In Bushwick, Skewville Makes a Home for Street Art

On most weekend mornings on the border between Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Williamsburg neighborhoods, throngs of French- and Italian-speaking tourists cluster around a collection of murals by some of the most prominent street artists in the world before the locals shake off their hangovers.

The scene amuses Bushwick-based artist Ad Deville. He and Droo, his identical twin brother, have been making sculptures and installations that they affix in cities across the world for nearly 30 years. Sometimes, if the tour group is fortunate, their guide leads them to Deville’s brightly painted primary-color-palette townhouse that is also home to Skewville, one of the city’s only galleries dedicated to street art, operating out of his garage. 

“If every house on the block was colorful, I probably wouldn’t do it. For me, the reason was to stand out in that sort of sense. And why not?” he told Hyperallergic. “Every day we come out of the house, someone is standing out front, pointing at it and taking a photo, and it’s really nice to have that feeling. It brightens people’s day.”

Artists started tagging the exterior walls of buildings, telephone polls, and subway cars in cities six decades ago, but the peak of street art remains hotly debated. In the 1980s, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat broke into the mainstream art world with gallery and museum exhibitions. Then Banksy, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, and JR were the toast of the art market at the beginning of the new century.

Like many other street artists, Deville navigated his way into the art world as an outsider. He grew up in a house on one of the last farms in Whitestone, Queens, in a family of 11, which included his grandmother, three other siblings, and four foster siblings. He credits his mother, an artist and art teacher, and his father, an oil furnace mechanic, for instilling in him a creative style and an abiding interest in how things work. But Deville didn’t become a full-time artist until he got a job in corporate advertising after college and his ideas for campaigns were consistently rejected.

“Nothing got produced because of corporate nonsense. There were too many chefs,” he said. “With street art, you’re your own art director, your own client, your own production company, and your own media company. There aren’t 15 people at a board meeting saying, ‘I don’t like that idea’ for some reason.”

With the severance money Deville collected, he and Droo started building smoking accessories and designing graphics that parodied advertising campaigns of major brands like Heineken and Coca-Cola. 

When then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg increased New York City’s crackdown on illicit smoke shops and marijuana use in 2002, Deville honed on his art practice and opened a gallery dedicated to street artists based in the city with his then-partner Ali Ha on 139 Orchard Street. 

That’s when he started to meet and show artists who later gained global renown, including Banksy and Fairey. Unlike many of them, however, Deville shied away from wheat-pasting posters and spray-painting walls in favor of screen printing Pop-art-style graphics and signs on wood panels that he bolted onto buildings or telephone poles.

Skewville’s most enduring work remains their sneaker project, now in its 25th year. Deville and Droo paint Converse-style sneakers onto plywood sheets, cut them into flat sneaker-shaped sculptures with a bandsaw, and connect them with a wire that they toss onto telephone lines. The brothers estimate they’ve hung several thousand sneakers in dozens of cities around the world and have only gotten in trouble with police a few times.

“They don’t know what to do about it, but people have yelled at me,” Deville recalled. “In Germany, cops pulled me over because they saw me do it. I said, ‘Don’t worry I’m going to take them down,’ then I just walked away. It’s not really a defined crime.”

In 2008, Deville moved to Brooklyn and opened Factory Fresh, which quickly became one of the pillars of Bushwick’s thriving art scene until it closed in 2015. By then, galleries started to shift from Bushwick to Chelsea and Lower Manhattan after the MTA began extensive renovations on the Canarsie Tunnel, severely disrupting L-train service and making it difficult for New Yorkers to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Deville moved to the townhouse on Starr Street in 2018, but it wasn’t until last summer that he began showing work by his contemporaries like Darkcloud and stikman out of his backyard garage.

“When I got married last year, I moved my studio from the basement to the backyard and my partner Kate curated a group show there,” he said. “I did it not thinking we were going to continue doing it. Then Darkcloud came to that show and stikman came to the Darkcloud show, and it kind of escalated to the point where I said, ‘I guess we’re running a gallery.’”

Now, Deville has Skewville booked for the rest of the year with shows featuring artists SacSix, Clown Soldier, and Mumbot, which opens on May 4. The gallery’s most recent exhibition, Dis-ConJoined: Solo Show, featured an eclectic collection of Droo’s mixed-media pieces with sawed-off encyclopedias, antique radios and boomboxes, metal lunch boxes, and vintage children’s toys, which offer wry commentary on America’s hyper-consumerism while reflecting nostalgia for his childhood.

“Every little kid in America carried around a metal lunch box in the early 1980s,” Droo said. “In the mid-’80s kids hit each other with them, so they started making plastic ones. We still hit each other with plastic ones.”

Deville hopes more people will wander into Skewville during openings, but he’s just happy to continue promoting artists working in a medium that remains underappreciated.

“We never have a sign outside, we just have an arrow. People walk by the place and wonder what this place is,” Deville added. “They say, ‘How come I’ve never heard of you before?’ That’s a compliment, not an insult.’”

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