Denver visual artist Travis Hetman at his home on May 3, 2018. Hetman is obsessed with singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News

The first time Denver visual artist Travis Hetman heard the music of Tom Waits, he was not particularly impressed.

Hetman was listening to 1999’s Punk-O-Rama Volume 4 back in his younger punk kid days. “And there was a song that didn’t fit in with the rest of what I was listening to,” he says of the compilation that featured stalwarts like Pennywise, Bouncing Souls and Bad Religion. “I remember hearing it and thinking this guy sounds really weird. I’ll just skip this song.”

That song was “Big in Japan” from Waits’ 1999 album “Mule Variations.”

Hetman was about 14 at that time and his musical tastes swayed more in the direction of the California punk rockers Rancid. Hetman had a change of heart when he heard that same “weird gravelly voice” years later. He was in a band in Minneapolis and a bandmate gave him 1985’s “Rain Dogs.”

Tom Waits’ 11th album was the gateway “that just blew the doors open,” but Hetman’s obsession was a “slow burn.”

“Really what does it is getting to know the entire length of this artist’s career and [seeing how] this person is constantly reinventing himself as an artist,” Hetman says. “It’s the variety and progression of his total scope that really did it for me.”

As a visual artist, Hetman says music is important to his process. He boths likes to listen to music while he creates and sometimes the music itself can lead to ideas. As he added Waits to his musical rotation and, the more he listened, the more intrigued he became.

“The more you listen to it, the more you realize how brilliant it is from a poetry perspective,” Hetman says. “So you just get lost in it.”

 

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For years he listened to Waits “around the clock,” and it began to influence his art in an unexpected way — actual images of Waits showed up in his drawings. The first such work was around 2013 or 2014. Hetman saw a picture online of Waits as a kid, which Hetman was fascinated by because he’s always thought of Waits as “this timeless old soul.” He had an idea, which he doesn’t hesitate to call “strange,” to merge this childhood photo of Waits with a scene from the 1941 Orson Welles classic “Citizen Kane.”

“I instantly had the image in my head of ‘Citizen Kane’ propaganda poster, but instead of Kane’s [face], it’s Tom Waits as a child,” Hetman says. “As if some movement had begun to try to get Tom into office as a child. I just drew it instead of thinking about it too much.”

It grew from there. Hetman says Waits music has “endless imagery and little poetic moments that were just begging to be illustrated or expanded upon.” So he began a weekly ritual on his Instagram called “Tom Waits Tuesdays.” Every Tuesday, Hetman posts a Waits-inspired illustration, often with Waits as part of the artwork, and sells it first-come-first-served style.

What takes Hetman into the “deep end” with his Waits obsession?

The Denver artist says a big part of it is that Waits never seems to do what’s expected of him. And for Hetman, as an artist who is “still figuring things out,” that’s a good reminder that if he feels hesitant about something or questions if a concept is too strange, to just go for it and don’t worry about it. Hetman also appreciates how Waits balances darkness with tenderness in his music.

Hetman has never heard from Waits, and he’s not sure if the singer-songwriter would be into “Tom Waits Tuesdays.”

“There’s no one I’d rather hear from or have the chance to run into,” Hetman says. “But I don’t know if I’d want it to be because I’ve been doing drawings related to him. You’d want to run into Tom Waits randomly on the street.”