Art, Interupted

I wouldn’t call the graphic designer Art Chantry a slippery character, but he does have a way of pulling the rug out from under me.


Take the time I wrote a book about him. For 160 printed pages, I described his music and theatre posters, which for years were plastered all over Seattle—deceptively raw-looking collages of vintage images: snub-nosed kids or mambo dancers or naked girls in champagne glasses. I had just finished the manuscript and was tidying up the grammar, when Art called to say he was done with Seattle and was moving to St. Louis, where his then-girlfriend had found a job. Excuse me?

“I’m through with this [VERY NASTY EXPLETIVE] yuppie town,” he barked.

Never mind that Art was indelibly associated with Seattle. (Design critics called him the Godfather of Grunge because of his much-imitated work for record labels like Sub Pop.) Never mind that I had spent two weeks in a Belltown garage-turned-apartment sharing quarters with a VW bus and a Springer Spaniel named Hank, while I interviewed half of Washington State about Art’s influences. Art was disgusted that Seattle was becoming tidy. He was a connoisseur of grime and the creatively pathological. Many of his best friends were deranged, and most had moved to San Francisco or the East Coast and were doing great.

“Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft—evil, all evil,” he grumbled.

This all happened back in 2000. Art and I stayed in touch. Once, I tried to fly to St. Louis to visit him but was deterred by the kind of Midwestern thunderstorm that compels people to sue airlines. Then, one day, I phoned his Missouri number and he picked up in Tacoma. Having written his biography, I knew perfectly well that Art had grown up in Tacoma, but now he was telling me he’d moved back permanently. Excuse me?

“You wouldn’t believe how [VERY NASTY EXPLETIVE] cheap the housing prices are,” he boasted.

Art’s art: In a small selection of his work, you can only begin to glimpse the audacity, invention and range of Chantry’s designs. “My work travels across too many styles and approaches to be summed up in a few pieces,” he told us. Tough: this is all we have room for. Reproduced here are album covers, posters, magazine covers and assorted print ephemera for Chantry classic-era clients including Sub Pop, The Rocket and the Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle. This is DIY design at its most deceptively unselfconscious yet refined: hackneyed old advertising motifs (even tool catalogs!) twisted and turned into art. By Art. And what’s the sappy Smiley Face doing among these impertinently hip pieces? Chantry didn’t design it but wishes he had: “It’s brilliant,” he says, “all by itself.”

Julie Lasky: Is affordable housing really why you returned to Tacoma after 30-plus years?
Art Chantry: St. Louis was just starting to happen for me. I was getting big commissions. I had a local gallery show and it was voted the best art show of the year. But I couldn’t bear the thought of spending another summer down there. I found myself dreaming about mist and pine trees and rain and wearing heavy clothes without sweating. I look out now at the gray and clouds and it makes my heart pound.

JL: You had the whole misty Pacific Northwest to choose from yet you moved back to Tacoma?
AC: I should have done it a long time ago. Tacoma’s still got a soul. Seattle sold that off about twenty years ago. Now it’s a city for the highest bidder, cash at the door. Here, you have to dedicate yourself to living. Back in the ’70s, Tacoma had the highest crime rate in the nation and Parkland, where I grew up, had the worst crime in Tacoma. My neighborhood was the toughest in America!

JL: Congratulations. That’s some claim to fame.
AC: The other aspect I find so wonderful – and I’ve been talking about it for years – is that Tacoma is the cultural center of the galaxy and nobody knows it. The Men in Black originated here. M&Ms, too. And don’t forget Richard Brautigan.

JL: Who’s Richard Brautigan?
AC: He wrote Trout Fishing in America.

JL: Oh, right.
AC: Soundgarden and Nirvana were Tacoma bands.

JL: Wasn’t Nirvana from Aberdeen?
AC: Sure, but when they started gigging, they moved to Tacoma because they couldn’t afford to live in Seattle. It was only when Nevermind topped the charts for a year that they finally got a royalty check and could afford to relocate.

JL: How old were you when you decided to leave Tacoma?
AC: I must have been 20 or 21. I went to Pacific Lutheran University and then Fort Steilacoom Community College (now called Pierce Community College) down here. I always wanted to move away, but when it came time, I clung to Tacoma. Even when I left – in 1974 or ’75, for Bellingham – I considered myself, with a great deal of pride, a Tacoma person.

JL: What are the qualities of a Tacoma person?
AC: Having an antithetical stance, kind of a working-class defiance of all things sophisticated. People in Seattle like wine; people in Tacoma drink beer. Fashion down here is centered on work clothes. Those traits are what informed my personality and lowbrow tastes, not to mention my art. I still wear blue jeans, heavy boots, flannel shirts, leather jackets. I still feel totally at home here. I never felt at home in Seattle, even though I made a big impact on that town.

JL: How has Tacoma changed since you last lived there?
AC: Obviously, there are more people. It’s strip-malled, parking-lotted. Swimming holes I used to go to as a kid are now housing developments. Growth has headed off to sprawl. They’ve torn down acres of old construction and the new buildings don’t seem to be screaming successes. The curse of Tacoma is that it always stays the same, no matter what you do.

One of the reasons Tacoma didn’t succeed as Seattle did was that Seattle had whorehouses. This area started off conservative, though that changed around World War II. The corruption was unbelievable. Meyer Lansky’s kids grew up here under assumed names; the city was considered a safe house. I met this guy in his eighties, who in his day was one of the coolest sign painters in Tacoma. He had one arm and one leg – he was hit by a train when he was 19 – but still this guy was the best. He was approached by mob dudes who wanted him to pinstripe their craps table and they stayed on as clients.

JL: So there’s been no improvement in Tacoma lately?
AC: On the contrary, this used to be one of the most polluted cities in America, but now you can drink the water in Commencement Bay. You can eat the fish; they have two eyes again. What’s great about Tacoma is all the things the boosters – who want to bring in the big money – try to suppress: Cheap rents. Lots of space. No hectic lifestyle. Every artist who comes down here says, “This place is great!” Every yuppie says “Eeeew!”

JL: What’s the arts community like?
AC: This is a town that respects art. The Tacoma Art Museum has always been better than the Seattle Art Museum. And whatever you might think of Dale Chihuly, the Museum of Glass isn’t half-bad. Why Tacoma is a cool place for artists can be summed up in a simple story. A couple of friends of mine bought a printing press and set up shop in a basement. They began designing letterpress posters and wheatpasting them all over Tacoma every month. Rather than being vilified for defacing the city, they were offered art shows. And eventually the Washington State History Museum and Tacoma Chamber of Commerce paid these vandals a serious amount of money to design three posters that said something about the city. They enlisted me to work on one of the posters. They came up with the quote: “The thing that’s so poetic about Tacoma is that there’s nothing poetic about Tacoma.”

JL: Do you still see pals from the old days?
AC: Surprisingly, yes. When I came back to Seattle after six years away, I went to my old neighborhood, hung out in the same bars and restaurants, spent three days wandering around and didn’t see a single person I knew. The city had replaced a whole set of faces. Then I moved down here and within two to three days, I was running into people who called out, “Hey, Skip! – my nickname when I was a kid. Within a month I ran into my high school principal, who still remembered me.

JL: How was your reentry?
AC: I didn’t have a place to stay and I spent all my money driving out here, so I ended up moving to my sister’s. She has a little house in the middle of Parkland. I spent almost every evening walking around the place I grew up in and that allowed me to transition into Tacoma much, much better. I went around and confronted the ghosts and shook their hands. I like the idea of hanging around with friends who knew me back then. It’s shocking how much of that old person is there. I thought I’d erased it.

JL: Speaking of erasing, when Some People Can’t Surf came out, you were worried it would destroy your career. Why? And to what extent were you right?
AC: I promote a DIY style of graphic design that’s fun. Other people look at it and want to do it. Why in the [very nasty expletive] would they hire me? There’s also the intimidation factor. Once you’re the subject of a book, you’re assumed to be too expensive or unapproachable to hire. And then a lot of people thought I was dead. The book hurt me, but the move to St. Louis at the same time also had something to do with the fact that my net income sank to less than zero for a while.

JL: And yet you’re a celebrity by almost anyone’s definition.
AC: We assume celebrity equals wealth. People just don’t understand that even though my posters are being sold for a thousand dollars online, I don’t get that money. That’s another reason I like Tacoma. It’s a realistic town. Working-class people understand what things are worth.

JL: Has graphic design changed since we did the book?
AC: The heyday of the freelance designer is on the wane. Instead of being an art or a craft, design has become a technology. All you need is software and someone to run it in-house. Ninety-five percent of it can be outsourced to India.

JL: How are you positioning yourself?
AC: One of my major sources of income is being an idea button. Companies and ad agencies pay me to critique a project. I come in and they hang up everything they’re doing and I tell them where the typefaces come from and why the colors are appropriate and what else they should look at. I insert thought and history and ideas and if I come up with anything brilliant during the course of the critique, they own that too. I get my check and scurry off.

JL: What are you designing these days that you can claim as your own?
AC: I’m working on the usual array: a CD cover for the band Southern Culture on the Skids, typography for an M&M’s campaign, designer sunglasses for Oakley, a poster for a Las Vegas club that’s going to have a battle of girl bands called Snatchapalooza . . .

JL: Stop right there. What does the Snatchapalooza poster look like?
AC: Let’s just say I used a lot of Day-Glo pink ink. It’s basically like a Las Vegas strip show from the fifties. If you want to do cool, crazy, offensive work, get cool, crazy, offensive clients.

JL: Wise words. Any last thoughts about Tacoma?
AC: I’ve absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed moving back to this city and I hope nobody comes here and destroys it.

Photography by Charles Peterson

Art’s art: In a small selection of his work, you can only begin to glimpse the audacity, invention and range of Chantry’s designs. “My work travels across too many styles and approaches to be summed up in a few pieces,” he told us. Tough: this is all we have room for. Reproduced here are album covers, posters, magazine covers and assorted print ephemera for Chantry classic-era clients including Sub Pop, The Rocket and the Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle. This is DIY design at its most deceptively unselfconscious yet refined: hackneyed old advertising motifs (even tool catalogs!) twisted and turned into art. By Art. And what’s the sappy Smiley Face doing among these impertinently hip pieces? Chantry didn’t design it but wishes he had: “It’s brilliant,” he says, “all by itself.”