Underground Art in Pasadena

Pasadena is rightly known for the quality of its museums. What is lesser known is the spirited and intoxicating art appearing below ground.

By Daniel Tozier, Images courtesy Christopher Ulrich

There is no shortage of good art in Pasadena. From the Huntington Library to the Norton Simon, we enjoy a true abundance of museums and galleries serving art a­ cionados of every variety. But if you’re looking for L.A.-based painter Christopher Ulrich’s contribution to our city, you won’t ­ find it in any of these ­ ne institutions. Instead, you’ll need to head up Fair Oaks and down a flight of stairs to a warmly lit cocktail bar called Der Rathskeller.

Ulrich’s artwork comes into view before you hit the bottom of the staircase, and the scope of it becomes immediately apparent. Surreal and beautiful, his vision wraps around the entirety of the bar, the nightmarishly enchanting scene stopping only to make room for black leather booths and the wide shelves of liquor kept behind the bar.

At ­ first glance, the images seem random: the hunter T with the head of a deer, the two-faced centaur, the robots in mid-toast, all built from copper stills. But within the imagery of each scene, hidden in plain sight, a di­fferent liquor or spirit is represented.

The space, which served as a jail in Pasadena’s earlier days, required a lot of work before it resembled anything close to a bar. To help fund the renovations, the owners sold space on the wall to di­fferent distilleries, o­ffering them a place amid the artist’s work.

Ulrich went to each company himself to pitch his concept for the space— what part in his vision they would play. There was some initial concern that the marketing directors wouldn’t go for the obscure imagery, demanding their logos be clearly presented. However, Ulrich found them to be not only collaborative but excited by the concept.

“Everybody was incredibly supportive,” Ulrich says. “And they loved the idea that we were creating something that somebody would see and want to know more about …[Advertising] does all the work for you and you don’t want it because it’s in your face. So as you can see, there are no logos, but there is a story.”

Ulrich drew heavily on the mythology and histories of the individual brands, weaving them together into a singular world.

In one scene, an unusual cockfight wages on, with a small knight atop each rooster. Three creatures cheer them: the skeleton from the Espolòn Tequila label, the clown from an old Campari poster, and an anthropomorphized turkey—a personification of Wild Turkey bourbon. Each one holds their respective bottles.

Nearby, Napoleon sits at a table holding up a bottle of Courvoisier. Legend has it that when the dictator was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, he brought along several barrels of the French cognac. The company now features an image of him on their label.

Ulrich worked through the night and into the early morning in the months leading up to the grand opening, often sleeping on a cot in the bar between shifts. Even as Der Rathskeller opened to the public, he wasn’t finished, setting up after the patrons had gone home at 2 a.m. and clearing out before the doors opened again. It took him several more months to complete his mural.

From the moment you enter Der Rathskeller, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes o­ the surrounding artwork. After a few beers and a cocktail or two, the mural comes to life, suddenly more than just paint on the walls. Each creature beckons you deeper into Ulrich’s fantastical world, inviting you to join in the revelry.

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