FAME GAME – 20 Years of Skewville, Escape from New York

Pivotal figures on New York’s homegrown Street Art scene tell BSA that they are getting out while there is still a chance.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Rough edged humorists and twin brothers Droo and Ad Deville are closing down the bong factory in Queens and the former Factory Fresh gallery space in Bushwick, Brooklyn and heading out of town.

No one is saying it is for good.

Beginning on the streets as art hoodlums named Skewville in 1996, the brothers embraced a netherworld of art-making that adroitly courted fame among peers, echoing the graffiti credo of claiming territory, commanding space, and earning respect from a fan base of informed New York urban art watchers.

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Skewville. These dogs were put up on this wall on the LES in 2003. They remained hidden under a billboard. The billboard came down in 2012. Shortly after I took this photo the wall was painted black, including the dogs. The dogs are still visible all in black. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“It was just a New York term. Don’t step on my dogs,” Ad Deville explains of his and Droo’s flat wooden sneakers; screen printed, drilled, cut and wired together to sling over street lamp wires.

A New York signature on New York streets, these archetypes of modern city life could be seen silhouetted at a distance and read in detail when you got closer. A genius tag that incorporated street and school stories of their youth in Queens – stories of gangs and drug dealers and tributes to the dead and the marking of territories.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Through the repetition of tossing their tag across the city their “flying dogs” became their unique signature on the skyline. An unheard of way to “get up” that combined the outlaw ethos of graffiti, the repetitive logo-spreading of advertising, and the D.I.Y. craft-making of what was beginning to be commonly called Street Art.

Through the 2000s they took the wooden sneakers around the world and Ad shows us a diary he made that records much of it. “This book is everywhere we tossed. I made a record of it. This is everywhere we went, the first thousand pairs. Everywhere we went – we brought this and documented it.”

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Skewville with BAST, TIKI, El Celso and EKG. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

He reads aloud what he is seeing as he flips pages. “Droo missed a bunch of times, everyone was looking… Right in front of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame….” They favored hitting wires near museums and high visibility spots not known for a graffiti or Street Art scene. There are even photos of Skewville sneakers hanging off wires on Utah Park City ski slopes.

5,000 plus pairs, more than they can count now, ended up in London, Seattle, New York, Mexico, Norway, Amsterdam, South Africa, – enough places for Droo to say they were global.

Now the Factory Fresh building is sold – the site of the early Bushwick gallery Ad founded with Ali Ha. They had leap-frogged Williamsburg into Bushwick from running the Orchard Street Art Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back when they arrived the ‘Wick had two other galleries that most people knew of – Ad Hoc and English Kills.

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Skewville  and FAILE. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Meanwhile they’re leaving Queens too. Droo is putting away all the unshipped bongs that emulate Coke and Heineken bottles and school lunch boxes and they’re going through the flatfiles of artworks the guys say they stole from the streets and inherited or bought from friends.

In between the epic era of flying dogs and today they say both had a lot of adventures and laughter and fights and even a period of silence between the two of them over the direction their fine art and commercial careers were headed. Recalling stories there is a lot of joking and they talk over each others sentences, sometimes quibbling over points, or clarifying details and storylines.

Never short of creative ideas, these guys have brought a hilarious blend of street humor that has consistently mocked the over-serious bravado of graffiti/street codes and the pissing matches over territory and style. They have also lampooned consumer culture and played with the obviously manipulative sloganeering of advertising that sells us stuff we don’t need.

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Skewville, GoreB, Tiki. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

With rollers and wheatpastes and sculptural installations on the street, on roofs, on walls, in empty lots, and in galleries; they have blended signage and sarcasm with the vernacular of daily life and blocky 2D figure studies that mash Picasso and dime store greeting cards from the 1970s. They’ve recycled garbage cans, milk crates, soda bottles, transister radios, air conditioner panels, suitcases, car tires, and electrical conduit. They’ve screen printed t-shirts, posters, and artworks, and jigsaw cut and constructed enormous boomboxes and merry-go-rounds and illuminated signs that say stuff like “Yo-Yo” and “Sucks Either Way”.

In their hands graffiti throwies and bubble tags suddenly got sharp corners and comically warped perspectives, blocky letters seem obvious but their smart-aleck slogans cryptically allude to conmen and street vernacular. “Brooklyn Beef”, “This Ain’t Kansas”, “Keep On Grass”, “Next Level”, “Today’s Special”, “Act Now”, “Check Yo Self”, “Step Off”, “Brooklyn Flavor”, “Fame Game.”

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Skewville, Dan Witz, EKG, ELC, BAST, El Celso and Michael DeFeo. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“For us there are a lot of layers that go over all of the realm,” Ad says and talks about how the game has changed and how the commercial and marketing aspect that new artists bring to the streets has been discouraging to him and the people he came up with.

He shows us the walls he says he actually stole from the street to create a canvas lining a basement show in 2006 with a few artists whose names became familiar to larger audiences and says that this was when the walls actually looked like a Street Art scene was in effect.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“In 2006 there was this show in a basement in Brooklyn – this guy Lou (Auguste) did a documentary called ‘Open Air.’ It was Faile, Bast, Aiko, Dan Witz, ESPO, Tiki Jay One, Michale De Feo, us. I curated the show. We lined the entire gallery with walls we stole off the streets. Nothing was for sale.” That really wasn’t the point, he says, even though already there were already people giving street art tours in Manhattan by then.

But when were the golden years exactly? In the documentary Adam was already lamenting the state of Street Art and its soul-crushing insincerity. “It’s going to die out soon. It’s going to implode,” he says. Elsewhere he says “I think the Internet is what made it so big but that is also what is killing it.”

“You kill the mystique. That’s what sucks about the Internet.”

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Ten years later he has invited the Internet to see and paw through boxes of what he has packed for storage just before escaping from Brooklyn. Truthfully, it looks like the brothers are going to need a small warehouse.

Lest you think it’s been easy, the guys can tell you about being overlooked in their early days by galleries and feeling neatly dissed repeatedly by early bloggers who considered themselves Street Art gatekeepers.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

On top of it, in 2003 the US Attorney General John Ashcroft launched “Operation Pipe Dreams” and cracked down on companies selling drug paraphernalia – and their bong business was nearly decimated because it seemed that their products did not appear to be for smoking tobacco.

These days their art is only occasionally on the street however they’ve found serious collectors in certain parts of Europe who snap up their canvasses and embrace their new ideas, so even though Droo’s got kids and a regular job and is moving to Long Island and Adam is talking about Berlin, you can wager that Skewville will simply continue to shapeshift and re-configure.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“When we did that Orchard Street show of sneakers in 2003 nobody was interested in them. I remember I was selling a pair for $20 and some guy was trying to talk me down to $15,” Adam says with a half smile. “I have that entire show boxed up and you can all just suck it now.” Recent prices of one pair have topped $600 so apparently $20 would have been a good deal.

In an interview with BSA a few years ago Ad told us a similar tale of grit and regeneration. “Instead of feeling bad that made us work harder to come out with different ideas and make new stuff”.

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Just before they both get out of New York we want to know if this seriously means they are quitting the streets and they both say they are ready to keep pursuing other art projects, but not to worry, they’ll still be in the game.

Twenty years of Skewville and of course the scene has changed. Chasing a street rep, a fine art name, and amassing an archive of enough art to mount a mid-career retrospective never would have happened if they hadn’t done the work and made the hustle. But the brothers want to make one thing clear about their seemingly zigzagging path.

“We didn’t do things to make money, we did it for fame,” Ad says.

Check.

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Skewville. Originally on 11 Spring building. (photo © Jaime Rojo).

With the galleries and shows, Ad and Ali also helped out a lot of other artists to get opportunities and exposure.

One by one New York artists neighborhoods are rapidly gentrified, ever higher rents are chasing people out, and the art in the streets often means legal murals. They love to make fun of the new kids from the Midwest and the beards and the Street Art tours. When it comes to art and artists in NYC, leaving the city is a refrain we’ve been hearing for five years.

“Skewville is officially leaving New York, at least temporarily,” says Ad. He announces it in that dramatic way that tells you he is looking for a slogan, and examining his our existence.

“The true question is, ‘Is it even worth staying?’ ”

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Skewville. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Up In Smoke. Skewville (photo © Jaime Rojo)