Bobby Puleo is no stranger to the skate world, and his knowledge of its culture runs deep. But what some skaters might not know is that Bobby is also no stranger to the world of graffiti, and his knowledge of this art form and its culture is just as impressive. We met up at his local coffee shop and spoke about how these two two subcultures have been interwoven throughout his life and career.
What came first: skating or graffiti?
Well, the first time I was exposed to graffiti was probably in the early ‘80s. My father drove a container truck, and one day he drove it to our house and had me and my brother come out to see it. Some graffiti writer had painted the container, and it looked almost as if it was a permission piece. Me and my brother just sat there and stared at it like it was the coolest thing. That made me think, “What is this?” So I was always curious about it.
In terms of writing graffiti, I never put a lot of energy into it. There was a point I was taking tons of marker tags, but not so much with paint, because by that point I was on my way to becoming a pro skater, so I spent more time skating. But I always had markers on me.
How did you get your tag?
I started writing Devo in high school, around 1990. But once I started coming into Manhattan I saw another Devo, so I changed it to Devs. But then I saw Devs CM tags on the West side, so I started writing it with a ‘Z’ (Devz).
Who do you remember being up a lot in your early days of graff?
When I was a kid I used to drive from Clifton to Lyndhurst (NJ) and I’d see graffiti right outside the Lincoln Tunnel. Two tags that stood out were Tac and Era. Also Casio, and this other guy Panic took highway tags. I took the PATH train and would get off at 9th St & 6th Ave or World Trade Center, so I was predominantly on the West Side of Manhattan. I really liked Fort, he was one of the guys who crushed the Village and the West Side. Deal RFC was super crazy back then; I met Seno (KSA) and them down at the Banks; VFR and Sev were all over down by the Banks; Cbee was up; the JA/MQ beef was incredible to see; Dear and Kaz were up. The Banks was essentially a graffiti museum. Everyone knew to catch tags at The Banks because they would get in the magazines.
Who did you look up to in your early years of skating?
I started skating in ‘84/’85 and I got my first video around ‘86/’87, which was the NSA “Shut Up and Skate” contest in Houston. I saw “Future Primitive” right away, and all the Powell stuff was huge at the time. I’d see Mark Gonzales in the magazines, and he was the top of the crop in street skating. And of course you had Tommy and Natas right behind him. There was also Mike V. when Public Domain came out, and because I knew he was from NJ and skating in Manhattan. Those guys obviously. It wasn’t until “Shackle Me Not” came out that I was exposed to Matt Hensley and I became enamored by his technical abilities.
Your La Luz part had shots of graffiti; what was that about?
At the time I had a video camera, and I would just record shit. I would use my video camera almost like a still camera, and my idea was to capture certain tags and fill-ins and intersperse them with street shots. I edited the film to Fear “I Love Living in the City” and I cannot find the edit that I made. But I have all the original footage. It starts off with me coming out of a hatch on the bike ramp of the Manhattan Bridge, then it went into dudes pissing on the street and random city stuff. But I had captured a bunch of graff; Trip was going crazy; there’s a Dear fill-in; there’s some VFR stuff. So as we were editing La Luz, I put that stuff in. And you know what, if you watch “Future Primitive,” there’s a Sev fill-in at The Banks.
So would you say it was inspired by that?
Yeah, you know, subconsciously. The subconscious mind is able to absorb a lot of stuff. It’s interesting how things get spit back into your consciousness.
What is it about these two subcultures that they attract the same person?
It has its own language. You have to be initiated into it. It’s performance based, so your ego has to be driven towards that life. It’s judgmental. You have to be open to criticism, and a lot of skaters and graffiti writers are highly critical of not only others, but also themselves. You hold court. It’s a culture, and with a culture comes a peanut gallery that you’re a part of. Also, spots, if you have that mindset. Some writers barge it, and some skaters just barge it. They’re both a grimier side of society, maybe not today but more so back then. I always say that in skating, you’re always a consumer, no matter how high you make it. If you make it as a pro, you’re still always a consumer of the culture, and sometimes the product. Graffiti is less commercialized.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, skating and graff weren’t accepted by the mainstream. Nowadays they are a lot more so. How do you think this warm welcome from the masses has changed these subcultures?
Every time I see a train go by with an advertisement on the side panels, I think how crazy it is that it’s ok for a large company to pay the MTA to put their advertisement for something that might kill you across the side of a train. It’s just like what Stecyk said about skating, “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11-year olds that could see that potential.” Same thing applies to space and advertising and the ability to catch an eyeball. These were kids that were doing it (young graffiti writers in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and they understood that the best place to advertise is right there across the side of a train.
You’re gonna get a guy like Nyjah Houston, when he’s skating he’s dressed like running back would dress at spring training. I’m not saying that’s a byproduct of it becoming more popular, but it’s just brought in more people. So with more people coming in, and more skateparks being built to accommodate those people, you’re going to get a more uniform culture. There’s going to be more clones of this type of skater, and they’re all gonna learn on the same objects, and there’s gonna be less style. The tricks, the environment, everything is becoming more similar, more homogeneous. It’s not necessarily a problem, it just depends on what you’ve been exposed to. A skateboarding trick is a skateboarding trick, skateboarding is skateboarding, it’s how you look at, it all comes down to your personal perception. You can look at it negatively and have it affect you. Like the Jason Jesse quote, “I love skateboarding so much I want it to die.” It can be positive or negative. There’s a certain melancholy to loving something so much. At the end of the day it comes down to the act of skateboarding and what you attach on to it is your own psychosis.
In skating it’s not cool to film at skateparks. In graff it’s not cool to paint legal walls. So are legal walls the graff equivalent of skatepark footage?
Enough time has elapsed that it’s like, “If I’m going to see Gino skating a skatepark, give it to me.” Is VFR going to do a legal wall? I’ll take it. The thing is, they’ve earned the right. The thing about skating and graffiti is that it’s still skateboarding and it’s still graffiti. You’re looking at his letters, not necessarily the spot. But it depends what he does at the spot. A backside tailslide on a quarterpipe, for example, where the hell are you going to find a quarterpipe out in the wild? When graffiti was written on trains, it’s like, what’s the difference between the letters somebody puts on a train and a wall inside of a gallery. There are only certain tricks you can do on a quarterpipe, and if I’m going to watch Gino do it, I’m like, yeah I don’t care. And both subcultures had a similar trajectory: parks came in, parks went out; the gallery scene came in, and the gallery scene went out. Also, if you saw Hosoi on a vert ramp, you wouldn’t be like, “this is stupid,” your mind would be blown. And seeing a Sento piece in an art gallery, your mind would be blown.
Last question: will you hit my book?