Remembering a local legend The legacy of Tacoma artist Teddy Haggarty

Photo by Don Lockner

By Dave R. Davison

The City of Destiny lost one of its living legends last week. Teddy Haggarty, artist, musician, actor, poet, philosopher and salesman, died last week reportedly due to complications after hip surgery. He was 64 years old.

Tributes to Haggarty have been running thick on his Facebook page and elsewhere. I wish to pay my own tribute, though there are many who knew him far better than I. I claim no more than an acquaintance with the man. I’ve had a handful of conversations with him and was able to observe him on multiple occasions. I was also privy to some of the “Teddy Lore,” stories about Haggarty that were currency in some of the social circles in which I moved for a time.

Teddy Haggarty was known for his mermaids and unicorns and fanciful scenarios. He was also known for the thousands of portraits that he drew of Tacoma residents who happened to be at the right dive bar at the time.

I have also experienced a fair share of Haggarty through the medium of his art. Over the years, I have seen a good quantity of his work and have experienced the way in which it can grow on you. The more you see, the more you come to appreciate his gifts as a visual artist. He had a stock of images that he would repeat in endless combinations and variations like a kind of visual music. Mermaids would frolic with unicorns. Valentine hearts and birds and airplanes would fill the air. He liked pictures of islands and circus arenas, plump snakes and happy-snappy alligators.

Steve McMullan
Steve McMullwen

Many had their Teddy encounters in the various dive bars that he inhabited. For years, he would be there with a big sketch pad and an assortment of pens, markers, crayons and color pencils. He would draw pictures of his fellow patrons and then tear the finished drawing out of the sketch pad and give it freely to the person who’d knowingly or unknowingly sat for a portrait. There must now be thousands of these portraits in circulation all over Tacoma. I personally have two of them, but a friend of mine had a whole wall covered in them, each one lovingly framed and proudly displayed.

Roxanne Murphy

Teddy started life in Victorville, Calif. in 1953, but his military family moved to Tacoma in 1969. He graduated from Clover Park High School class of ’71. I have heard the stories – part of the Teddy-Lore that I have no reason to doubt — of Haggarty’s conquest of Hollywood. Along with his brother Leonard, Haggarty went to the heart of the film industry and was able to find a place in orbit around the star Alec Baldwin.

Lawrence Huffines
Lawrence Huffines

He once told me of his adventures as the driver for Charles Bukowski, the renegade writer of wild novels like “Post Office” and “Ham on Rye.” I know of at least one documentary about Haggarty, “All About Haggarty,” which I saw when it was first screened at Jazzbones in 2007.

The Haggarty brothers were also involved in the management of some of the local rock bands like the Baby Knockors. One evening I found Haggarty at a bar working on a musical. There are also at least three books of his poetry in circulation.

I knew Haggarty primarily as an artist, however. We were both part of the local, underground art scene that flourished, for a few giddy years, in pre-recession Tacoma, during the latter George W. Bush era. It was a short-lived, magical time – a kind of Camelot interim of optimism when hopeful artists participated in an effulgence of local art and grass roots cultural awakening. During that time, Haggarty was carrying a big share of the load by organizing live painting events at venues like Jazzbones and Ramp Art. For a while, there were regular paint nights when anyone could come, pick up a brush and add as much or as little as they wanted to the large canvases that Haggarty provided. At one of the Urban Arts Festivals, Haggarty got some of his friends from a martial arts school to use the swift, controlled movements of their hands and feet to apply paint to a canvas.

Haggarty had conquered Hollywood and New York, but he had a strong homing instinct. He was embedded in the fabric of Tacoma. He knew Tacoma through its taverns and its dive bars. He could mingle with Hollywood royalty as easily as he could speak to a bearded workman who happened to be seated next to him at Bob’s Java Jive or the Tempest Lounge or the Monsoon Room. Yet he was not boisterous. On the contrary, Haggarty spoke quietly, almost awkwardly, and had a shamanistic otherworldliness about him. He could come across as a simpleton and then he’d say something utterly shrewd. He once, for example, gazed at a collection of my own art that I’d hung at Ramp Art and remarked that I should try to convince people that all the art should be kept as a set and that a potential buyer should buy everything on the whole wall. (He was known for his art-selling tips.)

Teddy Haggarty is survived by his mother, Lillian, and his brother Leonard Haggarty. The brothers functioned as one of those brotherly teams that can be so effective. I think of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh or even of the Davidson brothers, Arthur and Walter of the Harley Davidson motorcycle company, or of the effective partnership that Walt Disney had with his brother Roy. There is the creative force and the business manager.

Teddy Haggarty was a well-known figure in numerous circles in our gritty city on Commencement Bay. If you are fortunate enough to have one of his portraits, now is the time to put it in a frame and display it with pride. His passage signals the end of an era. In his art and his legacy, something of his spirit endures with us yet.

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