published Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Effort underway to make Chattanooga weird

The “Make Chattanooga Weird” stickers are available at three local retailers: Collective Clothing, 3933 St. Elmo Ave. and 133 Frazier Ave.; Black Hand Tattoo, 3898 Dayton Blvd.; and Comfort Skateshop, 133 River St.
The “Make Chattanooga Weird” stickers are available at three local retailers: Collective Clothing, 3933 St. Elmo Ave. and 133 Frazier Ave.; Black Hand Tattoo, 3898 Dayton Blvd.; and Comfort Skateshop, 133 River St.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Don't tread on me. Remember the Alamo. Turn on, tune in, drop out.

Time and again, history has shown that a slogan can be a powerful element of change or provocation without being long-winded. Last December, a local artist decided to see if he could enact change with three words: "Make Chattanooga weird."

The artist, who goes by the pseudonym El Chappy Tan, designed a sticker bearing the slogan and marketed it to local small businesses. The goal, he says, was to encourage the continued growth of innovative ideas in Chattanooga and to discourage those who were beginning to grow complacent.

"I talk to people who say that Chattanooga is weird, but I don't buy it. It can always be more weird," says Chappy Tan, who prefers to go by his "weird" name.

His slogan is inspired by "Keep Austin Weird," a phrase coined in 2000 as a counterculture battle cry against rampant commercialism and in support of the Texas city's rich, eccentric arts scene. What started out as an underground movement on bumper stickers and T-shirts has become Austin's unofficial motto. The Austin Independent Business Alliance even co-opted it to promote investment in the city's small businesses instead of national retail chains.

The popularity of Austin's slogan inspired copycat campaigns promoting weirdness in many cities, including Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., Santa Cruz, Calif., and Louisville, Ky. Even Knoxville has set foot on the weird path with a campaign to "Keep Knoxville Scruffy."

For Chattanooga, Chappy Tan made a small but significant tweak.

"To say 'keep' [the city weird] would imply that it already is weird," he explains. "I tried to sell [the new slogan] to some people, and they were like, 'You don't think it's weird enough?' and I said, 'No. No, I don't.'"

So is the Scenic City artistic or quirky enough to be called "weird"? Artists and innovators in different fields sound off on the signs that Chattanooga's weirdness is approaching critical mass and whether being weird is a worthy goal.

MUSIC

Jonathan Susman is a drummer and the public face of Chattanooga Presents, which produces the Nightfall Concert Series. He also founded the Chattanooga Music Council, a collaborative marketing venture between the city and local music venues.

* What makes a city weird? "A weird city, to me, is one that has an innate -- sometimes planned -- infrastructure that is conducive to unique thinkers and creative ventures."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "I think it is getting there, but I don't think the music scene is anywhere near the level of Austin's -- not yet. I think we have the potential, and we have the talent."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "Out of that creative infrastructure can come ideas that aren't just new to the city but to people in general. I think we should strive toward it."

* What would make it weirder? A blog or weekly newspaper dedicated to covering music. A radio station specializing in presenting music by independent artists.

John Shoemaker is the indie-band-loving owner of JJ's Bohemia, an M.L. King Boulevard venue that has hosted everything from hip underground up-and-comers to nationally recognized bands.

* What makes a city weird? "It's keeping chain [stores] out of ... downtown ... trying to keep a culture in certain areas."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "As a city, we take steps forward, and then we take steps backward. ... For every good decision we make, it seems like we make a bad one. It's almost like they want the weirdness in some areas but not in others."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "Absolutely, if you want to have a unique city. Weird can be good."

* What would make it weirder? More venues taking chances on bands outside the musical mainstream, fewer chain restaurants and a greater diversity in local dining options.

FOOD/DRINK

Jeff Brakebill is the mastermind behind some of the city's quirkiest dining experiences, including Aretha Frankenstein's breakfast-all-day smorgasbord and the cracker-thin pizzas at Crust. His latest venture is Sofa King Juicy Burger.

* What makes a city weird? "Weird is kind of a catch-all for being progressive, open-minded, offbeat and rejecting the mainstream. I think any city worth its salt has some subculture of weird. ... Weird is like the fertilizer for new ideas."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "Chattanooga is on the right path ... When I was younger, there wasn't a whole lot here that kept a lot of the open-minded, progressive-thinking folks in Chattanooga. That's changed drastically."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "I think you can't rush weird. I think weird is a process. ... There's a gestation period."

* What would make it weirder? "I don't want to be the guy that's waiting for the future. I like what's happening now. I just want to enjoy the ride."

Joe Ledbetter is the co-owner and founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., which recently fought and won a yearlong battle to overturn laws preventing liquor distillation in Hamilton County. He and his business partner, Tim Piersant, plan to open distillery in the Southside.

* What makes a city weird? "When I look at weird, I think of being outside the box, not doing things the way other people do them. Why? Because weird is good."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "I don't want to be weird. I've heard several people say, 'We're the next Austin or the next Silicon Valley or the next this or that.' I don't want to be the next anything. I want to be Chattanooga."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "I'm in Chattanooga for the long haul, so I have a vested interest in making sure that I think outside the box but also encourage other people to think outside the box, too."

* What would make it weirder? If Chattanooga were to shift away from marketing itself to tech companies and re-emphasize its historic ties to manufacturing.

FILM

Daniel Griffith is a local filmmaker who travels around the country assembling material for documentaries of obscure science fiction and horror films.

* What makes a city weird? "I would define a weird city based on its unusual history, anything in its heritage that's grounded in the bizarre."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "If we are defining weird based on Austin and its culture and overall environment, we would have to move forward with some changes to get to that same level. Austin is just more seasoned, and we're in desperate need of seasoning."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "I think the vast majority of people in Chattanooga are hungry for something that's a little more culturally adventurous and that taps into something weird or odd or unusual."

* What would make it weirder? Re-establishing an art house movie theater to screen obscure, forgotten or underground films and to serve as a meeting place for local filmmakers.

Chris Dortch established the nonprofit film club Mise En Scenesters, which meets monthly to screen -- and occasionally financially support -- "strange and wonderful" films.

* What makes a city weird? "A weird city is a city unafraid of cultural and artistic diversity and where creative people feel safe to create and celebrate the kinds of work, art and lifestyles they see fit."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "I'm working hard on a daily basis to make it a lot weirder, and I'm pleased to report we're definitely getting there."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "Weird isn't for everybody. We just need to focus on making and creating films and businesses and art and all kinds of things that challenge folks and encourage them to have an open mind and -- most importantly -- a sense of humor."

* What would make it weirder? Even more opportunities to expose Chattanoogans to under-the-radar cinema.

THEATER

Lazarus Z. Hellgate (yes, a stage name) is a former theater tech and cofounder of Subterranean Cirqus, a local sideshow variety act that features raunchy comedians, a strongman and burlesque dancers. He has voluntarily eaten things most people would throw away.

* What makes a city weird? "Anything interesting and out of the norm, off the beaten path. ... Weird isn't ... an insult. It's more of a badge that says, 'We're different from everyone else.'"

* Is Chattanooga weird? "It's not as normal as it could be, and it's definitely not as normal as it was 10 years ago."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "I think Chattanooga already is weird, and people just don't know it yet. We've really progressed as a city, considering I haven't had a Baptist try and burn my house down."

* What would make it weirder? Weaker restrictions on parades through downtown. A freestanding gallery to display work by fringe artists. A black-box theater to serve as a communal meeting and performance space for local acting companies.

Michael Rudez is artistic director for Theater for the New South, a "pop-up" acting company founded in 2011 that presents experimental or avant-garde dramatic works in nontraditional performances spaces such as warehouses and art galleries.

* What makes a city weird? "Weirdness is people doing what they want to do because they want to, not because they have to."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "Yes. We have an established Theatre Centre that does a great job, but there are also a lot of different pop-up groups that are independent and doing their own thing because they like it. ... People want to see this alternative take on theater; Chattanooga likes that."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "If you want to be more and more weird and more and more unique and do more and more things because you have a passion for them, I don't see how that could negatively impact the city at all."

* What would make it weirder? A communal performance art center with a flexible stage, seating for about 100 and a promotional department to encourage companies from larger cities to use Chattanooga as a testing ground for new plays.

VISUAL ARTS

David Ruiz co-founded event photography company 423 Bragging Rights and PPRWRK, an artistic duo that pastes biodegradable paper murals on the sides of buildings. His current project is Tour de Noog, a guided bike tour of a dozen downtown buildings displaying a rotating collection of PPRWRK murals.

* What makes a city weird? "It's just being art-conscious and music-conscious with many community-driven events, not just to make money but to benefit the community."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "As far as progression goes, we're definitely moving towards an art culture. ... It's picking up -- the hype and cool of art for the sake of art, not for anything else."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "I would say Chattanooga would like being weird and should be excited about it. I'd say we've stepped over the line to weird, and we can only get more weird."

* What would make it weirder? Comprehensive advertising of high- and low-profile arts and music events in the city.

Kate Warren is the founder of Art 120, an artistic nonprofit whose most visible program -- elaborately decorated "art cars" and "art bikes" -- can be seen around town during annual events such as the Mainx24 parade or the Scenic City Art Car Weekend.

* What makes a city weird? "A weird city is a community that understands the importance of innovative ideas to spur positive change and has the courage to not only embrace those ideas, but celebrate them as well."

* Is Chattanooga weird? "Absolutely. Chattanooga consistently turns to its local resources and creative talent for new ideas, often with the public participating in the outcome."

* Should Chattanooga try to become weird? "While the term [weird] will do for now, Chattanooga's art scene is already proving to be so much more. I expect Chattanooga will be coining a whole new definition for the country to follow before this decade is through."

* What would make it weirder? "Chattanooga treasures cannot exist without community support. Buy art from local artists, galleries, and venues. Donate to local arts charities that speak to your creative and philanthropic side. Participate in public art events. Visit local galleries and museums. When you support local art, you become part of the process that makes Chattanooga so creative."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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