A Decade of Day of the Dead Rock Stars, Give or Take a Few Skeletons

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It all started with Joey Ramone. When the skinny, bespectacled punk-rock icon passed away in April 2001, it left Carlos Hernandez searching for a way to appropriately mourn one of his musical heroes.

“That had a real impact on me,” says the Houston-based artist, today an owner of Heights-area screen-printing shop Burning Bones Press. “Because I grew up with the Ramones, I loved that aesthetic. It reminded me of a lot of things. And I thought, ‘Man, it really would be cool if instead of doing the traditional thing, if I could celebrate Joey Ramone’s life.’ We started doing that, and called it a ‘Day of the Dead Rock Star party, featuring Joey Ramone.’”

Traditional observances of Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday centered around All Saints Day and All Souls Day, focus on honoring beloved ancestors by decorating their graves, offering food and drink, and building shrines often featuring elaborately decorated skeletons. But Hernandez says he was looking for a slightly more irreverent way to celebrate.

“I did a papier-mâché of Joey, and then I had other people bring things that reminded them of the Ramones or Joey,” he recalls. “I think someone else brought a black wig and some glasses. I already had those pieces. We played Ramones records in our backyard, and so it was just fun.”

Lately, Day of the Dead imagery has become prevalent in pop culture, but not so when Hernandez moved to Houston around 1992, he recalls. Nor did he see much of it in Lubbock, where he grew up and attended Texas Tech. The situation was different a relatively brief five-hour drive away in Santa Fe, however.

“Driving to Santa Fe, for people from Lubbock, was like going to New York, man,” Hernandez says. “Not because of the size, but because of the art culture. When I got there, I saw Day of the Dead – I saw the folk-art skeletons, I saw all of that, and it was very revered. We didn’t have a lot of that in Lubbock.”

At one of Hernandez’s backyard parties, Hernandez’s friend Quinn Bishop came by and told him he loved the concept. The two had known each other since their bands had played bygone San Antonio punk dive Tacoland and had kept in touch. Hernandez remembers visiting the old location of Cactus Music, where Bishop would eventually become a partner and general manager, and Bishop giving him a 45. (Hernandez was the original drummer for Houston vatobilly institutions the Flamin’ Hellcats.) When Cactus moved into its current quarters in the fall of 2007, Hernandez says, Bishop asked him to help update the store’s brand.

“When he was opening the new store, he had me do the graphic design, so I designed their logo,” he recalls. “He’s given me so much opportunity, I’ll tell you that right now. He let me design the logo, and anytime I had some sort of event or something I wanted to hold here, he would do that.”

Bishop also invited Hernandez to move his Day of the Dead parties to Cactus when the time was right. Tomorrow evening, the store will host an opening reception for the tenth installment of its annual Day of the Dead Rock Stars exhibition, dubbed “Ten Years Gone.” “Day of the Dead Rock Stars has become an anticipated event, which we have carefully managed to maintain the uniqueness and edge that made it so different when we started,” Bishop said in a press release announcing the event. “We feel that the benchmark of ten years is a truly remarkable occasion.” (The art will hang in Cactus’s Record Ranch annex until January.)

Hernandez’s first painting for Day of the Dead Rock Stars, a Johnny Cash image called “Get Rhythm,” still hangs above Cactus’s in-store stage. Over the years, as the exhibit has grown in popularity, he’s become more curator than creator, using the show as an opportunity to invite other artists he admires to display their work; this year, Hernandez says, he has only one piece in the collection. Other artists featured in “Ten Years Gone” include Annalise Gratovich of Austin’s Flatbed Press; a David Bowie woodcut by Flyleaf bassist Pat Seals; and John Hancock, a performance artist and printmaking professor at Mary Hardin Baylor. Remarkably for a Day of the Dead-themed exhibit, there won’t be a skeleton in sight.

“That’s what I like about curating the show,” says Hernandez. “If I’m doing it all myself, it sort of starts to look the same, but if I’m able to curate it, you know, there’s so many thoughts and ideas. The funny thing is that every piece in the show doesn’t have a skeleton in it.”

Hernandez is quick to credit the Day of the Dead shows for launching his career to the point that he says he hardly ever designs gig posters anymore. He was invited to design the commemorative poster for the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Besides Cactus, his clients include other cherished Houston franchises Pinks Pizza, Tacos a Go-Go and Saint Arnold Brewing Company. In fact, after that first Day of the Dead Cactus show, Saint Arnold owner (and Cactus partner) Brock Wagner asked him to create the label for its Santo brand, which will be on tap at Saturday’s reception. However, Hernandez admits that, in his own artwork, those skeletons can be hard to shake.

“You know, I do do skeletons still,” he says. “I just did something the other day that had a skeleton in it. I don’t know if they’ll ever leave me. They’re not per se Day of the Dead, you know, with the markings and things on their face, but they are skeletons. Cartoon skeletons, or I don’t know what. There’s just something about skeletons that’s impactful for me. I love it; it’s always going to be around.”
The opening reception of "Ten Years Gone" begins at 6 p.m. Saturday at Cactus Music (2110 Portsmouth). No cover. This year's exhibit will hang in the adjoining Record Ranch through January.

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