Phil Tiger Passes Away at 58

Phil Tiger Photograph by Tom Chargin

WE lost Phil Tiger, 58, who died of cancer Aug 30. The news made me think of "Didn't He Ramble," a New Orleans song celebrating the here-comes-trouble life: And when he took his ladder out to go and paint the town/ They had to take their megaphones to call the rambler down.

Tiger was a genius for stirring it up, but the talent for mischief shouldn't eclipse his art. That artistic talent is demonstrated in pictures on Tiger's Facebook shrine. So is the grief of those "who knew him or wish they did." Tiger grew up in Saratoga. He was the student body president at Prospect High, according to his old friend Jan Bernstein Chargin. As an adult, Tiger joined with fellow artists Larry Eder and Steve Briscoe to exhibit at SCU's Freight Door Gallery. These students put up more than 20 shows, despite the insignificant $100-a-year budget. Eder, today a publisher in Wisconsin, says, "Phil had the skill of a Dutch master, a real ability to draw." Tiger did drawings of DaVincian intricacy, but he also created jewelry: miniature stag-head rings. "He picked up some serious jack on those," Eder says.

Chargin emphasizes "the quieter serious artist. Phil would be very meticulous, when he set out to work, with all the pencils lined up right. Many times I had to go out and get the right kind of paper or eraser for him. He wrote a play, he had a couple of manuscripts. He always worked manually. He was the last person on earth to do a poster with an Exacto knife and rubber cement."

It was the performance artist and punk rocker that more people knew: Tiger performed in the Bruces, creating a space-craft called "the BX90" from cardboard and dry ice as stagecraft at Marsugi's for one show. Tiger was the handsome young cat on the cover of the Mercury News' West magazine in 1986, above the caption "San Jose's Lonely Bohemians." He found spaces in the alleys, on freight spurs and in derelict fruit-canning warehouses. Tiger honored the debris of this city in the uproarious 1990 "Couches of San Jose" calendar. He chronicled discarded furniture: once the star of your living room, now an immobile pile of crap on your sidewalk. In his last years, Tiger came to the Citadel art studios on North Fifth Street. Tiger was always reaching out to younger artist, Chargin notes: "He always take an interest in them, and wanted to see them succeed."

When not working in virtually all media, Tiger pursued other interests. Eder said, "Phil had some interesting ways to tell girls he liked them. There was a nude model who attracted Phil. So he tossed Vienna sausages at her, and she ran screaming around the room to get away from him. He was always fascinated with women he couldn't scare the shit out of. Sometimes he took people aback."

The night Chargin met Tiger, she says "I had him thrown out of Original Joe's for grabbing my shoulders and screaming about Vikings." After that, he was her boyfriend for a time, and they were friends for 23 years.

Phil Tiger was the sometimes-scary life of the party, or the surrealist who hit eggs pitched to him with a baseball bat at a performance art piece at the WORKS/San Jose gallery. He was the familiar figure at the late Ajax Lounge, making the bartender hold his temper by counting to 86. He was aptly named: If Tiger had fear, I never saw a flash of it.

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