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Artist Chris Kemp makes his surf-inspired mark on Charleston’s food-and-beverage scene

Artist Chris Kemp makes his surf-inspired mark on Charleston’s food-and-beverage scene
February 2024

The graphic designer and illustrator reflects on his unconventional artistic path that led him to illustrate Revelry’s beer cans

Artist Chris Kemp has made his mark on Charleston from designing Revelry cans, Riptide cold brew packaging, and restaurant logos. 

If you’ve been in Charleston for more than a few days, you’ve likely seen Chris Kemp’s artwork around town. From the vibrant illustrations on Revelry Brewing’s beer cans and the front page of The Folly Current to signage and merch for retailers and restaurants such as McKevlin’s Surf Shop, Bert’s Market, Chico Feo, and Home Team BBQ, his happy, quirky doodles have become part of the visual fabric of the community. 

Kemp is one of those creatives who follows a unique internal compass that never seems to let him down. After graduating from Salisbury University in Maryland with a marketing and communications degree during the recession, he tried selling health insurance. However, good waves drew the lifelong surfer to a job remodeling houses in the Outer Banks. 

Though the waves were an improvement on selling insurance, winter in the OBX is notoriously long, cold, and tedious. To stay busy, the self-taught artist gathered whatever washed up on the beach and painted it. There, he also met surfboard maker Mike Rowe and started drawing on boards. As his artwork gained traction, one gig led to another, including a regular comic strip in Outer Banks Milepost magazine, which he’s still creating 14 years later. 

Riptide cold brew packaging design.

When the artist had had enough of the highs and lows of Outer Banks living, he accepted an invitation from another friend to move to Charleston for a job at Boone’s Bar on King Street in 2013. It was another gamble; he sold everything and moved downtown with not much more than a skateboard. In the days and weeks that followed, Kemp’s illustrations caught on in the Lowcountry, with businesses hiring him to design labels, T-shirts, signs, and more to represent their brands. Today, Kemp is a full-time artist, illustrator, and designer with a list of clients that stretches coast to coast.

Following an Unconventional Path: Living in the Outer Banks taught me a lot of good life lessons, like how to get through hardships and to be persistent in doing what I want instead of what’s prescribed. Money is important, but it’s more important to me to be able to look back at my book and see that I wrote good chapters. The struggles were hard, but it’s been very rewarding. I have to pinch myself when I think that now I have a wife and kid and a pretty good life.

Kemp, who has always followed the waves, started painting surfboard fins during the pandemic.

Creative Influences: I’ve sketched since I was a kid. Growing up, I was influenced by the urban artists in Juxtapoz magazine, which has been around since the ’90s. Much of it was mixed media and an exaggerated look at life; nothing was too literal. I’ve always liked weird stuff and try to bring that to my art. 

Commercial Work: Each client is totally different. For example, if it’s a beer label, I want to know what the product is, the story behind it, and the inspiration. Then, I just try different things.

(Left) Kemp designs logos and merchandise for restaurants such as Chico Feo on Folly Beach. (Right) Kemp designs sweet artwork for many food and beverage clients, such as this can of radler, a collaboration between Revelry Brewing and The Dropping Pin.

Going Digital: It’s one of those things that’s hard to master, but you learn your own ways, and it’s necessary. Being able to work on the iPad cuts my time in half.

Staying Inspired: On Fridays, I make art just for myself. During COVID, I had a bunch of old surf fins lying around and started painting them. I’ve always been interested in printmaking and silk-screening, so I’d like to do more of that.

Looking Ahead: I just released a new website, I’m taking new client work, and I’d like to do more of my own fine art. Surfing is still a huge part of my life, as is hanging out with my wife and our new baby. One thing that’s exciting about life is you never know what’s around the corner.