Mickey Duzyj

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During his youth, Mickey Duzyj competitively hit tennis balls in Warren, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit with a population of approximately 138,000 people. The City of Warren’s industry is comprised of working class employees, filling positions at the United States Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, the General Motors Technical Center and the Big Boy headquarters. “In a graduating class of 500 there were two of us that left the state to go to school,” says Duzyj, adding that an art teacher in Warren would plant the idea of New York City in his mind, “[she] had relatives in Brooklyn and would say, ‘Oh, when I go out there they say the SVA has a good reputation!'”

In 2004, Duzyj graduated from New York City’s School of Visual Arts (“I had a lot of classmates like James Blagden whose work I admired, but there were a few historically good illustrators that went to school ahead of me too, who graduated a few years ahead of me,” says Duzyj, who is now an alumni of SVA, an arts school that produced current giants Tomer Hanuka, Nathan Fox and Yuko Shimizu) and began freelancing his anachronistic creations that he says are “investigations” – “I do feel socially responsible and proud to be a person that tries to reinvestigate things that have already been judged in the streets,” he says, explaining that artists must investigate gaps in society’s, mostly, “contrived binaries.”

Whether illustrating for Mass Appeal or The New Yorker, Duzyj’s top-of-its-class creations leave the impression of greatness. Perhaps, the distinction of a Duzyj “investigation” is a product of his competitive past, “for a while, I saw the world in competitive terms; teams competing against teams, athletes competing against each other and themselves.”

Today, Duzyj, 25, lives in Brooklyn and uses his Wilson Hammer Tour tennis racquet, launching tennis balls in friendly competition. His client list is longer than a grocery list stuck to an empty fridge and, currently, Duzyj is working on his first graphic novel, NeckLess Horse Necklace.

“There’s always been something transcendent about sports to me- it’s like, who in history will look at what LeBron James’s been doing and not be impressed?”

Format: In your bio, it is written that you’re inspired by Ukrainian woodcuts, West Coast graffiti and a Jewish jeweler that befriended you. Please explain how they inspired you and other early creative inspirations in your youth.
Mickey: That’s sort of a joke, but my family is Ukrainian and those are the graphics that really inspired me from a young age. We always had [Ukrainian woodcuts] hanging around the house, my grandparents had a collection. That’s the very beginning, but I got to say that comics and graffiti, West Coast graffiti in particular, inspired me from the start, without which I probably wouldn’t have been interested. When I was a kid I collected some comics, I read Groo by Sergio Aragones and Mad Magazine, Don Martin was one of my favorite artists. When I was a teenager I got into some West Coast graffiti, and my cousin, who was a graffiti artist himself, JOLT, introduced me to what was going on out there, and to the work of some guys – Mike Giant, TWIST, DALEK, FELON – that would eventually inspire me want to become an artist myself. I didn’t meet everybody out there, but whenever I had a chance, I’d show whatever crap I’d draw in my own black books, and they’d all be really encouraging. They encouraged me to keep working and I would show them my black books. By the time I got to college I turned in a different direction, I sort of lost my aspiration to be a writer, but still, without comics or graffiti, I wouldn’t have wanted to become an artist in the first place.

Format: Was the Jewish jeweler a joke?
Mickey: No, no. That was, actually, one of my art teachers that I had who had relatives in Brooklyn and would say, ‘Oh, when I go out there they say the SVA has a good reputation!’ She would tell me stories about New York – I grew up in Detroit and nobody moved out of Detroit after school. In a graduating class of 500 there were two of us that left the state to go to school. II come from a really blue collar, working class town where most of the local economy is dependant on huge factories. I left town on her advice, her inspiration; she was good to me.

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Format: As a child, what comics did you read and as an adult, do you continue to read comics?
Mickey: Growing up, my favorite was a comic named Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragones. I read a lot of Mad Magazine, too. Don Martin and Spy Vs. Spy, stuff like that, I liked stuff like that, joke humor, but it was when I got to college that I was introduced to the work of Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti and other guys that do more experimental work, not just joke work, and that really opened my eyes to the narrative potential of comics. That really had an impact on me, and probably inspired me to start doing more comics in college.

Format: Is there a working title for your upcoming book?
Mickey: Yeah, the book is called Neckless Horse Necklace. It’s a race track mystery with a jockey as the protagonist.

Format: Please explain your experience at School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Mickey: SVA is a great school, I definitely recommend it to everyone. It was a crucible for a lot of us going to school there. I had a lot of classmates that were really good, but there were a few historically good illustrators – James Jean, Tomer Hanuka, Yuko Shimizu, Nathan Fox – that graduated a few years ahead of us that everyone seemed to admire. Plus, there are amazing artists who teach there too, because the policy at SVA is such that to get a class, the teachers have to currently be working in the field. You get pertinent information with what’s happening with working artists now. and that’s much unlike some other art schools, who still hire the old, has-been Art School Confidential-type guys. It makes a huge difference. It helped a lot when I was getting out of school, too, because I could ask for advice and had mentors to help get things going.

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Format: Your illustrations have a 1950s look, what is it about that era that communicates to your creativity?
Mickey: I often get people telling me that my work seems anachronistic, like from another era as far back as the `50s. I think the fact that I do graphics with few colors might give that impression, combined with the fact that I use a lot of patterns and halftone effects. Most of the graphics that I like, in terms of composition or typography, do come from a more bygone era. I like modern design, too, I just prefer certain typefaces and the way things were designed in past years. It’s not a conscious thing for me- I like what I like and I try to make [my work] look like a certain way I have it in my brain, not so much like period pieces.

Format: You live in Brooklyn, New York, what effect does the environment in Brooklyn have on your creative output?
Mickey: It goes back to coming to New York and feeling like a lot of things were changing in my work and my life. I think that this city is full of contradictions and I think that’s one of the most unique and powerful qualities about New York City, and that is the thing that has been driving my work, ever since I moved here, which has been all of professional life. Not only New York, but the world is full of contradictions. I got my start looking at graffiti and punk rock fliers, and now, I’m getting calls to contribute to magazines like that Wall Street journal – it all happens on the same block on New York and everything is on top of each other. The contradictions that I feel in my life, too, like being an artist in New York or wearing different hats, dictates and is reflected in the subjects that I choose to illustrate. Contradiction is a central motif in my work for reasons that have a lot of do with living in a city that I have a love, hate relationship with. Living in New York definitely has benefits, but being an artist it is really hard to live; rich people living right next to poor people, you name it, there is every contradiction of the human experience found in New York City. As I look through the work that I’ve done, it wasn’t a conscious thing, it’s something I’m drawn to. I think that the world is totally full of it, not just New York, but everywhere. Look at pop culture, music, sports, politics and everything is contradictory and, at the very least, there are two sides to every story, my own story included. Experiencing this has allowed me to have a different view on life and culture. I try to reflect that in the work I do.

“I knew he had this weird sidekick, Don King, and he was scary, plus he would beat me in the video game!”

Format: In April 2006, Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low: A Family Story was published. You illustrated the book jacket, how did that opportunity materialize?
Mickey: I had done a comic called It’s Just Me, Me and Me about Goran Invanisevic winning Wimbledon in 2003 and I had sent a promo around, and the art director of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing company, saw it. She had an idea that she wanted to do a comic treatment for this cover. I brought my work, we sat down and immediately I thought this was a great idea. From the very first meeting, I thought the whole thing had to be pink. I thought that I could do it well, being that I already try and mimic this sort of off-set printing, limited palette, graphic that I think would be really well suited for the project. It was really cool. They let me write all the text on the cover. I don’t want to say they stayed out of my way, but it was a really good collaboration, in that they gave me a lot of freedom to indulge in the quirky metaphors. And I got to choose the parts of the book that I wanted to illustrate on the cover. I pushed for that pink. They didn’t want it to be as pink as it turned out to be, but I kept pushing and kept pushing, and when I delivered the final artwork totally pink, they loved it and Rich loved it so much that they didn’t want to change it. Rich liked it so much that he had me do some graphics for the interior of the book, too. I think that the book became this very unique piece of art. I see it every once in a while, somebody will be carrying it or reading it on the train, and I feel proud that it sticks out.

Format: Your list of clients includes The New Yorker, The Nation and Esquire, three American magazine staples, how did those relationships materialize and explain how these working relationships are different than your other clients.
Mickey: Hopefully, the working relationships are just as smooth. The satisfying thing about being a freelance artist is that I get to work with different types of magazines and it is really fun. The New Yorker, I’ve always loved illustrations in The New Yorker, Esquire the same. They have great history. Some of my favorite artists have worked for those magazines and it has always been an aspiration of mine to follow in their footsteps. Magazines like Complex, Frank 151 and Mass Appeal allow me to explore things that The New Yorker or Rolling Stone wouldn’t want to do a piece on. Sometimes, they bring me work that is not up my alley, I’m not complaining, but it is nice to be able to have a variety, because I’m curious about a lot of different things. For example, working for The Nation allows me to do political commentary in a way that some of these culture magazines wouldn’t be interested in me doing. A long comic about President Bush is not a good thing for Mass Appeal, but maybe, Esquire would be into it. I’m trying to satisfy these different passions of mine and it’s interesting to do those in different contexts.

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Format: Several of your illustrations are sports inspired, specifically, the work you’ve done with No Mas. How does sport influence your creations?
Mickey: I think that, in sport, there is an interesting physiological and emotional element that is every dramatic. I grew up in a sports community, I played a lot of sports and, for a while, I saw the world in competitive terms; teams competing against teams, athletes competing against each other and themselves. Personally, I have a lot of moments that I reflect upon, moments when somehow I was able to win or a moment were I choked terribly. And in investigating those moments, I think about how human they were and how theatrical they seem in sport. I think there is a theatrical, tragic and dramatic element to most sports. When your team loses it can be a very traumatizing experience and when you’re able to win it’s a great feeling. Also, there are moments of extreme beauty and poetry, like me, I’m a tennis guy and watching Roger Federer play is like watching Fred Astaire dance, it’s really beautiful to me. I like hockey, too. There’s always been something transcendent about sports to me – it’s like, who in history will look at what LeBron James’s been doing and not be impressed? A stroke of genius is a good way of putting it and little moments that are unexpected and beautiful. The theatrical qualities make those matches, games or bouts really human to me and have inspired my work.

Format: Do you feel a social responsibility for the illustrations and comics that you create?
Mickey: Absolutely. Absolutely, I do. I would never put out anything that I felt ashamed of doing. I don’t feel ashamed, because I don’t feel that it is my job to make grandiose statements, propaganda. I think it should raise more questions than it answers. Things are reduced to binaries so often. I believe that it should be the role of the artist to investigate the areas between those binaries, because those binaries are contrived, they’re not set in stone and anyone that buys into them is just buying into the advertising or hype. I feel socially responsible and I feel proud to be a person that tries to reinvestigate things that have already been judged in the streets. Personally, I rely a lot on my intuition and, of course, my intuition of certain things is wrong, but there is a nuance that I feel that I always wanted to investigate as a person. Being an artist allows me the chance to spend a lot of time and mediate things that I question. I feel socially responsible for that investigation. People have come up to me and said, ‘Don’t you think Mike Tyson is going to be pissed if he sees your work?’ No, because I’m not trying to denigrate or insult. I’m not trying to say that this is the way I feel about the subject matter and so should you. I’m trying to say look a little deeper. Realize that between point A and point B there is something there. There are probably more than two sides to each story. It is not just an artistic philosophy, it’s a life philosophy and I’m proud to live that way.

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Format: The Tyson series you created for Fall Classics NYC is widely associated with your body of work, especially part three of three in the series, “Iron Mike: Vegas.” Please explain the creative process for that series.
Mickey: I had been working with Chris Isenberg at No Mas for a little while, doing T-shirt graphics for him, at the time, No Mas was primarily a T-shirt and clothing company based in New York. We were doing some boxing designs based on Jake LaMotta, who was the “Raging Bull,” and those designs didn’t ever really get made, but Chris still wanted to work together. He had the idea of putting on a gallery show in New York City. We were kicking around some ideas of what the show could be about. We were talking about different subjects that I could explore in drawings and Mike Tyson came up. How Mike Tyson came up, I don’t know, but both he and I were fascinated with Tyson, but for different reasons. I grew up playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and I would see some of his fights, but I wasn’t following him to a tee, I just knew he was a weird character in the mass media. I knew he had this weird sidekick, Don King, and he was scary, plus he would beat me in the video game! But Chris, who has a vast knowledge of boxing and the history of boxing, appreciated Mike Tyson on a different level.

We started talking about Mike Tyson and you can cut it in different ways. You can look at the Tyson story through a racial deconstructive methodology. You can look at it in terms of gender, masculinity and his rape charges, social status – there are so many facets to the story of Tyson. Not to mention that it’s spectacular. It can be grotesque, but that doesn’t mean it’s not spectacular. The more we talked about it the more it became evident that it’s this tragic, amazing, purely American rags to riches story. This is a guy who, even before things went crazy, he had already done some really heinous shit, but was still a hero to most of my generation. Looking at that now, as someone who is trying to pick that apart or consider doing a series of art work on them, does that say more about Mike Tyson or does that say more about us, the fans? I thought that was an interesting dichotomy. I thought that all the variety of ways to approach the Tyson story and the way people have their own personal feelings about his story, and just how American it is, again, we just decided, right there on the spot, we’re going to have this show with the focus being on Tyson.

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Format: In May 2007, No Mas is releasing The Ecstasy of Defeat T-shirt line. The line will feature designs of reckless poker player Stu Unger, manic chess player Bobby Fischer and other pop culture figures that tasted the ecstasy in defeat. Please explain your desire to bring these people to life on a T-shirt.
Mickey: Stu Unger is a maniacal, Las Vegas legend. There are a lot of these under reported, very weird sports or sports-related stories that I’ve always collected. I grew up in Detroit, which is a sports town, and these weird sports stories have always resonated with me. There was this famous sports writer, Gay Talese, who writes all about the underside of sports fame or different ways of looking at American or international sports icons. I collected all these stories, and Chris and I were talking about doing a series of T-shirts. I said I got all these sport stories that are not based on famous, mega sports superstars, but I think these are just as dramatic, but in a different way. And Chris, his company, No Mas, they take on different angles of sports and I proposed a pile of stories to him, and he had some of his own that he liked. We narrowed the list down to four: Stu Unger, Bobby Fischer, Manolete and Haru-Urara. I wanted to do these T-shirts that had a narrative quality, again, like the Sweet and Low: A Family Story book jacket, I’m always trying to inject that narrative in there. On some of the T-shirts there is actually text and panels that tell the story. On all of the T-shirts there are tags that have little descriptions, stories and things about these athletes that may not be well known. None of them are incredibly popular and this could be their under reported stories that people like to read or know about in an aesthetically pleasing way.

More Info: http://www.mickeyduzyj.com

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Jordan Chalifoux

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2 comments

  1. work is tight, i remember seeing an interview either in mass appeal or elemental a while ago, but this one was more detailed and us youngins trying to make it in the illustration/ art world much appreciate your coverage of such inspirational cats.

  2. Wow! inspirational. Great interview of an interesting, intelligent and engaged illustrator. It was nice to see someone from the “culture” be so in touch with the “social” world. Definitely a model for me too look up to as i’d love to be a traverse both those planes. Hopefully one day i can have just a fraction of your success Mickey. I liked the part about ‘binaries’ in society. Mega props to the references of Mike Tyson’s Punch out. I always had a soft spot for Soda Popinski. Don’t know why? he was pretty easy to beat.

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