Boston Globe: Shifting Gears

The artist known as Skunk puts a new spin on old bicycle parts and odd bits of junk.

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent
July 4, 2008

The Space 242 gallery in the South End was crowded with freeloaders last Friday, but there was no problem spotting the artist known as Skunk. He dressed like a cross between Kieth Richards and the Mad Hatter, in oversized black galoshes, black overalls with a blinking R2-D2 toy in the bib pocket, and a black top hat with a skull design on the front. He grinned his friendly, snaggle-toothed grin, his unruly hair damp with sweat after bicycling to the opening from his home in Somerville.

His bike stood by the door: the Cloudbuster, with its seat 5 feet off the ground, a working stereo, and a big mirror ball. It weighs 200 pounds, and he rides it, he said, “every day that it’s not snowing, every day I can stand the attention.”

In a way, customized bicycle choppers were his first sculptures. Now three years’ worth of artworks are for sale in the gallery: Robots made with bodies made of old gears and vending machine parts, little creatures made from spark plugs or welded bicycle chains. An arsenal of “ray guns” includes on called “The Kenny G Eliminator,” a comical blunderbuss that used to be a clarinet. Skunk likes to say he’s blurring the line between art and toys.

“I’m having fun making the stuff, and I just want people to have fun playing with the stuff too,” said Skunk, 38. “the nice thing about it is, if anything breaks, I can just weld it back together, And believe me, I have.”

His work, both grimy and whimsical, brings to mind a shotgun wedding of Mad Max and Doctor Seuss.

“Kind of my natural habitat is broken bike parts… and sometimes people bring me shiny things out of the trash,” Skunk said. “I’m not really interested in polishing things anymore. Everything has a dirty feel to it. I cover it with a polyurethane coat, and the great kind of mixed with that and makes everything kind of dark and rusty and used. I’m a big fan of ‘Star Wars’, and their sci-fi thing is, it’s a used universe.”

Skunk’s elaborately detailed ray guns evoke the Victorian-styled science fiction known as steampunk, a term he learned only recently.

“I don’t know if I have a name for [my] aesthetic or not,” he said. When he’s creating his pieces, “it’s like 2 in the morning, so my sub-conscious is probably more in control than anything else.”

Whatever it is, it works for fans.

“I like the metalwork, it’s different,” said gallerygoer Brian Zola of Hull. “To see how he makes art out of it. instead of intended use when it was originally made, all the different screws and sprockets.”

“What has been done with this show is take to to a whole ‘nother level, taking these wonderful pieces of metal like bicycle chains and hears and pieces of old kitchen appliances and actually giving them life. And it’s humorous!” said Deni Ozan-George of Roxbury. The robots in particular… just have such personality.”

The components “seem to have been put through some sort of alchemical process, so that you can see where they come from, but you still gasp in surprise because of the way they’ve been combined. They’re real little beings,” Said her husband, Brian George.

Skunk works at Seven Cycles, a builder of ultra-high-end titanium and steel bikes in Watertown. He’s been everything from a finisher and to welder to graphic artist for the company, which lets him use its equipment after hours for his art. “I can’t thank them enough,” he said.

He is best known around Boston, though, as the ringleader of SCUL, the bicycle “chopper gang” he founded in 1996. With Skunk atop the Cloudbuster and anywhere from 10 to 50 fellow members on their own customized bikes, the group still rides through the city late on Saturday nights, turning pedaling into happening.

“My bicycle as far as I’m concerned is no different [from the other work], except it’s not really art until it starts rolling down the street with the disco ball going,” Skunk said.

SCUL has its own slang, protocol, and nicknames. Skunk git his because he wears black and because of his early devotion to Dumpster diving for discarded metal. He and his friends call it “skunking” because the animals were often doing the same thing, but for food. Real names, he said, are “like swear words” to teh group, and he’s not giving his up.

His bikes and his art are made of reused materials, and he’s a “junk food vegetarian,” fond of pizza and Diet Coke. He likes the suggestion that he’s sort of a green version of the Hell’s Angel — but he acknowledges that his choices aren’t necessarily high-minded. He stopped eating meat, for instance, the he simply couldn’t afford it.

“I’m not exactly politically or environmentally motivated, though I do think it’s important to do the right thing,” he said. “You do what makes sense to you. If I feel like I’m environmentally responsible, I’m a happier guy.”

He began making art for art’s sake for the birthday present of a SCUL comrade known as Moose. A little moose welded out of bicycle chain was a big hit, and Skunk’s imagination began to expand.

The first creation to greet gallery visitors is Mobot, a burly robot with glowing red eyes, built from a stack of General Electric breaker boxes. “They were all in the trash at one time,” he said. “Must have been an electrician cleaning out his basement.”

No surprise that a guy who calls himself Skunk should be unpretentious, but he may be the only artist with a South End gallery show who un-ironically cites “The Far Side” as an inspiration.

“There’s a ‘Far Side’ cartoon that I keep thinking about, where it was, like, this little boy standing in front of this giant robot with big claws, and there’s a shop teacher in front of him, and he says, ‘Hey, squid brain, my project is ready for grading!’ ” Skunk Said, laughing at it all over again.

“I want one of those! I want a big robot that sits in the corner of the room and looks absolutely intimidating. And that’s what Mobot is,” he said. “People come over now when they join SCUL, and it’s at my house, so they come in and they’re like ‘Oh my God!’ They walk by a room and there’s this 300 pound robot in the corner with glowing red eyes. The reaction is priceless. It’s fun to make people happy, that’s really all there is to it.