PRINT April 2001


Art Chantry

“LOVE US, HATE US; we don’t give a fuck.” Such was the spirit back in the day. Although I got through punk/no wave (East Coast Division, class of ’79) relatively unscathed, I can’t recommend this attitude to the seriously career-minded. Even the sidelines can be dodgy. Fandom—especially when it is directed toward those who don’t put their own work on a pedestal—is not unconflicted. Take my love for the work of Art Chantry (West Coast, class of ’75). When he started making posters for Seattle punk shows in-the late ’70s, mostly no-budget Xerox affairs, such ephemera was considered, to borrow his own phrase, instant litter. Posters were meant more for the streets than for nice white walls.

That Chantry refers to his works as “artifacts” rather than as “art” comes as no surprise. Before he even knew there were people who called themselves graphic designers, he thought he might become an archaeologist, and in some ways he did. Over the years, Chantry somehow managed to translate the scrappy, ragged physicality and irreverent humor of punk into visual form, fine-tuning it to within an inch of its life and becoming one of the few graphic-design heroes of our time. He doesn’t let so-called art directors monkey around with his work; won’t take on corporate clients (he’s said no to Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and IBM); has never used a computer (nothing digital—ever!); and, riffing on everything from a ’50s tool catalogue to FBI wanted posters for the Black Panthers, reminds us that much of what we see in advertising and packaging comes from vernacular and often anonymous sources in our recent past. He digs it up, and people like me track his stuff down.

Guilty as charged, I am currently the proud owner of nearly seventy Chantry posters. Considering he’s done about 3,000 in twenty-Some years, it’s a piddly little collection. (Paul Allen’s is considerably larger though he’s got a museum to fill.) I’d have more, but Chantry’s stuff can be as hard to find as a bump in the White House—plus I got a late Start. I sometimes wonder if I don’t have better things to do than hunt around for a poster of El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, printed on black velveteen. Or one for an evening of Beckett, the playwright’s stony, unblinking stare hit-and-run by a fluorescent pink “happy face.” Or the glow-in-the-dark Dead Moon piece, screened directly onto thrift-store records. Now that I have them, the question is moot. And although Some People Can’t Surf is like my new shop-at-home catalogue-filled as it is with Chantry’s rock and theater posters (the hardest to find), album covers and logos, and work for the seminal music monthly The Rocket (an extraordinary breeding ground for designers in the ’80s and early ’90s—the book is an overdue introduction for everyone else.

Long associated with Seattle, Chantry is the first to point a little further south down I-5 to his true hometown, Tacoma. He delights in telling people that this is the murky place from which Ted Bundy sprang, and that he and the future serial killer had actually played pool together. For years the town even had its own distinctive smell—“the aroma from Tacoma.” The darker side of Seattle’s blue-collar/white-trash neighbor has seeped into Chantry’s sensibility like ink into paper. (For the cover of a record by The Fumes, the type above an image of a car horribly crushed by a massive logging truck looks like it was pulled from the twisted wreckage.) While Chantry often puts the graphic back into graphic design, it's his willingness to see a job all the way through to the printing press and tinker with it right on the spot, as well as to experiment with nontraditional materials, that makes his work stand out. Some of his best posters aren’t on paper at all, with images screened onto thin sheets of metal, reflective silver Mylar, and wallpaper samples—including wood grain.

Different coincidences set him off. When Chantry realized that a concert by the Japanese garage band Teengenerate would be on December 7—Pearl Harbor Day—he screened those words and a rising sun onto metal plates, which he took behind his house and riddled with bullets. In the end, the metal looked like bits of World War II surplus that had been strafed by enemy fire. With Chantry behind the wheel, time-traveling can happen in other ways too. Hired by Urban Outfitters to design a poster, he paired an image of Johnny Rotten with crude label-maker type that railed, “NO. DON’T BUY IT! DON’T LISTEN TO THEM! DO IT YOURSELF!!!!" But his wasn’t enough. For proper effect, he took all the paper out of the printer’s shop, dumped it onto the sidewalk, and let it get trampled. Spilling into the gutter and the street, it got driven over, becoming grittier and grittier. Only then was the paper ready to go on press. The final product looks more like it was printed in 1975 than 1995, true to its roots.

I could tell you about Chantry’s work with R. Crumb and Nathan Gluck, Warhol’s commercial-art assistant in the ’50s; how he brought Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin out of retirement and helped remind us of Reid Miles’s classic covers for the Blue Note label, as well as of forgotten figures like graphic designer Lester Beall (while letting a little air out of design “giants” like Paul Rand—“What a fraud!”). No, that’s what this book is for. The text is well-researched and serious, yet it’s almost as much fun to read as the pictures are to devour. And if anyone knows where I can find a Macbeth poster from ’82, please drop me a line.

Bob Nickas is a writer and critic based in New York.