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'Tis Pity She's a Whore

The Disappearance of Art Chantry

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"I JUST WANT TO POINT OUT that as soon as I left, the Kingdome collapsed," Art Chantry announces into the phone. "I've been holding up that town way too long. It's a terrible burden. I expect the Space Needle to go at any moment." There's still a listing in the residential pages of the Seattle phone book that reads "CHANTRY ART graphic design," but the man who drastically changed the visage of Seattle's countenance is gone for good.

At the end of the last century, Seattle battled for its artistic soul and lost. Already the struggle of the local '90s music scene--and the incredible nervous tension that surrounded it--has burned off into a quaint, sub-sarcastic memory of naive idealism. In the new Seattle, still under construction, all arguments about underground culture and its integrity are filed under "grunge," currently the ugliest and most embarrassing word in the language. The city is almost free of its own cultural history; June 23, in fact, may well mark the definitive end of the past, when Paul Allen's Experience Music Project opens its doors and officially consigns Seattle's complicated music history to a window display and a cheery 15-minute video collage.

Art Chantry was one of the pivotal figures in the old Seattle music underground; it's almost impossible to overstate his importance in helping to create the texture and visual language of the punk scene here. Every rock designer in town knows his work, has studied it, and probably has lifted from it. As documented in a selected album of Chantry's work, due soon from Chronicle Books, he's designed about 3,000 posters and over 500 album covers. The entire phenomenon of Seattle poster art, such as it was, had Chantry as its champion. As the primary graphic designer within the scene, he's co-created the texture of music in Seattle for the last 25 years, illustrating the rough edges and trashy low-tech panache of Northwest music for Sub Pop, Estrus Records, The Rocket, all of the clubs, and most of the bands in town.

But Chantry, for all his continuing relevance as a designer, is ideologically part of the old Seattle. As the new Seattle usurps the older one, Chantry remains uncompromising, both artistically and financially. He ignores computers when building his designs, preferring the historical methods of the craft; and he positively bristles at the culture that the computer industry has wrought on the city. So Seattle recently lost one of its most important artists ever when Chantry quietly decamped to St. Louis, Missouri, to join his girlfriend and fellow designer Jamie Sheehan there.

"There were several reasons why I left," he explains. "The first and foremost was--and this is strictly personal--I hated the town that Seattle had become. I just found myself getting up and loathing the city. Spending my day trying to deal with it and then going back at night to my little apartment and just loathing the city, you know. It's just it was so grating to everything I cared about, considering the way that city used to be. It's become a city of assholes and whores."

Chantry is famously gruff (as documented in Hype!), but even his abundant negativity is earnest. He still refers to Seattle as "we," though his disappointment and frustration is evident. And he tends to refer to his audience as his "constituents," the way a political representative might, which is one of the clues to this man's fundamental force in the city: Though he may come off as incredibly, even absurdly bitter, he's guided by a genuine respect for underground culture. He has shaped his entire creative output around a conception of the city in which artists are representatives of, and responsible to, underground culture's underlying values. And his disappointment in Seattle stems from his love of it, his belief in what it was.

"The other big reason I left is, I couldn't afford to live in Seattle anymore," he says. "It had priced me out of the market. I couldn't afford rent. I mean, I had cheap rent both at home and my studio, but they had to be subsidized by people who had big hearts, you know? Now, if either one of those had decided to charge real rates, I wouldn't have been able to survive at all. As it was, I was living to pay rent. Period. I couldn't earn enough money in Seattle, doing what I do, to live in Seattle."

This coming from a man who influenced Seattle culture easily as much as Sub Pop, and whose work is always the most prominent in Print magazine's annual regional awards. "Basically, I built my reputation on doing posters for 50 bucks, a hundred bucks," he says. "A good poster job I get paid 300. And it's like, how can you live on that? Especially with the cost of living in Seattle so high. That's why I cranked out so much. Everybody thought I was just prolific, but no, I was cranking because I had to earn enough to pay my rent."

Ironically, the sheer influence of Chantry's own work contributed to his difficulties. "It became a situation where there's so much competition from people who were doing work that looked like mine, that I was driven out of the market there. Prices have been driven way down for what I do because there's so many people who do stuff that looks like mine," he says, though he insists, "When that sort of thing happens, it means I'm doing my job well. Because I am practicing a specific language form, and if the language form works its way into the history of graphic style, that means I've done a hell of a good job. But it also means I've worked myself out of a job. Nobody will hire me when there's 300 other people to choose from who do the same thing."

Our history embarrasses our city like a high-school yearbook. Seattle's past is awkward, rife with the un-self-conscious idealism of youth, which made sense at the time but looks provincial and stunted next to the optimistic swagger of our new, expensive city. Even from the cracks of the underground culture, Seattle's computer-based confidence seems ironclad and unstoppable.

"I think the fact that people like me are leaving is a very, very bad sign for Seattle culture," he says. "It's degenerating the city. Any city that's sacrificing its culture base, its soul, in exchange for sheer monetary gain, a.k.a. property values, whatever, is being a whore. And nobody thinks of whores as really having a heart of gold. And Seattle can sit there and pat itself on the back, and call itself a wonderful place to live, but as long as it's alienating the people that made it an interesting place to live, what's it got left? Being marginalized in Seattle is one thing; being shoved out is another."

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