The Art of Rock

Pete McPhee reflects on marking art for bands

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Illustrator and graphic designer Pete MacPhee describes being a full-time artist as “kind of a pirate’s life.” The Portsmouth-based husband and father has spent decades designing posters and artwork for countless local Providence bands, Boston neighbors Dropkick Murphys and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and even national household names like Neil Young, Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osborne, Social Distortion, and Blondie, his “first crush.”

Despite such success, “There is always temptation to jump the shark,” MacPhee says. He tells young aspiring artists that “It’s a lot of work, and you’d better get used to criticism and believe in yourself.”

MacPhee grew up in Narragansett and majored in Fine Arts Illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology after dabbling in Industrial Design. In 1994, unsure how to apply his new degree, he found work at a photo retouching company in Cranston, where he cut his teeth on graphic design. Photoshop was still new at the time, and MacPhee took as many computer classes as he could.

“There was a whole debate back then people saying, ‘There’s no way computers are gonna take over,” he says. Newly acquainted with the ease and functionality of Photoshop, he replied, “There’s no way this is not gonna take over.”

A year later, MacPhee was laid off and purchased a silk-screening shop and, under the name Swamp Yankee and living in Providence, started making t-shirts for local bands like Shed, The Amazing Crowns, and Purple Ivy Shadows, as well as organizations like Jerky’s nightclub and The Black Rep Theatre. With his first poster commission, MacPhee was surprised to find he “actually enjoyed it.” He hung out at In Your Ear Records on Thayer Street and sold posters at pop-up tables outside of Lupo’s and The Living Room – at the time, merchandising rules were much more relaxed. As his poster work increased, an opening band called The Deterrents introduced him to The Bosstones and Dropkick Murphys, which led to decade-plus working relationships. He has also done recent label designs for Narragansett Brewery.

MacPhee jokes that his mother did not consider his work a “real job” until he designed a T-shirt for Bob Seger, and she was even more excited when one of his designs was used as a backdrop during a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Swamp Yankee’s brightly-colored images blend hand illustration and software, resulting in a natural-yet-polished feel. MacPhee is inspired by Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Medieval etchings, and lately has been getting into “vintage Victorian wallpaper and wallpaper from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” He currently resides in Portsmouth with his wife and children, and occasionally sells artwork at local events like the upcoming Rock and Roll Yard Sale.

Swamp Yankee