From Cro-Mags to Agnostic Front to Crumbsuckers: An Interview With Artist Sean Taggart
The famed artist talks to Tony Rettman about his iconic album art and more
If you’re the type of guy or gal who loves New York Hardcore in a fierce way, chances are you’re aware of Sean Taggart and the cannon of art he created in the glory days of NYHC. At a time when a shittily drawn skull with a Mohawk would suffice for a bands’ record cover or gig flyer, Sean blew minds and corneas with his intricate though mentally twisted imagery. From the menacing skinheads, pinheads and misfits he scrawled for early Cro-Mags show to the dizzying full color spectacles that adorned the covers of Agnostic Front’s Cause for Alarm and the Crumbsuckers’ ‘Life of Dreams, Taggart is the closest the Hardcore scene has ever got to a visual artist on the level of Pedro Bell in the way he crafted something you could get lost in for hours on end.
Besides his body of art, Sean was also one of the first people on the scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s to see the lower east side music scene transform from punk into hardcore. I got Sean to sit down and talk about these days with promises of German cuisine and a free ride home. Thankfully, he complied.
Noisey: When did you first start coming downtown to see music?
Sean Taggart: I was fifteen. My very first show was a Speedies show at Max’s Kansas City in ’79. Just a month before, I had seen Rush at both the Palladium and Nassau Coliseum. The summer prior to that I saw Van Halen on the Women and Children First tour. As much as I loved Rush and Van Halen, I really fell for seeing bands in night clubs. That Speedies show at Max’s Kansas City changed my life. It really made me realize stadium shows sucked.
There was this girl I was hanging out with in high school that I considered the cool punk person in my school and I was telling her I saw the Speedies and she was disgusted! She was like ‘That’s not punk!’
The second show I went to at Max’s was the Stimulators and the Bad Brains and that really blew my mind. It was scary and liberating all at the same time. I went out in the middle of the dance floor and danced and didn’t last very long. Probably because I had hair past my shoulders at this point. I looked like a dirt bag burnout. Max’s was cool because they let you in even if you were underage. They’d just say ‘If I catch you with a drink, you’re out of here’. Everyone did their drinking at The Park Inn anyway. That was the place where twelve year olds like Harley Flanagan could drink because no one gave a shit there.
So did you hang out with Harley a lot?
Harley shaved my head to make me an official skinhead. Actually, it was Raybeez under the direction of Harley.
What? Was Harley standing over Raybeez saying stuff like ‘A little to the left?’
(Laughs) The only reason they shaved my head was to get Parris Mayhew (Cro-Mags guitarist) to shave his head; which obviously didn’t happen.
Was Parris an early friend of yours?
Yeah, my best friend at the time was Kevin Mayhew, more commonly known as Parris. He also had long hair, but he had more of a Rock ‘N’ Roll personality and could interface with these guys better than I could. I was actually at the audition where both Roger and John Bloodclot both tried out to sing for the Cro-Mags. I got to say Roger killed it, but in retrospect, John was the better choice. Definitely a better fit.
What was it like to see a band like the Bad Brains in their early stages?
The Bad Brains are untouchable. With a band like Black Flag, people would watch them and get inspired to form bands. You would watch them and think, ‘They’re just loud and drunken! I can do that!’ But then the Bad Brains would get up there and you’d just think ‘I can’t do that!’
Socially, what do you think separated the early New York Hardcore scene from what other people were doing in the country?
The entity that was and still is New York is either upper or lower class. There’s no middle class in Manhattan. The dudes that were coming from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx were basically middle class. My parents were on welfare but my dad had a master’s degree. So there is this aesthetical choice of poverty. If an artist is on welfare, they’re choosing to be poor. That’s not to say we weren’t going to museums or live theatre or anything like that. In that case, we were rich beyond my wildest dreams. Materially, we were broke ass with jeans rotting off my legs.
So do you think the Hardcore scene was and is more of a suburban phenomenon?
Middle class values are very afraid of upper education, art and culture in general. That’s why I think this scene is more important for middle class kids because it’s giving middle class kids a chance to empower themselves and learn to see life’s not that easy. They’re making a choice. But if you’re born into poverty, odds are you’re going to stay in poverty.
So did you have any favorite bands from that era of ’81 to ’83 as far as New York goes?
Honestly, I didn’t like most of the local bands. I thought our bands sucked, but I liked the scene socially. I would go to shows to A7 and a band would totally suck, but I’d still slam because I was bored. The Mob were good. Armed Citizens had a couple good songs. The Beastie Boys were liked because they were friends with everyone. They started as a joke, but they were a good joke. Reagan Youth was actually a really good band. Dave Insurgent was Mister Scenster. Even Worse sucked but they knew it and had a sense of humor about it, so you kind of liked them. But that early New York scene was really about the physicality. There became this athleticism in stage diving in New York that I think surpassed every scene I witnessed. It was really a status thing. If you could get twenty feet into the crowd with a flip, that was it. You were going to be the singer of the next big band. But I dropped out of the scene for a while. It wasn’t until I dropped out of the scene and re-entered it in ’83 that I actually came into my own.
Where did you go?
I went to Puerto Rico for six months. A friend of my family lived down there and I went there to help him restore his boat. Around this time, I had discovered Birthday Party and Joy Division and I was like ‘Wow, this is really great shit’. Teenagers always narrow their focus to define themselves. I broke all my Clash records when London Calling came out.
When I got back from Puerto Rico, Parris said ‘You got to check out this band’. I was like ‘Who is it?’ and he said ‘Agnostic Front’. I remembered them from before I left, so I was like ‘What are you talking about? They suck!’ He was just like, ‘Trust me’. It was a hot summers’ day in CB’s and holy shit were they good! It must have been a year since I last saw them and they went from being one of the worst bands to one of the best band in New York. So it was AF that brought me back.
Could you give me a little insight into the band you had in the 80’s, Shok?
Shok was originally a pre-Armed Citizens band. They played their first gig at my high school, the High School of Art & Design. They played the same day John Belushi died. I was the designated slam dancer and stage diver for the show.
But I didn’t actually join the band until ’83 or ’84. I was a big fan of theirs because Flipper was a one of my favorite bands and I’d say Shok were the Flipper for the NYHC scene. They had a reggae song called ‘Pasta Man’. It was a really stupid song, but the bass had so much distortion on it that it would blow your mind. I’d say I have to say I was really the weakest element in the band. Some nights we boarded on performance art. We played shows where we were so awful and everybody hated us, but they didn’t leave. We opened up for Scream at Danceteria and we sucked so bad that I just curled up into a ball on the side of the stage for the rest of the set. The audience was standing there with their mouths agape. In the end, Shok was a Hardcore band who was a noise band and didn’t know it. Paul Bearer was the band’s biggest fan. But then I really got under the sway of the Cro-Mags, so I wanted the band to be hard and I kind of ruined it.
In regards to doing artwork for bands, where did that start?
The very first band I did artwork for was Armed Citizens on their first seven inch, ‘Make Sense’. That drawing is the tale of things to come for me. Everything I do is sort of based on that; some big scene with all hell exploding. Since I was friends with Parris, he was like ‘You got to do a flyer for us’ when The Cro-Mags started. So it was really the Cro-Mags that started me doing flyers. I wouldn’t do a flyer for every band because I felt a loyalty towards Parris and the Cro-Mags. Matter of fact, before Roger asked me to do the cover for Agnostic Front’s second album, Cause for Alarm, he asked Parris first to see if it was cool. But I owe the Cro-Mags a debt of gratitude for getting me started. Then from the Cro-Mags, it was Agnostic Front and then the Crumbsuckers and so many others bands.
So what was it that turned you off to Hardcore eventually?
Somewhere along the line, some people picked up on the quasi violent aspects of Hardcore. If you were a failed jock in high school, you could come to a show and kick the shit out of me, that’s for sure. There were a lot of kids coming from broken homes and they found release. As low as I went, I always had something to live for. If you’re a kid who has nothing to live for except a love for the music and love for dancing hard, something’s going to happen. Eventually you’re going to be the guy that says ‘The next Puerto Rican dude that fucks with me, I’m going to bust a bottle into his face’.
Do you see any of the artwork on these present day Hardcore records and think ‘Motherfucker, you’re ripping me off!’?
When I see guys who are younger than me that do flyers and see the amount of work they do, I’m like ‘Holy shit! I wish I had your work ethic’. When you really go back and look at all the artwork I did, I really didn’t crank out all that much. Granted I was drunk most of the time, so it’s amazing I got any shit done. But I didn’t pursue my dream of being a cartoonist because I felt I wasn’t worth it, but I felt my friends’ band was worth it. The scene was worth my contribution to make the scene. That was my higher power; the scene.
Tony Rettman’s ‘NYHC 1980 – 1990’ can be ordered from Bazillion Points
Rettman’s been known to tweet here and there @200lbu