December 18th, 2010 by Janelle Blarg
There are generally three revelations that people experience when first discovering Shawn Kerri:
1. The first one is that a lot of your favorite early punk art is all drawn by the same person. I had them safety-pinned to the back of my jacket and so did you. The Germs mohawk skull busting out of the circle? Shawn Kerri. The Circle Jerks skanking guy? Shawn Kerri. The names of other artists from the same era have endured — Pettibon, Pushead, Mad Marc Rude — but, for some reason, Shawn Kerri remains more obscure. She was as prolific as these other more notorious artists and, for me personally, her art resonated more with the things that I like best about punk — action, humor, and being a fucked up kid. So, why isn’t Shawn more well known? One possible contributing factor to her lack of recognition could be that she didn’t fight tooth and nail over copyrights. Around 1986, when the Circle Jerks began pining for mainstream success, their agent and record label decided that they owned the rights to the skanking kid image and shouldn’t pay Shawn. Rather than deal with legal battles and mangled friendships, she just let it go and signed the rights over to Keith Morris. The current day skank kid is a bastardized commercial version of her original art.
2. The second revelation is that Shawn Kerri is not a dude. Born Shawn Maureen Fitzgerald in 1958 near San Diego, Shawn Kerri was a part of the late ’70s, early ’80s Southern California punk scene. During the same period that she was drawing punk flyers and publishing a fanzine called Rude Situation (with one-time boyfriend, Mad Marc Rude), she was also contributing regularly to a multitude of magazines and underground comic anthologies. Among notable publications like (Mad magazine posers) CRACKED magazine, Hustler, and early Last Gasp titles like Cocaine Comics and Commies from Mars, she most consistently contributed to the seminal hot rod and humor magazine CARtoons. During their first meeting, CARtoons’ editor, Dennis Elferson, initially tried to send Shawn Kerri away at the door due to her lacking the Y chromosome needed to draw hot rods. But one look at her outstanding portfolio shut his mouth. Not only was she skilled at drawing muscle cars, she was also into driving them and owned a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air (which she used to drive her band The Dinettes to the infamous Western Front festival at the Deaf Club in San Francisco in 1979).
Comics, punk, and cars — all heavily dude-dominated domain and Shawn Kerri ruled them all with her superior art. Although her drawing style is actually kind of conventional in certain ways, with her use of hard black lines and anatomically straightforward characters, her drawings still convey the rawness and wild vibe of some looser, more stylized cartoonists. This is due in part to dynamic posing and the frenetic details that always make her comics come alive with chaos, violence, and fun, like a gutterbound Jack Davis, but it’s also due to something more intangible, an essential genuineness.
3. The third realization is that Shawn Kerri is dead. No, wait — she’s alive! No, sorry, she’s dead. No, wait … There has been decades worth of chatter about whether or not Shawn Kerri is dead, with people on either side of the debate swearing first or second hand knowledge one way or the other. Spread all willy nilly across the internet, there are people who claim she OD’d in the late ’90s (including credible sources like her former CARtoons colleague, George Trosley) and then there are alleged sightings of her like she’s a goddamn Bigfoot, people claiming to have hung out with her on the beach and so forth. On the Gig Posters message board, one thorough-as-a-motherfucker Nancy Drew wannabe claims to have searched the US Social Security death database in ’09 and did not find a Shawn Fitzgerald or a Shawn Kerri listed as deceased. Of all of these accounts, the one that rings the most true to my ears is from Carl Schneider, who did a magazine called Black Market and is currently making a documentary about Mad Marc Rude. Apparently, Carl went to Shawn Kerri’s mother’s house around 2004 and found Shawn there. The story is that she is battling horrible health issues—the most serious being severe brain damage from a spill down the stairs and that she is not really there any more and can scarcely communicate. Is it true or just another Bigfoot footprint? I say it’s probably true, although it would be nice to believe otherwise.
I don’t know that there is anything I could say to do appropriate justice to her legacy. There are a lot of other stories to dig up about Shawn Kerri that I haven’t even touched on — including her working on boats, being a junkie, and a story from Fucked Up & Photocopied where she pulled a sword out of her trunk to fight some skinheads. Extreme rumors are the hallmark of a bone fide bad ass and among all of the stories about her, it’s only right that Shawn Kerri should have the last word here:
“I’ve never gotten the same thrill out of having one of my cartoons printed in a magazine as much as seeing one of my old fliers — something I did for a punk gig the week before — laying in the gutter. Seeing it all mashed and dirty thrilled me, because that was how I was living, too. It looked exactly like my life.”
—from Paul Grushkin’s Art of Rock book