The Artista Gang in 1984

A gang? In terminally mellow Marin? Yes, but members of the Artista won’t hit you with anything more devastating than a bad joke. The Artista uses baseball bats for baseball, and offers the Oakland A’s scab ballplayers, for $100 per game, all the beer they can drink. 

Although the bright red script below the Artista logo on his gang jacket says “El Presidente”, the Artista’s main man is better known as Elton Kelly, a San Rafael-based artist. With partner Stanley Miller, better known as Mouse, Kelly revolutionized pop art in the mid-60s with the psychedelic style of San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom Dance concert posters. 

Kelly and Mouse began their string of record jackets in 1966 with the Grateful Dead’s first long player, and since then have done artwork for Steve Miller, Journey, Paul McCartney, and many other rock acts. Kelly has been commissioned to design a logo for this summer’s tour by the Rolling Stones! 

Why would two successful artists start a gang? “It’s a lighter concept than belonging to an art society or artists league,” Kelly explains. “The world already has those other things and “talk about the way”, Kelly says laughing “the societies are aliens, not us!” 

The Artista concept had its beginnings as the Concrete Foundation of Fine Arts studio in San Rafael about six years ago. The C.F.F.A. included Kelly and Mouse, the team of Pat Ryan and Dave Sheridan, who were doing underground comics, as well as T-shirts designs and other graphics, jewelry designer Linda Merrill, painter Larry Noggle, fashion designer Enid Hansen, photographer Tim Harris, and cartoonist Victor Moscoso. The nine artists called their studio the Peanut Gallery and their eviction from the premises in 1979 led to the formation of the gang, which numbered 80 last October, and now includes about 300 heads.

” We had a studio upstairs and a gallery downstairs,” Pat Ryan recalls, “we put on a lot of really great art shows and parties, and then we all got evicted. That’s when the Artista started happening. Kelly was fanatical about it and a fanatic cannot be denied. I remember him coming over every day saying “let’s paint the dragon”, “let’s paint the dragon” and that’s the way we did it.”

That’s the way they had to do it. The Concrete Foundation of Fine Arts was a loose organization that didn’t hold its first art show until it occupied the Peanut Gallery for more than three years. When the first public art show was held, the gallery was packed to the walls and there was a line outside to see the original artwork that graced album covers of the world’s foremost rock bands. Other shows proved equally successful. 

Larry Noggle volunteered to keep the finances in order and the studio stayed afloat until the building was sold.  The new owners wasted no time dispatching the energetic bunch to the curbside. Kelly, Ryan and Sheridan, not at all pleased with their exposure to the realities of real estate, got together and painted the Artista logo – the vivid dragon standing under the gang’s name and the group began growing. 

“The Artista jacket is a party flag,” says Dave Sheridan, a Ripoff Press cartoonist who painted the album cover of Father Guido Sarducci‘s release. “It’s artwork but it’s not hanging on the wall. An Artistia can live anywhere and do anything, for the gang has no rules. 

“The Artista isn’t an intellectual trip or an artistic endeavor,” Kelly says, “It’s a gang essentially, and it has to be for fun or it isn’t going to make it.”

If the gang did have any rules, “Have Fun” would be at the top of the list and totally unnecessary. It’s history of hellacious parties extends back to the Peanut Gallery, where Dave Sheridan formed the fictitious “Poisonous Brothers Brewing Company” and serve 60 quarts of homebrew at what Ryan calls an “all night Animal House” videotaped by concert promoter Chet Holmes and monitored by a bouncer called “Unbalanced George”. The party moved tp Kelly’s apartment sometime before dawn and the crew then set to Kelly’s collection of toy whistles. When the sound of more than 100 whistles attracted the police, most of the celebrants thought the flashing red lights were a disco effect. 

Sheridan was featured on Evening Magazine last fall, and took the television crew on a tour of his “brewery,” where the last batch of “Industrial Strength Malt Liquor” was made. “We haven’t brewed for a while,” Dave says, “we used too much sugar in that batch and it blew up!” But the labels survived. Ryan’s “Totalle ‘Blanc” table wine label shows two women, Rosa Marie and Maria Rosa, stomping a vat full of white tables and is available on T-shirts made in Hawaii.