Inspiration. It’s often divine, powerful with ease, promoting a sense of purity paired with brilliance. For those who master the action of harnessing it, the state of success looms near on the horizon. Art Chantry has made a career out of doing just that. And yet he’s still searching for his ‘happy face.’

NB: “What inspires you to design?”

AC: “I follow my interests into those areas that I enjoy and am curious about – and then it almost becomes reflective. I’m intellectually interested in underground language so I can speak very directly to a chosen demographic. If advertising is a mainstream nuclear bomb designed to take out as many people as possible with one purchase of space, graphic design is more of a sniper. It’s used to take out specific demographics. My skill is that I can talk to them in their language and if I’m clever enough, talk to several at the same time. And if I’m really good, help it become mainstream without people even realizing it. It can be as simple as a color. Or a typeface. When I present something in a language form like that, they don’t even know that I’m talking in their language. But they can see it. And they can feel it.”

AC continues: “I’m an old guy. I don’t drive hot rods or motorcycles…or stay up on top music. I don’t even go clubbin’ anymore. My interests are obtuse. But I know their language. You start entering hip hop into the format…I’m too f——ing old to understand it totally. Sports is the same way. Like with you, if you took meathead and fused it with punk…come on!”

AC waxes poetic: “That couldn’t be mainstream. Or could it? Is it already? When do we even know? What does ‘old school’ or ‘retro’ even mean? This conversation, as soon as it’s over, it happened already…so it’s retro! I saw some kid walking down the street with tattoos and piercings and a mohawk – but come on, that’s been done before. Thirty f——ing years ago! But it’s ‘new’ again now. So it’s retro.”

NB: “You grew up poor, in a rough and tumble neck of the woods…So the next logical step was trying on a profession where one of the core themes is the ‘starving artist’?”

AC: “I became it before I even knew what it was. I was already doing ‘graphic design,’ but it wasn’t called that yet. I was interested in comic books, monster models, psych posters and records and I started drawing pictures and doing poster work and weird logos for strange little companies. One day I was lookin’ in a magazine – these crazy pictures of Polish theatre and circus magazines that I was getting off on. And they were calling what they were doing ‘graphic design.’ I just didn’t know it yet.”

NB: “A great deal of your notoriety is attributed to being THE guy when it comes to album design for the ‘Seattle Sound.’ Does it make you feel good that people are still buying albums for YOUR artwork – even though they’re downloading the actual music?”

AC: “That’s not really something where I got upset because I was being bypassed. It’s really interesting what you said, though, buying the physical unit. I collect old records, love old vinyl, spend a lot of time in Goodwill stores. Right now is a great time to do it with all the downloading going on.”

AC continues: “What do major labels really even offer today? Major labels only offer a small band distribution. Before, they could create their own product from ground up, even press their own materials…but they couldn’t distribute it. The Internet offers distribution to everyone, changing the marketplace of America. And stores on the street start going under ‘cause the computer is your store. You don’t need graphics ‘cause you just download songs. I stopped getting hired to do these things ‘cause people download it and nobody needs them anymore. Things have changed.”

NB: “Do you miss it?”

AC: “Oh yeah. I miss LP’s ‘cause they were so nice and big. You could spend time and examine the detail. It’s a dramatic shift from LPs to CDs, like a postage stamp versus a billboard. But from CDs to nothing? Not that dramatic.”

AC continues: “Ten years ago, the switch from vinyl to CD? Mark my words: right now we’re down to three major labels and two will collapse in the next five years. Without distribution, they have nothing to offer. You can do it yourself and make more money. With all the big bulk stores you’ll see it, too. You can micromarket. How graphic design fits in, nobody knows. Twenty years ago, when the Internet first started, there was an explosion of work doing websites ‘cause Seattle’s a microhub. Think about it, the first time the copier came out: you stuck your butt on it, right? Seattle became a porn haven because micro guys were designing websites. They were dockworkers one day, and two weeks later they’re designing websites after learning HTML and doing it themselves.”

NB: “You’ve had a ton of success. At what point did you realize that this was more than a passion project – that it was, in fact, your life’s work?”

AC: “In the late 80s when I started to see what could be done. What was being done on computers, it made me see that this wasn’t going to be elitist. You went out and hired graphic designers like you hired a lawyer. The computer erased that. Anybody can be a graphic designer or…a graphic designer that’s good enough for 90 percent of people to design a business card. I’m self-taught.”

AC continues: “But every band has their own graphic designer…they don’t NEED me. So what I did, very self consciously, in Seattle nobody was doing what I was doing. So I had to make it ok. I had to train my competition. I taught for eight years. Art directed people at The Rocket, trained my assistants and created a niche for my style. And when it became mainstream, I had a place where I could make a living.”

AC extrapolates: “I could see the computer was going to take away 90 to 95 percent of the market. So where did I want to be? In the upper ten percent of idea people with something unique and with something to say. I was able to pull it off by working on it for 25 years, focusing and not compromising. But now I can make a living doing what I do best. In reality, I’m not honestly even sure what I do anymore…if I’m even a ‘graphic designer.’ The profession and the definition have changed so much…I might have become an artist by accident.”

NB: “Like it or not, you ARE famous. You’ve influenced an entire generation of designers. You ARE the visual design face of the Seattle Grunge era. How has success changed you?”

AC: “Well how do you even DEFINE success? Financial ‘success’ still eludes me – I struggle to pay rent. So I’m sitting here thinking, on the one hand, I’m a f——ing failure. I’m not ‘successful.’ Now, culturally, linguistically, I’m dramatically successful. So it depends on who you ask. Some people say I’m a failure; some people want to be me. Well, I want to be rich. I’ve never owned a house and I have a $500 truck with dents.”

AC continues: “Success…it made my work harder – copycats, corporations, the book that was written about me in 2001. I thought my ship had come in and I’d never have to worry about money again. In truth, my income hit zero. My expenses exceeded my paychecks. That book was a major factor and I’m still trying to recover. I promote a style that encourages people to try to do it themselves. And then they do. The idea of hiring me never crosses their minds. By doing my job extremely well, I’ve put myself out of work.”

AC drives it home: “When you start talking about success, what the f—— are you really talking about? Before that book came out several famous designers told me the same thing: it’ll become a giant swipe file. They were right.”

NB: “You’re from an area of the country that doesn’t always get a lot of national media love. Did you find that frustrating on your path to the top? Ever think about packing up shop and taking your game to NYC, LA or abroad?”

AC: “Zeitgeist, ‘the zone,’ it doesn’t matter where you’re at. You have to grab people’s attention and THEN the media comes in handy with record covers, TV, etc. Media is any kind of communication system so you put your voice out there, become influential, live in a place like Seattle and try to survive. New York work is third-rate but the truth is they’re jacking each other off because it’s the media hub. The best work is from the hinterlands. People who make a name in New York, they became famous for work in the last two years because they were so starving they had to hit the ground running or they would die. New York hasn’t been a place of ideas for decades, but since it’s NYC they say ‘Punk rock was invented in NYC.’ And then everyone says ‘Ok, punk rock was invented in NYC.’ The f—— it was.”

AC continues: “It’s like this: Seattle is the biggest city in Northwest and all the other cities feed into it. Nirvana was from ABERDEEN. Then they moved to Tacoma ‘cause they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t move to Seattle ‘til Nevermind started bringing in royalty checks. But everyone says they’re from Seattle.”

AC sounds off: “The first time I got discovered in New York was in the late 80s. My work’s hung in the f——ing LOUVRE…and then they forget about me for six months. Discover me…forget about me…and then someone else ‘discovers’ the vulgarian out there in the hinterlands and they go, ‘Wow, how does he survive? Does he trap furs and look for arrowheads? Oh yeah, this is some modern primitive that we’ve discovered who we can exploit in our fashion areas.’ NYC is probably the single most provincial city in the country.”

NB: “Band, artist or genre you’d love to design for?”

AC: “I don’t think there’s a specific turf right now that’s so inclusive that I could get into a language style. I’m based on entire stylistic approach that’s not as simple as a ‘happy face.’ If I could hit the nerve with a cultural or graphic explosion that could change the way people think and talk without them even knowing it? F—— That’d be it.”

AC continues: “That would be my ultimate goal: to design the next ‘happy face.’ But I think I’m too old. At a time, I was almost at that point in Seattle. I was able to influence it slightly…able to give it a spin…and it was too ugly up close. I saw too many people die. Heroin dealers exploiting the kids with the money. It’s like…WHOA.”

NB: “Ten words or less: who is Art Chantry?”

AC struggles mightily: “I can’t do that…I don’t even want to try.”

NB: “You know, I’ve read all these summations of who you ‘are’, what your work ‘is’, and they seem so all over the board…”

AC: “Because people just can’t wrap their heads around it that easily. And if I tried to say who Art Chantry ‘is’, that’s just so disingenuous…”

NB: “Because you don’t even know!”

AC bursts into an evil laugh: “I can’t tell what I’m doing for six months!!! I’ll do something, put it down, pick it up and then…what the f—— is THIS? And I’ll just know! And come on, people who are planning everything out are just living a life of delusion.”


Read Part 1 of the Art Chantry interview here:

Read Part 2 of the Art Chantry interview here:

Read Part 3 of the Art Chantry interview here:


Newbear Lesniewski


September 27, 2007