TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — One night in 1974, Tom Bradford and his fiancé walked into The Chukker and ordered shrimp and two beers.
That was enough for the owner, Bob Callahan, to give him bad news: Bradford’s tab was $200, so the kitchen would be closed to him.
But Callahan had an idea, a way for Bradford to pay his debt.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you paint the ceiling,'” Bradford said.
Bradford had rolled back into Tuscaloosa earlier that year after the artist’s life of New York City he had wanted didn’t take. The Grove Hill native, who once hung out with Andy Warhol at a Holiday Inn in Tuscaloosa in 1968, had always wanted to be edgy with his work, like using Magic Markers instead of paint, Formica countertops instead of canvas.
“I wanted to do something different,” he said.
Bradford saw an opportunity and went to work. While his fiancé was at work, he would stay at home, assembling construction paper and paint to get to work. In a shoebox he kept a photo of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man,” an image he had taken out of a textbook from art school, for inspiration. Approximately 74 hours worth of work later, Bradford would produce what Mark Hughes Cobb of The Tuscaloosa News once described as “Michelangelo on LSD,” a kaleidoscopic ragbag of sights featuring the cosmos, lightning, and a floating beer can with a greenish ale pouring out. The sprawling 16-panel surrealist painting would adorn the ceiling of the storied Tuscaloosa dive bar for nearly 30 years.
Rich Marcks, a local artist, first remember seeing the “Sistine Chukker” in 1974, when he was 14 and his uncle had taken him to the bar.
“I was inspired,” said Marcks. “I loved its sheer sense of fun.”
Before the bars closed on Halloween 2003, Marcks had called Will Harris, the last owner of The Chukker, to let him know how he could get his hands on the art and save it. Then, one day, the call came: the building was going to be torn down the next day and he would need to come get it.
“Forces of reason and logic pummeled me with very reasonable denial, but my heart sang this: ‘If you don’t save this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,'” Marcks said. “It was primal.”
The “Sistine Chukker” floated around town for years after The Chukker poured its last drink, all with Marcks as its caretaker. For a while, it stayed at the former Downtown Trading Company on Greensboro Avenue. Then, after it closed in 2008, the panels sat in “a moldy cellar filled with nice priceless guitars and cool old amps and other sonic tools,” Marcks said. Soon after, the next home for the piece was Egan’s, where it too adorned the ceiling before it changed hands and then ultimately closed in 2021.
Now, the “Sistine Chukker” has a new home: the Druid City Brewing Company, where a reunion will be held this weekend for the many people who called The Chukker home, from its early days in 1956 to when it shut down for good in 2003.
For Bo Hicks, walking into the Chukker was like walking on hallowed ground. It was the place where many of his favorite bands had played. It was where bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and jazz outsiders like Sun Ra performed. It was where Sublime and the Indigo Girls played before hitting it big. It was where things were happening.
“It was one of the last places that tried to focus on original live music,” said Hicks, who ended up playing many times at The Chukker with his bands Chinese Dentist and Baak Gwai.
Now the owner of DCBC, Hicks remembers sneaking into the Chukker as a teenager in 1995 and seeing the sprawling Sistine Chukker overhead.
“It oversaw so many culturally important things in Tuscaloosa,” he said. “I felt like it would be a shame if it wasn’t in public view anymore.”
Now, with the “Chukker Weekender” being held to mark the 20th anniversary of the closing of The Chukker, many can relive old memories while the “Sistine Chukker” watches over them at the DCBC.
“We’re happy to give it a home and try to support how far out it is,” he said.
Today, the man who painted the “Sistine Chukker” nearly 50 years ago is very different from the man who hung out with Andy Warhol at the Holiday Inn in Tuscaloosa back in 1967, who tried to provoke people with art. Now 76, Bradford has mixed feelings about arguably his most famous.
“It’s not like something I would want to do now,” he said.
Years after leaving Tuscaloosa, Bradford got sober and began focusing more on his spiritual life than his art, becoming a born-again Christian. In fact, there was a period when he gave art completely in order to prioritize his faith. However, Bradford found his way back to art, where he painted signs for beach houses in Surf City, North Carolina for years. Now, much of his art reflects his new life.
“I would probably do Adam and Eve being thrown out in the garden now,” Bradford said when asked if he would’ve done the “Sistine Chukker” an different.
Despite his new life, Bradford does recognize how his work at The Chukker was part of something artistically inspired, as well as continue to hold fond memories of the bar that gave him so much over the years.
“If you had a few dollars, you could make it through the night and those people would take care of you,” Bradford said.
Hicks hopes the DCBC can be the same thing to people as The Chukker was to Bradford, Marcks, and so many people over the years, and that the “Sistine Chukker,” preserved from decades-worth of cigarette smoke, can be part of fostering that new community of people living outside the box.
“This painting came together to make this scene,” he said. “There’s nothing stopping making a scene today. It just takes people coming together.”