Captain Outrageous didn’t start out as an artist. He started out, in the long tradition of people who come to Key West and reinvent themselves, as something more of a persona looking for a new identity. In his previous life he’d lived in the Midwest and been Norman Taylor, an insurance salesman, newspaper editor, financial analyst, developer, and/or several other things of that white-collar, 9-to-5 ilk. Details are fuzzy.
He came onto most Key Westers’ radar when he opened a restaurant on White Street in the early 1990s which was properly called The Last Straw, but which most people I knew referred to as Bad, Bad, Bad Burger, because it was painted in very bright lettering on the front of the place. The one time I ate there the walls were covered with promotional album covers of acts you’d never heard of and would never hear of again. The only beer was draft Old Milwaukee in a plastic cup for 50 cents. The food was as advertised.
It was a low-budget affair, so he painted all the signs himself in over-the-top neon paints which definitely caught the eye. And then he painted his old truck in similar Day-Glo colors.
The restaurant did not survive, and afterward Outrageous was broke. But then people started showing up at his apartment, asking him to paint on objects for them the way he’d painted the front of the restaurant – bicycles, lamps, pith helmets, guitars, mannequins, more bicycles, old radios, old telephones, and the occasional chunk of plywood or other durable substrate.
He expanded beyond the milieu of just text and developed a visual style that lifted heavily from R Crumb and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom worked in a context that lifted heavily from the old-school funny pages. He made distinctive work that working people could afford.
For a while he lived in an Airstream trailer, painted in his signature style, in a lot by Key West Bight, until the property was developed into what would become the Conch Republic Seafood Company. He met a woman who would later be known as Lady Outrageous at the coffee place across the street. He legally changed his name to Captain Outrageous in order to make an unsuccessful bid for Key West mayor. Later he opened a gallery which he ran for several years at 525 Caroline Street.
He cultivated a personality that has been alternately described as ornery, irascible, warm and funny. All the while, he got up every morning and grabbed his brushes. By his own estimation he painted at least 1,500 bikes, 200 scooters, and 100 cars. He painted so many things that he came up with a stencil for his big loop of a signature to keep it consistent.
When he died in 2007 they held a second line procession for his funeral. Hundreds of people showed up, many riding his bikes or carrying pieces he’d painted. He is memorialized in the Key West Cemetery by a fairy-topped plinth that sits on about one square foot of land but rises up about six feet. Around the fairy’s neck hang dozens of strands of shiny beads from Fantasy Fest.
You still see his work around town, though not as often as you used to.
Eli Pancamo didn’t know Captain Outrageous well. He stopped into the gallery on Caroline Street around the year 2000, just after moving to Key West, and met him. He was a budding art collector at the time and ended up buying his first Outrageous piece that day – a wooden box painted with the image of a man getting punched in the face by a disembodied fist, the word “POW!” emblazoned atop it all in big red letters.
He didn’t realize he was at the start of something.
Pancamo and his wife, Kenna, opened the highly successful Garbo’s Grill, sold it (but not the rights to the name north of Monroe County), and then opened Sinz Burritos. In the years since he has collected a number of artists, both local – John Martini, Andy Thurber, Letty Nowak, Susie Zuzek de Poo – as well as a number of street artists from more urban areas – Momo, FAILE, Eric Fuss, Cash4. Their home is literally packed to the rafters with original artwork, as well as collections of toy robots, colored glass power line insulators, two pinball machines, and at least one giant clear filament bulb from an old Key West street light.
“But the Captain is one of the people who got me into this whole art thing,” said Pancamo.
“It wasn’t like I had some epiphany. I think over time, when I started to understand Key West, I was like, man, I really like his stuff. It’s just fun. So every now and then I would find a piece at a yard sale. And then it became this thing where I would get phone calls and people would be like, ‘I have something. Do you want to buy it?’” Pancamo said.
Over the years Pancamo acquired several paintings, at least one mannequin, a pair of Mary Janes, several painted denim jackets, several bicycles, a motorcycle gas tank, at least one car hood, as well as other items. While we were talking he pointed out a set of leather motorcycle saddle bags that Outrageous had decorated that someone – he’s still not sure who – dropped off at the restaurant for him. He has acquired so many pieces that he has to keep a good bit of it in storage.
He said his most unexpected encounter was with the Captain’s girlfriend, Lady Outrageous, who stopped by and talked for several hours. She was leaving town and sold him several pieces, and then gave him several pieces, as well as one absolutely unexpected item.
She told him that Outrageous never wanted to leave the island.
“She’s like, ‘Hey, I want to give you him.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And she goes, ‘Here’s his ashes,'” Pancamo said. “I’m like, can you say no to ashes? It was an honor for her to offer them to me.”
Pancamo has kept them in a painted wooden box on a high shelf ever since.
“Key West is changing around us. And it’s losing something. And at least I know when I come home, I have a chunk of it that I can look at. And that I have everything that I ever wanted when I first came here, and everything that makes me feel like this is Key West,” said Pancamo.
“I would love to have a restaurant that had his works up, to be able to showcase them. Because they need to be seen. I gotta find a way to do that somehow,” he said. “This stuff will all go to one place if I ever leave. It’s not going with me. I’ll find somewhere that it will stay, hopefully, forever.”