Kulture Kreator: An Interview with Craig Stecyk
I’m not going to lie, from the moment I was asked to interview Craig Stecyk about curating Kustom Kulture II, I started to freak the hell out. Oh, I put on a calm front—‘Sure. Yeah, I’ll do it.” But once I hung up the phone, I was seized by a mild neurotic meltdown. There is the heart of a ten year old boy that still beats inside me, and I wasn’t sure I could contain it. I am daunted by my influences. You see, that name, Stecyk, has stuck with me since 1975, when I started ripping photos out of Skateboarder Magazine and plastering my bedroom wall with them. They were these pictures of kids, just a few years older than I, doing ungodly things on urethane wheels, things I’d only dreamt about. The photographs themselves seemed to be molecules of moments, taken from a perspective only air should have knowledge of. They were equal parts defiant terror and majestic alchemy. Nearly all of those photographs were taken by Stecyk. Then there was the surreal, unsettling text, that accompanied them, also, I would discover later, written by Stecyk. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are no decent adjectives, no suitable words, no proper identifiers to succinctly illustrate who this man is. This is the guy who established the Dogtown aesthetic. This is the guy who shot the Bones Brigade videos. He co-founded Juxtapoz. He wrote the finest essay on Robert Williams that I’ve ever read.
Sing-a-long messiahs are hell-bound for anywhere but here. – Stecyk, Juxtapoz #106
The man’s work is in the Smithsonian, for crying out loud! So yeah, my initial freak-out was pure fan boy. My second wave of hysteria was a healthy dose of paranoia. Stecyk’s intellect is razor sharp, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve read interviews with him by unprepared “journalists” where Stecyk verbally tosses them in the air like a cat toying with a dying mouse. I was nervous. So I wrote out 20 questions, and immediately scrapped them all. Those are questions he gets asked all the time. Third wave freak-out: intimidation! Am I the right guy for this? Then I was reminded that I had interviewed Mat Gleason and came out relatively unscathed, and Gleason will test how thick your skin is quick. So, right, Stecyk is just a guy, flesh and blood. Screw it, let the chips fall where they may! Here’s how it went:
You seem to have this knack for having a thumb in very particular slices of the counter-culture pie right before it becomes a zeitgeist feast for the masses. Are you incredibly prescient or just (pardon my French) a fortuitous sonuva*****?
Getting the credit for something is far worse than getting the blame. If you screw up all you will ever be required to say is “sorry.” But if you are lauded for perceived accomplishments you will have to answer questions about the past for eternity. In my case I followed whatever notions I had at a particular moment. The years of stupid mistakes and pointless efforts that resulted should yield me a reprieve. Coincidence made it appear to some that I was ahead of the curve. In reality my place was well behind the 8 ball.
Perspective is a mercurial beast. Twenty years, on the surface, sounds like a long time to me, but at the same time it also seems implausible that 1993 is actually two decades removed from us. While you were putting together Kustom Kulture II, did you do so with a marked sense of nostalgia, or did you take a more forward thinking approach?
My general awareness of hot rodding and modified cars came from growing up around my father. As a kid, through him, I was exposed to the shops and practices of many individuals including Ed Roth, Von Dutch, The Barris Brothers and Ed Iskenderian. Our family attended the annual Oakland Roadster show and there I met other like-minded youth such as Barry McGee, Chip Foose, Greg Coddington and Roy Brizio. Eventually I ended up working with all of these people on assorted projects . Individuals participating in KK2 generally have shared similar paths of development. I view this exhibition as being logical to that tradition of functional innovation.
I suppose there’s a certain degree of nostalgia inherent in the Kustom Kulture/lowbrow/hot rod art scene from the outset. Frank Stella and the Finish Fetish guys were basically creating love letters to the pin stripe. Would Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman or Billy Al Bengston have been a consideration for you, to put alongside Roth and Hardy for KKII? Would that even work?
Kauffman and Bengston were both in KK1 so they automatically both were in the discussion. Paul, Greg and I decided to include additional precursors like Walt Disney and Basil Wolverton as well as individuals who continue to advance the equation such as Esteban Bojoroquez and RETNA.
Were there artists, or specific pieces you wanted for KKII that you weren’t able to get?
We received many more viable pieces than the space could physically accommodate. So there are no regrets other than a wanton forlorn longing for additional empty space.
You curated the show with Paul Frank. Frank has suffered some of the Shepard Fairey-like backlash that alt-hipsters tend to unleash upon creative types who start making serious coin. Why do you think a certain level of success for artists so frequently harvests revolt among their original fans, the very people who made them popular to begin with?
PF is a Huntington Beach native and he’s excited about getting to mount an exhibition that will be accessible to the million visitors who will attend the US Open this year over a ten-day period. Paul resides at Park La Fun, so mirth and mayhem are always afoot in his sector. Main Street in Surf City is Paul Frank’s birthplace. As for haters/lovers the unwashed/the undecided….that’s just human nature. They do whatever they do.
A year after the first Kustom Kulture show, you and Greg Escalante launched Juxtapoz Magazine. How did you and Greg first cross paths?
His father Conrad Escalante’s pioneering commercial signage, which used to adorn the Long Beach Pike amusement zone, was tremendously interesting to me. When they demolished Pine Street and the Pike, Billy Concannon and I secured a contract to harvest the old signs. Superior Outdoor Display Inc. which was founded by Mr. Escalante had made many of the best ones we rescued. The curator Bolton Colburn knew Greg from the surfing contest circuit. Concannon and I were re-contextualizing the old neon and making large environments out of it. Our concept of the tubing becoming structure prompted Colburn to mention what we were doing to Greg. Voila!, the son brought us all together and soon I was a member of the extended Escalante clan.
In a recent Cartwheel interview by Wendy Sherman, Greg asserted that you were an enigma. Going back to the Skateboarder Magazine days, you would publish those iconic photographs under the Stecyk name but then you’d write, as Carlos Izan or John Smythe, this heady, poetic text to accompany them. Were you cultivating an enigmatic persona, or was there a more benign motivation behind that?
I used to throw a dart at the phone book and whatever name got hit by the tip became my nom de plum. I used that formula for art, literature and poetry.
Do you still hold the copyright for the Vato Rat? Is Powell Peralta still using it?
I have no knowledge regarding any of that.
As I was watching the last two seasons of Weeds, there was this character whose vague familiarity was really annoying me, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then it dawned on me and I just blurted out, “That guy played Stecyk!” (in Lords Of Dogtown). What did you think of Pablo Schrieber’s portrayal of you? Did he nail the Stecyk essence?
Prior to 1925 nearly half of all films were written by women. And Lords of Dogtown was co-written and directed by Catherine Hardwicke….So when my mother chastised me with the admonition that that “Pablo was much more polite than I,” how could I possibly disagree? Mom went as far as giving Schreiber my actual clothing and tools from the Dogtown days. It was disconcerting the first time I ran into him on set, when he was in character wearing my wardrobe. Pablo was there in the reconstituted Zephyr factory working on a surfboard that I had actually built 30 years before. People that have known me forever were watching the scene and talking to “Pablo Stecyk” thinking he was me. My belief is that those depicted in the film are all too close to the subject to have any objective opinion regarding it. I find it moderately illuminating to look at the subsequent track record of many involved. Stacy Peralta won more Sundance Awards. Schreiber did The Wire, was nominated for a Tony, and a film appeared in won at Sundance. Thomas Robinson Harper, the stunt coordinator, did Little Miss Sunshine which received two Oscars and an Independent Spirit Award. Harper also coordinated some other “little“ films such as Iron Man 1 and 2, the Lone Ranger and Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Jeremy Renner, who played Jay Adams agent, was nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in Hurt Locker. Producer John Linson created Sons of Anarchy which won Golden Globes. Producer David Fincher’s Social Network garnered three Academy Awards and four Golden Globes. Production designer Chris Gorak’s Right At Your Door won at Sundance. Heath Ledger got his Oscar. America Ferrera has been recognized with Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards. Hardwicke’s Twilight earned about 400 million worldwide and received recognition with MTV Movie and People’s Choice awards. I subsequently got shot with a RPG in a cave in Afghanistan, just after Yensin, the character I was doubling for, put the mini nuclear reactor power supply in billionaire arms dealer Tony Stark’s chest. The Screen Actors Guild subsequently sent me a certificate citing my aforementioned membership in the SAG Award nominated Best Stunt Ensemble for Ironman. That film induced a cinematic case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which I now suffer from. It is so severe that I have to call my agent to be talked down whenever I receive the residual checks. Life in Hollywood is rough.
Mike Ness makes a brief appearance in your short film “Fin”. Since KKII is happening in the O.C., will any of Mike’s cars be in the exhibit?
Mike Ness of Black Kat Customs recently cut heads with the Reverend Billy Gibbons at the House of Blues. Indeed Ness was kind enough to appear in my piece Fin. And Social Distortion also performed that Film’s score. Kustom Kulture 2 features Billy’s 1965 Fender Jaguar guitar, which is adorned with a Rick Surfboards logo, custom engine turned pick guard, on board circuit boosting and an electronic micrometer. Gibbons used the axe on the ZZ Top album Tejas. Von Dutch also pinstriped Jeff Beck’s 1932 Ford roadster. At the Brucker Brother’s auction Seymour Duncan was bidding on Dutch artifacts for Jeff while Billy was buying up body-hammers . So there are a lot of overlaps here, but I would not draw any conclusions regarding what will transpire, as the movers in this scene are exceedingly mercurial.
You scored Margaret Keane for the show. I would argue, for better or worse, that Keane rivals Warhol as the most influential artist of the past 60 years. Without betraying any confidences, can we expect her (Keane) at the opening reception and/or the closing panel discussion?
If Andy were here to testify, I’m certain he’d agree regarding Margaret’s importance. Mrs. Keane retains her prodigious intellect and is vibrantly active at 84. Tim Burton is making a movie right now with her. The Keane Eyes Gallery and Margaret are thus again moving into the center stage of contemporary popular discourse. At this point we are not certain if the demands of film schedule will allow her, Burton or Alberto Cuellar’s participation in the public forum.
Twenty years from now, are you going to do it again?
If the creeks don’t rise and the good Lord’s willin’.
Kustom Kulture II
Huntington Beach Art Center
538 Main Street Huntington Beach CA 92648
Opening on Saturday, July 13, 2013, 7pm-9pm.
Closing Reception and Panel Discussion: Saturday, August 24, 2013,6-9pm.
Top photo courtesy of Derek Bahn
Dogtown photos courtesy of C.R. Stecyk III