Judge a book by its cover
How to make ska-haters read a book about ska
I want to talk about the importance of a book’s cover, specifically my cover for In Defense of Ska. I shot it with a small crew, inside legendary punk venue 924 Gilman during the summer, amidst the pandemic. It was a long 8-hour session, all three of us masked up and sweating in the sweltering July heat. Not exactly a fun day, but worth it for the final image: A typical, filthy punk rock wall, but with the anti-ska graffiti crossed out, and replaced with my book title and a ton of ska stickers. A statement indeed.
We’re told to not judge a book by its cover. And while this is good advice when it comes to how to interact with other human beings; it’s not great when it comes to actual books. The entire purpose of the cover is for you to literally make a judgment about the book’s contents and decide if it’s worth your time. I kept this thought in mind as I struggled for months to imagine what my cover should look like. In Defense of Ska isn’t just about ska. It’s about defending ska. How do you illustrate that in a single image?
I wanted my cover to convince non-ska fans to give the book a chance—not an easy task. The ska scene is wonderful and incredibly supportive, but it can also be very insular. Meanwhile, all these people on the outside are actively mocking ska, which they typically know little about. If I even dipped my toes into the goofy stereotypes or familiar images of suit-wearing, dancing rude boys, I’ll have lost them before they flipped open to page one, where they’d be delighted by my clever references to Hard Times and Death Grips. This cover needed to catch them off guard.
I got the idea to paint “Ska sucks” on a wall—and then have it crossed out by an angry ska kid—after a lengthy brainstorming session with my wife, Amy Bee. I then chatted about it some more with my friend Adam Davis, who suggested I do it at Gilman. To my surprise, the good people at Gilman were totally fine with me painted whatever the fuck I wanted on their walls, just as long as I painted over it when I was done. Gilman was an ideal location for my cover. Not only do they have the trashiest, graffiti-slathered walls on the planet, but they play an important role in ska’s development in the ’80s and ’90s, particularly as the incubator for Operation Ivy, who single-handedly recontextualized ska within punk rock.
Adam wasn’t able to join me, so he connected me with artist Ken Davis, who I later learned was a legend in the “lettering” community (a community I didn’t know existed!) After seeing his work, I wasn’t surprised he’s so thoroughly admired. He creates gorgeous lettering, completely without the use of stencils. To shoot the photo, I tapped Sacramento photographer Cam Evans. He’s documented Sacramento’s punk scene beautifully in his Sacramento is Burning and Girls Burn Boys magazines. I love how he masterfully captures the personalities of the people he shoots in his photos.
My original thought for the cover was to make it look dingy and punk rock, so we headed into one of the Gilman bathrooms where Ken quickly painted on top of the bathroom graffiti. I wanted it to seem like a couple of punks tagged this bathroom, so he did it deliberately poorly. It was a beautiful mess, but a little too messy. We took a deep breath and started over. Though I will always cherish the forty-five minutes I spent doing a photo-shoot in Gilman’s disgusting bathroom, even if the final image got scrapped.
Adam took over as art director, but from home. At his direction, via text, we did a second shoot on the merch table wall. That way we could use the table, lighting fixture, and door to create dimension. This time, Ken did his “professional” thing. He painted black over the portion of the wall that he’d be tagging to remove some of the clutter. Then he spray-painted “Ska Sucks” in yellow, and crossed “Sucks” out. I love that, here, you can see paint trickling down. He then spent the next couple of hours slowly and methodically writing “In Defense of” in white. After he was done, all three of us added back some “punk” graffiti and ska stickers on the wall. I got a whole bounty of them from eBay.
Watching Ken work was incredible. The lettering turned out so professional, people have asked me if it was photoshopped. No, Ken did it all freehand. The only thing added in post-production was my name. Ken did paint my name on the wall too. The only reason we didn’t keep it was because it was too high up on the book cover.
The whole time he worked, I paced back and forth, quietly having an anxiety attack. This book cover had to be perfect. Ska has consistently been made fun of in popular culture. It’s the butt end of every dumb joke. Ska fans are so used to it, they act liked bullied kids who either nod their head and take it, or pretend to not care and join in on the teasing, making even worse, more vicious ska jokes. The whole point of my book is to flip this narrative around. Not only do I reject this assumption that ska is terrible, but I say that mocking ska is terrible. People are not used to ska being defended; when I’ve punched back at people tearing down ska on Twitter, people are shocked.
I think the cover turned out amazing. There’s aggression in how Ken painted the letters and crossed out “sucks,” which is the whole point. If you want to make fun of ska, you’ll need to try a little harder than regurgitating bad jokes about dorky white guys in fedoras and checkers shirts. Ska is a legitimate genre with a rich history, diverse bands, and, more often than not, musicians with something to say. And there are new bands still putting out great music.
My greatest hope is that ska haters all over the world will see my book in stores, and on Amazon, and feel the jab my cover is shooting at them. You think you’re cool for hating ska? Well, I think you’re boring. Why don’t you prove otherwise and pick this book up and give it a read. I dare you.