Interview with Pat McCarthy / Born To Kill « The Flop Box

Interview with Pat McCarthy / Born To Kill

I was lost and wondering around the basement of Tom Sachs’s studio when I came across some ceramic tablets printed with photographs of flying pigeons resting on one of the work tables.


A few minutes passed and a bottle of Scotch that was part of one of Sachs’s sculptures caught my eye…after a few gulps my focus turned back towards the tablets…I started to lean over one when a stern voice piped up from behind me, “Hey, can I help you?” I didn’t blame him, as my light blue Oxford collared shirt had a large rip in the shoulder from a bicycle accident earlier that evening and my shorts where covered in bicycle grease. “Sorry, I got separated from the group,” I managed to say, wiping the excess liquor out of my beard. “Hey, these are great!” I motioned towards the tablets. “Does Tom know you’re down here drinking?,” he snapped at me. I then mentioned a few projects he might recognize and his demeanor changed. “Nice to meet you,” he replied, “Yeah those are mine.” He gestured for the bottle I was still holding and took a few swigs.

A few days later we were climbing the ladder to his roof in Bushwick where he keeps and flies his pigeons—a practice which has become a conceptual life/work extension. Although Pat’s sculptures are aesthetically pleasing, they are also shelters that have to maintain functionality. It’s a fascinating relationship because instead of the work becoming inundated with artspeak and exhibited strictly in a white cube setting, it constantly has to change to serve its utilitarian purpose and survive the elements. Does this make the work more successful than retinal art? Is it too easy to call it a form of relational aesthetics? Yes, because it actually serves a purpose where most relational aesthetic art practices are full of holes.

Pat doesn’t have any kind of social media or online presence. Besides this culturally responsible gesture, it’s because the kid is hustling at double speed. He is a scene. It’s refreshing to work with a younger artist that doesn’t have a preoccupation with the market which can lead to an unhealthy obsession and an incorrect definition of success. –Andrew McClintock



Your morning routine is unlike 99.9% of the rest of the population, solely based on your daily “roof requirements” as I will dub them. Can you tell me what an average day is like for an artist named Pat McCarthy who lives in Bushwick?

My morning routine is the same as that of another hundred guys in Bushwick who climb to the roof every single morning, rain, shine or blizzard. To get to my roof you gotta climb the fire escape ladder from the third floor – everything comes up and down this outdoor ladder: sacks of feed on my shoulder, jugs of water, lumber. Anyway, I’d compare the feeling of groggily climbing the ladder each morning to hopping on a motorbike straight after getting out of bed. It wakes you the fuck up! Bushwick easily has 100 coops within a few square miles. Similar to how the early graf writers made very public gestures directed at a very small audience of like-minded practitioners, pigeon guys fly birds primarily for other pigeon guys to see. My roof is known as “Babylon Roof” and the Babylon birds hold reputation for flying unorthodoxly — instead of in a nice neat pack, they spread out, blanketing the entire sky in a great melee that almost resembles the sight of a 100-player soccer match from above. I find the disorder rather beautiful, a surreal reflection of life lived on the ground in this city. So then I snap back to reality, grab a coffee on Broadway, and jump on the 9am elevated train into Chinatown where I work Monday through Friday on the Tom Sachs team in the fabrication shop. We build sculptures all day with blockade barriers and steel and every single tool, paint, and part found in a hardware store. Really hardcore carpentry. Tom is the James Brown of sculpture and a hell of a teacher. Usually I’m back on the roof a little after dark, and it’s beautiful then, with the spotlights on and the moon out. The roof has allowed me to study community, architecture and aesthetics, mechanical and biological physics, weather, craft, utility, social economics and gentrification, and above all, an immense field study of animal life in all its complexity, as literal as birth through death. I stay up late.

You make your zine Born to Kill the old school way with paper, pens, scissors, tape, stapler, etc. and you create a master. I feel like this process of zine making is somewhat obsolete now as everyone uses desktop publishing. People are saying they make zines but don’t own a saddle stapler! I deeply admire your dedication to the labor, and the final product is proof of process. Have you ever made a zine another way and when did you first get into zines?

In early high school some friends and I made a bunch of scrappy zines filled with skateboarding and spontaneous cartoons and clippings of escort adds, and so on. Since way back then I’ve been obsessed with Cometbus, but I didn’t get zine fever again until I was 21 and traveling a lot. Born to Kill began because of traveling. I wrote the first couple while in Bombay for a winter; it was my first time living abroad and it was so lonesome and disconnecting. The zines grounded my spare time. The following 20 issues were all just road stories, assembled sitting on floors across the United States. I made them super short, just a few pieces of folded paper, totally obliterated with text and black and white photos. They’d go to people I met on the road, as a token of gratitude or in effort to lengthen and make intimate a conversation. Often I’d leave them in alternative stores for free or stuff them into morning newspapers. It became compulsive, like some kind of Johnny Appleseed.

Soon, writing the zines themselves became the motivating force to travel. The compulsive habit became ritual, and zines became both the “ends” and “means” of my adventures. Meaning, I undertook an action, or series of actions, knowing that the full expression and articulation of them would manifest in the zine about the action.

I’ve never made a zine any other way than paper and pen and color 4x6s! Personally, can’t imagine it being nearly as streamlined on a computer. Maybe I’m just not good with that tool. It’s tough producing anything digital, because it always lacks the physicality of the scenario it was created in and lacks the pace and the emotion shown when using the hand. My small, anxious penmanship is not meant as decoration but as information, aesthetic insight into the moment pen hits paper, which hopefully enriches the narrative. Lately I’m writing and printing everything in my studio in a room shared with living birds, and sometimes their feathers or their shit dust gets under the tape on the master and then is there in the photocopy. Zine craft is addictive. The stitching, cutting, taping is all very therapeutic.


We were talking the other day about zines being just another form of media to get information across without having to verbally explain something. You simply hand it to someone and they can choose to absorb as little or as much information as they want. We both agreed that giving them away hand-to-hand gets the best results.

Zines are a unique medium, as they place the viewer in a position to engage with the work on their own terms and at their own pace. Unlike art hung on walls or pedestals, zines are handheld, seen only when chosen to be seen, sparing them from painting’s implied grandiosity and sculpture’s physical violence. The most successful zines contain subject matter that speaks directly from the authentic rituals and labors of the artist’s life. These are the most democratic and interesting, offering opportunities for clear one-on-one dialogue.


Could you explain to me the inspiration behind your zine American Cream? It took me off guard, you know, seeing you naked and with makeup on, and in some photos you’re wearing leopard pattern spandex. Please tell me you have received some sort of noteworthy reaction giving this to someone.

Haha! All your questions make me blush! I make these two serial nudie zines: there’s
Skirts, featuring all female models, and American Cream, that I myself model for. Both are comprised of photos and surreal sexy vignettes I write, which is a great exercise in prose and a vent to the sex-obsessed backroom of my brain. When I shoot Skirts I’m the one directing and behind the camera. American Cream gives me the opportunity to experience the challenge of being the sexualized subject. It’s a way to approach issues I’m serious about like gender politics but in a campy and playful tone. And also, a mode of participating in the part of our culture that is mega-saturated and obsessed with the production of public self image. I have such a hard time giving them away face-to-face, haha! But I have mailed copies to Werner Herzog and Ed Rusch. Still waiting on their feedback.

In one of your zines I saw these fascinating photos of pigeon coops in Cairo that tower off the roofs of the buildings and I went Google-searching more images of them online. Can you tell me a little about this specific style? You prefer coops made from unconventional materials, correct? Coleman stove entrances and homemade ceramic perchs. Haha.

In my opinion, Cairo has the most beautiful coop architecture. They fly these pigeons called Egyptian Swifts, similar to our Brooklyn breeds. That is, they fly in tight formation immediately above their home. However, the swifts are huge, their wings are a solid 4 inches longer than the rest of the world’s pigeons and they can fly high: I’m talking the equivalent of 20, 30 floors up. In Brooklyn we call that “the pins” when they’re that high. It’s rare and breathtaking. The Cairo guys experience this every day. In effect, their coops are floating in the sky, like in The Empire Strikes Back. There’s a particular neighborhood where the majority of coops are called Garbage City because it’s where the city dumps its waste. And, naturally, much of that waste is reclaimed and repurposed and some of it transforms into pigeon coops, which speaks to the narrative around localized resources, the ingenuity of the builder, and their unique experience. In Brooklyn coops are commonly built of wood and tar paper because the American Northeast is monopolized by Home Depot and their bottomless pit of cheap plywood. In Vietnam, coops are built of bamboo. In Cuba, concrete and rebar. But in each of these places the pigeon keeper will have to find unique materials, often ready-mades, to jerry-rig and transform into feeders and waterers and cages and all kinds of necessary contraptions that accompany sheltering pigeons. Not many manufacturers or stores exist that cater to the community. Every pigeon keeper in that respect is an inventor.

Something memorable you mentioned to me was that you found creative inspiration in online shopping, which instantly puts a smile on my face just thinking about it.

Haha! I love eBay, it can take you on wild rides through culture and craft and history. It’s like a trip to the flea market! A beautiful landscape of objects that show their years of use. It’s the Shangri-La of independent trade! Not to mention the X-rated and raw side of eBay! It’s a little off their homescreen’s beaten path, but it’s there if you dig; this crazy marketplace where countless people trade their homemade pornographic 4×6 prints for a couple dollars a pop.

Do you think the Cheese Bike will ever be resurrected or is that a project that you have moved on from?

The Cheese Bike is like my very first true love, and certainly I’ll always go crawling back to it, but nowadays I have too many mouths to feed to rely solely on cheese sandwich sales! I built in when I was 22 and deliberately unemployed, but faced with the realities of living without income nor savings in N.Y. For a while I got by spending warm seasons sleeping on rooftops and then with generous friends in the winter, but couldn’t afford to socially participate in city life. So, I set out to invent a means to hang out at these places and, having a past professional history of nothing but carpentry and graffiti, I resolved to become a traveling cook. My Dad found a beat ‘78 Puch Maxi moped in Connecticut and I mounted an archaic gasoline-burning stove to the handle bars and strapped on the back rack a stereo, cooler, and tarp and set out showing up at clubs to cook and sell grilled cheese sandwiches. Usually no one knew the Bike would be coming and I’d just ride up into the sidewalk crowd in front of the bar and start cooking. I’d sell a few sandwiches and move on to the next spot. Maybe get a call from a friend or someone who got my number off a Cheese Bike zine and head their way to cook a few. Covering the most ground was the objective, it was proper tagging. Always quantity over quality, using the only cheapest loafs of white bread ($1 for 20 slices) and fakest cheese ($1 for 16 slices). Operating costs were so low the sandwiches sold for $1 each. Democratized and transparent trade. I rode all over the Burroughs and averaged cooking about 40 sandwiches a night for an entire year. $40 plus tips on a decent day, just enough to buy the next night’s ingredients and move onto a couch at a crash house. That job was a fight. There were bad nights; there were some very bad nights. And there was a nightly anxiety to sell at least 10 sandwiches to cover costs because there was no other money and no one to account for it but myself. The struggle had tremendous impact. It was empowering, inventing an independent occupation to sustain myself — without college or receiving loans, without food stamps, without taxes or even Internet. Completely community supported, authentic grass roots. I credit it as being the experience that largely opened my eyes to infinite possibilities of the world and imagination, leading me into this current disciplined life as a sculptor. I last sold sandwiches in Brussels in May 2014 after riding alongside the Cheese Bike on a trans-Atlantic ocean freighter. My life has grown so much from slinging sandwiches 4 years ago on Myrtle-Broadway. Now I live alone in a four-room studio with a roof full of responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine trading all this back to push 40 dollars in sandwiches a night and sleep in a flop. But I do find courage and reassurance knowing that no matter what happens to me financially, there are jobs for the independent tradesman in the street.


What is the most rewarding aspect of raising and training pigeons for you? They obviously supply a unique kind of companionship as well as personal responsibility.

There’s a particular sound the wings of pigeons make when they first take off in flight, the wings clap together and loudly crack out 3 or 4 times, very fast, like firecrackers. POP! POP! POP! This sound is subtlety found in all the urbanized corners of the world and wherever I go, when I hear the firecrackers, I’m immediately frozen, like a bird hound, anxiously looking every which direction to sight the pigeons and watch them go off above the buildings.

You recently acquired a tweaky little chinchilla to be your housemate. Do you think it’s possible for your chinchilla to be friends and hang out with your pigeons?

Here, I’ll bring her upstairs for the first time now just to see. Can the answer to this question be this small photo printed in the text body? She was so calm! Birds were indifferent.

You’ve been shooting with a Super 8 and making short cinematheque films to accompany your sculptures. How do you think integrating that medium evolved the overall pieces and do you see other new components being included in the future or is there a point of overkill?

On one hand, shooting Super 8 has allowed me to synthesize my experience as a bird watcher and study my pigeons’ habits and interactions underneath a microscope. When you shoot Super 8, you’re very conscious of the expense. When all is said and done, it costs a dollar per second to produce. Seriously. So when shooting, you’re focused on your subject matter and committed to the concept of the shot. It’s allowing me to articulate my relationship with them in the most candid and focused way I’ve yet discovered, and share publicly the actual movements of my private roof experience. On another hand, the pigeon films are created to be viewed via projection, never on a monitor. And for that a physical projector is necessary, thus a sculpture gets to be built to house the projector and act as a pedestal. My projection houses are all small portable pigeon coops and each coop sculpture plays a unique film. Inside them a live pigeon acts as a symbolic projectionist, the authenticator and ambassador to their home shown in the film. There are many of these films and cinematheques to come; they are a culmination of all the roof rituals. Large, abstract, sculptural fanzines.


You use a toner transfer method to create images on some of your ceramic work, which is a cool way to mix newer technologies with a craft that is centuries-old. What interests you most about this process and the final product?

The zines printed on porcelain are an attempt to marry ephemera and heirloom. The same photocopier and toner drums produce both the paper Born to Kill’s and the fired porcelain ones. It’s incredible. Monochrome printer toner is a mix of black carbon and red iron and thanks to JJ PEET, ceramics master of NY, I learned that iron is a main ingredient in many ceramic glazes. To make the transfer I’ll remove the photocopies from the machine after they’ve been printed but before they go under the heater, so the image is literally wet. Then I’ll stamp it by hand onto wet slabs of porcelain. When the slabs are fired in the kiln, the black carbon burns away but the iron burns into the clay, imbedding permanently. I have a show up currently in SF at Ever Gold Gallery called Shelters and in it we hung two large zine works opposing each other that have a dialogue about opposing materials and their properties and symbolism. On one wall is an entire issue of Born to Kill, printed 25 times and the zines themselves are nailed to the wall open-face, in a grid. On the opposite wall is an entire issue of my erotic fanzine Skirts made on porcelain, nailed to the wall also in a neat grid. The world’s longest surviving books are written on ceramic slab. And the world’s most printed paper magazines are pornography. I’m interested in finding ways to transform images into hieroglyphics.

You have a number of projects and shows in the near future that I’m excited about and interested to see what you produce. Besides the anticipation of new opportunities, I’m curious what you’re most excited about currently.

The Newsstand re-opening this winter at the fucking MOMA! It’s a huge happening for us paper heads and legit reason to get that unlimited pass and visit MOMA every week. Also, I just got this crazy 50-year old flatbed truck. It’s in the roughest shape but we’ll be cruising soon! Missing being on the road pretty bad lately. Oh, and I really want you to teach me about riding freight trains.

*Interview and portrait by Austin McManus
*Originally for Juxtapoz December 2015

January 8, 2016