When I text my youngest sister — 17, headed to college this fall — and ask her about the dozens or hundreds of One Direction posters once taped to her bedroom wall, she responds icily, as is her way. “They have been thrown out,” she texts back immediately. I have no follow-up questions, and I’m not planning on speaking to her for the rest of April.
What I wanted to hear was that they are part of her forever, and that she cares for and maintains them easily, and that One Direction is still a band, and that posters are widely available. Of course, she can’t say that, and it’s not all her fault. Still, she could have tried harder.
Posters are inherently temporary, and they are also inherently gaudy expressions of fandom — a passion we are culturally expected to grow out of. They used to be sold in records stores and malls, places we have in diminishing numbers. They are a confusing business dominated by companies you have never heard of, and muddied by rights issues. They are not part of the modern merch wars, in which rappers and pop-stars compete to sell the most obscure and unnecessary objects, designed by the most Instagram-famous stylists and streetwear stars.
They are in some ways, a joke — Scarface posters, in particular, have become a cultural shorthand for “unstimulating heterosexual man,” and are used as such regularly. But they are clearly available somewhere, as teenagers absolutely need to surround themselves with the things they love.
In photos submitted to the Fuck Yeah Teenage Bedrooms blog, we can see that not everyone is as fickle as my shape-shifting little sister, and there are many shrines to One Direction still in perfect condition. There is a shocking amount of All Time Low and Warped Tour stuff, given the year. There are so many strings of twinkle lights! My heart jumps around a little bit while I struggle to remember being bored in a bedroom instead of being bored online all day.
My relationship with my sister is on hold, so I’m not going to find out from her, but I am going to find out: What’s the state of physical posters now that we are so firmly online? In 2019, doesn’t anyone sell a poster of Harry Styles?
Teenagers have been cutting photos of celebrities out of magazines since at least the 1920s, according to Ryerson University historian and teen bedroom expert Jason Reid, author of Get Out of My Room! A History of Teen Bedrooms in America. But posters as we know them are a more recent phenomenon.
They started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, coming out of anti-war posters and psychedelic concert posters. “The first issue of Rolling Stone in 1967 featured an ad for a store out of Mill Valley, California whose posters cost between $1.50 and $2,” he writes. “Teens could easily get their hands on, say, a reproduction of Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon album cover, a pop art rendering of Che Guevera, or an assortment of well-coiffed teen heartthrobs.”
But posters didn’t boom as a big business until the mid-1970s. That’s when Ohio brothers Mike and Ted Trikilis founded Pro Arts, initially as an anti-war poster retailer, and then as the manufacturer of the famous Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster. The poster sold over five million copies between 1976 and 1980 — at about $2 apiece — and the brothers signed a deal with Kmart to set up entire racks of posters in big-box stores across the country.
At the time, Fawcett was making $5,000 per episode for her work on Charlie’s Angels, but she made an estimated $400,000 in royalties off of the Pro Arts poster. Ted Trikilis was profiled in Playgirl and the Washington Post. Competitors popped up across the country — including the Adstat-Adprint Company in Los Angeles, which sold 1.2 million copies of its Bo Derek poster in two years. It was a glamorous time.
“By 1980, the New York Times estimated that the poster industry was selling between $100 million and $200 million of merchandise per year,” Reid writes. “The vast majority of which ended up hanging in the rooms of American youth.” Posters were cheap and teens loved them, and it was easy enough to wallpaper an entire living space with one passion, then tear it all down and start over when you moved on to another.
The best place to buy a poster, for several decades, was the mall. The record stores in the mall, the comic book stores in the mall. Spencer’s Gifts opened its first mall store in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 1963 and had 450 stores across the US by 1967. The first Newbury Comics opened in Boston in 1978 and spread into East Coast malls throughout the 1980s. The late 1980s brought Hot Topic, the early 1990s brought F.Y.E., which expanded throughout the early 2000s, then crumbled alongside physical media. But until quite recently, there was no reason to worry about where your next poster would come from.
Jason Reid tells me that he had three or four Metallica posters as a teen in the late 1980s, as well as some Iron Maiden posters. “I’m pretty sure I would have gotten them either at record stores or head shops, just at the mall basically,” he says. “They weren’t too hard to come by.” But now, malls are dying. No, they are dead. “Dead mall” is literally its own Wikipedia page.
In the post-mall internet shopping age, obviously, everyone can just make their own posters on the dozens of identical custom-product-making websites. But that is expensive. And it’s technically illegal to use images you don’t have the rights to. Kids can order posters from Etsy, but that is a complicated financial operation if you are a teenager: explain to your parents what Etsy is, ask them for their credit card information, present them with cash, explain again that Etsy is not a scam, wait for them to hit the order button, it’s taking them so long.
The easy solution would be for artists to sell posters themselves. It would be odd — I think you would agree — to find that they aren’t doing that. But though the streaming era has resulted in major shifts in the music industry that make it nearly impossible to make a living selling actual music and an imperative to tour constantly and sell tons of merch, big artists are not selling posters either.
“On a practical level, posters are actually pretty unwieldy things to sell from a web store,” according to Darren Hemmings, managing director of the music-focused digital marketing agency Motive Unknown. “They have to be sent in a protective tube, which in turn adds cost and overhead to the whole exercise,” he tells me in an email.
The proof is in the web stores. On Harry Styles’s website, I can buy a 7-inch of his first single, or a notebook embossed with his favorite phrase (“Treat people with kindness”), or a coffee mug with a Polaroid photo of him in a towel and brown leather boots, which I did buy and use every day. But no poster.
Ariana Grande sells clear vinyl fanny packs, and “thank u, next” shot glass sets, and crewneck sweatshirts with her baby photo on them, but she does not sell posters. Taylor Swift sells an Instax camera, and a plastic poncho, and a duvet cover with pictures of her cats printed on it, but she does not sell posters. Beyoncé sells laptop shells, and wrapping paper, and pajamas, and a flag, but she does not sell posters. Travis Scott currently sells nothing on his website, but is engaged in some kind of inscrutable war with John Mayer over who makes the best minimalist, ultra-expensive, impossible-to-buy, limited-edition Japanese streetwear. You get it.
Maybe the pop stars have gotten a little too creative? Or maybe, the industry is a little too cynical.
“No one needs a poster on their wall when they are staring at their phone all day,” says Chadwick Johnson, a member of the creative team at Manhead Merch. “In 2019, your Instagram is your poster. It’s moving, interactive, and you can monetize it.” Plus, the mark-up on a rain poncho that costs “literally something like 50 cents” can be much higher than the mark-up on a poster, according to Hemmings.
Celebrities are increasingly registering trademarks for everything about themselves — not just their name and their catch-phrases and their song lyrics, but the very idea of their existence. This makes the poster game a complicated one. When your business is selling inexpensive things to customers who don’t have a lot of money of their own, a legal battle is not going to be worth it.
Even the brothers who made their fortune off of Farrah Fawcett’s right nipple did not have good luck forever. In an exhaustive profile published by alt-weekly the Cleveland Scene in 2005, reporter Kevin Hoffman followed them as they crumbled.
In 1977, days after Elvis Presley died, they paid $2,500 for the copyright for a photo of him, took one million pre-orders for posters, and printed them, only to be sued by a rival who had purchased post-mortem publicity rights from Presley’s estate. The brothers put 800,000 of the million posters in a trash compactor, then counter-sued and eventually won only $17,000. They failed to sell enough other posters to recoup the several million dollars they had spent installing poster racks in thousands of Kmart locations, and eventually filed for bankruptcy and exited each others’ lives.
“[Ted] was the most stupid person, most unappreciative person I’ve met in my life, by far,” Mike told the alt-weekly. “I wasted my life with this guy.”
The poster fell out of favor in pop culture for similar reasons. As you can see if you peruse my new favorite website Teenage Bedrooms On Screen, the idea that a teenage bedroom ought to be filled with posters was accepted wholeheartedly by the media for a long time. Ferris Bueller’s bedroom — which the world saw in 1986 — had posters for the Scottish rock band Simple Minds, the British electronic band Cabaret Voltaire, and the upsetting goth-rock band Killing Joke, among others.
In 2000, when Kirsten Dunst played cheerleading captain Torrance Shipman in Bring it On, her bedroom had a Nancy Kerrigan poster and a print of a Degas ballerina. It made perfect sense for her: She had to learn to loosen up. Her love interest, whose name was unfortunately “Cliff,” had an oddly-shaped bedroom with many sharp angles and dozens of posters including the Ramones, Iggy Pop, the Clash, and Elvis Costello.
Many years later, production designer Sharon Lomofsky told Broadly that she had to do a lot of work to hang up all of those posters, and she did it because it was important. “You think that would be easy. But it’s not, because of all the clearances,” she said. “We had to get permission for everything! At one point we called Elvis Costello and said, ‘Do you want to be in a cheerleading movie?’” She also said that most production designers don’t bother with this anymore. “To me, that’s really sad — you end up losing the texture and flavor of everything,” she added.
It was extremely noticeable, I think, that Lady Bird’s bedroom in the otherwise unimpeachable 2017 film Lady Bird had no posters other than posters of Lady Bird that Lady Bird made herself. It was also extremely noticeable in the 2018 Netflix hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before that heroine Lara Jean had no posters and only a strange mix of scrapbook paper squares and tree drawings on her bedroom wall. I’m sorry, but her defining trait is that she loves crushes? Where is Harry Styles?
According to production designer Paul Joyal, “We didn’t want Lara Jean to have a regular teenage bedroom, like, ‘Let’s just stick up some posters and give her a bedspread.’” He says she’s creative and that’s why she painted a tree. Okay.
Currently, the selection of posters at big-box retailers is not what one would hope. Walmart sells posters from dozens of third parties, but the largest are an Ontario-based company called Trends International, which did not respond to my request for an interview, and a Missouri-based company called Movie Posters USA, which did not respond to my request for an interview.
Trends International offers an utterly random selection of celebrity posters including several of YouTube star JoJo Siwa surrounded by inspirational phrases, one of Canadian pop-folk singer Shawn Mendes surrounded by flowers, and of course, the Beatles, walking across the road. The latter offers an utterly random selection of movie posters, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Stephen King’s It, and several Chuck Norris titles. It also makes an “Eat Sleep Game Repeat” poster, and an “Always Be Yourself Unless You Can Be a Unicorn” poster.
Of the other brands listed on Walmart’s website — Pop Culture Graphics, Poster Revolution, Rolled Poster, Poster Paper — none answered my emails. Fancyleo, the brand responsible for seemingly every K-pop poster, does not appear to exist anywhere else online, unless it’s the same company that sells reusable straws and mosquito coils on Amazon. All available evidence — which is scant — points to the modern poster industry as confusing and competitive and not very rewarding.
But on Tumblr, I scroll through the tag “my room,” which is full of bedrooms, all of them carefully personalized, all of them gorgeous. I see that these teenagers are getting posters somewhere and showing them off on the internet mostly anonymously. There are teenagers with Bjork concert posters, and teenagers who love The X-Files, and teenagers who are into both the aging pop-punk band Panic! At the Disco and the very young former YouTube star Troye Sivan. BTS posters and the 1975 posters are in circulation somewhere.
Abby, who is 18 and lives in Wisconsin, covered the walls of her room with giant posters of Blue is the Warmest Color and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, as well as magazine pages of Elle Fanning, Winona Ryder, and Greta Gerwig. “I usually just cut out pages from magazines, print pictures off the internet, or buy them on Amazon,” she tells me. “I also work at a movie theater so I get a lot of my posters from there.” Cameron, who is 19 and lives in Texas, tells me that their dad printed off their Maximum Ride poster for them at work. (Dad!)
The teen bedroom is in an odd tension with social media, Reid tells me. On the one hand, if you can post everything you like and everything that defines you on the internet in seconds, why would you waste the time and money to also tape it up on your wall?
On the other, “teen lives are lived in public now, every part of your life is put up there. Now, the bedroom might be even more important,” he suggests. “It’s a place where they can express themselves but they don’t have to worry about being judged like they would on Instagram or what have you.” What if your bedroom ends up on Instagram? I ask. Then you can be judged. What if all my posters are a back-drop for my vlog?
“The teen bedroom is this haven for self-expression, but because teenagers are involved there’s still so much self-consciousness in it,” he concedes. “This is why I can’t even fathom what kids are going through nowadays. I’m very happy that I didn’t grow up in a time where I had a social media account to broadcast every screw-up that I made.” But he is confident that everyone is fine and finding posters and putting them up — teens have done this for 100 years now.
Andy Cohn, president and publisher of the Fader, which started selling poster-size reprints of its issue covers in 2011, tells me that I am right to be worried, but that posters will be part of the analog renaissance. People love vinyl and print magazines again, he insists. “There’s only so much you can do with an image online.”
If you’re a fan, and you really love something, “you can put wallpaper on your computer or post stuff on socials,” but it’s not the same thing as having a poster. “When I was growing up there were all these record stores in malls and you know, they had posters and you’d go through the racks of posters and they had so much cool stuff and then they all went away,” he explains after telling me that he’s 45. “[Posters] are not really a revenue source for us, there’s no money there. It’s more marketing, and for fans of the artists we put on the covers.”
Cohn’s son, who is 11, has Gucci Mane and the Migos in his bedroom, and his daughter, who is 15, has Kacey Musgraves and Ariana Grande. “I have Frank Ocean in my office,” Cohn tells me.
Tersha Willis, co-founder of Terrible Merch, which works mostly with indie singer-songwriters like Julia Jacklin and Let’s Eat Grandma, agrees with him. The poster is “definitely back on the rise” she says, and getting more interesting. There will be fewer cheaply made pop-star posters with an ugly logo on them she argues, and there will be more things that “look and feel like art.”
“This is something that requires a physical presence for it to have its full effect, and something that can’t be experienced online in the same way,” she explains.
Harry Styles is wearing a pink silk Alexander McQueen shirt underneath his floral embroidered Alexander McQueen suit, and may he always.
This image, torn out of his April 2017 Rolling Stone cover story, has been taped to my bedroom wall for two years. The week the magazine came out, I drove 20 minutes to the Wegmans near my parents’ house to buy two copies of the issue (one for reading and one for ripping up). I brought him back to New York and hung him up above my dresser, and every morning for two years I have looked into his eyes and wished his visage were bigger, sturdier, more permanent.
If there is one thing I believe ought to be a basic, unshakeable physical fact of my apartment, it is Harry Styles’s face, specifically as it was captured in spring 2017. Perhaps it is rude that I am only now revealing this selfish reason for caring about posters.
But what will I do when my magazine page crumbles from age? Or worse, when I carefully peel it from its current place to move it to a new apartment, and inadvertently shred it into a mess with my own stupid hands? Idolatry can be dangerous, I know, but not if you choose your heroes carefully. I know what I’m doing. Harry Styles is the one.
I can’t believe I’m alone here, so, finally, I email my sister’s friend Miranda. She is, like my sister, a senior in high school, and explains to me that her walls are still covered with posters that she tore out of J-14 — the teen celebrity magazine founded in New Jersey in 1998, now owned by a German super-corporation. These are slightly better than my flimsy magazine page because J-14 savvily includes big tear-out posters as the main incentive to buy the publication at all.
“My mom bought me a subscription to J-14 when I was 12, and that’s how I obtained most of them,” she tells me. “I would take all the posters that I wanted of One Direction and Selena Gomez out and put them in a folder and I still have it today.” From her poster folder, Miranda selected posters to put on her wall, and in her poster folder, she saved more posters for later. When she gets to college, she will dip into her posters savings account — her folder.
She says she needs and wants posters on her wall because they’re a way of expressing “love and appreciation” for the people in them, and I agree. This is an obvious and natural impulse. All we can really hope is that the poster, currently down on its luck, will have another day in the sun — alongside cassettes and vinyl, VHS tapes and Polaroid cameras, velvet suits and rock and roll.
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