Sep 18, 2023

Steffan Chirazi

Steffan Chirazi

Tony Squindo - The King of Breakfast Soups

Aside from being one of the more decent human beings you could meet on this planet, Tony Squindo is something of a Renaissance man. Yes, yes, by now, his wonderful art has become well-known among the Metallica family; his creations have adorned dozens of t-shirts, posters, and other assorted merchandise over the last two-plus decades. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see a man rich with a wide-ranging palette of experiences, including the fine art of breakfast soups, fiery cars, and pet chipmunks. Squindo’s warmth and decency echo quietly yet persistently from all he does, sometimes leaving the (quite understandable) feeling that humanity might be a bit much to deal with. That is where the pencils, ink, ideas, and animals all come into play, helping him navigate the world alongside his soulmate, Wendy. “I hope you got something interesting out of all that,” he told me soon after our interview. “It felt like I was just talking without saying anything.” Oh, no worries there, Tony, my good man. You said plenty…


I’ve done a lot of shitty things and shitty jobs that I did not want to do to get where I wanted to be. Straight out of school, I ended up with jobs roofing or floor sanding, and I was miserable. There was a lot of manual labor that probably helped me in the long run – I can work on my house now. But when you’re 17, 18, 19, you’re doing these jobs that are just beating you up, and you know you want to do something [more]. I always drew, and I always liked what I was drawing, to a point. But I had no idea how to make that make money and be a job or a career. My father was a teacher, and he kept telling me that I should go that route. “Go the safe route, and you have a good, reliable job.” And I kept telling him what I wanted to do, and he’s like, “It’s a good backup, but this is what you should do.” So, I did that. I went to school and tried to do that, and it just was miserable. I was not having fun at all.

So I met my future wife, and we ended up moving to my parents’ property just to get away from the New Jersey mess that we were stuck in, stupid jobs and everything, and [my father] had me working on his house to try to help them build a retirement house. This was in the early ’90s in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. So, we moved up there, and I ended up being the cook at some little diner, but I couldn’t cook! The guy asked me if I knew how to cook; I said I cooked breakfast. He said, “All right, you’re hired.” So, we did that, and then a landscaping job, too. Just miserable.

This was some bed and breakfast place up by a ski mountain in Pennsylvania. They’re long gone now, but the woman working there said I should make a cabbage soup. I made it, and she’s like, “How’s the taste?” I said, “I’m not eating that. I hate it. I hate cabbage; I’m not going to try this.” But yeah, cabbage soup for breakfast. I was the only cook, and I had no idea what I was doing except I could scramble an egg.


After the cooking job, we ended up on welfare for a little bit, and it was a spiral down. We knew we had to leave because there was no future. So, we ended up moving back to New Jersey, living in my wife’s parents’ basement, and I went back to this t-shirt shop I’d done some work in before. I was doing more artwork for them, but it was still kind of miserable artwork. There were bands playing constantly, so we’d go out nonstop to different shows, and I’d be banging on bus doors just trying to do art for bands because I knew what I was doing could go in that direction. I drew skulls. Everybody likes skulls, and I was going to see metal bands, so I was like, “You need a skull?”

In 2013, I did a project where I committed to drawing a skull of some description every day called “Year of the Skull.” It was a journal, really, and some days were definitely weirder and more difficult than others. [Squindo used all manner of materials from food to dirt to his own blood besides conventional tools. – ED]


I didn’t even know who Kid Rock was at that point, but I heard him on the radio doing an interview and thought I’d go and hang out. And he was super cool to us. It was right as his Devil Without a Cause album was coming out [1998 – ED], so he was not huge yet. We hung at the bar and just bullshitted for a while, and as I’m talking to him, I’m thinking, “I could totally draw this guy. He looks like a cartoon character anyway.” Wendy’s quiet; she’s got some anxiety, but she’s good at pushing me in those situations, and it all worked out because Kid Rock kept me busy. About a year later, I saw him in New York at a gig. We’re backstage, and it’s a rock star party! There was everything, all kinds of crazy… the room’s jam-packed, and I was soaked in sweat and nervous because I was showing him more art to (hopefully) buy. He was in the back corner talking to somebody. I didn’t want to step where I wasn’t supposed to step; I didn’t know my level of where I was supposed to be. And I see he’s talking to Lars. I’d seen Metallica a few times at that point, and they were top-notch.

I’d looked at their merch and felt these were the guys that if I could work for any band, they were the band I wanted to work for. I just thought it wouldn’t happen, that they’d never hire me because they had Pushead and all this other shit going on. But I saw him that night, and he was super cool, looking at everything and digging all the artwork I had. He asked me for a card, and I was like, “I don’t have cards.” I’m just a dipshit in Jersey who’s drawing pictures, you know? He gave me the management’s number, and I was so mentally high walking out of there. We met up with some friends later, and I’m like, “You are not gonna believe what just happened!”


Around the time I met Lars, I was driving a shitty $700 Camaro car in New York that would break down constantly. I was working on it across [from] my cousin’s shop, and it caught fire! So I go back in my cousin’s shop and ask, “Do you have a fire extinguisher?” And he’s like, “What for?” I’m like, “A fire! My car is on fire!” It wasn’t a bad fire, but the engine was on fire. I guess when your fucking car’s on fire, it’s never a good one. I hadn’t drawn flames on cars at that time, but this was a totally legit hot rod! I ended up donating it, and they must’ve known me because they asked if the car had ever caught fire, and I said, “No, no, not at all… (how big a fire are we talking?!).”


It was in 1999. The four cartoon faces in an oval, and also the little kid ripping the rabbit head off, which was odd that they even bought that. I didn’t understand that. The Four Faces is one of the shirts I’ve revisited, and I’m much happier with it now. A funny thing, though… when I was looking at that to redraw it, I thought that, of course, I appreciate them buying some of these things. But I don’t understand why they would, at the same time, because I look at them, and there’s no noses on anybody. And drawing what I draw now compared to what I drew then, it kind of blows my mind that they have kept me [around] as long as they’ve kept me.


While living in the trailer, I had just quit that horrible cooking job and hooked up with a guy I knew from Jersey. He was doing a “learn to read” book set and paid me hardly anything. I had to draw all of these pictures of happy little kids doing happy little shit. It was something like 2,000 drawings for the stupid book set, and again, I got paid next to nothing.

It broke down to something like six dollars an hour. It was horrible. But we were poor, living up in the mountains, and I was getting paid to draw horrible pictures, all of happy kids. So, by the time I was done, I only wanted to draw mean kids. So, I had done a couple of kids with axes and crazy shit like that. When I was doing designs to present to the [Metallica] management in the hope of working for them, the rabbit was totally different from what they did, so if they wanted something completely different and metal but cartoon metal, I thought that maybe it would sell. Bizarrely, they bought that one!


I grew up with Warner Brother cartoons, everything exploding, getting hit on the head with a hammer and shot in the face. They were the way to go.

Favorite characters? Bugs Bunny’s cool, but Daffy Duck is, to me, just a funnier dude; he’s insane. All the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes ones were the top tier of the coolest for me growing up. I’ve been down a wormhole with them, too. I’ll get on YouTube and watch the artists, what they were doing, what inspired them, and who they became.


I went and tried the digital route just to see how it was because everybody was telling me what I was doing was the wrong way. I’ll draw a picture and then ink it with brushes. Younger artists who do digital… they’re like, “You can just use this tool on the iPad, and it does that, gives an insane look.” I tried it. Maybe I’m not skilled at it like they are, but it might be too clean for me, I think? I like a little rougher, a raw edge to the drawing, especially when I’m doing the outline.


I’m 100% anxious while working on stuff. Like trying to draw James’s face right… will they like this? Is he mean enough? I have noticed that the more art that’s out, with every show having a different artist now, it’s a driver for me to do a little bit more. Some of the stuff I used to do was very simple, but now, with other people’s stuff out there, I’m more competitive with myself. I want to do something above what I did last time.


The lyrics definitely help. While drawing for any band, I listen to the band as much as possible to get it right. With the 72 Seasons album, there’s so much in it that is drawable. For the most part, I get management messages asking for me to come up with something new and maybe a hint of an idea, which is helpful to a point. And I don’t do pieces specifically for, say, a t-shirt or a poster. The art is the motivator, not how it’s being used. Sometimes, you have to be specific, like if it’s a guitar pick design, then I know it will have to be tight and a little more graphic so it can be seen. Otherwise, I do the piece first and then figure out how to fit it to whatever.


I really like the original four guys one just because it was what got me in, but the “Jump In The Fire” guy from the Hollywood, FL, gig [November 2022’s Celebration of the Lives of Jonny & Marsha Zazula – ED], when I saw that one onstage, that kind of just blew my mind because it was so… I mean it’s basically their character that I just redrew a little bit and put my tweak on, but seeing him that big at that show was epic for me.


When me and Wendy moved up to the mountains, we got this dog, Shay. She was a shepherd-husky mix, a little fur ball covered in fleas, and that dog just destroyed us. Your heart just melted. Her little eyelashes flickered up at us, and we were done. She had puppies, so we kept two of those, and they were three maniacs. Our friends called them the Bumpus Hounds (from A Christmas Story) because they were just maniacs. People would come over, and they’d just barrel through the door, these 60-70-pound dogs. Maniacs! But they all passed away within a year and a half; it was kind of sudden, and it broke us completely. So we bought a panel truck and just… I couldn’t stand being in the house, so we drove cross-country. We made a couple of trips to Texas in the truck, just not to be home. Later, at that same house, I befriended a chipmunk! I would go out every day with peanuts in my hand, and this chipmunk would just keep coming up. I’d put my hand on my chest; he would sit on my hand, look out at the world, and eat peanuts. That was Steve the Chipmunk, and even though we moved to Florida and I couldn’t bring him, he is still well looked after by our old neighbors. And we did end up getting another dog last year, a German shepherd maniac called Bunny, who is 65 pounds now and spoiled like you wouldn’t believe… but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

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