Back in the late 1970s, the hip kids were scurrying around collecting fliers announcing the shows of LA’s new breed of punk bands. But one of the members of the very bands which was causing all the buzz was collecting fliers of a different sort. Don Bolles, famed as the drummer for the seminal punk band The Germs, and later 45 Grave and others, was busy amassing what may be the world’s largest collection of lost pet fliers. Accumulated from the late 1970s through the 80s, his archive reveals the curious amalgam of pathos and absurdity that lies at the center of society’s relationship to domestic animals. An unstudied form of street art, Bolles’s lost pet fliers provide an open window into connectivity, loss, and despair, and a few hundred of them are now on exhibit at the Rat Factory in what amounts to the most affecting show of outsider art in LA thus far this year.
The fliers are displayed in the gallery in groups according to pet type, with separate walls for dogs and cats, small sections for birds and other miscellaneous animals, and an otherwise blank section of wall set aside for a single, hand drawn announcement on cardstock for a lost guinea pig. As a collection, the group is marked by the same crude, DIY aesthetic as the era’s early punk fliers–poorly photocopied, hand lettered, and often hand drawn–and it was this quality which attracted Bolles to them:
I saw the lost pet fliers as one of the last remaining forms of functional folk art around. Sometimes inadvertently hilarious, sometimes abysmally depressing, often both at once, they express an unpretentious humanity generally lacking in the modern world. Nothing short of the loss of a beloved pet could have forced so many decidedly non-creative types (and others) to pick up a magic marker and some scotch tape in order to make a persuasive visual statement that might lead to their loved one’s safe return.
Bolles mostly collected the fliers here in Los Angeles, but would also pick them up while his bands were on tour, so the display includes pet announcements from both East and West Coasts. Always gregarious, he happily leads a tour through the pained hearts of deprived pet owners, narrating some of his personal favorites, and adding in his own commentary:
Here, this guy is describing his dog–“Drools and snores.” Well, duh, he’s a dog! . . . Look at this one, this whippet has a hand drawn cartoon balloon coming out of its mouth that says, “Please, mercy.”. . . Lost Chihauhua, answers to the name of “Pig” . . . “Flaw” on left side of nose”–what kind of flaw? . . . Oh, I love this one–“Can be aggressive when excited. Likes to shake hands.” Why would I want to shake his hand when you just told me he is aggressive? . . . About half of them claim the animal is desperately sick or needs medicine–well, that’s probably why the pet is missing, right? It’s probably dead somewhere of some disease, but the guy who owns it just refuses to admit that. Here’s one for a dog that says, “Small fatty lump on one breast. Spurky.”–what does spurky mean? Is that his name, or is it describing the lump?
Over time, friends, aware of the growing collection, started to bring fliers to Bolles, and he has multiples of many of them, including some that exist both in English and Spanish versions, and even one in Portuguese. One of the announcements, for a dog named Cho Cho, got him on the television news.
I was at a Survival Research Labs show in San Francisco, and I had just pulled the flier for Cho Cho off a telephone pole. I turned around and a TV news crew was there, and they asked what I thought of the show. I told them, “I am not here for the show, I am here looking for my dog Cho Cho, and held the flier up to the camera. I am terribly worried about him, with this horrible show going on, and all this fire and these strange machines and robots, he will be terrified, and could get hurt or even killed out here. Please, if anyone has seen Cho Cho, call this number on the flier,” and they broadcast this over the news. Who knows, maybe I helped the guy get his dog back that night.
As a connoisseur primarily interested in the expressive quality of lost pet announcements, Bolles lost interest in the medium after the late 80s. By that time, the nature of the fliers had changed, and they had begun to lose their expressive impact. But the Golden Age of lost pet fliers still lives on in his personal archives.
Yeah, these are a real window back in time to something that no longer exists. I stopped collecting them towards the end of the 1980s. By then, lost pet fliers started to become too slick looking, and they lost their appeal to me. There was actually a service you could hire at that time, they had premade templates for lost pet fliers, and they started to look like advertising fliers. They just didn’t have the same quality. Of course, that was followed by the arrival of personal computers, which further undermined what had once been a fertile field of individual creative endeavor. But like I have said, these older fliers, the vintage ones, they are truly a form of unstudied folk art.
Rat Factory (upstairs at Glitter Death)
1443 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Through August 8 (or thereabouts)