Between June 15 and 25, 2019, several thousand rock posters flew off a dozen or so merch tables on two continents. The occasions were concerts headlined by Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, The National, Eddie Vedder, Phish, and Death Cab for Cutie. Despite the distinct musical tastes of these band’s audiences, one artist had been selected to produce limited-edition screenprints for all of them, a 22-year-old Baltimorean named Luke Martin.
For Martin, it was a helluva couple of weeks, but for lots of rock-poster collectors, even those who like to think they’re in the know, a common question was, “Who’s Luke Martin?”
Martin was as surprised as anyone by his sudden success. “At the end of 2018,” Martin tells me over the phone, “I was like, ‘This has been an awesome year. There’s no way 2019 can be any better.’ But that summer, I put down my flag in the gig-poster field. A lot of people didn’t know who I was before that.”
In fact, his 2019 began relatively slowly, with Martin designing only a scattering of posters for Childish Gambino, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Arctic Monkeys, and a band from North Carolina called Rainbow Kitten Surprise, whose members are personal friends of the artist. But then came those two weeks in June, and suddenly, Martin’s work was everywhere.
As a body of work, Martin’s June 2019 posters in old-timey sepia tones and moody blues had more in common with American artists of the early 20th century such as Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell than the Art Nouveau crowd of the 1890s, whose masters, Alphonse Mucha and Alfred Roller, had been key inspirations to rock-poster artists of the psychedelic ’60s, including Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, and Wes Wilson. Martin’s June posters were also free of scantily clad babes and flaming skulls. “I feel like that stuff’s been done a million times,” he says of two of the most predictable rock-poster tropes. And his posters frequently incorporated band names, venues, and show dates directly into their design.
“When I was in high school, my art teacher, Kurt Plinke, would always take my black and white paints away from me.”
Though each of those June posters was stylistically identifiable as the work of Luke Martin, the imagery and subjects the artist came up with for his epic two-week run were incredibly diverse. For Dave Matthews, Martin designed a classic 1950s diner (a place called “Dave Matthews Band”) in the shadow of the Camden, New Jersey, side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which happened to be a few blocks from the concert venue. Fans of the Foo Fighters, who were playing in Croatia, could purchase a print filled with a graveyard of traditional Croatian pirate ships. For a show by The National, whose music tends to the brooding, Martin delivered a row of high-tension power lines running through a lonely field before disappearing into infinity. Because Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was doing a solo gig in Lisbon, Portugal, Martin imagined a solitary guitarist strumming on the steps beneath the clocktower of that city’s landmark Pena Palace. And Phish got a pair of trippy, outer-space-themed pulp-fiction covers (one incorporating Baltimore’s architecture), in part because Martin had always wanted to do something like that, but also because, well, Phish.
Finally, there was the poster for Martin’s favorite band, Death Cab for Cutie, which played Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, on June 25. For that show, the artist followed up on his 2018 Death Cab for Cutie poster that resembled a collage of Polaroids taken by a young couple while traveling. Martin now visualized that same young couple and their dog at the end of a hike. Though the place in Martin’s poster for Death Cab is real—a Colorado hiking destination called Crystal Mill—the spot was rendered as a mysterious mountain pond below an abandoned log cabin; the rickety ladder climbing from the pond’s surface to the cabin’s doorway is at once ominous and inviting.
Longtime fans of these bands, as well as new fans of the artist, couldn’t get enough, but the question remained: Who’s Luke Martin? It didn’t help matters that new collectors were sometimes confronted by multiple attributions for his work. For example, Martin’s work is often credited, straightforwardly enough, to Luke Martin, but credit is sometimes also given to Suburban Avenger Studios or simply Suburban Avenger, a social-media handle Martin started using in high school and now can’t quite seem to shake. To make things just a bit more imprecise, his website URL is suburbanavengerart.com.
Not that any of this marketing dissonance slowed serious collectors looking to pick up a signed, limited-edition poster from his website after the show editions had sold out at concert venues. The stampede continued in the fall of 2019, when Martin produced two remarkable diptychs, each of which he designed to work as stand-alone posters or as pairs. The first diptych was for The Black Keys (October 12 and 16 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C.). The left part of the diptych depicted a motorcycle, whose rider’s head had been cropped out of the frame, the right its sidecar, which was crammed with a snare drum and an electric guitar, the instruments played by the band’s two principal members.
Martin’s second fall diptych got viewers closer than ever to the young couple who fill Martin’s posters. Overall, the two images formed a bicycle, whose wheels and fenders advertised a show by The Avett Brothers (November 21 and 22 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta). The left side of the diptych showed the back wheel of the bike and its seat, upon which sat Martin’s young man, pedaling madly despite an untied shoe. Like the motorcyclist in the poster for The Black Keys, the cyclist’s head had been cropped out of the frame. Naturally the right side of the diptych was devoted to the front wheel, and on the handlebars sat Martin’s young woman, balancing effortlessly and wearing combat boots and heavy woolen socks almost to her knees, presumably to ward off the chill of the fall evening air.
The prints quickly sold out, and since then, Martin’s pace has barely let up. “The projects are pretty much end-to-end right now,” he says. In fact, he wouldn’t be able to take on so many assignments if he was still doing his own screenprinting, but in late 2018, Martin handed off most of his production work to a well-respected printer called End Hymns, which is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan—the last multicolor print Martin pulled all by himself was for a piece titled “All Sounds Considered,” named after the NPR music show, in November 2018. “I was okay at printing,” Martin allows, “but I definitely had a lot of room to grow. I used to enjoy printing small runs,” he adds, “but when it got to the point where I was printing 300 four-color posters in two days, I was just like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Now, Martin is free to spend all of his working hours on his computer and at a scratchboard, his medium of choice since 2017. “The clay board is nice,” Martin says, “because you can put ink on, take it off, put it back on, and then take it off again. You have a bit more versatility with it than you do with paper. I scan the scratchboard into my computer before putting the final piece together in Photoshop, but the scratchboard is the keyline for most of my pieces.”
Speaking with Martin, one is struck by the discipline that defines his art. Not so much his work ethic, although he could not meet all his back-to-back deadlines if he did not have that, but the constraints he imposes on himself.
“When I was in high school,” he says, “my art teacher, Kurt Plinke, who is one of my main mentors, would always take my black and white paints away from me. He’d put them in his desk, and then tell me that I needed to learn how to do what I wanted without the crutch of white or black. It took me a while to learn how to do that, but he was right, especially when it comes to black. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever used straight black in any of my posters. Usually, I default to a muted brown because it gives the piece an almost vintage feel, like a sepia tone in an old photograph.”
Another self-imposed constraint is how he treats text, the Dave Matthews Band diner being a good example of what he’s striving for. “As much as I can, I try to avoid placing text on top of the illustration. It makes a more interesting gig poster when you can incorporate the text. I want the art to be first and the text to be secondary.”
Usually that art, regardless of the placement of its accompanying text, feels as if it’s from another time, and the places Martin scratches into his boards often resemble parts of Caroline County on the eastern shore of Maryland, where he grew up in a tiny town called Greensboro with two older brothers and a twin sister. “That’s definitely where it comes from,” he says of the retro scenery that fills many of his prints. “I moved away from the shore about five years ago. Now, whenever I go back, everything’s exactly the same. It’s like stepping into a time capsule.”
This January, Martin got the opportunity to step into another time capsule when he was asked to design an officially licensed art print for Grateful Dead Productions. He responded with a 7-color Art Nouveau-style piece, whose vertical dimensions (18-by-36 inches) and formal composition (a skeleton framed by decorative elements, with text at the top) made it a Martin update of Mucha, as well as his first take on one of the most iconic images in rock, the Grateful Dead skeleton. Apparently, a lot of people thought Martin had nailed it, because the timed-edition of his print generated 1,450 orders at $60 each over the course of five days, while an allocation of four additional limited-edition variants, priced between $80 and $120 at bottleneckgallery.com, sold out immediately; Martin’s stash of artist proofs will be available at his website in late March.
The Grateful Dead piece was followed by a diptych for Oysterhead (February 14 and 15 at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, Colorado), a triptych for Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds (February 14 to 16 at the Moon Palace in Cancun, Mexico), and another triptych in collaboration with one of his gig-poster heroes, Miles Tsang, for Death Cab for Cutie (February 24 to 26 at The Showbox in Seattle). Like June 2019, February 2020 will probably go down in history as being a pretty good month for Martin, too.
These days, Martin is trying to strike a balance between positive productivity and carving out some time to have a few real-life adventures—beyond the ones he depicts in his art—with his girlfriend, Taylor Keating, a seamstress with whom he shares a studio. It’s not just important to his work; it’s good for his mental health, a subject Martin has been very open about. For example, in a podcast from 2017, when Martin was still printing all his own work, he explained that the reason he quit Towson University in Maryland after only a year and a half was not because he had simply decided one day to become a killer rock-poster artist, but because of his struggles with depression.
“It’s kind of a lifelong challenge,” Martin says of staying mentally healthy. “I definitely feel like that low point is behind me. There’s a ton of anxiety and stress associated with being an artist and running your own business and career, but things feel better now. It’s still an issue, but it’s more manageable.
“I feel really lucky,” Martin continues, “because I’ve only been doing gig posters for about three years. I know a lot of people who tried it and then threw in the towel because it’s a hard career.” That why, despite his current success, Martin is far from complacent. “I still have trouble turning down jobs,” he says, “like, if I don’t take every single job I can, one day I might be through. So it’s this constant thing of churning out work. I’m going to try to slow down a little bit this year,” he adds. “Finding that balance is the thing I need to work on.”