Antony Zito has left the building. For nearly 20 years, the man has been a fixture of the East Village, and he has built an interesting
career. He made himself the neighborhood portrait painter. An anti-snob, he has very little use for the social scene we call the art world. Instead of running around to prestigious galleries and trying to ingratiate himself, he built his own scene.
His Italian grandfather was a stone carver and his father a sculptor and painter, so Zito's childhood in semi-rural Connecticut was immersed in art. It was only natural that he end up in New York. His early work was what I call "stoner surrealism", until he decided to concentrate on portrait painting. An indefatigable trash picker, he would rescue treasures from the garbage and paint on them, and thus invented his own brand of found object portraiture. Zito, a musician as well as a painter, was for many years the bass player for the hard rock trio Aytobach Kreisor.
About his personality: He's very friendly and outgoing - this makes him a great neighbor. Many painters prefer to work in private, but Zito's door is always open - he loves to create art in public. When he had his studio/gallery on Ludlow Street, he organized events all the time: art shows, rock shows, costume parties, and combinations thereof. He has a great appreciation for the talents of others. The spirit is inclusive. And what's more surprising, even though he loves to dress up and look like a freak, his taste in art is really quite traditional. Zito reveres the old masters.
We're old buddies and have shown together numerous times. We're from the days when the neighborhood was wild and dirty and dangerous, and full of artists, poets, musicians and assorted weirdos, before there was a Chase branch and a Starbucks every few blocks (We liked it better then!). On the eve of his departure for a trip to Europe, where he will serve as a sort of New York art ambassador/gladiator, we had this conversation. I hope you will forgive us if we sound like 2 old men going "Back in those days, a subway token was a nickel, and a hamburger was 3 cents!"
Joe Heaps Nelson: Joining me this evening on Masterpiece Theatre is my old friend and colleague, Antony Zito. Zito, how did your art career in the East Village begin?
Antony Zito: Well one night I came home from Mars Bar, shitfaced as usual, I think it was around '93 or so. And I was already hanging crap at Mars Bar, but they were silly, ridiculous, pseudo-surreal vignettes. I woke up the next morning and found that I had dragged home a smashed mirror, and painted myself on it. That kind of opened something up. That's when I started doing portraits on found objects, and making everyone I know sit to be painted on ironing boards and garbage cans.
Heaps: Besides being a painter, and you kind of invented the concept of your friendly neighborhood portrait painter, because you were so much a part of the community, you really recorded a history of the Lower East Side. That makes you like a Clayton Patterson sort of guy. He has a record of all his years in the Lower East Side, with his photographs and films, and you made portraits of some of the most interesting characters to live in Downtown New York in the last 20 years. Of all the portraits you ever did, tell me about one that might have intimidated you.
Zito: You mean one that was difficult to work through? I know. I got a good one for you. There was going to be a Felix show at the Mars Bar. So, of course, I was enlisted to do a Felix portrait. Felix, for those who don't know, I don't know the PC way to say it, but he was a deaf mute…
Heaps: What is the PC way to say deaf mute hunchbacked Puerto Rican dwarf?
Zito: Hahahahaha! I think that's it, actually. I didn't know how that was going to work out, but Ellen, who worked at the Mars Bar, pulled a Budweiser out, and walked it around the bar, and held it out to him like he was getting a drink, and then somehow gave it to me, and he followed me home to 5th Street from there. So, there I was, walking 8 blocks home with Felix following me. He came and sat for me, and of course he smoked a joint and he's drinking some Budweisers, and I'm painting away, he's just sitting there with his head kind of tilted over to the side a little bit, and he starts nodding off.
Heaps: Yeah, yeah, you just tilt the whole operation on a diagonal?
Zito: He was making it really difficult for me, and I started laughing because I was looking at my painting, and it didn't look like Felix, it looked like James Brown. (Laughter) He had a big ol' process hairdo going on. I eventually sorted it out. I had to wake him up. I tried a couple times, but I had to get him out of my house, too, and take him back to Mars Bar!
Heaps: I remember the picture!
Zito: Yeah, Ellen bought it actually. She's a big Felix fan.
Heaps: You know, that's a good person to have it, since she was the catalyst. And she figured out the way for you to get Felix to your studio to pose.
Zito: She could communicate with him.
Heaps: It took me about 7 years, but then all of a sudden, I understood everything he was saying. I went from total non-comprehension to, oh my God! I get everything he's saying. So how I know you in the first place was, my friend Kenny Sehgal moved to New York, and he was looking for a band.
Zito: We were looking for a guitar player, Jeremy and I, and we put a sign up. The only sign was in the Mars Bar! Behind the bar, and it said "Guitar Player Wanted, Killer Chops" and it was a picture of a pork chop. And it said Black Sabbath, Pixies, a few other things like that. A couple people tried out and sucked, and Kenny tried out and he was great, but (helplessly bursts into high-pitched laughter) we were looking at his knapsack, and it was this multicolored patchwork knapsack, like green and orange, red, purple, and we're like, I don't know? Can we be in a band with a guy who has a multicolored knapsack? Hahahahahahahaha! It was a real problem!!! And then Jeremy's roommate Bruce, who lived upstairs, a kid who moved up to New York with me after being in art school at UMass together, and has since disappeared, said, "If I were you guys, I would go with that last guy because I was upstairs listening, and I don't care what his knapsack looks like, that guy fuckin' rocks." We were like, hey, maybe he's right, the guy fuckin' rocks. So then we started a band and I met you.
Heaps: So what year was that?
Zito: Well we made our first record with Julius Klein, in his basement studio. In '98 we put it out, which probably took a couple years to make.
Heaps: So it's gotta be '95 or '96. But, you never saw my show at the Luna Lounge. [October, 1995]
Zito: I saw your show at the Luna Lounge, but before I knew you. Because I showed there, Julius showed there, and all the local douchebags showed there.
Heaps: That means I missed your show at the Luna Lounge, because I didn't know you then.
Zito: That was a good one, boy!
Heaps: Was it right after Julius's?
Zito: It was right around there, and it was all portraits, of Jeremy, Giovanna, Katie, and all the people I painted from that time.
Heaps: And pretty soon we were in that show together, that the Engers were in, and they printed the poster for it, and Lorenza was in it, and Gerry Price was in it.
Zito: The one I put together at 113 Ludlow! Was that 2000? It seems like it would be a lot earlier than that. It was called Nerve Center.
Heaps: Yeah, and Henry Jones was in it!
Zito: Yup, that was a huge show. That was when that guy Jose used to run that space. It was before I had my gallery.
Heaps: Taylor Pierce had a show there. Gotta be '94. Yeah, that's when we met Jose and Carmelo, back then. I remember Taylor was going around inviting everybody to his show. He was so happy, he was just giving invitations to everybody he passed. He gave one to a cop, and the cop looks at the address and says, "That's a whorehouse!"
Zito: No way! Hahahahahahahaha! That's classic. That don't happen any more.
Heaps: That was when Taylor lived on Ludlow, and there was a statue of a lion in the stairwell, painted black with red eyes, and it said SALUDOS. It was a funky apartment building. And the super made crack in the basement, and the smell just went right up the stairway like a chimney.
Zito: So everybody was on crack in the whole building.
Heaps: Basically, yeah. But not on purpose. So you had that apartment on East 5th Street, and it turned out, as soon as you moved out, my sister and her friends moved in.
Zito: And Kenny was living alone in the building, he was the last person to ever live in that building.
Heaps: That's right, because the building went and got crooked.
Zito: The building was crooked and crookeder every week!
Heaps: Yeah, but then the wind blew, and it got worse.
Zito: We had a crack in the wall of our basement, which was our apartment, which just kept getting wider and wider. We were putting things in it. That was a crazy apartment. I lived there with a bunch of freaks, with a front yard and a back yard, and we partied HARD. I remember one night we came home from Mars Bar, and there were beer bottles all over the kitchen table, and I jumped up on the table and smashed it to the ground, and bottles were smashing everywhere, and poor Mandy was just standing there, she was living on the couch at the time, just staring at me. We were laughing our asses off, smashing glass, just doing that stupid shit you do when you're 20 and you completely demolish everything you own for a laugh.
Heaps: I remember there were slugs in that backyard. My sister would have parties and every time there was a slug, she would alert me, and I would fetch a stick, and flip it over the fence into the other yard.
Zito: The fence.
Heaps: And there were "things" on the fence.
Zito: I used to collect every bright plastic kids' toy I could find, and any other strange devices of any kind, and stick 'em in the chain link fence, because I couldn't stand the look of that fence. By the time we moved out there was a veritable MOUNTAIN of pinkness. Plastic Barbie corvettes, and all the empty kegs, and the wall of televisions that we used to smash with hammers, and all sorts of weird stuffed animals and weird shit. The neighbor used to write me letters. And the front, going into it's a couple steps down, and we had a fenced-in area, we had chairs, we used to call it Ptwebcro's cafe.
Heaps: I do remember that, because during the parties they'd have the doors open, and have drinkers in the front, and smokers in the back.
Zito: We used to sit out there and do bongs all day long in the front yard.
Heaps: If stoops could talk.
Zito: That's where I met Nikki.
Heaps: A lot of innocent young men have been lured to their doom by the sirens of the stoop.
Zito: It was the hottest day of 1995, in June, we had a block party and our bands played on the street. The War Hippies played on the other side of the street confrontationally playing AT US, as loud as they could. The Engers and Exploding Sky were on the same block. I don't know, they were pretty angry about something.
Heaps: Well you know those boys are from Enid, that's an outlaw town.
Zito: It was 105 degrees that day, or something, it was insanely hot. We played out in the sun. Then I got ahold of a hose, and I sat on the porch spraying everybody who walked by. It was a spray hose that goes a long way. And along comes Nikki, and I'd seen her around the neighborhood, she had the dreads all piled up on her head, little vintage dress, she said, "Can you spray me sir, and cool my feet off," she took her shoes off, and I sent this arc all the way up over the street and she washed her feet in it, and I'm like, "Come here!"
Heaps: That was before Giuliani burnt down the squats.
Zito: Yeah. I remember that day too.
Heaps: I remember seeing smoke, from Tompkins Square Park, 20 minutes before I heard any sirens.
Zito: They came and just started knocking that shit down on 5th Street.
Heaps: Yeah, they boomed it with a booming thing, 24/7! Some guys call that a battering ram.
Zito: Vikings do. What else happened over there? We were doing acid back then. Lot of acid, lots of beer, lots of whiskey, lots of weed. And when my band played in the living room, and my neighbors would always come down, every single time, and they'd be pounding on the door, and we'd be turning it up louder.
Heaps: So, after they got rid of you guys, and the building was falling down, they fixed it with Scotch tape, and moved in a whole bunch of new tenants. Then when the building started falling down again, the landlord, who owned several buildings in the neighborhood, had to get other apartments for all the legit tenants, but Kenny was just a sublettor, so he didn't get an apartment, but he thought it was great, because he was like, "Wait, I got the whole building to myself!" And he plugged in his guitar, and YEEEEEAH! And then he had the Swedes coming over, Jonas and Toby. And Magnus! And they were death metaling out in there. So, the roots are deep and tangled.
Zito: That was a fun block. Ace Bar opened up, and we hated them.
Heaps: Because Sophie's was the bar, back then, that everybody was loyal to on that block.
Zito: Yep. And there was nothing on that block, except Crazy Eddie Boros, who built the tower in the 6th Street Garden.
Heaps: Which is no longer there any more, sorry kids.
Zito: As soon as he died, they tore it down, because the fuckers couldn't wait. To just get rid of his art, because it was a "fire hazard". I used to go up to his apartment, and he had Playboy centerfolds wallpapered to the walls, and the apartment was completely full of the most bizarre garbage and shit everywhere. The mattress was one of those, ain't never had a sheet, brown sunken things.
Heaps: He was a real, live maniac.
Zito: He was in his mid 60s when I met him. He used to call me Tarzan, because I had dreads. He told me "You're afraid of that girl, Tarzan! You're afraid of her!" And I wasn't, but maybe I shoulda been. He used to make all sorts of unplayable instruments and unridable bicycles, that was his specialty. And Frankensteins.
Heaps: I remember that great painting he did of an albino King Kong on the Empire State Building. it was at Sophie's. I remember when he had a show at Sophie's!
Zito: I can't believe I didn't buy one, I didn't have $25 to buy one of his paintings. Sigh. But I ended up with one of his massive, bizarre instruments. When he died and they started gutting his apartment, they were just throwing his shit on the street, and I went by there and saw this massive, some sort of flattened out, obese, cello of some kind, with, as most cellos have, a giant hole to put your arm in with a handle inside to carry it. Hahahaha!
Heaps: I remember before he died, I guess the community board was telling him to dismantle the tower, and he was like, "Hell no!"
Zito: He went to court! The judge told him that he had to paint the entire thing with fireproof paint. So he went home and did the thing, and nobody said shit, but he was getting sicker and sicker, and those people were just waiting for him to die. So when he died, they just tore it down.
Heaps: It was an eccentric monument.
Zito: I loved it.
Heaps: Me too.
Zito: I got a little weird DVD of him, that some kids made at one point.
Heaps: And then there was the Gas Station.
Zito: Gas Station was just around the block, yeah. And Gargoyle Mechanique was there too, which was the precursor to Collective Unconscious. But then it burned. Then they were on Ludlow for years. And I think it kind of fizzled on Church Street. I mean, c'mon, The rent over there must be retarded. They had really high aspirations.
Heaps: They had a Tesla coil.
Zito: They sure did. I once had lobster cooked on that Tesla coil. And held a fluorescent light, the long, light saber type up to it and it lit up. Pretty amazing. There was one last thing I wanted to say about 5th Street, and I can't remember.
Heaps: Oh, Supid Fuck?
Zito: Supid Fuck was a classic. Very few people remember that. I'm sure we could go on about that for a minute.
Heaps: It is what it is.
Zito: Maggie Estep lived on the block. She was a writer, and recently Oriah came across one of her books, and I read it and it's pretty right on, pretty funny. Like her crackhead pregnant neighbor, and her metalhead neighbor, and her fat lesbian neighbor, it's really hilarious. There was a lot to do back then. We used to have the flea markets on Avenue C on the weekends, which wasn't really a flea market at all, just a bunch of shit on the sidewalk. I went down there one Sunday afternoon, I'll never forget, I bought a pair of leather boots that were sprayed silver, and I wore them for years, and they kinda didn't fit, because they were too small, they hurt, but they looked so fuckin' cool I wore 'em for years! There was some kind of weird, one of those squeaky hammers or something. I wore those silver shoes and I was pissing people off for months. No, I know what it was, it was a plastic chainsaw! You pulled the thing, and it went RRRRRRR and vibrated. I was going up to everybody at the bar, and on the street, chainsawing their heads.Then Nikki and I moved to Suffolk Street, in '96.
Heaps: Suffolk and Houston, great apartment.
Zito: It was a great apartment, except it was loud and smelly and noisy. With a bar downstairs.
Heaps: It was Meow Mix for a lot of years. Is that what it was when you moved there?
Zito: Meow Mix was just moving in when I moved in. There was a shit-ass Chico mural on the side of the building, with some lumpy, disproportionate reptile of the Statue of Liberty.
Heaps: So what's your honest opinion of Chico as a draughtsman and a painter?
Zito: Oh boy, I don't want to get myself in trouble. I don't know what can be said about that that isn't just plainly obvious. You gotta love the guy's persistence, in the face of what seem to be completely doomed odds, technically, and every other way. It's a real New York thing. If you can sell it, then New York is your oyster. It's kind of like the Bon Jovi factor. You don't have to have any talent at all, but you can be a big star. That was classic, the way I got that apartment from that sweet old Italian man. He gave it to us for $100 off, because he liked us. He liked my girlfriend actually. He was 80 years old, and he was sweet on my lady, And I didn't mind because he was an old guinea. He handed me a Chinese menu off the floor and said, "Here, write your name on this and your phone number, you're not gonna screw me for the rent, are ya?" I said nope. He said, "OK, it's yours. Come by and get the keys."
Heaps: That was back in the days when nobody's buzzer worked, so everybody shouted up, and you put your keys in a sock and dropped 'em down.
Zito: Or, you just threw 'em at 'em, and they went down the drain. That happened. We spent the next 4 hours trying to fish 'em out with a magnet on a stick.
Heaps: That's just a bad throw.
Zito: Well, bad catch, I think. Hahaha! But we used to rock out at Meow Mix back in the day. We used to rock the lesbian bar. That was fun. The band would get in there, one night a week was men's night. Or, hetero night. Or, pseudo, slightly hetero night.
Heaps: I remember seeing a bunch of shows there. The Barnyard Playboys used to play there too.
Zito: Good ones. We did our ZZ Top tribute night there, with Lori S.
Heaps: I remember that! You guys had plastic bags for beards, with the handles over your ears.
Zito: We had I Love NY bags for beards, and we played "Waiting for the Bus" and "Manic Mechanic". I really, seriously considered Mars Bar to be the center of the universe and I went there every night. Those were some crazy times.
Heaps: You could be as wild as you wanted to be in New York in those days.
Zito: Especially in that place. That was the center of retardedness, for sure.
Heaps: It was also the last holdout. Back in 1990, there were like, 20 Mars Bars.
Zito: The whole neighborhood was just a Mars Bar. You had Psycho Mongo's, and the Alcatraz was still on Avenue A.
Heaps: The Village Idiot used to be on First Avenue and 10th Street. It had room for 6 or 8 customers.
Zito: And the guy used to eat beer cans, with his face.
Heaps: Dave Slifkin once arm wrestled the guy for a pitcher of beer.
Zito: And Beirut bar, next door to that.
Heaps: With the giant paper mache hand, and the U-shaped bar.
Zito: that was a great place. Always full of radical punk rockers. I'll never forget being on that block, First Avenue between 9th and 10th, where PS 122 is, walking out of that bar one night, I saw a bunch of skinheads run up. Old school skinheads, with the Doc Martens, they took an old metal garbage can and smashed a store window with it. I was kind of new to New York, I was like, damn, New York is kind of hardcore! You don't see that too much these days. Speaking of broken windows, I remember one night I go by the Mars Bar, and Noodles is sitting in the window, and I was like, Hey, Noodles, and I smacked the glass and the window smashed right in his face! Hahahahaha! I was all bloody, so we went and had a drink. You could do that though! You could go smash the fuckin' window of the bar, and then go in and have a drink.
Heaps: Did you get a bar rag for your bloody knuckles?
Zito: No, I think that would have made things worse. I think it was Tracie who was there that night. She was always real easy going.
Heaps: Ellen was awesome, she kind of took on the role of the mom of the Mars Bar when she was there, and then the Mars Bar kind of entered a Golden Age, when they had Tracie…
Zito: Lara, Daria...
Heaps: Lulu, Norein… And then they got Eleanor, and they got Francesca. And there was Mary.
Zito: The little Asian girl came later. But there was Reiko there, for a brief while.
Heaps: Reiko's star burned brightly for a short time during the Golden Age.
Zito: Yeah, and there were all hot girls at Mars Bar for a while in the mid-90s. It was crazy. It's the shittiest, smelliest old man bar, all of a sudden it was invaded by cute girls.
Heaps: Who saw that coming?
Zito: And CB's and CB's Gallery were right around the corner. And we used to do the New York Rock Circus.
Heaps: Yeah, and everybody would go to CB's, and if they didn't like a band, they'd go drink at the Mars Bar, then go back and catch the headliner.
Zito: Or even between, while the bands set up, it always took like a half hour. It was the green room for CB's, for the locals who knew any better.
Heaps: There was a parking lot back there, and you could see the back of CB's from there, but that all got blocked out by the new development.
Zito: And that's where Kate Millett's place used to be, 295 Bowery, and then there was Cuando.
Heaps: Yeah, Cuando kind of hugged the Mars Bar, with the entrance on 7 Second Avenue, with the door that was never locked, and the back was on 1st Street.
Zito: And that chain link trailer park yard, where there were a couple nasty dogs and a bunch of crazy people living. People who were squatting in the building, but couldn't live in the building any more because they had ripped out all the copper pipes and sold it for scrap metal. They trashed that nice old building. And they couldn't flush the toilets any more because they sold the pipes. They were living out in the yard. They were crazy.
Heaps: Julius Klein used to have his studio right across the street there.
Zito: XOXO. I remember seeing some films and stuff there. Julius was a good host.
Heaps: Then they came to knock it down, and damned if it wasn't a vacant lot for like 10 years!
Zito: With the Shepard Fairey, a giant Andre the Giant. But the yard was really weird because they filled it with gravel, and a chain link fence.
Heaps: Yeah, it was like Julius's building had to come down for the urgent need to create this vacant lot.
Zito: Hahaha! Yeah, so the Cooper Development project could have their Avalon Bay… beast.
Heaps: Same fate befell the Gas Station.
Zito: That's when I knew things were really bad, when that spot got torn down. When I first arrived on Avenue B, stepping past drug dealers and junkies, works works works, I got C, I got D, and I saw that place, I was like, holy shit, New York is the greatest place on Earth.
Heaps: It was a wild place. It was an old gas station building, but, oh my goodness, how do you even describe it? They had built a canopy of found metal things that were welded together, 20 feet above the ground. It was an incredible amount of junk, welded together so skillfully. Motorcycle tanks, motorcycles in midair, baby buggies, every metal thing you could think of was all up there.
Zito: It was a big giant wall-type fence thing with catwalks almost, that you could climb across.
Heaps: Because they had a forge there.
Zito: And welding, they had a whole metal shop. They'd have shows there. We did Temple of the Raising Chicken, we had a bunch of bands, they always had burning barrels in the yard and all sorts of freaks. That's where GG Allin did his last show. That was when it kind of ended, after that.
Heaps: Actually it lasted kind of a long time after that. It seems like it. Now it's a condo with a Duane Reade on the street.
Zito: Disgusting, man.
Heaps: And your old building on 5th Street!
Zito: Ohhhhh, God, it's like the nouveau, pseudo, Modernist, Miami wannabe condo monument to frugality!
Heaps: I thought it was like 1950s east Berlin style.
Zito: Yeah, but like an Ikea version. It's so gross. People don't realize how important architecture is.
Heaps: You're a guy that loves old buildings, decorative ironwork, stone carving.
Zito: I love a good cornice! Nothing worse than a building that's been stripped of its cornice. It's emasculated, and baldheaded. It's the worst! A building with no cornice is like...
Heaps: Like a princess without a tiara?
Zito: Like a cabdriver without an accent.
Heaps: So, back in the day, who were some of the other artists you remember from the East Village? We were doing stuff, sometimes together, in all different venues, all around the neighborhood.
Zito: It's hard to remember. Julius was always in the mix, and there were all the Mars Bar artists, like Hamlet, Sizelove, Noodles was doing beautiful mosaics, Henry Jones, Gizmo, boy, I don't want to leave anybody out. One thing I remember distinctly about that time is, tons of people were on heroin. It was so crazy! It was so common. I hated it. I saw, obviously, what it did to people and it just grossed me out. My girlfriend was on it. It was horrifying.
Heaps: Then, what year did you open your studio/gallery on Ludlow Street?
Zito: That was right after 9/11, when the rents took a major dive, and I watched one place go from like $1650 to $1375 in one week.
Heaps: It was next to the parking garage on Ludlow Street between Rivington and Delancey. Across the street from 113, where we had had a show a couple years earlier.
Zito: That's right. That was January 2002 that I opened. My landlord loved me. He wanted somebody to rent!
Heaps: Yeah, people forget what a hit downtown New York took, after all those weeks of being quarantined off.
Zito: Martial Law. And bizarre moon units, dragging debris illegally from the site.
Heaps: You were just across Houston Street, so you had a driver's license that got you into that section of New York. At that time I was living on 24th Street, so I couldn't even go across Houston Street.
Zito: I couldn't walk down my block without getting checked by an MP, to see where I lived.
Heaps: And then it was Canal Street, and they just moved it on downtown.
Zito: It was weird. It smelled really, really bad. Like burning plastic. Every once in a while the wind would change direction and it would come to the neighborhood.
Heaps: It was dead people.
Zito: It was not only that, but you would smell this totally debilitating, choking, burning plastic smell. I used to have to wear a bandana around my face to just walk outside. It was so hardcore. You'd see people with gas masks. It was a crazy time! That's when I had my studio in the Mars Bar building, in John Vaccaro's space. And he went friggin' wacko, and told me he was going to shoot me with a gun if I didn't get the fuck out. So, I decided I would.
Heaps: The Cookie Monster. He calls Robert DiNiro Robert DiZero, I wonder what he calls you?
Zito: He has names for everybody. He called Julian Schnabel Julian Schnuffball. One time when he and I were on good terms he used to take me out to fancy dinners. So we went downtown to some super fancy Japanese place, and ate some food that didn't look like food, and Yoko Ono was there, and she said "Hi John" and he went pfffffffffft! Hahahahaha! That was hilarious! So, he threw me out of that space. i moved my studio up into Cuando.
Heaps: He used to be Frank Zappa's landlord. How bad must you have been?
Zito: He was just losing his marbles, he really was.
Heaps: He used to have fabulous New Year's Eve parties in his loft.
Zito: The best! He would have all sorts of cooked pigs, and geese, and cases of nice champagne.
Heaps: I remember one time a giant pillow fight broke out, and I was next to John Vaccaro, and he looked over and said, "This is fabulous!" So, you had the place on Ludlow Street, and neighbors would come in and get portraits from you. And you would paint in there with your door open all the time, and anybody could come in and say hello.
Zito: It was like a clubhouse.
Heaps: There was pretty much somebody always hanging out there, whether it was Carlucci, or Cloud...
Zito: Or Roman, or Clayton, or Charles! Sifu Jai used to live in the basement for a while, shhh, don't tell the landlord. There were always people there, and sometimes I couldn't get rid of the people. There were old men from the neighborhood. I used to have this pair of old Yiddish guys who didn't know each other. They met in my store. One was a really timid, sort of sickly, weird old chubby dude, and all he talked about was what he was going to have for lunch that day. He would come in and tell me, "Pork fried rice with oranges! Oh, I love that!" and he'd just go on about that. And then the other guy would come in, and he was a total flamer from the silver screen era, who had been in Hollywood, his real name was Seinfeld, but he changed it, and he would go on and on and on and on. So there was this loudmouth, raging queen, and a timid old guy who all he cared about was his lunch, and they both spoke Yiddish, and they would have these conversations and go back and forth, and the poor one guy would be just cowering in the corner, and the queen would be screaming at him. I'd be there laughing my ass off with a video camera in the corner, not knowing what they were talking about! Oh my God!
Heaps: These were the days when Chicken Man strutted at the Mars Bar.
Zito: And he'd sit at the bar and go, "Uuuuuuuuuuh! Take a bath! Whuuuuuuuuuh! Cut the crap! Whuuuu! Whuuuuuuuuh!"
Heaps: Sometimes he would just yell and yell and yell for hours. Then he would go, "Can't you see the beauty of it?!!!" And finally he'd have the whole damn bar howling at the ceiling.
Zito: Yup. He could do that. He could get everybody screaming. What a maniac.
Heaps: Then there was Gerry Price.
Zito: He'd get the same reaction by climbing naked on the bar, and putting his package in someone's drink, and then shoving his beer bottle up his ass, and drinking from it. That was rather spectacular.
Heaps: Yeah, that's comedy and tragedy in the same performance. It was highly sophisticated.
Zito: Coming home from Connecticut to see my family, one Tuesday night, I had been on a bus, and life was dismal, some horrible thing. I went straight to the Mars Bar, I still had my suitcase with me, and Gerry was there, doing his stunt on the bar. I was just so happy to have come home to civilization.
Heaps: Remember when he had that blond girlfriend from Queens, and she was stalking him? She called the Mars Bar, and somebody answered the phone, and she says, "Is Gerry Price there?" And Gerry's going no, no, so they say "He's not here," and it turns out she's at the pay phone on Second Avenue, and she says, "Well then, how come I'm looking' in the fuckin' window right now and I see him in there?" (Laughter) Well, once you had the place on Ludlow, a bunch of stuff started to happen for you. You got a painting in the Jim Jarmusch movie, Coffee and Cigarettes.
Zito: His brother Tom used to pop in every once in a while. He's a neighborhood guy.
Heaps: Not everybody can say they made a painting of Lee Marvin that was in a Jim Jarmusch movie in the Jack and Meg White scene.
Zito: It's like a triple honor, really. I was thrilled. I did a couple more for his movie after that, which was Broken Flowers. Got to know him, a very cool, down to earth, good guy. Saw him on the street the other day. I was in the car with Roman. Roman started talking some GARBAGE. Jim was saying, "I'm working on all this stuff, and I can't seem to get anything done," talking about a movie he's working on, and he's working on a book, and he's got a band, and he's doing all these things, and Roman starts shaking his finger at him, telling him what to do with his life. How do you like that? Talk about a backwards situation. So Roman is telling him, "You know, you need to make the ceremonies! You need to make the rituals! Rituals! You need to make the rituals!" Roman is saying this to Jim. He's saying, "You need to call on the mooses!" The mooses? What the fuck is he talking… I'm like, "Oh, he means the muses!" Poor Jim is just looking at him, shaking his head with his eyes kind of slightly enlarged, and his eyebrows going up, and he's like, "Uh huh!" So, yeah, Ludlow was pretty good. That's where the blackout happened.
Heaps: I remember. I was there. People were dancing in the streets.
Zito: Jezo was there. Do you remember Jezo Black from Spitfire America? Oh boy, crazy, crazy. Kenneth was there, in his suit, dancing in the street.
Heaps: Yeah, on the blackout day, I ran into Kenneth on Second Avenue.
Zito: What else happened? I had that big hoo hah when I left. That was a lot of fun.
Heaps: With the coffin for the Lower East Side.
Zito: I forget who made that! Was it Rani?
Heaps: We were all pallbearers, and we tried to carry it into the hotel bar on Rivington Street, when the hotel was new. And then we tried to carry it into the Essex Street Market.
Zito: So, the funny thing was, people kept coming into my store, "Oh my God, you're leaving, it's so sad," and I was like, "Nah, it's not a big deal, it's all right," and they're like, "What do you mean? You should be angry!" But I realized it was time to go, and I wasn't going to put up a big fight. It was 5 years in a store. That's a pretty good run for a store I think.
Heaps: I remember Ed Higgins came by one time and he said, "Boy I love this Chinese supermarket! They have Chunky Soup for $1.59 a can! Can you beat it?"
Zito: There's one of the great artists from the neighborhood. Wingnut.
Heaps: The other thing you did there was you always had shows with your artist friends. So you'd have an opening every month or so, with half your paintings and half somebody else's, which was great for everybody. I think that's how I met Roman.
Zito: When we did the Lucha Libre show?
Heaps: No, you did something with Roman before that. Where he did that wonderful painting of the prostitute on the couch, with the Afro.
Zito: Oh, "No Think Thanks". That was supposed to be Nina Simone. Hahaha! She was blowing bubbles out of a pipe, and it said "No Think Thanks." Which I think is fantastic, but then he changed it to something more…
Heaps: He found out it didn't mean what he thought it did?
Zito: Sometimes you should never tell people that they're wrong.
Heaps: That was an amazing painting.
Zito: It was a great painting. He let it go in the garbage somewhere. He's thrown away all his great paintings. I had group shows there, I had a show with Hiroshi Shafer, a sculptor.
Heaps: Hiroshi's gone on to do performance art, and he's doing some pretty interesting things.
Zito: Haven't seen it, I saw some of his eyelash sculptures.
Heaps: Oh he's doing whole shows with dancers, and lights and everything, and a cast of hundreds.
Zito: I did a show with Ernie Sandidge, and I showed Julie Sloane's work there. Julie has since passed away. I showed Lincoln's work there, showed Noodles' work there, Carlucci showed work there, so many people over the years. One time I went on tour with the band, and I rented the gallery to some fancy pants photographer who gave me 3 months rent for the month I was gone. It was the greatest thing ever. I kind of miss that thing a little bit but what I don't miss is all the hectic trying to raise the money every month. At one point, after my father passed away, I was paying the mortgage on the house, the apartment on Suffolk, and I was paying the rent on Ludlow Street. That's about 6 grand a month I was paying, and all I was doing was selling paintings. I don't know how I did it.
Heaps: That's why you let the place go.
Zito: Then I had two more studios. One was at the 5 Points Building in Long Island City, which is now set to be demolished, shock and amazement. And one in Tribeca. I had a drug addict for a landlord, and he would come bashing into my huge, amazing space and ask me for a hundred bucks every once in a while. I was like, OK, here you go!
Heaps: And then, did you mostly paint at home on Houston Street, or in Connecticut?
Zito: I don't paint in Connecticut. I moved my stuff to Houston Street, and that's where I was doing all my work, and I loved it! I don't know, something about nightlife in that area, even if you're not out in it, you get that vibe upstairs in the apartment, and you want to crank some shit out. Strangely enough, at the beautiful farm up there, i don't do a lot of painting. I'm much more concerned with cutting down trees, and mowing the lawn and fixing things. I do some metal sculpture up there. I've done some painting up there, but I think painting might be a city thing for me!
Heaps: You always had some interesting commercial gigs, whether it was painting murals for Lombardi's Pizza and the Spring Lounge, or making the chandeliers and the furniture at Guernica. It was the old Save The Robots, and in its incarnation as Guernica, it was owned by our friend Chris Canon, and there was the tragic death of a bouncer which was the first homicide caused by the smoking ban. The bouncer tried to stop some guys from smoking, and they were Chinese Mafia guys, and he got stabbed.
Zito: It was horrible. He bled to death in there.
Heaps: What happened to the chandeliers?
Zito: Still have most of them. When they closed the place he was like come get it. I loaded up my truck with as much of it as I could, and I said, ah, it's all good in there, I don't need to tie it down, and on the highway one of those big rebar candleholder vines that looked like a giant grapevine went flying out of the back of my truck on the Major Deegan. Do you want to see me drive fast?
Heaps: I ran over a bike on I-80 once. It was lying in the road, in the dark, in the middle of the night. A hippie's bungee cord failed.
Zito: I remember when you got in a bike accident. You got hit by a car.
Heaps: That happened. On Houston and Broadway. I went head first through the windshield.
Zito: So the apartment on Houston Street was my studio for many years, again. I enjoyed it. I had a lot of big changes there. It's safe to say I became a man in that apartment, because I was a complete jackass when I moved in. I moved out last week. Now I gave up my lease on my apartment of 15 years, and I'm going to Spain and Italy for 2 1/2 months.
Heaps: You won a painting contest.
Zito: It was a live painting show at the gym in Soho, where they have the designer's market. I completely killed.
Heaps: In the old church, St. Anthony's. Can I tell a story? My friend Jon Sabala went to a garage sale in that church, and he put on a blazer, and he reached in the pocket and found a bag of weed. So he says to the nuns, "How much for this blazer?" and they said, "5 bucks," so he reached in the other pocket, and pulled out 5 bucks. That's a lucky place. What's your trip going to be like?
Zito: My trip is going to be 5 weeks of live painting performances in Madrid and Barcelona. I don't quite know what to expect. I get on the plane tomorrow.
Heaps: I keep interviewing guys who are getting on planes tomorrow. And after Spain, you're going to Italy.
Zito: Yeah. I don't really have a definite plan there. I want to go to Napoli, and Palermo, and Sardinia. And maybe shoot up to Amsterdam and see some friends there, and some friends in Paris, who knows, maybe stop in on Bea and Eric in France. When I come back I'll kind of live at the farm for a while, although Oriah still plans to live in New York, so I'll be in New York and Connecticut.
Heaps: You'll have to start painting up at the farm.
Zito: No doubt about it. It'll be around Christmas when I get back. I'll be up there, sitting by the wood stove, just breathing some fresh air, and shoveling snow. I love it up there, I'm happy that I grew up there, and it's home sweet home. But, it's close to New York, which is good and bad, so I'll be around here too.
Heaps: You're such a long time neighborhood guy, it's a shame to see you go, but, no one really leaves.
Zito: Exactly. New York's an addiction. Oh, and I did the raw food thing. I was clean for 6 years, didn't smoke or drink or drink coffee or eat sugar.
Heaps: Those years overlapped the time you had the space on Ludlow Street.
Zito: Yup. It did. And it was the time when my dad died, and Lincoln and Noodles, 2 of my best friends died, and Carlucci died, all the men in my life, not all the men, but some people who were really, really close to me went away. Then I started to have a lot of really intense women come into my life. Then I went to Burning Man in 2007, which was life changing, some people dis it but I love it. Some of the best art I've ever seen was out there. And I came back and I met Oriah. She's amazing and changed my life and helped me get my shit together.
Heaps: Well at least you aren't buying $8 organic chocolates all the time and going, "Oh, I feel great!"
Zito: I probably should get back to that! But I feel good now too. I have a good perspective on life. I think good things happen in this life if you want 'em to.
Heaps: You gotta believe it.
Zito: That's all there is to it. I don't know why, but right as I'm leaving right now, people are calling me and they want to buy paintings like crazy. It feels good to leave a heavy weight behind. That apartment, I loved it, but sometimes New York can just be too much struggle. I'm glad to drop it all for the time being, and chill up at my farm. It feels good, like a real life. New York doesn't feel like real life sometimes. Just too much non-stop action, and you can't get a breath. When you come from Italian blood, you don't know how to do that. And that's why there's no more Little Italy. Because Italians get out of the city and go sit somewhere and relax! Hahahaha! You can't do that here! You just can't! If you've ever been there, you know, they just take it easy man, every day at 1 o'clock the entire country shuts down, everybody goes home and eats, takes a nap, makes babies, and eventually gets back to work for a few more hours, and goes home again and has dinner! And they got something going on with that! There's a good reason for all that.
Heaps: I hope you enjoy your trip to Spain and Italy. Hope you have adventures and make some paintings that make you feel happy and fulfilled. And come back any time, old pal. You can always crash on the couch.
Zito: Haha. I promise to have a damn good time over there.
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.