Legends: The Mad Man’s Next Act

He used shock ads (Charles Manson, anyone?) and a punk attitude to flip the city’s advertising community on its ear. So why is Steven Grasse now trying to return Philly to the days of the powdered wig?

Not long after he and Emma split up, Grasse started shooting a series of videos called Bikini Bandits, in which buxom women with tiny outfits and huge guns run roughshod over convenience stores and men. Written with his younger brother, the Bandits series was a remarkably tasteless compendium of ejaculation sight gags and toilet humor, but it developed an underground following and brought Hollywood agents calling. For a time, it looked like Grasse might become a feature film director. But every movie project fell through, leaving the adman stuck toiling in Philadelphia with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. (“Fuck Hollywood!” is still a refrain in his conversation, rivaled in frequency only by “Fuck New York!”)

Then Steven Grasse got older. He was closing in on 40 when, working on the Chupa Chups lollipop account (“chupa” is Brazilian slang for “suck it”), he found himself taking long car rides to the client’s offices in Hackettstown, New Jersey, with a Gyro product manager named Sonia Kurtz, a Main Line girl who was a well-traveled art history student and sculptor. “Six hours in the car gave us a lot of time to get to know one another,” Kurtz says. They were soon married, with a baby girl. A son followed. “I’m 45 now,” Grasse tells me. “I’m in the autumn of my years. It didn’t happen all at once, but I guess I grew up.”

He’s sitting in a straight-back chair in his corner office at Quaker City Mercantile, in a building at 13th and Sansom, in the “transitioning” neighborhood that Grasse, the inveterate promoter, has branded Midtown Village.

Right now, perhaps the most significant aspect of this location is what sits underneath it: a retail store for the Sailor Jerry brand of products. A little more than a decade ago, Grasse invested $20,000 to buy the intellectual property rights to the estate of the late Norman K. Collins, an eccentric, acerbic tattoo artist who became legendary during World War II while plying his artistic trade in what was then a demimonde of bars and brothels in Honolulu. Over the years, Grasse and his Gyro crew developed a line of products around the image and style of the man known as “Sailor Jerry.”

There were Sailor Jerry t-shirts, featuring classic tattoo designs by the master, which sold well in a world where tattoos were increasingly commonplace and mainstream. The company launched a Sailor Jerry rum in 2000, and marketed it in the guerrilla, viral style that had become Gyro’s forte, mostly, Grasse admits, “because a lot of our clients never had any money.” The manager of the first Sailor Jerry store in Old City was well connected in the indie music world and would invite up-and-coming “van and couch” bands (a nod to the musicians’ usual mode of travel and sleeping arrangements) to appear at the store, get some t-shirts, sample the rum for free, and spread the word to their hipster friends. As YouTube emerged, bands could expand the Sailor Jerry product placement wider and faster. For some reason, brand awareness among the postmillennial target market reached critical mass in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin. “Then it really took off,” Grasse says.