Frequent Flier

Graphic artist Art Chantry, éminence grise of grunge, on fliers, rock music and life in St. Louis

If you've lived in the St. Louis metro area for any length of time, you've seen the less-than subtle fliers made by the Conformists. You know the ones: a pair of identical cats hanging side-by-side in nooses, photocopied past clarity into some sort of corroded binary death frieze that's offensive on levels rarely plumbed. It's the sort of image that draws a line in the sand, generating an instantaneous emotional response in all who see it. Most people leap blindly across that line, tearing down the fliers as fast as the Conformists can paste them up. It should come as no surprise, then, that a 47-year-old male cat owner who happened across one on South Grand not long ago would remove the flier posthaste. What's surprising is why: "These guys make great fliers," says Art Chantry of the Conformists' twin cat corpses, which now reside in his collection of punk-rock fliers. Before any of you grab your poison pens and fire off a letter to the editor about the "grim shadows" we're casting over the St. Louis music scene by even mentioning the Conformists' icon, please see Chantry's Crazy Theories list (sidebar), specifically theory No. 1. And remember, this is the same guy who was impressed by the Refuzors' use of a dead cat on their flier back in Seattle, circa 1984, so he has something of a history with dead cats, punk rock and the photocopied world of guerilla show promotion.

Just how much of a history is revealed in Julie Lasky's new monograph, Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry (Chronicle Books). If Chantry's name sounds vaguely familiar, check your record collection: Chances are, you have some of his work. He's designed literally thousands of album covers, CD cases and 45's (ask your parents!) for hundreds of artists, such as Man ... or Astroman?, the Supersuckers, the Monomen, the Reverend Horton Heat, S.W.A.T., the Sonics and some band called Soundgarden. Somewhere in there, he found time to create roughly 3,000 (!) posters for various theaters, social causes and rock concerts. Chantry's prodigious output would be impressive enough from a statistical standpoint, but coupled with his consistently high level of quality, it's staggering. Four of five dentists agree, apparently: Chantry's posters have won numerous design awards, reside in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Museum of Modern Art and have festooned some of the finest Pacific Northwest ghetto telephone poles for weeks at a time. It's a testament to Chantry's creativity that his posters look equally at home in museums, on the back walls of run-down clubs and in a coffee-table retrospective.

Much of Some People is devoted to explaining why Chantry's posters look good wherever they end up and how he does what he does. Lasky charts Chantry's development from the pop-culture-obsessed Tacoma youth who designed collage-posters with whatever materials he could scrounge up to the Seattle-dwelling pop-culture influence who continued scrounging materials to make art. The subplot involves the rise of the Seattle music scene that surrounded Chantry and informed his work before, during and after the grunge explosion (see No. 2 and No. 2a of sidebar). Because Chantry's ascent coincided with Seattle's, his work has become inextricably linked with that tumultuous era. Chuckie-Boy Records founder Mike Stein said, "I see Art Chantry's influence every day when I go into downtown Seattle and notice some hipster with his arm covered with tattoo ink wearing a gas-station shirt."

By his own admission, Chantry's influence on grunge is both bizarre and subtle. "I designed this compilation, Teriyaki Asthma, for C/Z Records," Chantry explains. "There was some disagreement about how to spell this Cobain guy's name. I knew he really liked Kurdt Vanderhoof [see No. 7, sidebar], so I just fucked his name up as much as possible. That, I think, was the start of all the various spellings for Kurt Cobain's name. I think that was the only time I worked with Nirvana."

The Seattle/Chantry connection is so strong that Lasky makes an ominous prediction for Chantry: "The ultimate lesson of each history [Doug Pray's film Hype and Clark Humphrey's book Loser, both concerned with Seattle and grunge] is that authentic talent cannot bloom far beyond its native soul; transplanted, it mutates into a weed or is choked to death." We'll find out soon enough: Chantry and his companion, Jamie Sheehan, recently moved to St. Louis.

In person, Chantry seems a little reluctant to talk about what he does and why he does it. A typical conversation with him starts with a stack of Estrus 45's (how can you not love a guy who comes bearing gifts, and vinyl gifts at that?); he grins and talks about how Zen Guerrilla is one of the greatest live bands working today, then reels off a list of bands that "played so hard, they just didn't give a fuck. When they finished playing, you'd look around and wonder why the building wasn't wrecked. You know -- Big Black, Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, the Butthole Surfers, these giant bands ..." The next thing you know, you're hearing about how the Ramones are bald and the Butthole Surfers have turned into boring old farts who are suing Cory Rusk over a handshake deal so they can make a ton of corporate money off their back catalog. By the time you get to Aleister Crowley's shadowy involvement in the U.S. space program, you realize Chantry's never going to talk about the covers of those 45's or what they mean, because you either get it or you don't.

Eschewing the cold precision of the computer, Chantry prefers to design by hand, drawing his inspiration from draftsmen such as kustom-kar kingpins Von Dutch and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, tattoo artists, comic-book artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the commercial art of the 1940s and '50s. With his fondness for degraded typeface, photocopier-aided deterioration, clip art and industrial design, Chantry's posters manage to feel concurrently salvaged, scavenged, eroded, corroded, raw and sophisticated. They evoke a sense of some other time, but the truth is, they are artifacts of a never-time. Was the world ever this interesting? Was there ever a time when hot rods and carnival barkers and Spiderman and space monsters were jumbled together and plastered across the walls with such frantic adoration? Not as kitsch, not as an ironic commentary on modern or postmodern or antimodern life, but with a sincere love for what they are: well-crafted artistic expressions of marginalized obsessions. St. Louis -- with its slavish devotion to an early-'90s musical style (the corpse of Uncle Tupelo still fresh in many bands' collective consciousness) and its moribund downtown -- bears many similarities to Seattle (see No. 5, sidebar). Here's hoping Lasky was wrong about transplanted genius and a mutation sets in quickly, transforming Chantry from Seattle icon into some sort of hot-rodding, frozen-custard-loving archaeologist of St. Louis' weirder margins. This town doesn't need another death on its hands.

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