I was at a hotel bar waiting for an interview. When the box showed up instead it seemed pretty, yet sinister, too. What could be inside?
One reason for trepidation: The guys who sent it were the proprietors of a Portland-based company called Revenge for Hire.
Also worth noting: This same pair had just shot the pilot episode of a reality series about their antics.
And there’s more.
The part where the Revenge guys are also working artists. And the creators of a weird array of other Internet sites, including the now defunct Rude-o-Gram service (mean-spirited singing telegrams) and a short-lived private detective agency.
And there’s the allegations about drinking, public nudity and mental illness.
But first we’ve got a hot-pink pony head to contend with. And also a teensy scroll, which bore a message in microscopic type.
“Dearest Mr. Carlin,” the scroll read. “You’ve afforded yourself one question.”
Told to expect an answer in the form of an MP3, I waited. For days, weeks, months. Nothing came.
Six months later came a Facebook e-mail from a man named Tan Peluski, who claimed to be a friend of the Revenge guys. “You have arrived at your destination,” Peluski concluded. “Good luck, my friend.”
Peluski, as it turns out, doesn’t really exist. But the number he sent did indeed lead to Charlie Alan Kraft and Steve Elliott, the heart of Revenge for Hire, and so many other things, too.
Their antics might strike you as childish, self-indulgent and/or stupid. But take a closer look.
Think back to the Ken Kesey of the 1960s and ’70s, at the point when he gave up writing to focus on the art of being. Was it possible, he wondered, to function as a living, breathing work of art? The enlightened man as sparkle-eyed conscientious objector to the dull rigors of ordinary life?
You could also see the Revenge boys as the latest personification of Oregon’s beautiful-but-dangerous wilderness. A product of the substructural weirdness that trickles down from the mountains, flows through the river and bubbles through the faucets and into the house.
“The answer is never the answer,” Kesey said once. “What’s really interesting is the mystery.”
Let’s start with the tattoo.
It’s on the left side of Kraft’s face, beginning around his eye, stretching toward his ear and picking up again at his bottom lip, from where it descends like a pair of fangs or a trail of bluish blood.
Paired with his full beard, a boulder-size head and barrel chest, the tattoo seems to symbolize Kraft’s dedication to his art, or serve as a souvenir of some past episode of psychosis.
Or maybe a little of both.
Elliott, the more taciturn of the two, sits quietly with his low-key T-shirt and suspicious eyes, occasionally adding a withering comment in his sardonic baritone. The guys, both in their mid-30s, are clearly fond of each other, albeit with a kind of good-naturedly macho detachment.
“Steve’s an opportunist and I’m a (jerk),” Kraft says. “Knowing that about each other keeps us honest.”
Kraft hails from Minneapolis, where he attended art college before getting disgusted with his fellow students and dropping out to paint full time. Moving to Portland in 2003, Kraft fell in with a group of younger artists working in the outer circles where fine art meets graffiti.
Elliott started out in Philadelphia but moved west to study art and journalism at Portland State. There he met fellow art/journalism student Chris Haberman, who complemented his artsy calling with a yen for scene-making and people-connecting.
Haberman took his first big post-collegiate stand in 2009 by forming Portland City Art, a nonprofit designed to help organize and demand attention for the city’s emerging artists. One of his top lieutenants, at first, was Elliott, who designed and built the group’s website.
It was at a PCA opening where Haberman introduced Elliott to Kraft. Connecting immediately, Elliott and Kraft celebrated their meeting by swiping some of Haberman’s beer. Then the real trouble began when they got to talking and realized that one of the things they had in common was a growing antipathy for Portland City Art and its flamboyant leader.
Kraft and Elliott created a satirical website to ridicule the pretenses of the Portland art scene in general, and Haberman in particular. And just to be extra rude, Elliott planted the new publication on www.portlandcityart.com, which was PCA’s URL until it realized that nonprofit organizations go by “.org” on the web.
“They just kind of targeted me, man,” Haberman says. “Which is ridiculous ’cause we were a charity, man. I was just trying to sell art. But I think those guys are (unpleasant).”
Perhaps, but they were certainly busy. Kraft and Elliott went on to launch a variety of sites in 2009, reaching an apex, of sorts, when they launched Revenge For Hire (revengeforhire.com), whose homepage bears an array of questions, promises and disclaimers.
“Are you frustrated? Feeling alone? Is no one willing to listen to you and your vindictive ideas?” the homepage reads. “Don’t be shy! Hire the ‘Revenge for Hire’ posse! GET EVEN!”
The climactic line, written in extra-large type at the bottom of the page, addresses the reader’s antagonist: GUESS YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN SUCH A …
You can imagine where that sentence is going.
So could the authors of the e-mails that avalanched into their in-box.
“Turns out there are a lot of extremely angry people out there looking for really ugly kinds of revenge,” Kraft says. “We try to avoid the scary ones.”
But when it comes to dumping 220 gallons of dog excrement into someone’s yard — hey, no problem.
Same with unloading a ton of broken appliances and other extra-heavy detritus into the truck bed of a guy at least one person thinks is far, far too lazy. “We figured he’d HAVE to work to unload that,” Elliott says, flashing a dark smile.
Meanwhile a TV producer in Los Angeles named Jordan Stone had already imagined the financial upside of creating a reality show revolving around people carrying out revenge plots for fun and profit.
Stone tracked down Kraft and Elliott and asked them to make a video of themselves. He liked what he saw and passed along the results to TruTV, whose development staff got excited enough to pay for the production of a pilot episode.
The filming was, by all accounts, tons of fun. Except for the parts when (according to Kraft and Elliott), Stone started insisting that they dial their wildness back. Kraft and Elliott felt frustrated and were less than thrilled when they saw the tamed version of themselves.
“Charlie and Steve, when working together, are a force of nature that cannot be controlled or contained,” Kraft says.
Nevertheless, Stone controlled the final cut, so he submitted his version to TruTV, which promptly decided not to add it to its schedule. Stone is still pitching the show, but his subjects have moved on. They’re working on an original sitcom script.
“It’s about a couple of guys who will do anything to get a reality show on TV,” Elliott says. “They don’t care how humiliating it is.”
“It’s pretty much autobiographical,” Kraft adds.
In most circles, though, Kraft and Elliott are best known for their work as serious artists.
For being quiet, even sensitive guys, brush-wielding, paint-splattered denizens of the garret, working feverishly to trace the outer limits of perception.
Kraft’s muse describes scrunched-up monsters and vaguely human inhabitants of a world that is part Harvey Kurtzman-era Mad magazine, part Maurice Sendak and part acid flashback.
Elliott follows his brushes into a fire-and-brimstone madness, where movie or music stars stand amid bleeding skies and burning cities. One portrait of Patrick Swayze portrays the star nude with the bleeding head of a grizzly bear tucked under his arm.
“Like he just tore it off with his bare hands,” Elliott explains.
Both have fans and collectors, including the much-abused Haberman, who calls Kraft “one of the best line artists I’ve ever known.”
And he’s even more generous when it comes to Elliott: “Steve’s kind of a genius, really. One of the best Web designers out there. But he can’t hold a job. It’s classic.”
That mix of adulation and scorn echoes the dismissive attitude Elliott and especially Kraft have toward the product of their skills and imaginations.
“I’ve seen Charlie sell a painting for $1,000,” recalls John Graeter, another Portland artist and former creative director of PCA. “But I’ve also seen him burn paintings just like it in his front yard so no one could buy them. And he’d bite you if you came too close.”
The closest person to Kraft is nestled in the crook of his left arm. His name is Owen, and he’s 19 months old. Kraft is remarkably patient with the restless little fellow, the youngest of his three children.
His personal website (charliealankraft.com) and his corner of the Etsy.com online art sales network (etsy.com) describe an artist who is prolific, diverse (along with paintings and prints he offers sculptures and hand-built toys) and realistic enough to understand that he is as much a retailer as a font of creativity.
Elliott has similar websites for his paintings, though he cut back his work schedule due to the (premature) birth of his son, Killian Zorro Elliott.
“Babies are expensive, as it turns out,” he says, and Web designing offers a far more reliable paycheck for a guy as accustomed to trading paintings for beers (100 cold ones from The Know tavern for a portrait of ’90s rappers N.W.A. and Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates) as he is selling them for cash.
As Elliott notes, Kraft is far more successful artistically yet radiates skepticism-turned-hostility both for the art world as a whole and his creations.
He is “wired to create,” Kraft says. After leaving college, he sketched complex murals he’d spray paint on walls next to sloppily applied graffiti tags. Even now he’s happy to create works to nail in public settings, only to see them vanish with the passers-by. Art ought to be readily available to everyone, not just to moneyed collectors, he argues.
“Any human being can learn the technical skills necessary to create something artistic,” Kraft says. “I know how I am and what I do. I’m not more special than anyone.”
The self-analysis sounds unpretentious but also carries a strong whiff of self-destructiveness given the depth of commitment Kraft has given his work. Factor in the vengeance business, the crazier-than-you’ll-ever-be attempt at reality TV and the ongoing labors to complete and market a sitcom that mocks their own eagerness to jump into the life-in-the-spotlight game.
What might seen disconnected and even random actually, consciously or not, fits into the same conceptual structure. A vast, multimedia installation in which the entire planet gets hoist with its own petard. It’s easy to imagine it has something to do with Kraft’s legendary drinking bouts and related stunts, which friends recall as being fun and antic until they suddenly weren’t
“I’ve definitely seen him with puke on his shirt, looking like a complete wreck,” Graeter says.
Haberman says Kraft graced one of his group openings by stripping to his underpants and getting tossed out by security, a stunt for the “Revenge” reality show. Kraft denies being ejected from the show, but does acknowledge the less-planned drunken episodes. Graeter continues: “The next time I’d see him again and he’d be really sweet and articulate, and that’s just how he rolls.”
Kraft knows exactly what Graeter means, though he adds another element.
“Art comes hand-in-hand with psychiatric trouble,” he says. “Your brain chemistry is just made differently. But the older I get the more I know how to manage it, and fine-tune my creativity.”
He’s on the straight and narrow now, Kraft says. Hasn’t had a drink in eight months and has become an expert analyst of his own moods and psychic needs.
“I’ve been diagnosed as a bi-polar manic-depressive,” he says. “So drinking has nothing to do with me doing crazy … (stuff). I’m solid as a rock. And I’m a firm believer in positive thinking.”
Call him just another frontiersman on Oregon’s wild horizon. Kraft and Elliott together ride into the sunset on their headless pink ponies, armed with lights, cameras and more action than you’d ever imagine.