artist you've never heard of. But many who don't know his name are familiar with his instantly recognizable images--fleshy, iconic portraits of political figures, usually with a word or two of well-placed commentary. The large type above the portrait of former White House independent counsel Kenneth Starr reads "Starr Fucker." A three-panel illustration of George Bush Sr., George W., and Dick Cheney is punctuated with "Father, Son, Holy Ghost."
Conal, born in Manhattan and art-school trained, is an artist and an activist. And his form of activism involves getting a bunch of brushes and glue, and putting up dozens of posters around whatever city he finds himself in. The current tour for his latest book, Artburn: The Twenty-First Century Shots from a Guerrilla Artist, left a trail of Arnold Schwarzenegger portraits with Terminator eyes, and the words "Achtung Baby."
Conal calls himself "a functioning schizophrenic," and says his book tour allows him to satisfy twin pillars of his personality.
"I'm up for eating Brie and drinking Chablis, and standing in the corner with your back up against the wall. I like talking to people. I'm a friendly guy," he says. "But I come from this union-organizing background. So, there's a part of me that says, 'Hey, let's go run around and make some trouble.' If I don't get both of those things, I get very grumpy."
If you ask him nicely, he might even take you with him on one of his late-night postering jaunts.
"I was speaking at a class in Lawrence, Kansas, and one night I took the kids out to put up posters. The professor was really happy. He thought the kids would be too apathetic or whatever, wouldn't do their homework. But this was the first time their homework was to get drunk and put up posters in the middle of the night."
Conal's political art has made him a favorite of Pearl Jam, who once asked him to make a poster of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms while the conservative Republican was running for reelection. Pearl Jam paid for the posters, and Conal plastered the unflattering portrait in six different cities, captioned with the words "Little White Lies."
"We decorated the entire stadium in Charlotte for that," he says.
"Eddie Vedder got Gloria Steinem to come down. After Pearl Jam's set, she gave a talk about the future of America." Of course, that was after Conal and Steinem got into an argument about the merits of the two-party system (she in favor, he against). But that's another story.
For a self-described red-diaper baby who moved to San Francisco to ride out the '60s by panhandling on Haight St., Conal has a real connection to rock 'n' roll. He says he has a visceral connection to many musicians, which explains his friendships with Pearl Jam, Watt, and others.
"When I came to L.A., I thought I would get along with all of these independent-film cats," he says. "I've had some of that, but I get along with rock 'n' roll immediately. The sensibility is just closer. We understand each other. What I do is closer to rock 'n' roll, and it's been interesting for me to understand that."
For Conal, art is an outlet for his politics, which seem to be just a teensy bit left of center. The way Karl Marx was a bit left of center. "People keep calling me a designer or an illustrator. I never saw it that way. I'm a professional artist. I sell paintings for as much money as I can. They're just all about something political," he says. "All except for the cat portraits."
Yes, in between horrifying images of Tipper Gore and Oliver North, Conal likes to paint... cats. "They're not random cats," he says. "They're cats I know. Cats I love."