Two of the first people I can remember becoming friends with in the low-key New Orleans punk scene of the ‘90s were Carl Elvers and Leandre Steve Williams, Jr.—a.k.a. Steve “What Style.” As far as “punks” go, Carl and Steve defied all of the usual stereotypes. Carl was kind of like a regular older dude, a bearded Wooderson, except he chased after records instead of high school girls. Where Carl was tall and laid back, his friend Steve was almost the opposite: quite a bit shorter, and built like a bowling ball covered in psychobilly flash art, with a thick, all-natural Y’at accent to boot. While they were both already entrenched vets of the NOLA underground community, I was but a young backpack-toting emo nerd. They could’ve been huge dicks to me.
Instead, they were friendly from the get-go, and their tag-team efforts—Carl booking shows in the living room of his Lower Garden District apartment complex, and Steve drawing the fliers—drew me into the orbit of a small, but passionate DIY scene. I was even invited in on the action and helped out with an all-day Austin band fest, hosted in the scorching concrete backyard of a Kenner townhouse. It was one of my first tastes of the production lifestyle, and it was life-changing. Fast forward several decades, and you can still find Carl and Steve hanging out at punk shows, definitely not sneaking in beers from an outside cooler (and me as well, definitely not accepting offers of said non-existent beers).
In all that time, Steve’s art has permeated New Orleans like a kaleidoscoping network of neon scars. His indefatigable style—harsh, expressive lines; grossly exaggerated features; and yes, even his hallmark chilly nipples—has crossed through genre after genre, from hip-hop to old country, ska punk to Top 40. This month, Steve is celebrating a lifetime of work with the release of What Style New Orleans! The Art Adventure of… L. Steve Williams, Jr. (issued by Zing Publishing). The book is over 300 pages of artwork, spanning the decades and encompassing everything from rough sketches to commissioned works for the United Houma Nation. I sat down with Steve at his house in Metairie one quiet Sunday afternoon to talk about everything from growing up in Southeast Louisiana to his involvement with the Houma tribe. Like Steve himself, his house is tidy, yet intense, a suburban facade with a funhouse interior, where the warped perspective of his artwork extends into window frames that jut out at odd angles, memorabilia that dots every surface, and most intriguingly, a playful—and quite hairless—sphynx cat named Elvis.
I noticed in the intro to your book that you talk about growing up at the end of the Vietnam era. You were in school for that?
Steve Williams: Yeah, coming into the ‘70s I was in elementary school.
And you were living in the area?
Actually, I was living in Kenner. They’d just built that subdivision, University City. It was made basically for a lot of Vietnam vets, housing that was affordable, sort of. They built a new subdivision, so you had a very diverse neighborhood— that’s why they called it University City. But it was still… they didn’t like Blacks, Spanish, Asian—anything but what you’d call white. But that’s how it was. And in schools when they would fight, especially when you got a little older, like 5th, 6th grade, it all changed and the Blacks were fighting the whites and all the others were like “come fuck with us.”
And you were one of the others?
Yeah, I was one of the others! I wasn’t really white. I was Native-American but really wasn’t piecing that all in as a kid. You don’t grasp race unless however your family is bringing you up. So you’re kinda like, What the hell’s going on? Why are they fighting?
I had to fight every bully in every school. Here I am looking like Juan Epstein with a big fro and wearing rock’n’roll shirts, and they’re looking at me like “what the hell?”
No, because the thing with our family: it wasn’t talked about because back then you had a lot of prejudice and injustice done to you, so my family didn’t say much. It was unknown. I didn’t learn more about it until my 20s. They would lock you up, further down South. I had an uncle put in prison; they said he murdered somebody. He did 35 years in Angola for a murder he didn’t commit. And then going from seven different schools because my parents were divorced, I had to fight every bully in every school. Here I am looking like Juan Epstein with a big fro and wearing rock’n’roll shirts, and they’re looking at me like “what the hell?” It was a very strange culture shock to me. I’ve always been the oddball kid. Going through all these different cultures of Louisiana, all these different schools, you see the hicks, you see the rednecks, from the poorest of the poor all the way to the richest of the rich. I kind of zig-zagged through that culture as a kid.
When did you join the Marines? Was that out of high school?
No, I went to college at Nicholls State but I was going through all the pre-req and I really wasn’t feeling it. I was just partying, having a good time, barely passing. I wasn’t into it. So I did a year. I was still working. I worked for Popeye’s Fried Chicken. I was an assistant manager, a store-opening specialist. They’d send me to different states to open up stores. I was just lost. I thought, there’s more to life than this. So I said fuck it: I joined the Marine Corps. I wanted to get out of the United States. So I went to Europe. I was stationed in England, in a resort town called Newquay in Cornwall, way at the bottom. It was a surfing town, so I learned how to surf in England! It was crazy. When I went to England, I was like “Where the punk rockers at?” They were like, we’re a little bitty town, that’s all in London (and London is about an eight hour drive, maybe). And when I got to London to see the punk stuff, they wouldn’t let you in. They knew automatically you were a Marine or a military guy from the haircut and just the way we carried ourselves. So I had to stand outside and watch the punk bands play.
One of the most surprising parts of your book is where you talk about all the people who came through the Pontchartrain Hotel where you worked, like everyone from Malcolm McDowell to Nirvana.
The Pontchartrain Hotel had the Bayou bar and all these people would come in, going back to the ‘20s. That was the hip place. And all of these famous musicians would play. Like Allen Toussaint used to pull up in his Rolls-Royce, right in front. He’d go sit in there, have drinks, and then play. It was mainly an older, martini-drinking or straight gin crowd, and here I am at the front door meeting all these people… That was when we had a lot of Lollapalooza people coming through. I had punk rockers come by and say hi. I’m in my little bellman monkey suit and they’d come by and see me or they’d come asking for me because they were looking for Carl or they were staying at his house. And one day my manager came down and Henry Rollins was sitting in a chair. She goes, “Come here: what did I tell you about having your punk rock friends hanging out over here?” I said, “that’s Henry Rollins. He’s staying here!” [laughs]
Your work is so prolific, how did you choose what was going to be in the book and what was not? That must have been a chore.
Yeah… I’m kind of organized. I put things yearly in a folder and I put it in a box after I’m done. It’s like my vault of clip art. I have a lot of fliers. I tried to put as many as I had… When I was digging through it I got to ’99, 2000 when my life [reached] a really pivotal point. I had a little breakdown so I just stopped doing fliers. I couldn’t keep up. I realized how many I was doing: five a week, and this was going on and on. Especially when I picked up working with Devil Dolls [Booking, run by Deborah Toscano]. She had all these shows coming in. With me, I stay productive and I know how hard it is to ask somebody, hey, can you make me a flier? And they’re like, aw, when I get to it. Next thing you know, it’s the night of the show and he’s giving you the flier. When people worked with me, they knew at least—hey Steve, can you do this? And it’s done. And while I was at the hotel, it was like: OK, it’s not only drawn, here’s a thousand of eight-and- a-half-by-elevens and here’s the handbills. I had it all cut down! How punk rock is that?
You said you took a break. How long did that last? I can’t recall a time where you weren’t doing stuff.
I just stopped with the fliers. I got married, and my wife was going through a lot of issues and then my best friend killed himself. And then she left the next week. So the rug was pulled out and I was like what the fuck?
What was your way to get back into a healthy, creative output mindset?
I just kept drawing, listening to music. That was really the only thing that kept me going: come home, do it. Or go out to a bar, sit and have drinks, and draw. And if I didn’t have my friends and doing stuff in the music industry here, I just stuck to my guns. I didn’t think about what everybody else was thinking about. Just tried to tune myself in and get myself back to where I needed to be and it was really, really rough. But that’s what all the songs are made about and that’s what all the art’s drawn about.
Looking back on the earlier work, what’s a critique of yourself as a younger artist?
[long pause] It was good shit, I mean it was just quick-drawn. I don’t know, proofread or something like that! But I’m very dyslexic. I’m dyslexic bad to where the words are backwards. I guess it’s kind of why my art has a strange perspective. My vision is really bad. I can only read for a certain amount and then the words start moving and turning.
I thought it was hilarious that in the intro to your book, you say something about “nipples and more nipples!” And that’s kind of your trademark, for better or worse. What’s up with that?
Yeah, it’s kind of funny. Deborah from Devil Dolls would chew my ass out! I’m just drawing pictures for punk bands, you know what I mean? I’m cranking these things out. She’s like, “why you gotta put nipples on everything?” I said “Deborah, look at the piece, how it pulls you in.” I said, “When you come out the womb, you go right for the food source. And everybody likes ‘em.” If you look at the history of punk rock art, you know… It’s to provoke thought… It’s that whole 15 seconds of looking at it. But it’s going to make you look at it again. Like Robert Crumb, he’s one of my favorites… I got a painting with 71 vaginas no one knows about until I point it out to them. Look deeper, you know?
How did you get involved with the United Houma Council?
It’s kind of funny, I was working for the company I do artwork for and they came in to get some shirts done. They said they were United Houma Nation and I said I was, also. So I went to a meeting and I said I’ll do whatever you need… They killed off the United Houma Nation tribe to less than 90 members. This was going through the 70s. They didn’t allow them to go into American schools until 1966. There were still bounties on them. They wanted that land for the oil, like they’re doing now at Standing Rock. I got involved when I started doing all the artwork and got involved. Our symbol is the crawfish: that’s our war symbol (because we’re still at war with the United States).
As an illustrator and as somebody with Native American heritage, what’s your take on the whole sports logo thing?
It’s kind of ironic that you’re gonna take, but you still hate the people. Even the Houma police, their logo is an Indian head but they don’t like Indians down there. You go to the gas station, there’s still a list of names, “Stay off this property,” on the wall. It’s really crazy.
You’ve had a prolific career so far but what are some things still on your wish list?
The things I want to do are bigger than me, so I need to get people with me, such as welders. I’m going to take a month and a half off and I’m gonna go figure out a lot of things, come back, and work it all out. I would like to build a monument, like a mobile to put on Veterans Highway by the Blue Dog or over here, whoever’s gonna buy the thing. I’m doing a small one, it’s going in my front yard. It’s going to be a mock-up. A band, maybe? It’s lonely doing artwork by yourself, when it’s just you and your thoughts. It’s easier when you have a group of people to bounce ideas off of. It helps the creative process. I don’t know… I take it year by year, emotion by emotion.
Steve Williams will be debuting What Style New Orleans! The Art Adventure of… L. Steve Williams, Jr. at his annual event, the 504 Rock Art Circus, with Durel Yates of Suplecs, Reverend Spooky LeStrange, and many more performers and artists on Saturday, November 12th at WHIV Studios, 2762 Orleans Ave. For more info, check out 504whatstyle.com