A Blank Slate: Reforming the Punk Scene
Blank Slate is tucked between a set of train tracks and a series of luminous street lights in the center of Elyria, Ohio. Inside, the walls are lined with chalkboards leading down a narrow room toward a stage. It’s close to 7 p.m. and the venue’s operations manager, Eddy Marflak, is already running around preparing for the show. A small but personable concert venue, Blank Slate has been around for a little more than a year and is gaining traction among the punk music community in Cleveland.
The first time I was there, I noticed the environment was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before in such a venue. A calmness exuded from it, as well as a welcoming affirmation. I’d heard of Blank Slate before and knew they identified themselves as a “Safer Space,” which distinguishes it from other places. When you go to each specific Facebook event, you get a bit more detail. At the bottom of each line up, a statement reads, “And as always, no drugs, no booze, no BS.”
Eddy radiated a constant energy throughout the show. Never missing a beat, he made sure everyone was taken care of. Everyone around town pretty much knows Eddy and the hard work he puts into the venue and his community. He, and the rest of his staff, have worked tirelessly to make this space a reality. It is apparent to anyone who sees him during a show that he puts his guests first: the staff, the bands and the crowd.
I returned to Blank Slate about a month after my first visit to talk to Eddy and learn about him, how he got into this business and about his path leading up to Blank Slate. Marflak began by telling me about how he has been playing in bands and has been part of the scene for a while now between different cities. He shared that in the past he had been involved with other venues that promote an audience of all ages, as well as dry shows and all around safer atmospheres. When he moved to Elyria, he and his bandmates tried to get involved with the concert community there by finding a popular venue to go to.
“It was cool, but it was kind of a party place, you know? A lot of drinking, a lot of just smashing bottles against the side of the building...I heard a few bands were saying there were some racist, sexist comments being made by concert goers,” Marflak says. This is not something unusual in many punk venues. There has been a lot of criticism and cultural commentary expressing how the punk scene today tends to fuel a lot of negative energy, which often takes the form of physical and sexual harassment and discrimination. He added, “It was kind of a community where they thought they wouldn’t be ostracized for saying that kind of stuff.”
Marflak’s definition of D.I.Y. culture is that it’s a “leveraging tool” for the creators and artists that want to express themselves beyond the boundaries of bureaucratic and institutional roadblocks. “D.I.Y.” stands for “Do it Yourself” and is a name that defines any kind of self-made art, music and entertainment that people are able to create without having to go through an institution. This is what the D.I.Y. music community strives for in Cleveland, and everywhere.
“If someone tells you no, then do it somewhere else, do it yourself,” Marflak says. However, he explains that there have been growing problems with this model. He says, “It far too often becomes a closed circle. It’s a tight knit community, but there’s no challenging opinions.”
Marflak says it’s important for these people running these D.I.Y. spaces to be asking themselves what they’re exactly doing to make sure the space is inclusive and safe for everyone.
Marflak told me that after a while he returned to Elyria and he and his friends decided to start their own venue. One of Marflak’s friends expressed this idea via a Facebook status, and that’s how it all began. Along with co-founders Shaun Sterk, Kevin Gilfether, Jackie Noga, Natasha Morrow, and Abbey Clark, the idea for Blank Slate was born.
“We were meeting in secret for about a year just trying to discuss what sucks about D.I.Y., what sucks about the legitimate concert venue circuit, along with what’s great about D.I.Y. and how can we bridge the gap, while still staying true to ourselves,” he says.
Creating a space like this takes a lot of time, and although Marflak and his friends never owned businesses before, they hit the ground running.
“We went super legit with it because we knew that one of the things that really sucks about D.I.Y. is that while the expression is there and in theory, the inclusiveness is there, you know, there’s no insurance,” Marflak says. The planning that goes into ensuring that a space is “safe” needs to be precise and thorough. For example, the stairways have to be in tact, there needs to be handicap accessibility and the overall physical structure needs to be trusted. Finally, Marflak and his friends were able to find an abandoned tattoo shop in Elyria that fit their standards.
After a harrowing battle jumping through bureaucratic hoops, putting on fundraising shows, finishing business plans and preparing the physical space, Marflak and his colleagues were able to make Blank Slate an official venue. They’re also in the process of acquiring a 501c status, which would make it a tax-exempt nonprofit organization in Ohio. April 10th of 2016 is the day when everything opened up, almost exactly a year after Marflak’s friend posted that Facebook status that sparked the idea. Since then, they’ve had about 50 shows and many more to come.
The Punk Reformation
In an article posted in DIY Conspiracy in 2015, Matthew Holmes claims that “The nature of punk is alternative. It’s not being content with problematic and oppressive language and action. It’s taking direct action to change what we want to change. Creating a safe space is the progress.”
There’s been conflicting opinions about this — some people believe that the scene is just in it’s “final form” and that it’s the way it’s supposed to be. Marflak is one of the people who disagrees with this — there’s always room for improvement
“I feel like people sometimes forget that in punk and in hardcore, the involvement of the early scene was people of color and queer folks...it’s just weird now that it’s become so white washed.” Marflak makes the point of saying, In a lot of cases, the punk scene has evolved from a culture that goes against the status quo, to a culture where violence, discrimination and toxic masculinity is justified. It is an environment that has always been known for being the place where you can be wild, different and rebel against society’s standards. Some people believe it’s fine the way it is, but Marflak argues that punk in a way has gotten “too safe”, because it’s not challenging itself to grow into something better. Over the years there has been an evolution of punk, and a lot of it has to do with people starting spaces that don’t breed a toxic environment.
Diversity in Punk
According to an article published in In Music We Trust, there isn’t a year where punk was exactly born. However bands like Iggy Pop were emerging with their unique sound as early as 1968, while the movement continued throughout the 70’s with bands like Ramones in the U.S. and Sex Pistols in England. Punk emerged as a subculture that encompasses much more that may be seen today through the media and even your local punk shows. It was something that was fueled by rebellion towards the powerful and elite.
Even this past summer during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, there were a series of local punk shows that were being played as a form of protest to some of the ideologies of conservatives. Punk has always been a form of rebellion, but has the modern punk scene changed what we’re rebelling against?
More Than a Venue
Marflak told me that areas like Blank Slate are about more than creating a safe space. They’re about building a community for people who need it. He has future plans to go beyond house shows and concerts by also turning the space into a community center.
“Right now, it’s just a punk thing because that’s what we know what to do, but we want to eventually offer educational workshops and activist outreach stuff, art shows, film screenings, we kinda want to do it all,” Marflak says.
He ultimately is trying to introduce something fresh and new to a community and culture that has been set in its ways. The space’s purpose is not only to inspire craft and creativity, but also as a place where ideas can be challenged and discussions expanded. In it’s essence, this venue is affirming that punk is not in its final form and neither is the Cleveland punk community, it just needs some blank slates to begin with.