Bobby Puleo is one of our favourite skateboarders with a rich history which was recently comprehensively delved into by The Nine Club. He is also a fascinating, multifaceted individual with a keen eye and a unique view of the world around him. We were first made aware of his artwork at the Side Effects Of Urethane show in 2001. Bobby scours his surroundings, finding recurring objects which engage him in different ways. He collects them in an ordered fashion, arranges them and they become something much more.
I remember staring at his wall of Post It Notes and being immersed, all of these separate stories, important memos, lost or discarded all there together, speaking to me. It’s interesting on many levels and together, these things take on a life of their own with a visual impact that’s valuable, a commentary on the city Bobby thrives in. We would love to see some of these works as prints, in a book or in a gallery and hope this is the next step. We were stoked to speak to Bobby about the visuals that informed his awareness, his creative process and a bit of skateboarding for good measure…
Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first board and what year was that?
My first proper board was a Skull and Sword Powell Peralta. That was Christmas of 84 going into 85
When was the first time you remember feeling free in New York city?
I didn’t start coming into the city until pretty late in terms of when my friends were coming in. I had friends that were going to Tompkins Square contests in 89. I didn’t start coming in until 1990 or 91. I went straight to the banks and I was overwhelmed. It was a whole new batch of energy to tap into. In terms of feeling free, the first time I ever went in without my parents supervision.
What was the first thing that made a visual impact on you?
Just seeing the Brooklyn Banks. I was used to being in the city with my parents but the first time I went in without them around it was wild. New York was also a slightly different place back then, there was still a wildness to it.
What was the first graphic or image you obsessed over?
Well probably the Mike Smith duck, the John Lucero drawn Mike Smith Madrid graphic.
Were you drawing or copying graphics or text as a kid?
When I was a kid I used to draw the Van Halen logo a lot. I always liked the way that worked asymmetrically. I didn’t really redraw skate graphics that much. The Van Halen logo was the first one I was super interested in.
You have an interest in graffiti, was that on your radar before you started collecting street artefacts?
Yeah way way before. Graffiti has been around me my entire life. Even growing up in Jersey, you would drive the highways here. I lived close to the highways into the city. Back then graffiti writers from New York and Jersey would write graffiti on the highways. I grew up next to Passaic and Paterson. Those two cities had their own groups of graffiti writers back in the 80’s so you would see that a lot.
My father drove a container truck for a living. One time he drove the truck to my house just to stop off and say what’s up and the container on the back of the truck had this insane graffiti piece on it and I was just blown away by it and it was right in front of my house. It was my first real memorable moment with graffiti.
He brought you a piece home…
Yeah basically, it was crazy. I remember me and my brother staring at it, like what is this? You know, a giant piece of rolling artwork.
Did that inform how you looked at things from then on and did it find you in different parts of the city?
Yeah definitely. In the 80’s and 90’s graffiti was everywhere. It still is everywhere in New York but it just gave me a different understanding of what art could be or is. Art is not necessarily something that’s just in a museum. It can be applied to a wall or sometimes it’s just nature. Your surroundings can create a visual print in your mind.
Did you used to take photos of graffiti?
Yeah a lot. This doesn’t go back to when I first started coming into the city but one of the first things I did when I got a camera was to make a zine that was just graffiti on vans. I don’t think I even totally finished it, I didn’t make a ton of copies of it but it was called Church Van. A lot of churches in the city used vans to transport their congregation around, you would see them around and they would say Church Van on them.
The cover of the zine is the back of a van which says Church Van on it with some tags on the windows. I can’t remember exactly, I need to dig it out. It was a collection of vans I shot uptown. This was mid to late nineties. If I see something to this day I still snap a photo of it. Yesterday I took a photo of a brand new Kez 5 marker tag in a train station.
There’s guys in the city like Sev, if you go down to the Brooklyn Banks, he still has tags down there. What’s great about Sev is that if you go back and watch Future Primitive he has tags in that video from 1985 and he’s still writing graffiti today. Kez 5 is a little bit later than Sev, late 80’s/early 90’s but he is still writing graffiti today too. It’s much like Lance Mountain still skating.
That in itself, taking photos of a tag or whatever is a similar process to your art. It’s preserving something that’s there and appreciating it’s aesthetic value which could be gone tomorrow…
Absolutely, the process of making art is slightly different. You know that eventually that graffiti is going to go away. There’s obviously certain artists who will make something now and large institutions will preserve them for as long as possible. Nothing is forever so to speak but there are institutions that will preserve the art for as long as it can mollecularly stay together. I guess now there are graffiti writers who will be protected forever.
Street graffiti is almost definitely going to go away, especially like the Kez 5 stuff. As incredible as he is as a graffiti writer, he has a lot of enemies on the street so it gets crossed out immediately which is sad. I’m not commenting on him as a person but the fact that he has been writing for so long, he should be respected as a veteran. Granted graffiti is so personal that sometimes personal things take precedence over your career. With Kez 5 I find it so fascinating that this guy is still writing graffiti. Especially with stuff that I could physically remove. I’d take it down so I can preserve it myself rather than having some new kid cross him out.
Did you collect stickers and stuff when you were younger?
I didn’t really, I was given a lot of stickers. I didn’t really have the money to spend. Even though it was only like a buck.
It’s interesting to me that there were people with the wherewithal and inclination to preserve and collect things of that time which is part of your process now at a later date. It’s interesting that it wasn’t something which was part of your early DNA?
It’s funny because before I even started skateboarding I collected baseball cards and Star Wars figures. When I got into skateboarding instead of collecting and preserving the stuff I was engaged in the process of destroying it, I would destroy the graphics. Now I look at the graphics from all of those boards that I rode and I wish that I had them in perfect condition but then I couldn’t have been a skateboarder.
When I got into skateboarding instead of collecting and preserving the stuff I was engaged in the process of destroying it
It’s crazy when I see some collections. I wonder how people had the resources and forethought to value and preserve some things…
Yeah it’s wild, I love it. Hats off to all of the collectors out there. Their foresight is what allows us to look back and gawk over it, it’s amazing.
What was the first thing you ever found on the street and picked up with the idea of keeping it?
Definitely a photograph. Photographs are always super engaging. It’s a portal, it’s like literally travelling into a persons brain, their eyeballs. One of the first ones was a photograph of this woman with West Harlem in the background. I have the photo somewhere in a storage unit.
Did the idea of presenting found items precede collecting?
No I started picking stuff up just randomly thinking I like this and putting it in my pocket. Then it was as I started to amass the objects, I started to realise that there were categories.
What initially dictated what items made the cut. Were text and numerals important from the beginning?
Yeah sort of because those were plentiful and it’s funny because nowadays I find very few numbers. Maybe it was proximity, I was in Manhattan a lot, maybe there’s more of them for some reason, there’s more commerce. It seems a lot of the numbers have to do with commerce so to speak. Nowadays I’m in not more residential areas but just not Manhattan. So I’m finding a lot more things that folks use on a day to day basis rather than items that are attached in some way to doing business, like a receipt or a document.
I remember you exhibiting stuff like Post-It’s at the first Side Effects of Urethane show which was in 2001 when 9-11 had literally just happened. You remember that trip?
Yeah of course, I remember being there and you guys told me that there was another plane crash. When that crash happened in Rockaway. You guys told me about it and I remember being so afraid to fly to London after 9-11 because of thinking every flight is susceptible now. I was so afraid to fly to London but I knew I had to do it so I got out there. When you guys told me about the other plane crash I was like, how the hell am I going to back? I was too afraid to get back on a plane, psychologically that was a heavy thing. 2001 that’s crazy!
Did it change your outlook on everything from then on?
Definitely, the 9-11 event it changed everything. It changed everything worldwide, major traumatic game changer. Think about how many new businesses that spawned, the security business unto itself. TSA, that’s like a massive industry, security, and then you get into war. That’s not a new business and security isn’t but it just opened up massive operations worldwide.
Was that trip the first time you had exhibited anything?
No I had shown at other places around New York. But how the hell did I get all that stuff out there? That’s insane, I really don’t remember!
You have exhibited since then a few times right?
Yeah, very few and far between. Because like I said I’m pretty tight lipped with my stuff. Maybe I come off as unapproachable, maybe it’s an out of sight out of mind kind of thing. I don’t want to say I suppress it but I’m just doing my thing. I’m toiling away in the dirt and my head is down. I’m also not the type of person to go out there and seek shows. Every time I’ve ever exhibited it’s been because somebody has asked me.
But now it’s getting to the point where I can’t physically contain it in my house any more. I need to show it and get it out there and let it do its thing because it tells a really interesting story on a number of different levels. Not only my own personal journey with it but anthropologically it shows the way a city works.
Has it put a strain on your living situations?
Right now it is because right now I can’t really use my kitchen, it’s more like a studio. It would be great to have a studio space but that takes money and I’m just unwilling to work a job that’s gonna take up my time. It’s much like skateboarding. I will sacrifice a lot for the actual creative process.
How much time do you get to dedicate to the creative process?
Right now and this is kind of a cryptic answer but I would say half, half of my time. I have to dedicate the other half to generating money to pay my rent but it’s all relative.
Is it a necessity or a luxury at this point? You describe skateboarding as vital, something you need to do for your general well being, is this the same motivation?
I’m not sure if it’s a bit of a coping mechanism or just a way to spend the time. I’m naturally inclined to pick this stuff up and take it home and catalogue it. Some people might categorise or diagnose that as a sickness, I don’t really know.
Is it something you could turn off, or are you compelled to do it. Like you couldn’t walk past something?
If I saw a Post It Note I definitely could not walk past it. I guess it’s similar to the skate brain where you see a spot and even if you don’t have your board with you, you think… Oh I could do this on that.
One of my next questions relates to this. The general populous walk around and subliminally register the marketing aimed at them. But the more you start looking at things you develop different radar, whatever that is. Skate spots, being aware of graffiti, looking for found items, you have the dopestalker element too. Like spider senses tingling. There are all these different stimuli, are you ever exhausted by it or is it always exciting? Is it a blessing or is it a curse?
I mean it’s always exciting. What’s funny is that nowadays if I’m going anywhere, like let’s say I arrange to meet you at 5:30 and it’s going to take me half an hour to get there from my house. I almost need to leave at 4:30 because I know that in my journey to meet you I’m going to be stopping ten times to pick something up off the ground. There is a bit of a burden when it comes to that, like I can’t go anywhere now in a straight line without stopping to pick something up. But at the same time that’s what makes the journey so fun, otherwise it’s just a straight commute.
There is a bit of a burden when it comes to that, like I can’t go anywhere now in a straight line without stopping to pick something up. But at the same time that’s what makes the journey so fun, otherwise it’s just a straight commute
The way I look at it is that these things are being given to me by the universe. It’s a fun process and I love it. I wish I could dedicate all of my time to it but then there’s a delicate balance between structure and no structure. Working my job which I do a few times a week, I’m on my bike. Indirectly or directly I’ve chosen this path because it allows me to be in the street which is where I want to be. Maybe it’s not where I want to be but it’s how I accomplish what I do. I’m making money, very little money but I’m being paid to go out and make art. Which is a lot like when I was being paid to ride a skateboard, you’re being paid to go out there and be creative.
I guess if this stuff gets into the art world so to speak maybe there’s a next level. But right now, my kitchen is filled with my collections. Usually I don’t keep it in my house but as of late I have to be working with it so I have a lot of stuff in my living space. Usually I keep everything down in my storage units but there’s no space to work there. With no studio I’m forced to be in and around it. Normal artists have a studio to go to and lucky artists have one in their living space.
How well catalogued is it?
There are still boxes and boxes of stuff that isn’t catalogued and definitely items I have collected over the years that don’t have a category, just things I have found to be interesting and I don’t know how it is that I’m going to present that stuff but I pick things up because I see things in them. I guess a a certain point when I do get immersed in a studio realm that maybe I will start to be able to figure out where one thing goes in relation to another. Maybe it will come out in a book format or maybe it will be a one off framed object. I don’t know but I see different things in different objects. Like Oh this crushed Pringles can goes with the other crushed Pringles cans.
You showed me the framed piece of cups laid over each other which is a departure from the symmetrical black background style of presenting these items. Does that widen the net as far as what you’re looking for?
A little bit yes and the reason I stumbled upon that process was because I needed to build an object that I could make available to other people and so that collage style you’re talking about happened in around 2005. It was one particular style of cup I would see a lot back then. I picked up a bunch of them but I don’t think I was able to find nine of them exactly. Maybe I found five or something. So I didn’t have nine to present in that grid of nine as a repeated collected object. But I thought the design on this cup was so interesting and when you put it on top of the other ones it builds a new image…
So I decided I was going to make photocopies of the actual cups, cut out the photocopies and build that new piece of art. Then it preserved the cup but allowed me to build a whole other object from it. So if I needed that cup and there was a point where I found nine of them I could exhibit the nine, have the copy to build the collage. Then I would be able to more easily let go of the collage.
So kind of like a back up?
A bit of a back up, I guess back up is doing it a bit of a disservice, it is it’s own unique piece of art and I love them. But one thing is that I don’t use the original cup because I don’t have enough of them to let go of. I cherish that item so much as it’s own unique piece of art and truthfully I really do hope to find nine of them so that I can present them in the grid. That was a peripheral appendage object I built from the original objective to collect nine. I’ve built one from Coke cans but it didn’t really speak to me in volumes like some of the other ones did.
I think I put it on my Instagram account once. There’s an Indy ad of Gonz drinking a Pepsi and if you swipe I think my collage of the Coke cans might be in there somewhere. Not my strongest piece of art but I found it an interesting way to sneak some of my own stuff in there.
I liked that broken lighters piece a lot…
I haven’t shown that to many people so consider yourself lucky. That Thrasher thing really just scratched the surface of what I do. It goes really deep and really wide. I would love to get to a point where I’m able to show everyone everything. That’s the goal to really make this stuff available. In terms of the broken lighters, I don’t know how I’m going to attach that to something and frame it vertically. I took them out of their bags, arranged them, snapped the photo and they all go back into their bags. Maybe that’s how I do sell them, as a print.
My friend recently sold prints of a collection of his tapes, he did a Rave Classics and a Rap Classics print which he sold in an exhibition.
I showed some of the tape cassettes I had found at the Side Effects show. That collection is down in my basement in a plastic container and I have no idea how many are in there, it’s pretty wild.
At this stage, how many pieces of work do you have that you’re happy with and would exhibit again?
Built or not built?
Finished I guess, like if someone were to say let’s do a show how many do you have ready?
Very little, it’s not built because I don’t have the space to build it. The numbers thing, you have seen the numbers thing that I have framed…
In the fifteen to twenty years since I built that I have collected a whole new batch of numbers and I’m not sure if it goes with the old piece. Do I take the old piece apart and add them in? I’m not really sure but we’re talking about probably a pretty large piece of wall space that would take up. I don’t want to call it a mural but we’re talking about a pretty large piece of framed art. I just don’t have the space to lay that thing out and figure out how it gets built. I hate to use the term waiting but I’m waiting for the opportunity to present itself so I can move into that realm of building.
What would you say would be the ultimate goal? To make a book, a number of books. What do you feel would do it justice?
There’s a couple of different ways to do it. A book would make it accessible to everybody instead of having to travel to some place to go and see it, if some place even wanted to house it. Then a private collector buys it, then no-one sees it except for them. There’s a ton of different ways you could do it. You could make a print. Put it on Instagram, then everybody sees it, there are so many different ways.
But in terms of the final product, like for instance with the numbers. I haven’t assessed the entire collection since I’ve amassed it, it all just goes into a container and stays there. I don’t even know what I have kind of thing. But if I can guess at what I have, it’s something pretty interesting so I would like the opportunity to build it and put it out there and see what it is. It’s new and exciting to myself even because I don’t know what it finally looks like yet.
I would like the opportunity to build it and put it out there and see what it is. It’s new and exciting to myself even because I don’t know what it finally looks like yet
Do you feel like an ultimate project could ever bring some closure to the process or do you feel like the process is infinite?
It’s like what I said about being a skateboarder and seeing a spot, you’re never not going to see the skate spot in something that you look at. Your brain is always going to think like that. What’s funny is the last number that I actually found was attached to the cement, it was literally embedded in the asphalt and I couldn’t get it up, it wouldn’t come off the ground!
I do find numbers still but nowhere near as much as I used to so that has slowed down to a point where I could probably build it, put it in a frame and call it a day. I have new categories and avenues that I’m exploring. Closure is a weird word but I could cap it off. But who knows maybe down the line I’ll start finding more numbers and build another piece in another twenty years.
What’s a recurring thing you find that you can’t fathom?
One thing I see a lot that I don’t pick up is socks. I’ll see one sock, a lot it’s crazy. Everyone talks about the one sock they lost, the sock vortex.
My friend talks about the murderer’s shoe. Like what’s the story behind this thing…
There’s the Gonz thing how did it get there? It’s interesting. There are definitely things I see that I don’t pick up and there’s maybe a point where I might start picking them up, I just haven’t gotten to that place yet. Lately I have been noticing lot of pens and I just don’t really see it. They are almost so plentiful that it makes it too easy but a whole collection of pens that were found in the street would be really interesting and somebody reading this is going to go and make that piece of art but whatever. I just picked up my second crushed pencil…
There’s a certain type of 7-11 cup I see all the time, I just don’t pick it up. I see a lot of those weird violin strings for your teeth, like floss on a plastic thing. See those and don’t pick those up but I do pick up toothbrushes which are few and far between. The idea that there are toothbrushes all over the streets of New York is so weird to me.
I mean you could go all the way from used condoms to piss bottles, there’s so much stuff on the street. I recently found and this is going to sound really weird but I recently found my second pair of womens underwear like thong style underwear and I don’t know how those got in the street. You’ll see bras. I know this is going down a really unhygienic realm but I try to be as careful and delicate as possible with this stuff. The ultimate goal is to put it behind glass and present it and have the viewer ponder A) Why is this behind glass and B) Why is it being presented as art? Which is wider, question the parameters. What is art? And how did it get in the street? It’s a weird zone, a lot of the stuff I do pick up is in that realm of hygienic grossness but it’s just stuff that I see, what can I say?
To quickly dip back to skateboarding. We enjoyed the Skatercon trip. That level of appreciation for our culture and knowledge about it is refreshing…
Great I’m glad that you got it
What skate artifacts are on your radar?
Anything Del Mar, anything Pipeline, anything from leftover skateparks. I have appreciation for everything but I would much rather have a Del Mar T-shirt than an Osiris shoe. Anything 80’s. I started skating in 85
Well Raging Waters, Don’t know exactly what there is from the Raging Waters period. From what I understand that ramp was only there for a little while. I don’t think that was an actual skate park, I don’t know what it was built for. That’s a good questions. Why was the Raging Waters ramp built? So I do have an appreciation for anything Del Mar or Pipeline then you get into The Turf. I love anything G&S, any old skateboard companies Zorlac or whatever and some of the old Vision stuff.
But I would rather have a Gonz board than a Kele Rosecrans Vision pro model. No disrespect to Kele Rosecrans but there’s obviously spectrum. Stickers, shirts. I don’t collect boards. I would if I could but I just can’t, I don’t have space or money. There’s magazines, zines, I do what I can but I don’t have the space, time or money to go full skate collector. But then there’s spaces and experiences. I love hearing stories and hearing about how something went down or where something went down or the first time it went down.
Would you see an avenue for yourself curating those stories?
Sure to a certain extent I guess that journey has already started. The Skatercon thing was like, let’s go talk to Kevin Staab, you know I’ve never met him. One thing that Kevin Staab and I share an appreciation of is the music of The Cult. I know that he loved the Cult, I love The Cult, I want to go and ask him about the time he met Ian Astbury, tell me the story, it’s so sick! And why are you wearing a helmet?
I want to go and ask him about the time he met Ian Astbury, tell me the story, it’s so sick! And why are you wearing a helmet?
And obviously Bill Danforth. Did I like Bill Danforth when I was a kid? Not per se but shit! When I look back, I’m like this dude was the sickest dude ever. He pushed mongo and everybody was cool with it. At the very least no-one was going to go up to him and say hey you push mongo. He probably would have like bit your face off. Probably not but he looked like he could have bit your face off. So sick! And he rode for Alva
Your sticker collection is amazing and the repetition and presentation adds to it. What companies do you have covered?
All of the classics. My tops are the Gonz stuff, the G&S stuff I love. I’m only missing a handful of what I would consider things to complete my collections. But Alva, Vision, G&S, Zorlac. Anything from Brand X to Toxic to Airbourne, B.B.C, the Losi stuff, anything odd, not necessarily odd but anything fringe and obscure. I love a Henry Gutierrez Airbourne sticker. He rode for Sims and not many people realise he rode for Airbourne which was also a kind of appendage of the Zorlac family which is amazing. Steadham designs or Uncle Wiggly, Ken Park Town & Country.
We were stoked to see your Nine Club and the Thrasher Out There piece are you working on any other pieces you want us to know about?
With Same Old I have a bunch of stuff. Chris reached out to me and I understood what he was doing out the gates and he brought me in with the Skatercon thing and the Mountain Manor piece were both through Same Old giving me the support to get out there. HUF through Metropolitan also gave me financial support to get out to Skatercon and I appreciate that.
When I went out to that Mountain Manor thing I had initially gone out there to be at the Hall Of Fame induction ceremony and the Vans Pool party. Kind of like Skatercon part 2 but the Mountain Manor piece was what we ended up releasing. We do have a bunch of footage from the Pool party and the Hall of Fame thing but we’re not sure how to present it. It’s a jumble of stuff like me talking to John Gibson, what the fuck! Literally tripped out, like this is John Gibson standing in front of me! Lance Mountain introducing me to Buck Smith and he looks like Willy Nelson.
Is skateboarding on the cards?
Yeah I still skate. The reason my house looks like it does now is because I had injured my ankle about a year and a half ago, a run of the mill rolled ankle but about a month ago when it got hot the injury appeared again. I couldn’t really operate on my left ankle the way I wanted to. I couldn’t skate so I thought let me go and pull out all this stuff out of my storage unit. That randomly led to me posting that piece of art on my Instagram account with the cups.
I posted that and three days later that Thrasher thing which I didn’t know was going to come out, came out. I filmed it, if you look I’m all in winter gear. Then all of a sudden that turned up on the Thrasher site and I had no idea it was going to and I freaked out. Like Oh my god what did I say in that thing?
I hadn’t had a chance to see it before it went live then I sat down and watched it and saw it was cool. But at that point I had been working on a lot of similar stuff with Chris at Same Old and this was like everything we had been working on condensed into an 8 minute project. But I was really happy with how it turned out. It makes you think fuck, sometimes things just happen for you, you know. That thing just hyper projected me into this realm that I’m in now. Things go in cycles, I’ve always skated a lot but right now my ankle doesn’t feel the way I want it to so I took a month off it and I’m making art but I will always skate.
Final message to the community young and old…
Don’t Do it.
Interview by Jacob Sawyer