william strobeck on his first-ever exhibition
The legendary skate videographer makes a 'Lovely Mess' at Milk Gallery.
William Strobeck & Tyshawn Jones. Courtesy of William Strobeck.
William Strobeck has spent most of his life documenting skateboarders. In the late 90s, at Philadelphia’s Love Park. Recently, in San Francisco — where his new video for Supreme, CANDYLAND, premiered last week. Mostly, in New York City, Bill’s home since 2003. He captures the spots they skate, the friendships they form, and the cities that surround them with a raw, cinematic approach. His first-ever exhibition, however, looks inward. Titled My Lovely Mess, it’s an invitation inside Bill’s brain, and his apartment.
“The show reflects on my whole deal — what my life’s been like since I was a kid,” Bill says. “Compared to 20 years ago, I’m so stable now. But you just go through these hurdles in life, you know? Everyone does. It’s all a huge scribble,” he explains. “Kind of like Pigpen. He’s got his fuckin’ cloud around him, but he’s into it. I’ve made it so far by sticking with my own mess.”
“My Lovely Mess” includes images and videos culled from Bill’s vast archive. Expect to see the familiar faces he’s been documenting for decades — Supreme skateboarders across generations (Mark Gonzales, Jason Dill, the late Dylan Rieder, Tyshawn Jones, and Sean Pablo to name only a few), artists (Weirdo Dave, Lizzi Bougatsos), New York legends and longtime friends (Chloë Sevigny, Jennifer JR Reynolds). There will also be a few surprises. When we spoke, Bill was contemplating including the first video skits he made as a kid, with his cousin back in Syracuse. “There’s stuff no one has seen, stuff people know, stuff people have imagined by seeing through Instagram,” Bill says. “It really is a mix of my whole ordeal.”
To that end, “My Lovely Mess” also features an installation — an exact recreation of the East Village apartment where Bill has lived for about 10 years, and where visitors often pose among his “mess” (a propped-up Dennis Hopper still, Harmony Korine print, a Slash Magazine poster). You might recognize the place from Supreme campaigns. Bill photographed the Black Sabbath rug in his hallway, and a Richard Prince benefit tee on his kitchen door.
And so, the installation faithfully includes Bill’s real stuff: the Panic in Needle Park poster that hangs above his bed, his stacks of VHS tapes (including Days of Heaven, Life Skateboards’ A Soldier’s Story, and hard-to-find Nan Goldin documentary In My Life), the vintage enamel pins that spangle his desk, the bricks he swiped from storied skate spots like Embarcadero and the Brooklyn Banks. Just like the videos he makes out on the street, Bill’s bedroom photographs capture his evolving cast of characters as they grow together.
Ahead of “My Lovely Mess”’s opening party tonight, Bill shares more about the show.
How did the show come about?
I’ve always had an idea of what I’ve wanted to do if someone asked me to do a show. So when Milk hit me up, I already knew the direction I’d take. The show is a taste of my reality. I’ve talked about my upbringing in other interviews: my mother being schizophrenic and not being around for a while, living with my grandmother, not knowing who my father is. Being an only child, you really get used to your own energy and develop an imagination. When they found the right stuff for my mother’s chemical imbalance, she felt so bad about being sick that she let me do whatever I wanted. She just wanted me to be happy. I was the youngest of everyone I skated with, so I would look to the older kids to figure out how to do things in life. It’s insane, but it’s real.
When I first moved in to my apartment, I’d been couch surfing for so long that I didn’t even get a bed. I slept on a roll-out Army cot thing for a few months. I’d never had my own place before, and I was probably 33 years old. It didn’t feel real. I’ve lived there for about ten years now, and my bed is surrounded by a museum of stuff. There’s a lot of personality in that place, and there’s a lot of people who have come through. In the show, you’re gonna see it all. There’s gonna be an installation of my room. They’re recreating it exactly with all of my real shit.
That has to be wild for you.
It is. And weirdly emotional. I haven’t moved stuff in years, so seeing it all getting packed up is crazy. There are certain things that have to be recreated — the walls, the molding — but the measurements are exact. The wallpaper, the color of the hallway, all that shit’s exact. When they take my bed and my desk, I’m just gonna be sitting in an empty apartment for three weeks.
Hope you still have that cot.
[Laughs]. I really wanted it to be exact, though. There’s kids that DM me asking if they can come over. ‘My dream is to get a photo at your crib,’ type of shit. It’s so crazy to hear, because all that shit [on Instagram] is for fun. There was a time when there were a lot of people coming over to my place, especially skaters during the day. I did that when I was younger, too. In Philadelphia, we’d go to my friend Ryan Gee’s place instead of back to our own apartments. Tyshawn will come kick it before he goes all the way back up to the Bronx. It’s such a skate thing. In the early days, Alex Olson and JR used to come by and I’d take photos of them with some point and shoot. [During the filming of cherry] when the kids from L.A. would come into town, they’d hang out and watch skate videos. All that type of shit is going to be in the show. But there’s also shit that doesn’t have to do with my apartment at all. It’s gonna be a very stimulating show. It has to be. It’s only gonna happen once. I’m not gonna do this again [laughs].
You made a video called “My Lovely Mess” almost eight years ago, which features almost all women.
I grew up with women, so I’m super comfortable with them. When I was younger, I didn’t like men. There was something in me — maybe I was mad. Or I’d realized then that the men in my family didn’t treat women right, so I had a protective thing. When I was younger, I used to have to watch my neighbor’s kid. I was 12 and she was eight. She was my little homie, this girl Shannon, she was always rolling with me. Eventually, she moved and I never saw her again. But I’ve had these homegirl friends throughout life — JR, my friend Chris — and I wonder if they’re what became of what that was? JR is a little younger than me, too, and she’s the fuckin’ homie. She used to roll with me for days. I had a website a while ago with a page called “hellchild” that was a bunch of photos I’d shot of her.
I just think the people in my life are dope. I made sure to include everyone in the show as much as I could. I didn’t want anyone to not be involved. You can tell who I’ve been rolling with for the past ten years, ten years before that, and in my childhood. It’s all in there. Other people are really important to me. I see people who will do shit alone, fuckin’ run over people and keep it moving. I’m just not that type of person. New York is dog-eat-dog, and I get that, but I think people can work together to make something so much sicker. You’re gonna get so much further if you collaborate and support each other. I hope this show brings everyone out. Maybe people will meet each other that night and start rolling together, too.
As Supreme has opened more shops over the years, you’ve traveled to capture it. Does the show have elements of those different cities?
It feels super New York to me. But New York, 15 years ago. I haven’t tried to stray from what I thought was great about New York. Obviously gadgets and shit has changed, the shapes of cars, Instagram. But I’m just doing me with the modern shit there is. To me, the show feels like late-90s to 2008, even though many of the images are from later. Maybe people don’t want that time period anymore, but I do. It’s what I grew up with, and I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s where my style comes from.
When I started making my own videos, it was because I wanted to see skating this way. For a while, I’d just film and hand in the stuff. The companies that hired me would do what they wanted with it. I was fine with that, because I loved the companies and the people I was working with. At a certain point, though, I started thinking about whether I liked it at all anymore. By then, there were outlets like YouTube, and I just tried to do my own thing. I really worked on those first few videos. Creating the image of who I am, and showing people the way that I’ve always wanted to see the stuff. I first started doing that in 2005 or something, and to this day, I can’t stop. I have a working problem, kind of. I just feel like — this is my spirit and I know how to use it. It’s weird to talk about, but it’s something I feel like I’ve got to do. I gotta do it, because there’s only time.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I consider myself a survivor. I don’t put a label on it. The stuff I do is in the arts, but when I think about artists, I think about people I know in the art world who have shows all the time. I’m not an art show type guy, but the shit I have around me is eccentric and should be seen. I think everyone’s life is an art.
What keeps you inspired?
Early on, I wouldn’t film when I wasn’t working, or if I didn’t have to. Which is a shame, because I think that documenting the time you have, any way you can, is inspiring. And that’s what I try to tell all these kids. You might not know it now, but when you get older and look back at it, you’re not gonna believe all the shit you got into. I look back at Photosynthesis, or even at cherry now, with Dylan in it — it’s in the heart. I made BLESSED for Dylan, and I wanted to make it top-fucking-notch. I worked super hard, and so did everyone in it. That video is us — that’s the stuff we did with Supreme. The packaging, the name, the reason. That video is the core of it all. It had to feel like you were there with us. You need to know what we go through. Everything, at this point in my life, is so special. In 15 years, I really think I’ll look back on how sick it all was. Looking back at footage of Dill from 1998 or 2000. Holy shit, dude. We’re so young, and we didn’t know it. You don’t know anything about yourself until a few years later. You’re just stuck in your lovely mess.
William Strobeck’s “My Lovely Mess” is on-view at Milk Gallery from November 2 - November 22. More information here .