Brooklyn's Captain Nemo

Famously busted for his Revolution-era sub, artist/mariner Duke Riley returns at Magnan Projects

Thin as a harpoon, with tattooed arms and a throaty Boston accent, Riley, 35, resembles an old-time sailor himself and rarely strays too far from the sea, in either art or life. His apartment overlooks Red Hook's marine terminal, and his studios sit near the river. "The water was traditionally a place available to everyone," he says, lamenting the gradual disappearance of the working dockside community, something he addresses in his work. "Living close to the water has now become a luxury. Particularly in New York, it's becoming less and less accessible. To be able to maintain that connection to water is extremely important to me."

Riley grew up with that connection, working as a kid with his uncle on the docks of New England fishing towns. Having also developed obsessions with drawing and tattoos (his first barber had one), he went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design and combined everything he knew. In his freshman year, he tattooed dead fish with seafaring scenes and floated them in formaldehyde—his first project, as it happened, to attract unwanted attention from the authorities. Responding to complaints about the smell, a school security guard threw out everything.

Riley's current troubles, along with the publicity, may force him to postpone his more ambitious explorations for a while. "It makes it a lot harder to do my artwork. Maintaining a low profile has always been really key for me in doing a lot of this stuff." Possibly he'll return to pigeons, the less-risky subject of earlier paintings and photographs, and another interest that had its start in childhood, when he first saw the famous rooftop scenes in On the Waterfront. But even the birds have come up against official disapproval: His landlady recently ordered him to discard his coop. "I still have one pigeon," he happily admits, "that comes back to visit a lot"—a creature Riley welcomes inside as a fellow voyager of the city.

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