Poster Boy

Like what you see? Be sure to check out our slideshow of Uncle Charlie's coolest concert posters.

Uncle Charlie chats with an aging punk while people buzz inside his Bayou City Arts Festival tent, which looks like Walt Disney's toilet after a long night of swigging paint and dropping acid.

The swarm rifles through Uncle Charlie's works: graphic-designed posters pimping dozens of rock bands like The Who, Wilco, Radiohead and Willie Nelson. Each print is splashed with sugar skulls or alien gangsters or demented circus clowns.

With blue eyes behind black, thick-lensed frames, brown hair, and an orange ketchup stain on his shirt, Uncle Charlie, 42, is a legend. Ever since he was a private-school kid in a punk group, Uncle Charlie — real name: Charlie Hardwick — has created fliers for music shows.

Now, he's a rock art legend, one of the first people famous bands turn to when they need a brash, fuck-you poster. In Art of Modern Rock, a book co-authored by rock-and-roll historian Paul Grushkin and largely considered the bible of rock art, Hardwick appears in more sections than any other artist. With experience in the worlds of both corporate design and punk DIY, Hardwick graces Grushkin's chapter "temporary insanity" as effortlessly as his designs grace Minute Maid products. "You can't look away," Grushkin says. "The best rock-and-roll artists have always had that about them: the ability to stare down the public. The public has got to react. You cannot look at Charlie's art and not react."

Most of his fans here today have seen his colorful work on House of Blues marquees in Houston and across the country, and they line up to meet Uncle Charlie in the flesh. He greets his many admirers with a slow and purposeful handshake, one that starts as a right-angle bend at the elbow and extends forward on an even plane. Sometimes he misses by a few inches.

"I'm gonna go run to the restroom real quick," Hardwick finally says to the punk after what seems like half an hour. But this is no quick escape. He stands shakily as his wife Stephanie, who's sitting beside him, reaches into his backpack and hands him his retractable white cane with the red tip. Hardwick snaps it into place and heads off slowly, sweeping the crowded sidewalk in front of him with his stick. The punk looks confused, and people watching from a nearby bench start whispering.

His fans know that Uncle Charlie's art has changed throughout his career — especially over the past few years. What many of them don't know is that Uncle Charlie is blind.

Twice a week, Uncle Charlie mounts his bike and teeters three miles to the closest bus stop in The Woodlands. Provided he doesn't wreck his bike en route, which he's done eight times already this year, he catches the bus all the way downtown. He then walks the few blocks to the Metro rail, rides it a couple stops more. For Hardwick, the end of the line is always Tacos a Go-Go.

The whole staff knows him at the small, cheerful taqueria right off the rail. Hardwick's touch to the decor there is unmistakable; his Día de los Muertos-esque skull stickers hang next to the menus, and his same colorful design graces the stools.

Hardwick smiles to the whole store and greets the staff personally with animated hellos. He orders breakfast tacos at the counter and hands his card to the cashier, knocking over pens and menus. Bending his head close to the receipt, he squints, and the cashier indicates the signature line with an exaggerated flourish. "You know the drill," he tells her brightly in the direction of her voice.

Hardwick has been fleeing the suburbs ever since he was a kid. The fifth of five boys, and the youngest by eight years, Hardwick was largely left to raise himself. He was an angry kid, and nothing seemed to interest him: not school, not his parents' country club and not even art, though his talent was recognized early on. Little Hardwick won the local Hallmark's Halloween children's contest. He drew a scene creepy beyond his years with bubbling cauldrons, witches and his trademark skulls. Hardwick's neighbor enrolled him in a drawing class at the zoo, where kids would draw the animals. He hated it, he said. The people were weird.

Everything switched at 13, when Hardwick's closest brother took him to a Who concert. That night he discovered two things that would change his life forever: rock shows and Montrose. "It was just fascinating," he remembered of lower Westheimer. "All this just stuff, you know, hookers walking up and down the street, gay people everywhere, cars — it was like, wow. This is awesome, all this color."

Hardwick was hooked on the grit and graffiti of Montrose. For the next few years, he'd sneak out of his house at night and catch the bus there. Hardwick would stroll the streets alone or with friends, befriending transvestites and absorbing local art.

Inspired and rebellious, Hardwick and three friends at Episcopal High School in Bellaire started a band. They called themselves Dresden 45 after the firebombing detailed in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Hardwick, the bassist, called himself "Uncle Charlie," since he'd been an uncle from age nine. The private school punks were every bit as devastatingly hardcore as their name. "The very first show we played was at River Oaks Elementary for a carnival," Hardwick said, laughing. "Then we played Episcopal High School's dog show." But Dresden 45 rose fast to local thrash fame. Soon, they were playing clubs consistently.

Hardwick started designing black and white fliers to promote their shows. His sketches were loud and obnoxious, and sometimes offensive. People started to know Dresden 45 not just by their eardrum-blasting sound, but also by their flyers. When they released a record, Hardwick took charge of the design — drawing the cover illustrations, setting the type, gluing the edges. "I taught myself all that by looking at other punk rock fliers and what other punks were doing," he said. "It always stayed with me."

High school ended, the band split and Hardwick was once again lost. So he joined the Marines. "I wanted to go blow stuff up," he said. He was sent out to California for training in the school of infantry, which wasn't at all what he expected. One of his sergeants was a Deadhead, and the other was a surfer. When his unit ran together in formation, Hardwick would lead cadence calls with old punk rock antiwar songs. "There were several about going to Vietnam and dying and stuff like that," he said. "Everybody loved it."

It was through a comprehensive physical that Hardwick first learned he was colorblind, a fact that would later require him to take color cues off of paint bottle labels. "It just wasn't something that seemed to really bother me," he said. "There's still color, but it's just different." Plus, in his pre-artist days, Hardwick had alternative ways of generating vibrant experiences.

During downtime, Hardwick would head off to Los Angeles with friends. "We started going to Disneyland on acid," Hardwick recalled. He estimates that they'd ride "It's A Small World" eight times in a row, followed by eight rounds of Peter Pan and another eight of Alice in Wonderland. Hardwick was especially taken with the creepy, cartoonish animation of the kiddie joy rides. Tripping, he decided he wanted to be a graphic designer.

So Hardwick came back to Texas to start at the University of Houston. He soon transferred to the Art Institute of Houston, much to his parents' dismay. But Hardwick had finally found what made him tick. "Once I got in there, I hit the ground running," he said. "I found my niche."

Hardwick kept all kinds of odd jobs in college: florist, Zamboni driver, hamburger flipper. But the one that changed everything was his position as a record dealer's assistant. At an Austin record show he was working, an unsmiling man with bold black bars tattooed down both arms approached Hardwick's table. It was punk legend Frank Kozik, the man credited with single-handedly reviving rock poster art. When everyone else was posterizing in black and white, Kozik was using a printing press to run in color.

Kozik had seen Dresden 45 and remembered Hardwick as the cool bassist. "I sort of knew him as somebody that was generally part of the Texas punk rock scene," Kozik said. "Roles weren't very clearly defined back then for us." But Hardwick was starstruck. "It was like meeting fucking Buddha or Jesus," he said. Kozik invited him over to his house that night, where Hardwick discovered a posh, shadowy chamber of skull-topped drawing tables and walls plastered with mindblowingly dark surrealism.

He had found a teacher. Hardwick returned to Houston and quit the band he was playing with at the time. "I'm going to be a poster artist," he remembered thinking. "I'm going to fucking do this."

Hardwick got a job working as a graphic designer at Creative Marketing Associates (CMA), a prestigious design company that handled huge accounts like Mission tortillas and Hi-C. In fact, Hardwick is responsible for dreaming up the goopy wave of fruit juice at the bottom of every Hi-C label.

He'd use the office after hours to work on his flyers, which were becoming very well known. In Art of Modern Rock, Grushkin chronicled Uncle Charlie's formative years that would set the bar for punk poster design.

"For loud, aggressive, screw-you handbills, nobody was better," Grushkin said. Uncle Charlie's art was kind of a divining rod for a show's audience, he said. If you hated his posters, which were designed to piss people off, maybe you shouldn't bother going to the show. "Just happens that Charlie got to be really good, and in the course of time, the major promoters started using him regularly," Grushkin said.

The Xeroxed handbills caught the attention of a guy in Ohio, who telephoned Hardwick one day and identified himself as a poster broker. He had seen Hardwick's work and wanted to strike a deal: If Hardwick would design posters for PACE Concerts in Houston, a concert company that would later become Live Nation Entertainment, the broker would pay for printing and give Hardwick some posters to sell on the side.

So Hardwick began designing posters for Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica and Alice in Chains. "His art started to get better and better and better," Grushkin said. Hardwick was part of a new silk-screen movement — printing big and in color, like Kozik did. "You're talking about putting a huge amount of color technique, silk screen, into doing these really loud, aggressive posters for bands that the world had not really recognized yet," said Grushkin. "It was Frank Kozik who in Austin, Texas, rediscovered the art of screen printing. Charlie embraced it just as well."

Uncle Charlie's posters had a loud, maniacal style. From the very beginning, his creations were cartoony and psychedelic, with a touch of dark humor or wit. He'd draw a poster for Irish band U2 and throw in a German fighter plane. "He's one of the few cats that developed a unique style early on and stuck to it," Kozik said. "He wasn't concerned whether that was cool one day to the next."

Hardwick and his wife Stephanie, whom he met at a Dresden 45 show, would stroll around carrying giant cardboard boxes. They'd sell posters to people off the streets, to mom-and-pop record stores and at record shows. "Back then, if we walked around and made 400 bucks, we were in heaven," Hardwick said. "We'd be like, 'Fuck yeah! Let's go to Denny's!'"

Until one day, when Hardwick went to San Francisco and saw one of his posters up in a gallery's window. He had sold the poster to them for about eight bucks. Their price tag was $125. "I was getting screwed," he said. From that point on, he changed his business mind-set. He started by ditching the Ohio middleman.

Demand for Hardwick's poster work grew, so much that he would sometimes forget to sleep. In addition to his cartoons, he was using clip art and Photoshop more, scanning in images from old eighties science textbooks and bizarre European circus advertisements.

After six years at CMA, he quit to strike out on his own. He had plenty of contract work with PACE Concerts, which had given him the design reins for Numbers and several other Houston clubs. For a couple days a week, Hardwick also went to work for Public News and created rock show newspaper ads. When concert season was in full swing, he made almost twice what he was earning at CMA.

But about two years later, Public News folded. After a brief stint at another design agency, Hardwick went back to CMA.

Work was stressful. Once, Hardwick said, an employee transcribed one digit incorrectly on a Minute Maid UPC code. It was a $375,000 mistake, Hardwick said: Every detail mattered. In addition to doing design work himself, Hardwick was the last pair of eyes on the product designs. "If something was due at 5," he remembered, "the boss would come around at 4:45, and he'd stand there and whistle the Jeopardy theme."

In 2002, Hardwick started feeling sick. He figured he had the flu and kept blowing it off, but he didn't feel better. Hardwick didn't believe in modern medicine at the time, so he visited a holistic doctor. "Had I got on antibiotics earlier," he said, "I wouldn't have had all this shit happen."

Barely breathing, Hardwick was rushed to the emergency room in January of 2003, when he was immediately diagnosed with pneumonia. "I literally thought I was a goner," he said. Realizing he had no written will, he called up an attorney friend and had one drafted fast.

But Hardwick survived. For weeks he lay at home with tubes and IVs protruding from his insides. He wasn't too worried about the black spots in his field of vision, since the doctors told him they wouldn't be permanent. Everyone figured it was a temporary side effect from the barrage of antibiotics.

Bored out of his mind, Hardwick couldn't wait to get back to work. He drove in one day a week to hang out at CMA and maintain his sanity, despite the weirdness in his eyes. One morning he was sitting at his computer, feeling strange. Television static began to envelop his vision. This was a feeling he recognized from being stoned once while watching Pink Floyd — The Wall, but unlike then, his vision didn't return. Hardwick bent over and put his head between his knees. Nothing helped. "I sat up, and I sit back in the chair, and I'm totally blind," Hardwick said. His vision was pitch black for half an hour. Slurring his speech, he told a co-worker what had happened, who said he was having a stroke. Hardwick was driven home, and though life slowly floated back into his eyes, Stephanie took him to the emergency room. The neurologist couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. Take an aspirin a day, the doc recommended. "What? That's it? That's all?" Hardwick remembered asking.

The Hardwicks, now with two young girls in day care and escalating property taxes, couldn't economically sustain their home in the Heights. They moved up to The Woodlands. Still on pneumonia meds, Hardwick added visits to optical neurologists to his new routine. Every four to six months he'd see a doctor, and he'd never hear good news. Hardwick's sight was rapidly getting worse. Aside from the fact that his optic nerves had shriveled irreparably, nobody knew what was wrong with him. "There were so many unanswered questions," Stephanie remembered. "It was almost paralyzing sometimes to think about, so we kept living our lives the best we could." Terrified he'd lose his job and insurance, Hardwick lied to his coworkers that he was getting better.

But his actions betrayed him. He started bumping into people on the walk from the bathroom. He could no longer read people's handwriting on job tickets. And his boss would walk by and see Hardwick's face plastered to the computer screen. "Are you still going to that fucking holistic guy?" Hardwick remembers him asking.

Hardwick could see little more than a small circle's worth out of his right eye. His left eye, which had openings on different planes than his right, felt like tunnel vision. Normal vision is a floodlight, he'd explain, but his is a flashlight.

Hardwick traded the exciting challenge of creating posters for more ominous challenges, like driving to and from work. The commute became a twice-daily dance with death. He drove by staying in one lane the whole trip and by following grease marks on the highway whenever the stripes faded out. He couldn't even find peace with his eyes closed. Every night, he'd feel an overwhelming feeling of terror that if he went to sleep, he'd wake up totally blind. "I just wanted to go home, go to sleep, and not wake up," he said. "I was ready to not live anymore."

Stephanie talked him through the panic attacks. When Hardwick had them — the attacks lasted for years, Stephanie said — he'd wake up and flail for his glasses, desperate to see even a tiny shaft of light. "I'd tell him everything's okay. It had gotten to the point where I had a little thing I said: 'You're facing this way, and this way's the window and the bathroom, and everything's okay.'"

Just after Christmas in 2007, Stephanie was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Devastated, Hardwick didn't know what to do, so he dove into philosophy. He joined a Buddhist study group at the Universalist Unitarian church and started to meditate. "It needed to occur for me to deal with what was happening and to steer my way out of it," he remembered. "At that time in my life, something was ending and something was beginning...I think all those years leading up to those moments, the 2000s, was the universe tapping me on the shoulder saying wake up."

Stephanie recovered well with chemotherapy. The universe had thrown him a bone.

Another gift came in the form of computer system preferences. The IT manager at CMA, Hideki Hiranuma, showed Hardwick how to make his cursor large and flash orange so that it was more visible on his Mac. That didn't do much for Hardwick, but Hiranuma had opened the door to a whole world of disability features called Universal Access. The one that clicked with Hardwick was the feature that turned the white screen black and contrasted the other colors. "You feel like you're in a different world when you look at the screen," Hiranuma remembered. "And from this different world he's able to create an art, many many arts...he's like an inspiration." When Hiranuma talked to Hardwick, he said it was like talking to Stevie Wonder.

From the moment he found a way to draw again, Hardwick was back. "I realized, holy shit, I can fucking see that."

Uncle Charlie's first step to creating a rock art masterpiece is always the same: find the cursor. Inside his living room office at his home in The Woodlands, he sits in front of his giant silver monitor, flinging the mouse across all edges of the black contrasted screen until he spots it. Then he zooms in — way, way in, to where smooth Mac text shows its pixels — in order to find the "open" command. Near the "fuckyou" folder, he double clicks on "HEARTY." Up pops an image of spurting, flowing hearts.

"I'm this punk rock guy. Why am I doing this?" he murmurs as he flips the image from red-heart view to its contrasting blue-heart view. "I don't know what I'm doing. I really don't fucking know what I'm doing. Where is this coming from? Am I channeling somebody? I've got friends doing all these bizarre things with skulls, and I'm doing hearts and dainty flowers. I don't know who I am!"

As he vents, he clicks two points on the screen. Zooming way in and out to see what he's doing, Hardwick cranes his neck toward the screen and then pulls it back, the way a pianist sways with the music he plays. He zooms and clicks and drags a few more times, sometimes clicking entirely outside the area by mistake, until he forms a petal. By drawing and anchoring a small circle, he copies and rotates the petal to form a hard-won flower. It's tedious and dizzying.

Sometimes, when somebody accusingly asks Uncle Charlie if his alleged "art" is computer-generated, he puts on his best long-voweled hick accent. "Yes, honey, it is, it's just generated on the computer," he says. "I just push a button and it all comes out perfect."

Hardwick had finally found a way to maximize his design work. But one day in June 2008, Hardwick's boss had called him and six others into the conference room. "Everyone in this room is being laid off," they were told.

He had lost his eyesight and now his job, but Hardwick couldn't help but smile at the news of total freedom. Armed with free time, unemployment, and disability insurance, Hardwick often took the bus downtown just to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Once, he set off the alarm by standing too close to a painting.

He was examining a Monet from kissing distance one day when a lady tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he could step aside. She had a class of kids in tow. Hardwick listened as the teacher talked about the colors, the paint, the technique. "And did you kids know," Hardwick remembered her saying, "that this painter Claude Monet, he had really bad eyesight? He was almost blind!" The kids left, and Hardwick walked up to the muddled lily pads again. He had had no idea that Monet was blind. He couldn't read the placard.

It was another message from the universe. "I just thought, 'Yeah, I can do this,'" he said. "It just woke me up."

Within a couple weeks, Hardwick's life did a symmetrical flip. He designed a cover for the Houston Press — a bold, comic-style boy flipping the bird. "It was the most complained about cover ever," he said. "That's big." Uncle Charlie was back.

Around the corner from Tacos a Go-Go is a cozy, funky vinyl shop called Sig's Lagoon. Tiki mugs, bobble heads, and unclassified kitsch fill the gaps between racks and racks of records. It's a nursery for weird local punk.

The owner, Tomas Escalante, wanted Uncle Charlie on his walls. Hardwick had designed an album cover for Escalante's band a long time ago, and the style would fit perfectly with the store, he thought. "He's definitely on that low-brow kind of approach," Escalante said. So he asked Hardwick if he would do a poster show at the store. Hardwick agreed, though he expected a tiny turnout. True to their DIY roots, they taped color-bombed posters on slices of cardboard and hung them on the walls. The Chronicle heralded Hardwick and the show with a big write up, and Hardwick prepared for a handful of friends. More than 200 people came.

He'd hardly been laid off a month.

Even after the crowds had gone home, Escalante continued to make a lot of Uncle Charlie sales. The two turned Sig's Lagoon into Hardwick's distribution center. Now, the store is confettied with Uncle Charlie skate decks, magnets, posters, greeting cards, and T-shirts. "Everything in his art just pops," Escalante said. "That's the one comment I get a lot from people — it jumps out."

Hardwick's good fortune was only beginning. A couple of months after the Sig's Lagoon show, the House of Blues in Houston was about to open. They needed posters for the giant marquees outside, and Hardwick got the gig. Now, he scours the list of coming attractions and chooses which bands' posters he wants to design. "Little did I know, it was going to turn into this gravy train," he said. "There's so much shit to do!"

So he formed a company called Chazbro — another of his nicknames from the Dresden 45 days — and recruited a couple of graphic designers to create posters. One of those is Scrojo out of San Diego, a longtime Uncle Charlie fan who creates one or two posters a month for Chazbro. He said he loves telling people that he works for a blind poster designer. "It's so surreal that a blind man is a functioning graphic artist," he said. "I'm completely amazed the guy can still do it."

But to Frank Kozik, the artistic process has very little to do with eyesight. "I know the way I work and with a lot of guys, you don't really have to see it to imagine it in your mind," he said. "I think he'll be able to do whatever he envisions."

There are no cars in the Hardwicks' musty garage — only a fleet of kamikaze bikes and racks of Hardwick's posters. A pyramid of cylindrical tubes waits to be picked apart and shipped to Australia, Ohio, Colorado, and Katy, Texas. Until Hardwick moves into the office loft above Sig's Lagoon next year, this is Chazbro headquarters.

These days, Uncle Charlie's work is more thickly lined and less detailed, though it's more vibrant, like op art on drugs. And lately, Uncle Charlie has been stripping band names from his off-the-clock works. In his new series called "What I See", a mixture of painting, posters, and computer-generated images, Hardwick places a small character from one of his old posters in the center of a canvas. A thin halo of pattern surrounds the subject. Lively multicolored strokes fill the corners and edges of the canvas and rush forward, closing in on the subject. Hardwick can't see anything but the character right in the center.

"What I See" isn't going to change. Three years ago, Hardwick's ophthalmologist wrote him a short open letter for anyone who may come asking. "Charlie Hardwick is legally blind due to optic nerve atrophy and will remain that way," it read. "His vision will not improve."

But to many, his art has. Ignoring his natural urges toward stencils, precision, and the typographical cleanness drilled into him by his career at CMA, Hardwick got angry one day recently and painted something freehand. He used wild, exuberant strokes to paint a smiling adolescent boy with one eye closed — the right eye, the one out of which Hardwick has lost almost all vision. Within days, a woman wanted to buy it to hang on the wall of her new kids' store.

Stephanie will hate to see the boy go. Since her husband's vision has gotten worse, she says, his art has only gotten better. "It used to be just 'Fuck you'," she says, "but now it's 'Fuck you, I'm happy.'"

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