An Interview with Poster Artist David Singer

by , February 2024

In advance of the exhibition Art of Noise, Associate Curator of Architecture + Design Joseph Becker interviewed rock concert poster artist David Singer to hear more about his experiences working with legendary concert promoter Bill Graham in the full fray of San Francisco’s 1960s and 1970s psychedelic music scene. Sixty-five works by Singer are on display in Art of Noise, on view May 4 through August 18, 2024, on Floor 7.

Joseph Becker: How did you get involved in designing rock posters?

David Singer: I just started doing collages and wanted to get someone’s opinion about them. Eventually I took them to show [poster artist] Victor Moscoso. I had met him a couple times. He was impressed by them and said, “Well, the only place you can really do anything is with Bill Graham.” So, I went to see Bill.

Becker: How did you come into collage as your main expression?

Singer: I like collecting pictures. I did a lot of that when I was younger, at home in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. As a senior in high school, I did a logo for my school. I won the contest and there were a lot of people who entered. I was amazed that I got it.

Becker: How did you go from Quakertown to San Francisco?

Singer: I joined the Navy and ended up on the West Coast. I was a Morse code operator on a ship for a while, went all over the place. The ship came down California and ended in San Francisco, and I thought, “Okay, I’m out of here.” My time in the service was over, so I left and ended up in San Francisco in the early ‘60s.

Becker: So you’re at the beginning of a music scene that was happening in San Francisco.

Singer: It was already going on when I ended up in San Francisco. I started watching the music, started collecting some posters, and thought, “Gee, maybe I should do some posters.”

“I was just trying to do collages that would get people to think, that would surprise them, or that were very pretty.”

—David Singer

Becker: What was the first poster that you made for Bill Graham?

Singer: I took 12 collages to show him, and he hired me to make a poster out of each one.

Becker: In your collages, there’s something psychedelic in the way you put images together that was similar to the vibe of other poster-makers, but you were just using a different tool.

Singer: To some extent I was influenced by the poster scene. I’d go to the stores and look at all these posters, and no one was doing exactly what I was doing, but I got a sense of what kind of imagery I needed, although I didn’t really see myself doing rock posters at the beginning.

Becker: How did you start to introduce typography into the collage posters? It seemed like you created typefaces, even though they were hand-drawn at the beginning.

Singer: I liked doing lettering. Part of that came about because even as a boy in grade school I could do lettering that people could read. A teacher asked me to do a sign and I did it. And then another teacher saw it and said, “Could you do a sign for my room?” One thing led to another, and all through upper grade school and high school, teachers would ask me to do signs for them.

Becker: When you started to do rock posters, a lot of the typography was almost beyond legibility. I think some of the appeal from Bill Graham was that you could maintain an exuberance in the typography, but it could still be easily digestible. Was that part of your motivation?

Singer: Well, he liked my lettering. He told me what he didn’t like and what he did like. I figured out what to do and we became good friends, and I did a lot of posters for him.

David Singer, Grateful Dead and Taj Mahal at the Fillmore West, February 5–8, 1970, 1970; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Jim Chanin; © Wolfgang’s Vault

Becker: Do you have any favorite posters?

Singer: Well, the one that became the most famous, the one with a man running across a mushroom. Bill really loved that one. Everybody would tell me about it. Say, “Oh, there’s something about it.” So I decided to get a little more into symbolism.

Becker: That’s for the Grateful Dead and Taj Mahal, which is a pretty wild double-billing. Was there a relationship between the music that you were hearing on the scene, and the way that you were articulating your aesthetic?

Singer: I think it was definitely a response to the music; my collages went well with that scene.

Becker: Bill was such an important part of the San Francisco music scene, and you had a strong relationship with him and were able to do so many posters. Because of that, a lot of people have a relationship with your work. What was the scene like for you?

Singer: Well, I went to a lot of concerts, that’s for sure.

Becker: Did he give you free rein?

Singer: Well, he’d have to approve them. I think I did one poster where he said, “No, no, no.” But pretty much he let me do what I wanted.

“To some extent I was influenced by the poster scene. I’d go to the stores and look at all these posters, and no one was doing exactly what I was doing, but I got a sense of what kind of imagery I needed.”

—David Singer

Becker: Are there any artists and designers who inspired your work?

Singer: Well, Victor Moscoso. He was the only one I knew before I started doing posters. Then of course I met everybody, because once you’re in the poster scene and they have the poster shows, I got to know everybody. I sort of put together my own style. There weren’t many people doing collages like I did.

Becker: Where were you collecting your source material?

Singer: I started collecting magazine pictures when I was in high school. I never thought about doing collages particularly, but at home I had a pile of stuff that I’d torn out of magazines. My parents would get three or four magazines a month, and I would take them and tear out pictures. Later, I found stores in San Francisco that had old magazines. I used to spend the whole day looking through magazines, and then buy a few.

Becker: Your collages take elements that are recognizable and make a new world out of them. Similarly in that moment in San Francisco, there was such a desire to create a new world. I’m wondering if that was a conscious effort in making some of these collages?

Singer: I was aware of all that, and I fit into it, I guess, but I was just trying to do collages that would get people to think, that would surprise them, or that were very pretty. I had various reasons for various collages, but there weren’t too many people around doing collages at that time, like the kind I did anyway.

Becker: In your first posters, the lettering is very clean, almost art deco inspired. And then some get more expressive, a little bit wiggly, but it’s never too out of control. It feels like a typeface in a way.

Singer: I was influenced by Art Deco. There was so much going on in the hippie world that I used to look at everything, and there was a lot of lettering. I’d study and think about it and develop my own styles. I like doing lettering. It’s a challenge. That was one of the things that got me going with Bill Graham. He loved my lettering and some artists, although he loved their artwork, their lettering was often challenging to read. I kept refining it and refining it and doing all kinds of different lettering.

David Singer, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, and the Kingpins at the Fillmore West, March 5–7, 1971, 1971; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Jim Chanin; © Wolfgang’s Vault

Becker: Is there a typeface that you were especially proud of?

Singer: Bill decided to have Aretha Franklin come perform. I did this “Aretha” in big red letters across the poster. Bill hired a couple guys to make a sign over the stage. They just projected my lettering on it and then painted it, and that was a nice experience. Eventually they used it on an album cover.

Becker: That’s an interesting poster, because it’s not a collage, it’s a photo of her singing. So the type becomes such a presence, a focal point.

Singer: I’ve also done several things for Clapton. He likes my stuff. [Singer designed the Yin Yang logo used by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood for concert art, t-shirts, and the cover of their Live from Madison Square Garden (2009) album.]

Becker: Did you have a relationship with Wilfried Sätty, who was another collage artist?

Singer: He’s one of the reasons I got into collage. We lived in the same building in North Beach. I was looking for an apartment and I ended up renting this apartment in the same building. And so I watched him. He was always working on collages, but he used etchings. He did very weird collages and they were hard to sell.

Becker: He definitely had his own aesthetic, but again, it’s the idea of how collage can create an alternative world, but that has these vestiges of our own shared experience that we can connect to.

Becker: What do you think now about the role of the music poster and creating an identity for sound?

Singer: I think it’s great. I like it. It’s still very popular. May not be as popular as it used to be, because before there were so many different artists doing posters, and it was such a new thing, and everybody got into it. These places like the Fillmore were mobbed every weekend. They were just filled with people. People would carry off a poster, take it home, or buy one. It was a wonderful time. The posters kind of made the whole scene, in a way. Because people would look at the posters, they could put them on their walls, and they became emblems of that whole era, that whole new rock and roll era.


Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan is the Managing Editor at SFMOMA.
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