Archived Feature: The Costacos Brothers

January 20, 2012


In our September 2011 issue, we interviewed poster artists the Costacos Brothers, famous for making some of the most memorable sporting images and posters during the 1980s. The brothers, who opened a retrospective in NYC this past summer, bring their For The Kids exhibition to Los Angeles' Country Club Gallery this Saturday, January 21.

There was a time, not long ago, that I wouldn’t know if Chad Ochocinco was getting frozen yogurt today, if Lebron James was watching the shuttle launch, or Deion Sanders was inspecting himself on TV. I did, and this seems almost ridiculous, wait and wonder about my favorite athletes. News was scarce; it was weekly magazines and expensive cable options. No Twitter handles, no primetime specials, few endorsements deals. To an 8-year old kid in the late 1980s, the only way I could show support to my favorite players, in any sport, was to buy one of the posters created by the Costacos Brothers. And I had plenty covering my walls.

In the mid-to late 1980s, the Seattle-based Costacos Brothers created some of the most iconic personas and personalities attached to athletes ever conceived. Some remain timeless, most outlasting the actual shelf-life of the athlete themselves. Using a simple formula of strong concept, dramatic but simple art direction, and making the athlete a nicknamed superhero as a opposed to one-dimensional player, the posters became a rite of passage to stars in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. Their identities became household knowledge, and kids in cities across the United States filled their rooms with Michael Jordan, the Bash Brothers, Mad Mac, and LA Law.

This past summer at Salon 94 Freemans in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Adam Shopkorn and Fabienne Stephan organized For the Kids, a mini-retrospective of early Costacos posters from 1986 through 1990, shown alongside pieces from Jeff Koons’s first solo exhibition, Equilibrium. The show brought to attention the pre-Internet athlete, where endorsements were scarce and self-promotion was still in its infinite stages. But most importantly, it reminded me that sports, after all the money counted and TV ratings noted, is supposed to be fun, a kid’s game, and that the legendary nicknames the Costacos Brothers gave each player illuminated how we all felt lying in bed at night looking at our Patrick Ewing poster; these people are the modern day superheroes.

“The posters are relics that survived our parents throwing them down incinerator shoots and garbage bins,” Shopkron told me. “What John and Tock were doing with posters was so fresh and so new back then and the work holds up so incredibly well 25 years later, a testament to their creativity and talent. The posters are all grown up today just like the adults who collected them as kids and I wanted to reintroduce this mature body of work to a now mature audience.”

I spoke with the John and Tock Costacos on the opening of For the Kids, at an outdoor basketball court, two blocks from the gallery.—Evan Pricco



Evan Pricco: The way you did these posters, the way you had the athletes participate and depicted them as superheroes and characters beyond their playing field personas, that would be impossible with the modern day athlete, right? This was, in a way, a time and a place thing. This was a seed that led athletes to educate themselves and see the power self-publicizing outside of their respected leagues and teams.


Tock Costacos: I don’t think it would be impossible, but certainly there are constraints today that we didn’t have back in the day. Today, they have the opportunity for more lucrative endorsement deals, putting a limit on their availability for less-lucrative poster deals. And of course, their image is more carefully guarded by their endorsement partners.


John Costacos: I think posters like ours were among the few outlets available outside of product endorsements for athletes to publicize themselves, so that helped get them interested in working with us. Now with all the cable channels, Internet, cell phones, video games, and all the other electronic media that exists, the players have so many more outlets for publicity than they used to have.


I think if the ideas are good enough, today’s players would go for it. One of the things I learned from working with professional athletes is that they have a lot of fun. Another is that they are very aware that it’s not going to last forever, so if you made the poster fun, they might really want to do it.


The Costacos Brothers as “poster artists” started with a women in a Seattle sporting goods store saying that a Kenny Easley (safety for the Seattle Seahawks) poster would be an automatic sell. Talk about the making of that first poster; how you got in contact with Kenny, the concept, down to how it got printed.


Tock: The concept was easy—he was a tough guy on the field. In 1986, at least for me in Seattle, the image of a gang member was still romanticized like West Side Story. As I recall, John called the Seahawks, who then gave him the number for Kenny’s agent. After we had a deal, John and I went down to the Pioneer Square neighborhood to scout a location that would show the Kingdome, where the Seahawks played, in the background. We built and bought the props, rented a fog machine, hired the Seahawks photographer to shoot it, called the local media to help promote the poster, and off we went.


John: I called the Seahawks and got the name and number of his agent. Leigh Steinberg was the biggest name agent in the business. His partner, Jeff Moorad, called back and I told him we wanted to make a poster of his client. He asked me some questions about it and then told me he’d speak with Kenny and get back to me. He called back and told me that Kenny would meet with me so we could speak directly. I met him for breakfast and it became clear he didn’t want to do an action poster because he thought they were bland, so I suggested that we wanted to do a tough-guy image in street clothes. He liked the idea but countered with, “You’ve never made a poster before. Why should I do this with you?” I told him about the success we’d had with the “Purple Reign” shirts we did for the Washington Huskies in the previous year (which had become a nationally-known nickname for the team’s defense) and said, “My brother and I will make it our life to make this poster great.” Kenny said yes.




When did the floodgates open? When did you know that you could go from t-shirt company to a Sports Poster company?


Tock: I think we knew right away because the posters were just plain cool. However, after the image of the Mad Mac poster went over the AP wire service and the phone started ringing from retailers all over the country, I really knew it could go big.


John: The floodgates opened with Mad Mac. Jim McMahon was hugely popular and approaching him was a crazy idea because although we’d shot both the Kenny Easley and Lester Hayes posters, we hadn’t even printed them! Remember, we had no experience in printing, graphic design, or photography. We just knew that if we could make it look the way we envisioned, people would buy them. So with a good idea, two inexperienced guys contacted the biggest star in sports and he said yes. When a picture of the poster ran in USA Today and it ran on the AP wire, the universe opened up for us. Reporters were calling from all over the country asking about it and who else we were planning on making posters with. Each time, I’d name the biggest sports stars in the city where the reporter was from and a number of agents started calling.



As the posters began to take off, you had agents and athletes wanting to be part of the program, right?


John: Definitely. At the NFL Pro Bowl, it was really nice because it was a relaxing atmosphere where we could talk with the players, and in many cases, their agents about the concepts. We weren’t making deals. We were asking the players which ideas they liked or didn’t like, and if they had any ideas. One of my favorite memories was when Emmitt Smith heard my name out near the beach and he said, “Costacos? Are you one of the Costacos Brothers?” He got up and came over to talk with me about his poster. He thanked me for his poster and said he loved what we do. He was such a good guy, and to know that our work was appreciated by the people we were working with meant a lot to me.



We talked about it a bit, but both of you kept saying that today, with Photoshop, a lot edits that you could have made to the posters would take 15 minutes, but back in the mid 1980s, you were working quite analog. As an art magazine we’re interested in the process of getting a poster shot, editing, and the proper effects you were looking for.


John: Since we had a standard poster size of 24” x 36”, we had to fit everything in the frame when we were shooting the photo. We placed a piece of black paper with a 2” x 3” ratio over the viewfinder in the camera that helped make sure that everything would be in the frame. Personal computers were very new and Photoshop and other programs like that didn’t even exist. There was something called a Scitex machine that did the color separation, which created the film from which to make the plates for the printer. We could make changes if necessary on the Scitex machine, but it was $600 per hour, and what would take one hour with a specialist on that machine then could be done in 3 minutes by a 10-year-old in Photoshop today.


Due to that expense, we were always nervous about getting the shot right and everything in the frame. We experimented with colored gels on the lights and used fog machines a lot to create atmosphere. We did a lot of setup and test shots so we’d get it right, but it was still an uneasy feeling no matter how good it looked because unlike today where you can see the image on the digital camera the moment after you shoot it, we had to wait at least a day to get the film developed. We learned a lot at the very beginning with the Mad Mac poster because in the shots where Jim looked best, the bear cub’s head was down. So we actually had a photo lab splice together the best photo of Jim with the best photo of the bear cub, had an actual print made of it, and had an artist airbrush in fog so it would look right. We scanned that to make the poster.



Getting an athlete to dress as a caveman, William the Conqueror, or to stand next to a bear cub, is something that is lost on this generation of kids who see athletes more as entrepreneurs than superheroes. How much discussion did you have with each athlete about how they were going to be shown? Did athletes come with their own ideas, and when they did, who came up with the good ones, and of course, who came up with the bad ones.


John: Every athlete was different but most of them liked what we brought them and let us go with it. If we had a really obvious concept, they usually went for it. Karl Malone’s nickname was already The Mailman, so the postal theme was a strong concept for him. Mad Mac was brand new, but it fit Jim McMahon’s personality and that’s why he liked it. Charles Barkley liked “Get Off My Backboard” because he had recently won the rebounding title, and for a guy who’s not quite 6’4”, that’s a pretty proud accomplishment.


We always asked the players if they felt comfortable in the pose, because if they didn’t feel comfortable, it would show up in the shot. Usually we would let them know ahead of time what extra details would be in the shot to get their okay, but sometimes we came up with last minute things so when we’d get to the set, we’d ask the player to see if he liked them or not. Like in Mad Mac, we did a little something for fun (and maybe a little for publicity) with the headbands. McMahon had been fined by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for wearing an advertisement (Adidas headband) on the sideline during a game. The following week Jim wore a headband with “Rozelle” written on it, and got fined again. So at the set, Tock, Jim and I were talking and somehow we came up with the idea to write “Hi Pete” on one of the headbands in the shot. It was just a fun little tweak that I’m sure Jim liked because they couldn’t fine him because it wasn’t licensed. From my standpoint it was a success because one of the headlines in one of the New York papers ran the poster with the headline, “And One For Pete.”



When did licensing became a big deal for you, especially when the NFL, NBA, and MLB started getting involved in the process. How were you able to get guns, women, and depictions of “supernatural” violence into a poster with the leagues? Or did they put a stomp on that early on?


Tock: As I recall, by the time we started becoming licensed, there was a bit of political correctness starting to be reflected in the popular culture so the evolution of the posters was quite natural. I think we were evolving along with the leagues’ licensing requirements.


John: The NFL wouldn’t license us for the Easley poster so we could do whatever we wanted. After Sports Illustrated showed the Kenny Easley’s “The Enforcer” and “Mad Mac” posters in an issue, the NFL wanted to talk with us. We weren’t actively trying to go out of bounds, we were just thinking creatively. When they said something about our posters being violent, I asked, “Have you ever watched NFL Films? And you think we are making the game look violent?” This was before we did “Chicago Vice” which had Walter Payton and Jim McMahon dressed like Crockett and Tubbs carrying guns. And really, all we were doing was trying to do parodies and that sort of thing. Once we got licensed from the leagues, they were really pretty good with us. We knew we couldn’t put guns in them and that sort of thing. At first I didn’t feel restricted at all, but that was when their licensed products business was starting to grow exponentially. Later on they had a very strict approval process that started to take the fun out of it in a pretty ridiculous way. We understood pretty well where the line was, but I remember one NBA poster came back “Not Approved” and when we asked, the answer was, “Because you gave him a nickname.” I think it was just part of the leagues’ growing process where they felt they needed to have a handle on everything, but when the last five posters have some sort of nickname and go through the approval process fine and then one comes back rejected, there’s a problem with that method.



Again, today, you can’t have a gun in a poster. Or even any sexual innuendo, which is in the Bosworth and Worthy posters, for sure. Was their any flack at the time? Did you hear from parents or the stores you sold to?


Tock: I don’t remember hearing any negatives from retailers or parents. We did get a little flack for the Dale Ellis poster, “Silent Assassin,” which, ironically, was his nickname already.


John: I don’t remember any flack for guns or girls in the posters. Things weren’t scrutinized the way they are now. They took the images for what they were, parodies. We did get a letter from a woman who complained about our Steve Largent poster. He was as squeaky-clean a player as has ever played. We put him in a blue flight suit with a fighter jet behind him and titled it, “The Blue Angel.” The woman couldn’t believe we would do something so terrible as to portray such a good guy as a fighter pilot. It was one of the only negative letters we ever received so I think for the most part people understood what we were getting at. I never really thought there was much sexual innuendo in the three posters we had women in. Ava Fabian was a Playboy Playmate in Brian Bosworth’s “The Land of Boz.” Another Playboy Playmate, Cathy St. George, was a Bond-girl in Sergei Federov’s “From Russia With Love” poster, and James Worthy’s wife was in his “LA Law” poster. The Playboy name today might worry the leagues, but if you look at what they’re wearing, there’s nothing in any of them that is really that provocative apart from them being attractive. Every single NFL cheerleader is far more exposed and much more full of innuendo than the women in our posters. Clearly things were not scrutinized back then the way they would be today.


We had one letter from a young boy. I forgot his name but I still have the letter somewhere. It was written in big letters on what looked to be the newsprint paper used in grade school. All it said was, “Hey, You guys suck!” He signed it and had his return address on the envelope. We loved that kid because he made us laugh. We had no idea what it was about but it was really funny.



The Michael Jordan poster is, of course, a best-seller and so famous to people of my age. But you had to deal with Nike when working with Jordan, so can you talk about your relationship with Beaverton, especially because they had a poster presence in the 1990s.


Tock: As I recall, Nike was preventing Michael from posing for us so we had to use the “strip fantasy” format rather than a posed shot. I do remember that after a period of time without a real poster program, they wanted to get back into it—maybe because they really wanted control of the images we were putting out there which might have not fit with their corporate goals. They started putting language into their endorsement contracts that precluded their athletes from posing for us, but most agents wouldn’t go along. Nike actually came up to our facility in Seattle to watch our shoot of the Bo Jackson poster and gave us a heads up on the “Bo Knows” ad campaign. They finagled their sponsorship license with the various leagues into a retail poster program but ended up outsourcing it to a poster company in LA which held Disney and Warner Brothers licenses among others—remember the Bugs Bunny/Michael Jordan movie? We never designed Nike posters, as they were tied to their ad campaigns, but we did influence the player selection. I used to go to Beaverton about 3 or 4 times a year for meetings. The combination of Costacos Brothers and Nike posters from one source created a one-two punch that was very powerful for our distribution.



What was one athlete that you wanted to work with but never did, and what would the concept have been?


Tock: For me, it was Eugene Robinson of the Seattle Seahawks. He was young and very talented, with a great fan following in Seattle.


John: Reggie Jackson, Joe Namath, and Red Grange would have been great but none were playing anymore when we were making posters. What we could have done with “Mr. October,” “Broadway Joe,” and “The Galloping Ghost” would have been so cool.



Why did the posters stop happening?


Tock: I’m assuming you mean the posed posters. It got too expensive to pose the players— minimum guarantees, expenses related to shooting on location, and a burgeoning licensing department. Besides the league license, the “strip fantasy” format where we didn’t pose the players required a players association license which included every player in the league - greatly simplifying the licensing process and allowing us to do regional athletes in a much more cost-effective way.


If you mean why did we sell the business, there was a general move to consolidation in the licensed products industry being driven by increasing royalty rates. The leagues and players associations were looking to keep their revenue streams growing at a time when the entire industry—except electronic games and a few other categories—was essentially built. Royalty revenue growth had dropped to single digits, as well as the consolidation of companies—and the cost savings that come with it—were the wave of the future. It started in the apparel and headwear categories but we felt it was going to reach the novelty categories at some point. So we found a great buyer and got out at the perfect time.




What, in your opinions, is your best poster.


Tock: Bash Brothers, with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, for sure. Dripping with personality, great nickname, and we sold the heck out of it!


John: I’ve been asked that a lot. My favorite is Mad Mac because it was the one that launched things for us. The one that means the most to me is Kenny Easley’s “The Enforcer” because it was the first one, and the colors and everything turned out better than I had imagined. If I had to pick one that I think is the best, I’d say “Designated Hitter” with Ronnie Lott because there’s nothing I would change in it. Every other poster has something somewhere I think could have been done better and if I could do a “do-over,” I’d fix or change something. But Ronnie’s, I wouldn’t change a thing.


Portrait by Brock Fetch

For the Kids

January 21—March 4, 2012

Opening Reception

Saturday, January 21st, 2012, 6-9 pm

Country Club

Los Angeles, California