The six years Frank Lawson worked at Roots Records allowed the artist ample opportunity to indulge his curiosities on a number of fronts.
In addition to being granted access to a deep library of reggae and reggae-adjacent records that helped him to expand on his musical knowledge, Lawson was also confronted with a steady stream of characters whose memories continue echo.
“There was this guy named Cadillac, and he didn’t say much because he used to do so many drugs and his brain was fried,” Lawson said in a late September interview in a Merion Village garage, where he and fellow artist Brian Buchanan were in the process of sketching out a mural advertising the new season of “American Horror Story.” “He always wore sunglasses and a fedora, and a raggedy, thrift-store suit. And then he would play saxophone – badly – out on the street.”
The artist's passions for unique characters and unheralded music are reunited in POCtober, a drawing challenge spearheaded by Lawson and Raeghan Buchanan in which the two post throughout the entire month of October. Befitting spooky season, the portraits – centered on overlooked Black musicians and bands led by people of color – are occasionally grotesque, such as in which Lawson depicted the three youthful bandmates as a single conjoined mutant emerging from a barrel of toxic waste. “And I pushed it even more this time around,” said Lawson, who is not averse to reimagining musicians as classic horror flick monsters, malformed beasts or brain-hungry, undead walkers. “I could do cute, neat, pretty pictures of people. But I don’t want to.”
Now in its fifth year, POCtober has evolved in other ways, though, with the two artists leaning more heavily into the educational aspects of the project. This is particularly true of a pair of books generated by the collaboration, including POCtober Sketch Book: Issue 2, which released this past weekend and presents drawings alongside richly detailed biographies, historical essays and musician interviews done by the two artists. (The book will be available for sale online in November.)
For Issue 2, Raeghan Buchanan interviewed the likes of Kyle Ozero of Chicago band the Breathing Light and Miski Dee Rodriguez of City Mouse, the latter of whom unpacks the sense of release that accompanies extended time on the road. “I think the further I get into it and the longer the tours, the more perspective I get on my day-to-day problems,” Rodriguez says. “Everything seems to dissipate, and your priorities are really highlighted. All of a sudden, the little things that drag you down disappear.”
Lawson, meanwhile, contributed an essay inspired in part by his years at Roots Records (“An Account on the Interconnected Waves and Evolutions of Ska, Skinhead and Oi!”) that unpacks the various waves of ska and skinhead punk without overlooking the uglier aspects that gained foothold within the genre. “I couldn’t talk about one without the other,” Lawson said. “But there’s a strong misconception [all skinhead punk] is racist because the negative stuff is louder. They’re just biting someone else’s style and corrupting it. … But I didn’t want to whitewash it or something like that. You have to talk about the ugly stuff, too.”
This is a concept that first took shape within the artist as he absorbed reggae records while working at Roots, the daily immersion helping him quickly move beyond the weed-clouded stereotypes sometimes associated with the genre. “There’s that cliche of smoking ganja, but the [musicians] are talking about something,” Lawson said. “It’s not all love songs. There’s a lot of socio-political commentary, and I appreciate that. It’s the same way with punk rock. … We’re seeing all of these Black punk bands come out now with this force of energy. And they have something to say. Everything else just starts to feel like passe, bubblegum bullshit.”
Lawson said a similar energy has started to bleed into the artwork he creates year-round – a shift he attributed in part to the pandemic.
“I’m typically a space cadet. I can barely remember what I ate yesterday. But that window of time is stained on my brain: the pandemic, the lockdown, the civil unrest,” said Lawson, who added that the experiences of the last three years have heightened his own sense of paranoia. “Now we’re seeing … drones hovering over my neighborhood. These are really some dystopian times we’re in. And that’s starting to leak into some of the things I do. … I’ll look at the things I did last year, two years ago, and I see something different happening now. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I see some change. I have some things I really want to say.”