"Blaster" Al Ackerman left Baltimore a few years before his death last March, but news of his passing was devastating to the old school demimonde of Baltimore's arts community, which Ackerman in many ways radicalized when he moved to Baltimore in the early '90s.
Ackerman grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where he began writing to his favorite science-fiction and mystery authors, saying, "I am a very young person in San Antonio, Tex. Tell me how to get out of here." Though he subsequently spent time working at local television stations and a hospital's burn unit, these early letters prefigured one of the formative events in his life: the discovery of correspondence art in a 1972 Rolling Stone story on the subject. In a 2002 CP feature, Eric Allen Hatch wrote that "The spontaneous, noncommercial nature of this artistic approach captured Ackerman's imagination, and within a month he had established correspondences with several people mentioned in the article."
Such correspondences eventually brought Ackerman to Baltimore. John Berndt, the founder of the High Zero Festival, says that he began corresponding with Ackerman when he found the story "Confessions of an American Ling Master" in Dumb Fucker magazine when he was only 14 years old. "It spoke so directly to me that I wrote him," Berndt says. "Little did I know I was writing one of the great mail artists of the 20th century."
"He was kind of the star of the whole early zine explosion," says poet, editor, musician, and co-owner of Normal's Books Rupert Wondolowski, another early fan. "He was a completely original blend of Lovecraft and the hard-boiled pulp people like Jim Thompson . . . with his extreme knowledge of pop art and modern art and philosophy and oddball science-fiction writers."
Ackerman was well-known as a recluse, so the star-struck young avant-gardists never expected to meet him. "But when he and his wife split in, I think, 1990, we sent him bus money telling him that he needed to come and visit Baltimore, and it was a perfect fit," Wondolowski says. "He loved the cheap bars and inspired crazy people and the cheap living, and he already had quite a few fans here."
Ackerman first lived with Berndt and later Wondolowski. He quickly became a fixture at Wondolowski's Shattered Wig nights and began to work at Normal's Books, where he remained for nearly 20 years, influencing a whole generation of artists, including Catherine Pancake-who founded the Transmodern Festival and has made films based on his work-and Laure Dragoul, who founded the 14Karat Cabaret and currently organizes Transmodern. So it was fitting that last year, for the festival's 10th anniversary, they hosted a memorial exhibition of Ackerman's work, curated by John Eaton, at the Current Space gallery.
"He fit well into the community because it valued non-conformity and strangeness, and he was a pretty good dose of all that," says Berndt.