One of the many ideas that avatar and co-founder Gary Warne sprung on his Suicide Club co-conspirators in the late 70’s was a scheme to commandeer two massive freeway billboards and to bend the ominous message to the confederated will of the Club. The Suicide Club evolved out of Communiversity, a free school at SF State in the 1970’s that was part of the free school movement of the 1960’s. Pranks and adventures were reflected in many of the classes offered. The Suicide Club first appeared in print and the world as a “class” in Communiversity in 1977. This first billboard alteration was the inspiration for the founding of the Billboard Liberation Front a few months later. The BLF was to go on altering or “improving” the copy and images on giant drive-by advertising for thirty-four years, predating and presumably influencing later work by Shepard Fairey, Ron English, and other midnight advertisers. The BLF grew concurrently with the Cacophony Society and had members that crossed over the entire San Francisco underground arts scene. Suicide Club stalwart Dan Spero made several audio interviews with Gary back in the early 1980’s before Gary’s tragic and untimely death at the age of thirty-five. The audio file below is Gary’s story of the first billboard hit, an event that spawned or encouraged a thousand advertising hacks to come over the next three decades. Chuck Palahniuks novel Fight Club (and the David Fincher movie) include a billboard hack inspired by Cacophony and the BLF.
Hearing Gary’s voice decades after his passing is quite a treat for me and for anyone else who knew this visionary prankster.
Ace Auto Dismantlers was one of THOSE places. You could walk through the barbwired chain link gate on a desolate and dire looking stretch of McKinnon St. in SF’s dodgy Bayview right into the midst of precarious piles of junk cars, appliances, scrap metal and the like; the cast off detritus of a spoiled society – not the kind of place that most any banker, bureaucrat or corporate lawyer could EVER conceive of anything of value ever transpiring. That’s how we fooled them for so long…..twenty-five years to be exact. Ace proprietor Billy the Junkman was assisted by a pataphysically gifted crew of rounders, scroungers, hackers (the old school kind using sawzalls, fork lifts and cutting torches), slackers, grease monkeys and philosophers: Pervert, Jarico, Rat Girl, Mongoloid, Number 3, Numbers 2 & 1 too, Bee Keeper, Sue, Einstein, Julian the MD from China and more.
Billy Kennedy is from an old school Irish Catholic Frisco junkyard and moving company family. Rough, tough & mean, the Kennedy clan owned several junkyards in the Bayview. The sons each had their own yard. Billy’s was the only one on leased land and, after 25 years the lease was not renewed.
During those 25 years, William Kennedy became one of the most unique and generous patrons of the low arts in town. Starting with the mad genius welders and machine builders of Survival Research Labs in the 80’s and continuing on through artists and makers of all stripes, Ace Auto and Billy the Junkman provided material for a thousand projects for pennies, sometimes for free, to poverty stricken Cacophony, Burning Man or punk rock artists.
All types of events were staged at the yard, the bands and makers usually keeping the $$ (as long as they keep Billy and crew stocked up with cheap beer). Concurrent with Billy’s growing awareness of the odd artists starting to flock to his junkyard for materials and inspiration, was a transformation in the Junkman himself. Billy, always the black sheep in an old school and sometimes callous neighborhood culture, blossomed as a person and as he says: “found his people.” This process included colorful finger nail polish, tiger print summer blouses and blood red pumps. Needless to say, his family didn’t necessarily get the new Billy. Fortunately, he could give as good as he got duking it out with his tough guy brothers.
Ace is gone now, one of the early casualties of the ever increasing property values and short sided greed combined with poor city planning that has incessantly driven artists out of this once artist and weirdo friendly town.
Yasi Mak, artist and builder (Flaming Lotus Girls) has been working on a feature documentary about Ace for several years now. She has a amassed a lot of priceless video of audacious and precarious performances, daily work scenarios, crazed encounters, candid interviews and embarrassing interludes, all taking place at this place – a place that is hard to imagine now. A place the likes of which you will never see in San Francisco again.
She has a kickstarter to help fund the movie: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/385694025/ace-in-the-hole-death-of-a-junkyard?ref=nav_search
It is so important to save, archive and display works that memorialize places like Ace and people like Billy Kennedy. They are the unsung heroes of our culture. In the case of Ace, it was one of the very first places where blue collar, hard ass working folks with attitude and young impressionable artists (and some older cynical ones too!) came together to blow things up and make noise, giving early grounding for what would become the Maker Movement and the best of the Burning Man builders ethos. Those who come later often get the lion’s share of credit, but great things often start with a hand full of regular folks just deciding to work together to F*** S*** UP and have fun!++
There are two other events taking place that will support Yasi’s film and explain a little more about it’s importance to the genesis of populist art that has exploded out of the Bay Area over the last 20 years.
Yasi Mak, Karen Cusalito (American Steel Studios) and I will be speaking about the film and kickstarter as well as Karen’s salvaged Bay Bridge steel for art project at East Bay Mini-Maker Faire on Sunday the 19th at Noon
Please spread the word and come to both or either event if you can.
cheers – JL