Interview: Barry McGee

13 Feb 2013 0

Big Sky Wire

Big Sky is the property on which Andrew Kidman and Michele Lockwood live with their two children in Northern New South Wales. Once a week they speak to writers, photographers, surfers, artists and musicians for Coastalwatch's Big Sky Wire. Tocday Michele Lockwood talks surf and art with Barry McGee.


Barry McGee is not your typical anything. He cannot be pinned down. When you think you’ve cornered his logic and make a seemingly consensual offering - SURPRISE! He pulls the rug out from under your notions and rearranges his totem.

Late last year, Barry had a monster retrospective at UC Berkeley Art Museum and around that time there was a lifestyle story about him in the New York Times Magazine. The photographs were professionally styled and saw Barry, amongst other things, posing in a snugly fit designer sweater. When I stumbled upon the article, I felt confused. This was more Norman Rockwell than the B.Vernon I know and love. Had Barry been led astray? Did he let the NYT have their way with him? He was inherently anti all this bourgeois bullshit.

For a few days, when I thought about the article, it made me feel uncomfortable and kind of sick, but then a penny dropped, “Could this be another one of his pranks? Is the joke on us? Has he just taken us for a ride? Or maybe he just does not give a shit?” I don’t know for sure what his intention was and really it doesn’t matter. He is obviously in the driver’s seat of his own destiny. A method actor starring in a sold out show.

It makes for another great example of how this polite soft-spoken revolutionary has once again upturned our perceptions as he plows through the art world just being himself- a mischievous street vandal.


How does an inner city kid who grew up around car culture find himself infatuated with surfing?

I’m sure like anyone who grew up near the coast, you see people surfing while everyone else is working. As a teenager it was and still is, to some degree, a very alluring image. The surf bum. 

What do you love/hate about surfing in San Francisco?

Oh dear... it is really terrible, the surf in SF most of the time. Relentless onshore winds and dreaded grey skies, frigid water. Sometimes though, a glassy waist high crumbler will appear and straighten out my senses.

Having grown up in the Bay Area you’ve been witness to major gentrification in a large part of the city and its surrounds. How has this impacted the line-up?

In all honesty it seems just fine. San Francisco has a diverse population. The line-up is a bit more savvy perhaps, with the tech industry so close, even they can see the allure of the surf lifestyle. I worry more about the perfect tropical reefs and islands that they takeover en masse after learning to stand up.  


You’ve been known to take 10 plus boards to beach for an average day of surfing. What are some of the standout favourites in your quiver?

I do have way too many boards in my car. I don’t know what's wrong with me. And I always reach for the same waterlogged, dinged, ‘63 Yater D-fin of which there are 10 plus of in my van at any time.

Last time you were in Sydney, you crossed paths with Ellis Ericson. I heard you guys got on like a house on fire and that he was, to put it subtly, living “off the grid” in the bush at Long Reef. Can you tell us a bit about what he was up to and how you guys all got along?

Yes, what a fantastic human being! For some unknown reason he picked us up from the airport and took us under his wing. "Ian" can lay a stylish bottom turn out in the flats, connect, punt an air, tag a dirty alleyway then roll up in a vintage drug rug from Polynesia circa ‘73 at Long Reef in the brush. This is the stuff of legends, Michele. Have you met his counterpart that lives in the thicket at Long Reef? His name is Tom Mason. Together they are like a one, two punch.


You’ve been to Australia a few times now, what is your take on the beach culture that permeates life here?

Australia is an amazing country, albeit a touch too white. It reminds me how California might have looked in the 30s. The beach culture is a bit too strong for my taste but it can be tolerated by tagging on the lifeguard towers and the beach patrol vehicles then setting them ablaze.

In that last ten years, your career in art has really sky rocketed. You have been a sort of forefather in getting people to rethink street art beyond vandalism with having major exhibitions in museums all around the world. How do you stay inspired, keep from being jaded and still maintain an impressive proliferation?

Oh, I concur, Michele. Sky rocketing in art is not success to me.  I’m trying to keep it strictly vandalism. There is nothing more artful than ravaging a city with tags and throw-ups. Perhaps that is the art of it that I love. Australia has an excellent graffiti scene, very lively and steeped in history. I think seeing youth making noise on the street is very inspiring and healthy in this corporate logo saturated world.


You’ve always been a pretty private person, how do you deal with the bloodsuckers that come knocking on your door wanting to be associated with you or the like? Is it difficult to find the balance between your private and public life? Do you have a place to retreat to?

I don’t think that is really happening to me. I am trying to encourage more youth to invigorate the art world.... I try and stay positive in that regard.

What is your opinion of art within surfing? 

Surfing is an art. I wish people would stop trying to sell it 

What is your favorite era in surfing?

Right now is my favorite era.

To follow Andrew Kidman's film celebrating 40 years of Morning of The Earth, head to the Spirit of Akasha blog here.

...and for more from Big Sky Wire click your link: Coastalwatch |Coastalwatch Plus

Tags: big sky wirre , barry mcgee , michele lockwood , ellis , ericson , long reef (create Alert from these tags)

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