Meet the designers of NYC’s
Latin club night posters
Turn onto any block of Brooklyn’s busy Myrtle Broadway intersection, and you can’t miss them: slick, splashy adverts for star-studded concerts or back-to-back DJ sets at places with names like “Rancho Luna Lounge” and “Club Republic.” “Bottle service starting at $65” promises one recent example depicting a trio of elaborately groomed heartthrobs in leathers and shades. “Forget going to work on Monday,” boasts another, for a band showcase that takes place on a Sunday.
Latin club night posters are an unmistakable feature of the urban environment in New York’s historically Hispanic neighborhoods: Bushwick, Brooklyn; Corona, Queens; and Manhattan’s East Harlem, South Bronx and Washington Heights. But, their ubiquity also makes them invisible, after a while. All along the major thoroughfares in the yet-ungentrified areas of Bushwick, their neotropical motifs and stylized typography bleed into a pastiche of flickering bodega signage, bad street art and outdoor produce stands.
Sometimes, the same design is taped, stapled or wheatpasted over and over on the facade of a building, contributing to a kind of wall effect. Other times, different designs are thrown up side by side in a more indiscriminate fashion, on scaffolding or lamposts. This subeconomy is remarkably efficient: once an event is over, the flyers disappear seemingly overnight, only to be swapped out by new ones just as quickly. After they’re posted, they seldom stay up for more than a week or two, earning them the name short-run posters.
Although, to the uninitiated eye, the designs may seem to conform to a single aesthetic, stylistic variations actually correspond to musical genres, which are, in turn, determined by national boundaries. In New York at least, Mexico and the Domincian Republic have emerged as the two major industry players. The over-saturated, logo-friendly look of Mexican posters is associated with the genres of Cumbia and Corrido, which are also popular with the city’s expat Ecuadorian population; meanwhile, the more streamlined, aspirational quality of Dominican posters is connected to the genres of Merengue, Bachata and Reggaeton, which enjoy a level of crossover with a equally assimilated Puerto Rican audience. Hopes&Fears spoke to two poster designers, one who caters to a mostly Mexican public and another who works primarily for the Dominican market, to get the lowdown on this colloquial art form.
Photographs taken along Broadway, from Havemeyer Street to Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, October 22, 2015.
Latin club night posters are a form of vernacular design: they are typically produced “in-house,” which is to say through an informal network of venues, by designers who frequently moonlight as performers, or vice versa. Often, the entire production process occurs at the community level, even for major acts touring from the Caribbean, Central or South America. In many cases, a single individual working under the auspices of a titular production company is responsible for concept and execution.
Marketing and distribution, meanwhile, are handled by the club or party promoters—sometimes with the help of family, friends, and other community-based connections. Printing is carried out through neighborhood shipping and office supply shops. Posting on commercial storefronts and residential properties requires the permission of local landlords and business owners, who seal the deal with a handshake agreement. In these tight-knit diaspora circles, the distinction between personal and professional is a matter of interpretation.
The nature of the industry means that the majority of designers have no formal schooling or training. Whether they began as emcees, artists or just fans, most come to the profession through an existing interest in music. Royer Santos, the founder of the eponymous Royer Santos Media, is Colombian but has mainly Dominican clients. Santos says he learned everything he knows by doing online tutorials. He uses Photoshop for graphics and layout and Lightroom for color correction. Mario Kantun, a one-man operation who goes by Publicidades Kantun or Logos y musica sonidera, is Mexican and works within a native milieu, with many of his patrons coming from Fresno and Sacramento. In addition to Photoshop, he uses Corel Draw, Sony Vegas and Camtasia (he also makes promo and music videos in After Effects and Cinema 4D). Like Santos, Kantun is entirely self-taught.
He’s also a DJ who performs under the names Sonido Descarga Latina and Soramix. “I had a friend who was a designer. I would trade him songs I’d made or collected in exchange for his designs. But then we had a falling out and my pride kicked in,” he says, “I spent three years, little by little, learning to do my own thing.” Today, designing is his main source of income (he charges $25 per design). “It’s a full-time job. It pays the bills.”
Although the timeline varies, a poster is typically commissioned two weeks in advance of the date—a month, if the artist is big enough, explains Santos, “to give them more promotion.” For a larger show that takes place in a rental space, say, a theater or warehouse in neighboring Jersey City, approximately 3,000 to 5,000 copies are printed; for smaller affairs held at local venues, that number is probably closer to 1,000 to 2,000 copies.
Some music genres in Latin party flyers
Cumbia is a dance genre originating in Colombia and popular throughout Latin America. The subgenre Cumbia sonidera began in Mexico city's rough areas and is characterized by tropical rhythms and vocal delays. It has an instrumental focus, with simplified, repetitive lyrics.
Corrido is a narrative, poetic style deriving from Mexico that commonly takes the format of ballads. The lyrics are about the daily lives and hardships of the poor, and other socially conscious themes.
Merengue is a type of dance music originating in the Dominican Republic, which has become popular throughout Latin America and the United States. It is notable for its sensual rhythms and suggestive lyrics. The oldest stylistic variant, Merengue típico, is called perico ripiao, or “ripped parrot.”
Bachata is a balladic form from the Dominican Republic. It was originally derided as too vuglar and rustic by local elites. A typical ensemble consists of five components: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, electric bass guitar, bongos and the güira, a type of metal scraper used as a percussion instrument.
Reggaeton is hip-hop genre with roots in Caribbean music. It began in Panama, and has enjoyed widespread acclaim in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It incorporates influences from Jamaican dancehall and Trinidadian soca with Latino styles such as salsa, bomba, and electronica.
Different genres draw a different crowd. The Mexican scene is known for its all-ages vibe: married couples and entire families turn up to socialize and dance, and it’s not unheard of to spot little kids weaving through a standard big band gathering. The Dominican milieu more closely mirrors a typical clubbing experience in Williamsburg or the Meatpacking District: on a recent Saturday, packs of sharply dressed singles loosely segregated by gender lined up outside of one Bushwick hotspot, taking selfies or smoking cigarettes as they waited.
The posters also act as a promotional vehicle for the designers, who often insert their brand identities as conspicuously as possible at the bottom of the page. David Huerta, aka DJ Caluda, is an impresario of sorts, whose heavyset frame figures prominently in his designs, alongside a profusion of aggressive, symmetrical typefaces sporting the colors of the Mexican and Ecuadorian flags.
Otherwise, imagery is sourced from a variety of channels: stock photography, studio shoots and, inevitably, the dark corners of the internet. “The majority of clubs like it when I use models or go-go dancers. Some of them send photos. The rest I just find online,” says Santos. Kantun, too, crawls the web for source images, which he then collages together to make his psychedelic compositions. “I messed around with different software until I found my signature style. It’s really up to the individual’s imagination,” he says.
Mexican and Dominican
party flyers, compared
Maximal use of logos
Every inch is covered with imagery
Cartoon or superhero motifs
Liberal distribution of negative space
Generally speaking, Mexican posters are recognizable for their crowded quality, characterized by photo-ensembles of musicians and showgirls, along with disembodied logos liberal in their use of drop shadows, outer glows and novelty fills. The logofied aesthetic is directly influenced by subcultural fixations like superheroes and death metal filtered through the prism of the digital (it could be at home on VFiles or DIS).
But in order to fully appreciate their origins, you have to go back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—to Tepito, a historic barrio of Mexico City known to locals as “Little Puerto Rico” for the confluence of Caribbean genres such as Salsa and Matancera that thrived there, and Polymarchs, the iconic weekly rave that was recently the subject of a short documentary narrated by design legend Jaime Ruelas. Ruelas, the son of a watch repairman and a graduate of a polytechnic institute, whose interest in robotics and engineering informed his handmade technodystopian designs, was responsible for Polymarchs’ brand identity. The new generation of designers has lost the cyberpunk vibes but kept the counterbalanced symmetries of his original logo. (Kantun recalls seeing Ruelas’ flyers around the place, but couldn’t identify him as the artist.)
At the center of this ecosystem is the figure of the sonidero, a type of DJ or emcee particular to Mexican culture, who is known for giving shoutouts over the volume of the beat. The sonidero is a technician as well as an artist, a musical devotee who brings his sound system and archive of rare, collectible tracks with him to every gig. His stage is the outdoor ragers that typify the nightlife scene in the marginalized neighborhoods of Mexico City, moving outward to immigrant hubs like New York and Los Angeles.
Kantun, who comes from Peñon de los Baños on the northeastern outskirts of the capital, says the tradition runs in the family. The logos he designed for his outfits Sonido Descarga Latina and Soramix are an homage to the Colombian and Ecuadorian flags, which share a palette. The practice is a fairly common one: he gives the example of Sonido Pancho, an act based out of Tepito, who uses the colors of the Puerto Rican flag instead, in reference to the area’s nickname.
According to Kantun, a true sonidero is one who treats his craft like an investment, arriving and unloading early, keeping his equipment and discography meticulously organized, and above all else, bringing new or undiscovered sounds to the people. He is “obsessed” with having good audio quality and an impressive light show, as opposed to “the guy with the laptop, who just downloads everything from the internet.”
Kantun’s rationale is partly nostalgic: “There’s so much violence nowadays that they’re cracking down on events in the street. The sonidero as we know him is a dying breed.” He brings a similar obsessiveness to his design, adding that he started out making visuals for himself because he wanted a “more unique and cooler look” to stand out in the sea of competitors. But when it comes to business, Kantun says he prefers his American clients to the Mexican ones. “People in Mexico want everything for free,” he jokes.
If Mexican posters have traditionally stuck with a DIY aesthetic, their Dominican counterparts ascribe to the more polished, you might say, corporatized style of multilevel “bottle service” night clubs. The preferred look is something out of a Hype Williams video: liquid, glossy, quicksilver, with more subdued fonts (sans serif shows up now and then) and palettes (gunmetal, burgundy).
The guys wear fitteds, chains and nice sneakers, and style their hair in cornrows or fades; the girls are sexy in a Kardashian kind of way. Compared to their Mexican equivalents, Dominican posters are less inventive in their use of negative space, which could simply be because there’s more of it to go around.
This is in part perhaps due to the fact that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the most Americanized of New York’s Spanish-speaking groups. Dominican posters take many of their design cues from the nexus of pop culture and black music, in particular hip-hop and R&B. To anyone who has looked at them for long enough, one face is especially familiar—that of El Prodigio, a Merengue accordionist from the Dominican Republic, who lives up to his stage name for the truly prodigious number of gigs he books in the Tristate Area. (Another example is Ivy Queen, the Puerto Rican godmother of Reggaeton, who has achieved limited mainstream success collaborating with the likes of Fat Joe and Swizz Beats on her first English-language album.)
El Prodigio and Ivy Queen are the exception to the rule, in that they’re famous enough not to share billing with other artists. But, in general, the kind of shows that go on every week in hotspots like Club Republic on Broadway in Brooklyn and El Batey Lounge on Tremont in the Bronx are still package deals.
Designers like Santos often partner with medium-sized companies such as Linopress and Galant Graphics to print and canvass their work. As testament to their professionalization, Santos attributes a recent downturn in the industry to the growing practice of promoting solely on social media. “Right now, people are printing less posters,” he says. “They only do it for the most important parties.” Even then, you get the sense that the production of physical collateral will eventually become a ceremonial gesture (Santos has 6,389 and counting followers on Instagram).
The visual sensibility, meanwhile, follows a seasonal ebb and flow. In the fall and winter, when the events themselves become less numerous, their promotional materials adopt the chilled colorways of Bond and Marvel films. In the summertime, Santos says, he likes to use beaches, foliage and other tropical themes culled from the scene’s Caribbean roots as backdrops for his flyers. “They get the most attention,” he maintains.