Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
Jay Unidos has a rich history of participation in the Bay Area punk scene. He was one of the head bookers at Gilman, a shitworker at Maximum Rocknroll, and he created Urban Guerrilla Zine to document the local punk scene. The zine transformed from a general music-focused zine that was infused with punk politics to a photozine. Although the content of the zine shifted, the communal spirit remained: work with good friends who are active in the local scene and who bring a DIY punk spirit to making documentary photographs. The zine always includes engaging photos and reflects Jay’s effort to push the design in unique ways. It was fascinating to learn about Jay’s relationship to photography and how his work has changed, including how some of his routines surrounding show promotion shifted to create opportunities to document everyday life in the Bay Area.
Daniel: Can we start by talking about how you discovered punk?
Jay: I was pretty young the first time I became conscious of it. Elementary school, for sure. I have an uncle who was a DJ, and he had an impressive vinyl collection. I think during one of his gigs working at a local radio station, he started getting promos from record labels and he wasn’t a big fan of punk. He would set those aside. One day I was over at his house. I would always go over there and flip through his records. I saw these 7”s off to the side, and I started flipping through those. He came over and explained, “Ah, this is some stuff that I don’t care about. You can have it if you want; it’s punk rock.” He might’ve called it “new wave.” I don’t remember all the records, but for sure there were a couple of Clash 7”s. There might have been a Blondie 7”, and something else more local.
Daniel: Where did you grow up?
Jay: I grew up in Richmond, California. In the East Bay. I was into record collecting even before my uncle gave me those 7”s. Most of my aunts, uncles, and my mom… I didn’t realize it at the time, but they all had impressive record collections. Hundreds and hundreds of records. For years, I never met anyone else with record collections like that until I got deeper into the punk scene. That’s when I started meeting very young people with massive record collections, especially once I was at Maximum Rocknroll. Tim Yohannan would have been closer to the age of my aunts and uncles. “Okay, this is a thing.” I got into record collecting early. I started saving my money, whatever little allowance I got or my paper route money, and I’d go by vinyl. I already had a record collection going, which is one of the reasons I took an interest in those 7”s. I didn’t recognize the bands but liked the artwork for whatever reason. None of those records from my uncle had an impact on me until later, but that was the first I’d heard of punk.
Daniel: How soon after that before you started connecting with other kids who were also into alternative types of music?
Jay: In sixth grade I started meeting kids who were into music. They were aware of punk rock, but these kids would probably go on to be involved with the metal scene or something like that. For example, I wasn’t aware of AC/DC until I noticed some kids had AC/DC buttons. Also, I didn’t go directly into punk; that’s just not where I lived. A few years after that, a bunch of my friends and I started making trips to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. That’s when I became more aware: “Oh, there are punks. People dress a certain way. There are local punk bands.” That’s when it really started to happen. At the time if you lived in the East Bay outside of Berkeley—Richmond, El Cerrito, or even Oakland—you made that trek to Berkeley to Telegraph Avenue. All the record stores were there and that’s where everybody hung out. You’d often have to go to the import section. That’s where you found a lot of the punk records. That’s something I almost never talk about, and I think it’s partly because with all the contributors I have to my zine and all the time spent at Gilman, it’s so all ages. A lot of times I’m dealing with people who missed that. That reference would just go right over their heads.
Daniel: As someone who was younger and discovering this new scene, how did it feel? Did you feel safe or was there an edge?
Jay: I wasn’t intimidated. Well, not physically, anyway. But I was conscious right away of the way people dressed, their style. I would meet people whose musical knowledge was greater than mine, and that’s intimidating. They’re referencing bands or maybe even political subjects that I’m not getting. It took some time, but I caught up and then I probably became one of those people who intimidated other people. [laughs]
Daniel: What happened in terms of your punk rock life after this period that you just described? How do you become involved?
Jay: I don’t know that I was as involved as a lot of the kids who grew up in Berkeley. I don’t know if I had the luxury of being that involved with it. Going to Berkeley for me and my friends, especially for me and my brother, was an escape from our regular lives: not having food or being in a violent environment. I moved so much, but sometimes I lived in really bad neighborhoods. We adopted Berkeley and a lot of people just thought we were from Berkeley; that’s how often we were there.
I met Dave Chavez years later. He was the bass player in Sick Pleasure, Code Of Honor, and Verbal Abuse. It turned out that he had grown up around the block from my grandma’s house in Richmond. I don’t know how many times I must have passed by his house. He had a skate ramp in his backyard, and I probably heard some kids skating. I didn’t even think to go in that backyard because in Richmond you’re not going to just venture into someone’s yard. But he was hanging out in Berkeley so much that he became known as a Berkeley guy. No one thought of him as being from Richmond.
A lot of times when I’d go to the record store, I didn’t have any money. I’d be in the record stores every day, flipping through records; go to the bookstores to look through books; and hang out in arcades even though I didn’t have enough money to play video games. It was just better to be there in that environment than to stay home in Richmond. At the same time, there were some cool spots in Richmond; it has its own history. I loved wandering around there. I appreciate it more now, but at the time if you’d have given me the option to live in Berkeley by Telegraph Avenue, I would have taken it.
Daniel: When and how did you start working at Maximum?
Jay: I started volunteering at Maximum Rocknroll in the mid-to-late ’90s. A lot of the people you’ve interviewed from the Bay Area (Karoline Collins, Rob Coons, Mark Murrmann), most of us were there at Maximum Rocknroll at the same time. And a few others who do photozines as well. I think it’s sort of a theme of Urban Guerrilla, which is: I just continue to work with a lot of people I met in the local scene. I personally have VHS tapes from some really good shows at Gilman, like His Hero Is Gone, and you can see Rob on the stage. No camera. Rob started later with show photography and missing so many chances to take photos reminds me of myself. I booked hundreds of shows and I had cameras, but I didn’t take any show photos. Now I sort of regret it. I had a reason at the time: all these other guys were actual photographers like Murray Bowles and Sam Bortnick, who were friends and contributors to my zine. These guys have been taking photos for so long, shooting film and developing their negatives in a dark room. Doing it the proper way, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Just let them have their shine. I’m gonna give them the best spots to take the best photos. But I would always be thinking to myself, “I really should be taking photos” and I just didn’t do it.
Daniel: Let’s back up a bit, since we’re moving into a discussion of photography. How did that begin for you?
Jay: I never thought of myself as a photographer. In the ’90s I met a local artist, Valerie Adinolfi. She did the collage cover for Dead And Gone’s God Loves Everyone But You. I’d been doing collages for years. I was always into magazines and collected them. I would cut up the magazines and make collages, but I didn’t call them collages at the time. I would do my entire room, every wall except for the ceiling. I would leave it up for a few months and then I would take it down and do another one. I was basically making art installations. It was really awkward when I was younger because I shared a room with my brother, who didn’t share some of my same interests. Yet, I would still collage his side of the room.
When I met Valerie, she showed me her process of making collage and turning it into something you could hang in a show or that could become fine art. That was a big deal for me. Then she invited me to show some of my collages with her, which I did a couple of times. She was clipping images out of magazines, and I was doing the same. I had access to magazines from the ’60s and early ’70s. It was stuff that people wouldn’t instantly recognize, which was cool. It wasn’t like grabbing magazines from my own time, current magazines, and cutting them up to make collages.
At some point, I just felt like, “Man, I should just be using my own images.” I always had an interest in photography, so, “Why don’t I just take a bunch of photos? I’ll use my own images and incorporate some magazine stuff, too.” But I didn’t have a camera. I had another artist friend who lived down the street. I was talking to him one day, explaining that I wanted to take photos and make these collages using my own photos. He loaned me one of his cameras, a Minolta XE. I had that for a while, but he made it very clear that it was a loan. “I want that camera back.” I could never get comfortable with the camera, and I was afraid to take chances. I didn’t want to drop it. I didn’t even realize that it was a collectable camera at the time. It was just cool he loaned it to me.
Daniel: How old were you at this point?
Jay: Early twenties. I was in college at San Francisco State at the time. One day I was hanging out at my pad in Richmond. It was in this neighborhood where there was a lot of sketchy stuff going on. People who’d steal stuff to pay for their drug habits were always looking for fences. This kid was at my house and he saw the Minolta. “Oh, you collect cameras?” I was like, “Well, I borrowed this camera.” He said he had a camera. “I came across this camera and I’d like to sell it.” Although what he really wanted to do was trade it for weed, which is what we did. It was an Olympus OM-1. I’ve since bought another one, so I still use the same model today. I gave the Minolta back, and from there I really started shooting because I wasn’t afraid. I would take chances with the camera. I shot so many rolls of film. Of course, back then it was much cheaper to shoot film, much cheaper to develop film, but the downside was that I shot primarily to get images for collages. I didn’t think of saving photos. I didn’t come from a background where a lot of things were archived. For whatever reason I just didn’t value the prints, so I cut them all up. I barely saved the negatives. The only remnants of that period, as far as my photography goes, is whatever collages survived.
Daniel: Did this new approach to the collage work change your sense of self as a photographer? And can you describe the collages?
Jay: A 16” x 20” would be a smaller collage. I did bigger ones as well. That’s hundreds of photos that I cut up. Even when I was doing that, people would come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re a photographer?” No. No, I’m not a photographer. Photographers go to school, they have darkrooms, they make proof sheets. In my mind, these were the things you had to do to be a photographer. If you were not in the dark room developing your black and white photos, to me, you were something else.
I was learning about other collage artists. I started going to more art shows and learning about photographers as well. Somehow it all melded together and gave me my own style, or at least the way I see things. When a photo turns out the way I want it to turn out, it looks right to my eye because it has my sense of composition, which comes mainly from collage and painting. When I’m on the street, I look at things from a compositional standpoint, although by the time it gets into the zine… I crop some things. But if you see the full frame, I think it’s much easier to see that. Some of the details I might pull for zines are not always what I was trying to shoot when I was taking the photo. Does that make sense?
Daniel: Yeah, it does. The choices about how you will display something will affect what you do with the photograph. If you’re blowing it up to display on a wall, your work with the photo will be different than if you are posting it to Instagram. And posting to Instagram is different than putting it in a zine. The medium affects how photographers decide to work, which changes the image itself.
Jay: The first photo show I did was in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I hung some collage work in this café in Berkeley. I had two extra walls and I had these photos that were architectural. Architecture was a big influence on me at the time. I was going out at night taking photos of buildings around Telegraph Avenue. I would do crazy things, like scaling the sides of buildings somewhere where I could just balance the camera, and then somehow manage not to fall and kill myself, while self-timing stuff. If I had fallen, I would have totally fucked myself up. And then that would be the photo. It was a weird angle. It’s a shot of the building at a time of day when most people don’t see it. And if someone went back to that spot and thought, “Hey, I’m gonna get that photo, too.” Good luck. If you really want to climb and take the risks that I did then you could have that photo. That’s something I would never do today. I can’t afford to get hurt. [laughs]
I was looking at these architecture photos at 5” x 7”, and I was thinking, “These will look better if I blow them up to the size of the wall.” But I didn’t know how to do that. This was pre-internet. There’s a place in Berkeley called Looking Glass. It still exists, but it’s in a different location. I went in there, and they were like, “You have to send it to Kodak. They’ll blow it up and this is how much it’ll cost.” Today, it probably wouldn’t seem like that much, but for me, at that time, it was sort of a ridiculous cost. I blew up two photos and they were giant.
And then, I don’t know why I didn’t just hang the photos [laughs], but in my mind this is an art show, so I have to frame them. Well, how do you frame photos that large? Down the street from the café there was a glazier. They were like, “Well, we could just cut some glass to the size that you’re giving us. I don’t know how you’re going to mount it.” I had them cut these huge pieces of glass, but it wasn’t framing glass. They were like car window pieces of glass with all the different layers, and they were heavy. I started asking around, since there were so many artists in South Berkeley at the time. Although they didn’t understand how heavy the glass was, someone suggested a way that I could sort of mount the photos using clamps. I did it and we had the show. The show was supposed to be up for a month. Halfway through, the inevitable happened: those clamps gave way because the glass was too heavy. They fell off the wall and scared the hell out of a bunch of customers who were in the café. But we survived the opening. [laughs]
Most of the people who attended those openings were other artists from the area. A lot of them just kept coming up to me to compliment me, concentrating on the photography. They were ignoring the collage work. “No, you’re a photographer. You should keep doing this. We love that you blew these photos up. They’re so much more powerful.” Then they had some advice: “Also, don’t frame them. This idea you had about framing is a bad idea.” Even then I didn’t decide that I’m going to be a photographer. I still deferred to people who had gone to school and were trying to make it as professional photographers.
Daniel: I find it interesting that people were digging the photography, but you seemed to distrust the praise.
Jay: When I started hanging collages in art shows, other artists were like, “That’s kind of quick because you just started learning to make these types of collages.” But I had been doing it for ten to fifteen years. As I said earlier, I was doing the walls in my bedroom. I might have been eight or nine years old when I discovered Lowrider magazine and Teen Angels magazine. This is an important part about being appreciative of how I grew up in Richmond; those particular magazines were part of that culture. I was putting those images on all my walls and doing it in a very specific manner. I remember thinking the work was good because my older cousins would come over and they were living that life. They would say, “Who did this for you? You didn’t do this by yourself.” In my mind, that’s pretty good because they didn’t think I was old enough to do it that well. So, I was on the right track. I’d been at it for so long that I felt pretty confident hanging work in art shows from the beginning. And I sold work early on.
But, again, hanging photos? “That’s ridiculous. Why would I just hang photos?” If I could put the photography together with other stuff then I felt like, “Okay, this works with this show and somehow these things go together.” There was no real connection, because the photos I would take for collages were very different from those large format architectural photos. The photos I used for collages were mainly of people. Kind of like the photos I use in the zine, or street level stuff.
Daniel: These stories provide interesting biographical contexts. Let’s jump ahead to talk about your approach to photography in the present, since you clearly got over the hump and started to see yourself as a photographer.
Jay: One of the things I was known for in the scene was flyering more than anyone. I mention flyering because that’s how I got into the habit of walking the streets. If I was counting steps then, I probably would’ve had thirty thousand steps every time I went out flyering. When that stopped—it took me a little while, but I decided—I’m going to bust all my cameras back out. I’m still going to get out there, on the streets, but I’m going to replace this one thing with another thing. I’ll take photos. So many times, I would be flyering late at night or really early in the morning and I would see some crazy shit. I used to think, “I wish I had a camera with me. I need to remember to bring a camera.” I ended up replacing the staple guns with a camera bag. That’s basically how I got started. It took me a while to get back into the swing of things, to rediscover my eye. I had to get comfortable with the idea of taking photos as well as deciding what I want to take photos of and what I don’t want to take photos of.
I hit the city for photowalks, where the goal is to be there, walk, and take photos. I’m taking photos and putting my zine stickers up everywhere. I try to put myself in different neighborhoods and in different situations where I can get the kind of street photos I want. I also try to remember little things I’ve learned along the way, like sometimes if I see a good shot I’ll think, “Keep walking forward. Don’t just take the easy shot.” What I’m really interested in might be something in the middle of the composition. Basically, taking three or four steps forward before I take the photo. It’s all a learning process, trying not to give into your nerves.
These are lessons I’ve had to learn. If I’m in the Tenderloin or the less gentrified parts of the Mission, getting close to some of these subjects or scenes might make me a little nervous at times. Maybe it’s from growing up in Richmond and having the knowledge of what can happen on those streets. Another big lesson to learn is that sometimes the photos don’t turn out, which is always a bummer when you feel like you’ve taken this big risk. During all those times I’ve only had one person confront me. That was in the Tenderloin. It was an older gentleman. I think he was trying to get close enough to land a punch. I kept moving around in a way that I knew he wasn’t ever going to touch me. But I do remember thinking right after that, “Wow! It finally happened. Someone was finally confrontational about the fact that I walked next to them and took a photo.” It’s appropriate that it would happen in the Tenderloin.
Daniel: Do you think the confrontation stemmed from you making the photo? Or do you think the challenge was a product of you being in his space? There are some people who would get in fights with their own shadows, so you could have encountered a guy like that.
Jay: It was a combination of both. Related to what I was saying earlier, I probably had the photo already from a certain distance, but I tried to walk forward five steps, then take it. I think it was the process of walking forward, and I shoot with an Olympus OM-1N, which has a loud clap. Being so close and the sound of the camera taking the photo might’ve snapped him out of whatever state he was in, and he channeled all this aggression at me. He chased me a little bit. He didn’t run at me, but he was really going to punch me. I just didn’t give him that angle and eventually I walked away from him when I realized he’s just never going to give up. I walked around the block and lost him. The camera shop I was trying to get to (Glass Key) was right there. I didn’t want him to see me go inside because then he could follow me in and corner me.
But I want to add that there are certain things I just don’t take photos of. Everyone knows there is a lot of homelessness in San Francisco and in the East Bay. If I wanted to just take photos of homeless encampments and people living on the street, I could shoot roll after roll. I could fill up memory cards. I don’t do that; it’s just not my thing. But for the type of photos that I want to take, I try to put myself in the right neighborhoods at the right moments.
Daniel: I’d like to shift to a discussion of the zine. How did it start? How has it changed over time?
Jay:Urban Guerrilla Zine started in 1997, in Oakland. And it went pretty consistently until about 2006 or 2007. I got up to about issue sixteen at that point. The first few issues of Urban Guerrilla Zine would probably be more comparable to local East Bay zines like Absolutely Zippo! I’d cut and paste and lay it out in a copy shop. There’d be pages out of order and upside down. The only thing that really made it unique for the time, maybe, was that there was a lot of political content, which other zines didn’t really have. They were more music-based, punk scene focused. We had that as well, but also incorporated some politics. I wasn’t doing it to have a long-running zine. There was never an idea that we’d sell more than ten or twenty of these at a time, but we came at the tail end of a zine boom in the East Bay.
By about the third issue, I was printing hundreds of copies. I remember the first time I went to Cody’s Books on Telegraph with an issue of the zine. It might have been issue two. The buyer took five copies, and it was like, “These will sell. Come back when you make another one.” I went back with the next issue, and he took thirty copies. I was blown away. “Thirty copies!? Really?” He said, “Yeah. When they sell, bring more. Or when you make another issue.” I had a copy shop hook up at the time, so I was very fortunate. I was able to make almost as many issues as I wanted at the time. Then I came with the third issue, and he took even more. I kept questioning him. “Are you sure we’re gonna sell these?” He kind of just threw his arms up: “I don’t know, man. I can’t tell you why, but people like it; they sell.” Telegraph Avenue was such a destination spot at the time and people would come from different parts of the Bay Area. They wanted that culture and the zine movement was hot.
Urban Guerrilla Zine had a big contributor list because I always wanted it to be more inclusive. There were times when we’d have groups of contributors in a room. People would be stopping by my pad with photos or interviews, other stuff, or just hanging out while I put it together. The weird part about that now, if someone is just coming into Urban Guerrilla Zine as a photozine, they might not realize that if you go back to issues fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, that zine was more similar to Razorcake or Maximum Rocknroll than it is to the zine that I do now: glossy cover, full size, five or six band interviews, columns, top ten lists, record reviews, zine reviews, book reviews, video reviews.
The original idea was: “We’re really here, we’re really doing it. By the punks, for the punks.” But at some point, I started to ask myself, “Is it still by the punks, for the punks?” It was mainly just Matt Average in L.A. and me in East Oakland trying to put this zine together with all this expectation that it’s going to be a certain way but no one’s around anymore. I was also booking so many shows at the time, and I decided that I couldn’t do both. So, the zine went on hiatus for years. Every time I booked a show, it would be UGZ Presents, which is Urban Guerrilla Zine Presents. That was my way of keeping it alive.
Daniel: What led to the shift to a photozine?
Jay: It wasn’t until 2015 at the urging of Pat Libby, who’s a contributor to the zine and currently makes the mixtapes. He was also a booker and jack of all trades at Gilman. Everything with the zine is interconnected. He was booking a bunch of cool punk and experimental hardcore shows in the back room of 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland. And he would occasionally book art shows. He’d done one with Karoline and Rob and not long after he offered me the opportunity to put something together. I think it was initially just supposed to be me, but any time someone gives me that offer I’m like, “Well, I’ll take this wall and then I’ll just bring in a bunch of people to fill up the other walls.” He urged me to make a zine for the show, and I put together a zine pulling photos and interviews from past issues. It was half-size, so I took stuff from these full-size glossy, well laid out zines, and I turned that into a cut and paste zine for the show. I thought, “Well, maybe this will be it.” But for whatever reason I decided, “Okay, I’m back in. I’m gonna do this again, but I’m not going to do it the same as before.” I was still collecting zines, including photozines.
And I was going to art shows where people were hanging snapshot-style photos taken with point and shoot film cameras. The people in the shows were shooting with cheaper cameras than the ones I use. They’d make these zines for the openings, and I was like, “I see what they’re doing. I can do this.” I think the only advantage I thought I had was I could lay my zines out a little bit better. A lot of times they’re just dropping photos in to fill up pages. And there’s no thought given to the actual layout, how one page relates to another, and an overall narrative theme. I’m always thinking about these things, whether someone catches it or not, that’s something I’m definitely trying to do with every issue. From 2015 on, that’s basically the version of the zine that you’re seeing now. It’s mostly photos, although in the previous issue (#25) we included an interview with Rogers & Rosewater. They are a mutual aid group that comes out of West Oakland Punks With Lunch, which was started by Ale, who is a former Gilman booker. I liked that interview, and maybe I’ll do more of that in the future. But I doubt we’ll ever go back to band interviews or doing record reviews.
Daniel: I discovered the zine during your second run. You have talked about sequencing and design. I want to talk more about this general theme. Is it more difficult for you to create a clear narrative when you’re working with multiple photographers?
Jay: For the last issue (#26), I invited a bunch of people to be a part of it, but it only ended up being me and Karoline Collins. What’s weird about that is that we both walk similar neighborhoods in the city a lot. I think we had some similar photos. After I saw the photos she gave me, I was able to go through my own photos and do some editing. I’m not going to use food on the street photos that I’ve taken because she has food on the street photos. Obviously, I don’t have Robert Collins. [laughs] It’s a big advantage to have him as your model. The photos I used could look really random and snap-shoty, which is something a lot of people look down on, but I have hundreds of those photos. I narrowed down to the particular shots; they are the exact ones I wanted, laid out the exact way I intended.
The zines are really capturing where I’m at during a particular time. It’s very personal. Sometimes people give me a hundred images and I might use five of them. Or sometimes they give me five and then I use two. The way it’s laid out is kind of the message I’m trying to convey. Even though I’m taking from multiple sources, it’s all interconnected. The biggest influence on me in terms of laying out the zine is art shows: the way good art shows are hung when there’s a theme, how pieces relate to one another. Well-done photo shows. Well-done art shows. I’m also a big fan of cinema. That was my major in college, so I do see things that way as well.
I’m not trying to showcase photographers that went to art school for photography, who hope to one day be in museums or have careers as photographers. All of my contributors come from the punk scene. A lot of the people who contribute to this zine have done their own zines. I think Karoline mentioned this to me in an email recently: since she’s been contributing to the zine, she’s more conscious when she goes out on the streets to have her camera ready to take some shots. A lot of things that might have just been like snapshots—street stuff, food on the street, or whatever—she’s now thinking in terms of maybe this could be in a zine. “Maybe this is something Jay could use.” I feel like if I’m doing that for a bunch of the people who contribute to the zine, that’s a positive thing.