The Northwest’s graphic design hall-of-famer talks cannabis advertising and how legalization would effect the visual identity of pot
In his workshop sits a perpetual motion machine, wooden replicas of a piston engine, model guillotines, a lamp made out of golf trophies and too many 45 rpm records to count. Art Chantry is a self-described “craphound” and an experienced practitioner of what is called “junking.” He finds beauty in the throw away items sitting in piles of thrift store kitsch. Those finds then inform his work as a graphic designer which is Chantry’s field of play. From gig posters for local bands that became the “grunge” identity to his art direction at Seattle music magazine “The Rocket;” Chantry coached up an entire generation of players in the image-making game.
Six large boxes sit in the middle of his workshop, surrounded by wall-to-wall books and records. These hold his t-shirt samples, he carefully archives every design he has made (his posters have architectural draftsman filing cabinets for their safe-keeping) by rolling the tees tight like a doobie, and adding just one to the box. There must be literally thousands of shirts.
“When you are trying to make a living at $50 a design you end up doing a lot of work,” Chantry says of his robust creative output, and his affordable rates from a bygone era.
The references he accesses when working up a concept could fill a one-bedroom Seattle apartment, piece of cake. There’s the 3-ring binders full of internet cut-outs, arranged like encyclopedia volumes. He has one of the largest collections of physical clip art in the world. These are royalty free books full of renderings he can use for his cut/paste design creations, he even has ones from famous cartoonists before they went to Disney and Warner Bros. that feature early sketches of popular comic characters.
His favorite collectible items include showcards, drive-in movie posters and EC Comics (pre-code).
“I moved 9 tons of my stuff to St. Louis,” Chantry recalls of his brief departure from his native Tacoma around 2000. “In 2006 I started from scratch at a $400 a month apartment in Downtown Tacoma. If a fire burned all this stuff right now, my first reaction would be a sigh of relief.”
Art Chantry is as colorful with his words as he is with his handmade typography. A conversation with him makes hours feel like minutes. He has become a master of igniting debates on Facebook with his 5,000 friends. Now he has moved to his own fan page just to accommodate all his new connection requests. A publisher has reached out about making a book out of his posts. His iron-clad opinions like: “speedfreaks caused every major cultural shift in the past century,” and “eBay killed junking” get a lot of traction online. But there was a time when Art Chantry didn’t say much.
As a scrawny white kid growing up in Parkland, a rough patch neighborhood east of Lakewood by the Air Force Bases, he knew 25 people that died before he graduated high school. He was five the first time he had a gun pulled on him. His teen years coincided with the Vietnam war, and generally he was just waiting around to get drafted. This reality had a tangible effect on every young man at the time. No one bothered making plans for what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“We spent high school living under the draft,” Chantry affirms. “So we fit a lot of living in at a young age.”
The war ended right as he was to be called, and it was the kids his age with no plans and decades of free time starring back at them that created punk rock. And in case you didn’t know “Punk” started in Tacoma, not New York, not London. “The Sonics” and their garage rock sound, perverted from late-nights at the predominantly black R&B clubs in the area, and their clumsy covers of those songs was the (almost) universally recognized beginning of protopunk. Gerry Roslie perfected that screaming form of singing before Iggy or the Dolls ever attempted it.
Chantry loves sharing little truisms about Tacoma, and they are important to remember when trying to understand the context of his work.
“Tacoma, center of the unknown universe. Tacoma doesn’t even know it started in Tacoma,” Chantry laments. “It thinks it’s this working class hell-hole and everyone should apologize for being from here whenever they meet someone. But Goodwill stores started here, so did Punk Rock and Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Lakewood, and a bunch of castles hidden away back here.”
He pulls out an object he found and framed this summer, it isn’t immediately recognizable. It’s a paint chip the size of a DVD case that he pulled from the 56th Street rock next to I-5. The rock is painted by high school seniors, and a host of others for all kinds of reasons. It’s a local custom, and Chantry estimates its been going on for at least 60 years. He has counted the layers in this paint chip like it was a geologic stratum, looking at the cross-section there are around 500 layers of paint-on-paint. And once again Art Chantry finds art where others see worthless crap.
It was much the same at the legendary music rag “The Rocket” where Chantry used to art direct the issues on a $500 shoestring budget. The designers and illustrators he hired went on to big careers in New York, and he stayed local in order to visually define the scene that would bring international acclaim to the Northwest. No one ever called it “grunge” then, that was just a marketing word Sub-Pop coined, it was simply punk and the album covers, show posters and merch designs came from the mind of Art Chantry more often than not.
“Most record pressing facilities were in church basements at the time, and they wouldn’t run certain albums with artwork they didn’t approve of… I’ve always got one leg in the wrong place pissing people off.”
But as the British media swarmed Sea-Tac in the 90s, they came looking for the “godfather of grunge” who made a bunch of that artwork they saw in Melody Maker magazine. Most were shocked to find this balding cruster who was neither young, nor flanneled, nor shirtless, nor… you get the picture. Chantry left the high-paying gigs to his pupils, and became disenchanted with what had become of the scene he nurtured when people started recklessly overdosing at an alarming rate. He tells of a moment when a band was doing an interview with a roadie running the camera and one of the band members started to convulse and overdosed right there while the group acted like nothing happened. The roadie kept filming and everyone talked about how cool the footage was.
“Enough people stumble in the same direction, it’s a movement,” Chantry says of that time period.
Not too long ago Harley Davidson asked Art Chantry to take part in an artist series where their iconic gas tanks were customized. They left the design brief open-ended but according to Chantry they expected “hot-rod naked ladies painted on with cool flames.” Instead Chantry took the gas tank they sent to the woods and shot it over and over with a rifle. He buffed the sharp edges and powder-coated it white. Then he installed a red bulb on the inside which when illuminated shows through the gas tank. Chantry examined specifications and found ways that it could be mass-produced, and still hold gas without being a danger to the rider.
He sent it in. They hated it.
“I study the visual language of subculture groups. I take bits and pieces and reintroduce them in a weird place,” Chantry explains. “That’s what I do. I don’t even draw anything anymore.”
His understanding of the underground, gritty sub-cultures that may never see the light of day, is his greatest skill. He’s certainly a lot better at it than pandering to corporate clients like Harley Davidson. Chantry can read their progress and speculate on where its headed like a Wall Street broker does with the market, only with a lot more accuracy. Many of these subcultures are not something he would care to join, and isn’t necessarily passionate about. It’s research.
Chantry stopped smoking pot 20 years ago. He is an alcoholic living sober and it’s just not his thing. But he does see the industry of marijuana repeating patterns of other subcultures and he offers some illumination on the way legalization will change the message surrounding cannabis.
“Beer campaigns are overly sexualized because ‘titty chincy’ works,” Chantry reasons. “You’ll have pot for high-end crowds like ‘Michelob is for weekends.’ These people won’t respond to some Grateful Dead rip-offs, and we’ll see an emergence of high-end clientele. It will be ‘Panama Red’ with a joint in his mouth.”
In this way the visual design surrounding cannabis will improve. It will become more professional, glossy and serious because of the businesses that have been licensed for the recreational retail. We have always championed the idea that better public perception of cannabis will require better design identities. It’s needs to be modernized, less sloppy renderings of cheap photoshop tricks for goodness sake. It’s embarrassing how little the visual markers have regressed since the flower power era, but when a product tends to sell itself there is little motivation for building a presentable image or brand.
“The lame phases are necessary in any development, you can’t skip past them as much as you would want to,” Chantry adds. “Pot will eventually hit it’s Art Deco phase, they all do. They will sell weed like Ferraris, because it’s all for the fantasy. Exploiting the market, like Andy Warhol did with art, is coming to pot. But the quality of design will increase.”
With so many tough issues being hashed out daily, reading a story like this may seem like a silly use of your time. But the forecast from a man that has seen it all before gives us cause for pause. It’s another example of the strain that the cannabis community is experiencing while considering more presentable visual design for pot products and its retail businesses on one hand. Manipulative marketing that reinforces stereotypes and social norms on the other – and you can’t order a la carte – they come together or not at all.
“Before it was checkers, with every one jumping each other,” Chantry clarifies. “It’s wide open. Now that it’s legalized it becomes chess, true life and death. The stakes go way up. It’s the Big Boy League.”
The role of design has changed a lot while Art Chantry has been in the mix. He has adapted to computers but still makes his work by hand. Mostly he deals with the attitude now that anyone can do what he does, it’s not that hard, there’s an app for that, etc…
“It’s like saying you can build a car because you can draw a picture of one,” Chantry says with a grin. “The difference comes down to design versus decoration.”
In his South Tacoma workshop surrounded by the examples of the difference between the two, he looks up from his drafting table and offers a profound statement as non-chalantly as he would offer driving directions.
“I’m never bored,” he says. “I’ve got no retirement and crappy insurance. While I’m not rich I have a rich life and anyway, life is too long to work for assholes.”