Poster Boys

A New York gallery fetes the Seattle siblings who turned athletes' pictures into bedroom-wall art in the 1980s and '90s
June 19, 2011

The walls of a 15-year-old boy's room are sacred terrain. Up there live heroes and goddesses, their images carefully arranged and curated, a young man's id held up with Scotch tape. At least that's how it was when I came of age in the late 1980s. Countless posters cycled through my room: Joe Montana unleashing a spiral, Will Clark dangling a bat over his shoulder, Paulina Porizkova wearing what appeared to be a strip of black masking tape. None, however, ever toppled my most esteemed poster from its prime back-wall position.

Man, that poster was badass. And I mean Bad. Ass. The wall hanging in question featured Ronnie Lott in a dark suit and darker glasses, black fedora tilted just so, ominous headlights glowing behind him. And at the bottom, in red take-no-prisoners font: DESIGNATED HITTER. To my teenage sensibilities this wasn't ironic or corny. It was just really, really cool.

Perhaps you remember the poster. Or maybe for you it was Brian Bosworth in THE LAND OF BOZ, flexing giant biceps, a smokin' hot Dorothy at his side. Or a chaps-wearing Chuck Person as THE RIFLEMAN, a stack of bull's-eyed targets at his feet; or Patrick Ewing flanked by two German Shepherds as the MADISON SQUARE GUARDIAN.

Those posters, and over 700 more like them, were the work of John, now 50, and Tock Costacos, 51. The brothers presided over a line of often-unlicensed images—hence the lack of uniforms and the generic poses—that played a small but important role in the rise of the athlete as celebrity. And now, 25 years later, someone is showing the good sense to give the brothers their due. An exhibit of the Costacoses' posters will run at Salon 94 in Manhattan beginning June 23. The show is called For the Kids, but it's really for those of us in our mid-30s or early 40s who came of age with the posters—the grown kids.

Today Tock is retired in Nevada and John is an indie film producer, but in 1985 when they had a Seattle T-shirt company, they convinced Seahawks All-Pro safety Kenny Easley to pose in leather vest and gloves as THE ENFORCER. That image led to Jim McMahon with a crossbow as MAD MAC. Soon enough there was Eric Dickerson, ROBOBACK, and Xavier McDaniel in THE X-MAN COMETH. The apex came with Michael Jordan soaring through the cosmos in SPACE: the final frontier. That one moved 1.2 million copies.

Alas, the brothers, faced with evolving licensing restrictions, sold the company in '96, but they still can't watch sports without conjuring up new ideas. Philip Rivers of the Chargers? To John, it's obvious. "I'd dress him up like General MacArthur with five footballs instead of five stars and call him General Electric," he says.

It's hard to imagine a name athlete posing for such a poster without aiming for irony these days. But in the late '80s, an era when teams regularly recorded straight-faced rap songs, the Costacos brothers gave teenage boys exactly what they wanted: larger-than-life heroes, devoid of complications. They gave us mystique.

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