I studied printmaking at Kent State University, but then Devo took me on a side trip. In the early 1980s, I spent time in downtown L.A. on Traction Avenue, which was a big artist hangout. I worked with Richard Duardo from Future Perfect Gallery, who was the screen printer for artists like Ed Ruscha, while I was designing album covers. I met this artist, Bob Zoell. We had friends in common, and we both worked on covers. Zoell reappropriated the style of the street sign and turned that into his artwork. He did poetry on top of it, with phrases like “Nobody understands me,” “Call the police,” “I wish I was happy,” “The end is near” and stuff like that. He used the same aluminum material and same kind of reflective and all-weather inks that the city of Los Angeles used for their signs, and his looked identical, except for the content. I just loved that so much. People would say they looked exactly like street signs, but you could see that there was a story being told, and everybody got a good laugh every time they got to the last sign in the series. I actually traded him for this work. He was looking at the glow-in-the-dark artwork that I was doing at the time, and I traded him a set of works on paper from my “Postcard Superheroes Series” for four of his signs. Although I no longer have cats, I still love them. What smells worse than cat food? The signs have been in two different recording studios over the years, but they’ve spent most of their lives at my Sunset Strip recording studio, in a circular hallway across from Devo’s gold and platinum records, being both happy and inspirational to others. You don’t have to do anything except maybe wipe them off every six months.
A retrospective of Mothersbaugh’s art from the 1970s to the present, “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” is on view through April 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.