Why we love FAKES
Andrew Kuo comes thru talkin' beautiful bootlegs, Canal Street contraband, and disappearing New York
Andrew Kuo — he’s an IYKYK NYC king, responsible for so much dope s**t that writing this sentence is giving me ANXIETY: fantastic paintings that are kind of like Sol LeWitt doing funny diaries in DATA-FLOW-CHART FORM… googly-eyed tees, hand-painted basketballs and other joyful jawns for cool shops like Ooga Booga, Printed Matter and Opening Ceremony (RIP)… beautiful bootlegs, most recently via his illicit-art-merch line Shrits, where Andrew slings Alice Neel tees and Claude Monet caps in partnership with Pascal Spengemann… the massively viral @earlboykins IG-meme account and (after it got suspended??) its successors… the delightful basketball-and-culture podcast Cookies (which Andrew co-hosts with Ben Detrick, and where yrs truly did a special guest appearance the other day)… and probably 20 other things we’re blanking on??
Since Andrew’s taste levels are Mach 3+ — and since we have a documented sweet spot for great bootlegs — we asked him to talk about FIRE FAKERY and some rare & cherished possessions from the Kuo Archives… He did not disappoint on either score !!
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Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve been making cool & funny bootleg jawns for years, back to when most ppl in the current bootleg craze were still little babies cryin’ to mama for ice cream — how’d you get into this counterfeiting life?
Andrew Kuo: “I was fortunate to grow up in NYC during the heyday of Canal Street, where high-end and low-end bootlegs kinda had their moment with handbags and Bart Simpson tees. My own bootlegs started pretty early on, when I would paint my own band-tees, which just felt easier to make than to try and hunt them down on St. Mark’s Place or at Kim’s. This was way before the Internet and not many places were selling Unrest tees — it was a tsunami of NIN/Smashing Pumpkins/Beastie Boys stuff. When I learned how to silkscreen it got a whole lot more fun. I mostly stuck to making band tees and Knicks tees, and I gave them away until around the Ooga Booga era, when I realized that people I didn’t know wanted them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Late-’80s / early-‘90s Canal Street fascinated me as a kid — the chaotic energy on those blocks, the plastic-supply stores next to sneaker stores where the shoes are all shrink-wrapped, dudes on the corner selling $4 Bell Biv Devoe cassettes out of milk crates …
Andrew Kuo: “Man, it was like a wonderland for child delinquency. There was everything from fireworks that you could buy openly on the street to all this hardcore contraband. It’s funny to think about how old I was — 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, rolling around with $40 in my pocket trying to buy fireworks, being that close to drugs.
“But I remember Max Headroom tees, Bart shirts, all these bootlegs, and back then I couldn’t really detect the quality differences — a $5 bootleg was the same thing to me as the real thing. It created access to all these different worlds for a price I didn’t realize was cheaper.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I love all the bootlegs from back then that weren’t straight knockoffs, but more like “folk”-style reiterations. Black Bart is a major example… I also foggily recall braided Batman-logo medallions in the colors of the Jamaican flag and the pan-African flag, which people would hang from their rearview mirrors…
Andrew Kuo: “I haven’t thought about them in like 30 years but yeah, totally, when the Tim Burton Batman came out it was appropriated to everything — belt buckles, braided stuff, stuff for your car, because that was the era of sound systems.
“But you bring up a good point, which is that the stuff down there was not necessarily a one-for-one bootleg of something from the Westchester mall — it could be something new. Like, you couldn’t get black Bart anywhere else. It was almost crowdsourced: Canal Street listening to what the people wanted and making it, a la carte…”
Blackbird Spyplane: There was a political component to black Bart, taking this symbol of mass culture and rendering him as a black kid — or as Michael Jordan, or Nelson Mandela, or Malcolm X at the window with the rifle… Did your first Jeremy Lin Bart bootleg tee have a political aspect, as you saw it?
Andrew Kuo: “Yeah, that shirt specifically had 2 parts to it — I’d bought all the official Jeremy Lin stuff, so I hit my ceiling, and it felt like a way to channel that enthusiasm into a new thing I could make. And it was a tip of the cap to the black Bart era, because the ‘Linsanity’ era was such an interesting racial experience in NYC. Being Taiwanese-American and seeing basketball fans struggle with this new thing they’d never seen before, it reminded me of people back in the ‘90s talking about what race the Simpsons were and how their skin color might not represent what you thought it did, what cultures were they signaling and borrowing from — the complexity of that series took me till I was an adult to understand.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Do Young Kuo’s ‘90s Canal Street memories lurk somewhere inside a bootleg project like Shrits?
Andrew Kuo: “Oh my god, yes. In a weird twist of fate, my Shrits partner, Pascal, opened his gallery, Broadway, four blocks south of Canal and it’s really meaningful to me that he’ll ship our items from the Canal Street post office. That’s incredible, even if Canal Street isn’t the same place it once was. R.I.P. Alife.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Bootleg tees have proliferated like wild over the past few years, maybe because they travel well on Instagram and maybe because the space that used to exist between thinking of an idea and printing it has basically disappeared. It feels like the bar’s been raised as far as what makes a bootleg shirt worthwhile and interesting.
Andrew Kuo: “A thousand percent. The original idea behind Shrits was that I’d go to the MoMA and see these shows and have my wallet out at the end, but there was nothing in the gift shop that got me going. I just wanted a cool silkscreened tee with big dumb letters!
“Now you see those kinds of shirts everywhere, though, and the question of where and when I still feel enthusiastic about something like that depends on context — if I go into a shop and they have City Parks Department merch and MoMA merch, it’s not necessarily personal anymore. The things we do as Shrits, we love to death: Alice Neel is one of our favorite painters, so we had to have Neel merch. But she’s got a show up at the Met now and we made our Neel hats years ago and we’re not going to reprint them. Because the context is different now.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So in addition to yr love of bootlegs, U R a lifelong basketball fan, and both of those passions converge in this bootleg NBA cap you sent me…
What’s amazing about this is that it looks unremarkable at a glance, until you look again and realize all the logos are varying degrees of “wrong.” Where did you get this?
Andrew Kuo: “I think it was at Broome and Broadway, around 2003. This guy on the corner was selling a lot of stuff, and this was clearly special — it’s a very inefficient hat, like, someone took time and care to make this! It’s a labor of love. If you wanted to make something fast and cheap to sell to tourists to make a buck, this would not be it: ‘Let’s painstakingly re-draw all the different cities’ logos and embroider them on a fitted.’
“It’s like it comes from a multiverse version of the NBA. It’s a multiverse fitted! I don’t know anything about it — the tag inside says ‘Epoch Trading Vietnam.’ I paid like $7 for it, and if someone was, like, ‘Andrew, can you re-create all these logos and stitch them on a hat?’ I’d be like, ‘Can you sell them for $200 each?’”
Blackbird Spyplane: U also sent over a zine called “9/11: The Synopsis” by an artist named PMD a.k.a. The Prime Minister of Dick. I didn’t know anything about this dude but I looked him up and apparently he’s a South African artist heavily interested in drawing dongs. He told an interviewer that the title “is about me smoking marijuana from 9 AM to 11 AM. 9/11. I made it my goal to smoke shizzle in the morning for two hours because when I'm really, really high I can start drawing dicks and balls.”
Andrew Kuo: “I knew him as Sausagehead — he would cruise bars around the Lower East Side and East Village in the early-to-mid aughts, and he wore a plastic pig nose and called himself Sausagehead. He was a kind of unassuming guy; I don’t think he drank. He’d just hang and play pool and sell framed drawings and zines like he was a celebrity: ‘Everyone, I’m here!’ This dude’s output was awesome: he had new zines, wrapped in mylar, stapled well, and it’s kind of psychedelic artwork of people morphing into shapes and animals, he has kind of manifestos, he plays with ideas of publishing where he’ll Xerox in bar codes…
“He was a stylish guy and he accepted praise very well. Like, someone would say, ‘I wanna put you in a group show,’ and he’d be like, ‘Of course you do.’ No curator ever took him under their wing. I don’t know why. He was clearly obsessed with drawing and his work was good! I don’t believe in the idea of ‘outsider art’ unless you’re talking about a market, which does and doesn’t have to do with art.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What’s the latest with him?
Andrew Kuo: “I haven’t seen him in more than 10 years. I keep wondering if he’ll, like, pop up in Clandestino, but no. I hope he just moved uptown or something. I romanticize the city as much as the next guy, and he felt so New York to me. I do have that ‘disappearing New York’ wistfulness, which is annoying to a lot of my friends — I love change and want things to change, but it’s got to coexist with at least remembering the things you don’t see anymore.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of things you don’t see anymore, you also sent over a Fujifilm disposable camera that looks like it’s wearing jeans. What’s the deal?
Andrew Kuo: “This is a camera I used on my first trip abroad to Paris in 2003. It was the summer of ‘Hey Ya,’ some local gave me a scooter ride, I ate a baguette in a park and I was young! I haven’t developed it, because of laziness, but now I just like it as an object.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s something funny & poignant about that: Typically a disposable camera gets disposed and the pictures live on, whereas here the pictures never materialized but the camera persists.
Andrew Kuo: “It must have such great stuff on it.”
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