The Alien Invader


They appeared in January—swarms of mantis-like creatures with serrated incisors and onion-bulb-shaped heads. Williamsburg was hit first, the exquisite images painted on walls, doors, train lines, and even a cement mixer, marked with the number “27” or the signature “Deuce Seven.” Then the figures turned up in Bushwick and the Lower East Side. A few people started photographing them, posting the pictures on Flickr—which has become a digital archive/water cooler for the ephemeral medium of street art—and speculating about who this new artist could be. Then a posse of these bug-like beings—with their quizzically alien expressions, like they’d come to abduct your children—appeared on a frequently tagged plaque along the Williamsburg Bridge. Spray-painted in deep hues of orange, pink, blue, and red, this elaborate frieze was like a Rorschach test: One blogger saw flowers, another a vulva. Either way, people were talking.

The most recent street figures to get this much attention were the incredibly prolific graffiti writer Kuma and, more recently, an anonymous vandal who’s been throwing paint on other people’s work, earning the notorious nickname “the Splasher.” But rather than getting up all over the city with a simple tag or wrecking other people’s art with mindless splatterings, Deuce Seven produced much more striking work.

“Finally someone with a new style in NY!” proclaimed Mosco, a graffiti writer and painter, under one photo on Flickr.

“He/She is so different than everything else I’ve seen on the streets of NYC,” wrote fellow Flickr user Soupflowers.

Gothamist’s Jake Dobkin, who also runs an online street-art collection called Streetsy, declared, “New King in Town: Deuce Seven.”

But there was one strange hitch. Turns out that New York’s New King lives in Minneapolis.

Deuce Seven—who declines to give his real name—came to the East Coast for the first time on January 10, arriving with a backpack of spray cans he’d stolen from a Minnesota Home Depot, some painted boards, and an open invitation to sleep on a Brooklyn couch. The lanky 21-year-old spent three and a half weeks biking around, photographing other street artists’ works, drinking at bars, crashing a party here and there, hanging with established names like Dark Cloud and Gore.B, and painting New York. Then he went home.

Deuce was back in Minnesota when his work really started to get attention in New York. A door he’d painted in Brooklyn even mysteriously disappeared—most likely removed by a fan, since it was never replaced.

photo: Chad Griffithi

“His color palette is definitely broader from what we normally see on the street here,” says Brooklyn street artist Celso, who first met Deuce when the kid showed up at a party at his house and left a mural behind in the kitchen. “The great thing about Deuce Seven is that, as opposed to people who come from out
of town and bring their posters and go on a little campaign to bomb the town, Deuce works with the street art going on already.” Which is likely why two of Deuce Seven’s pieces fit nicely in “Trigr: A NYC Street Art Show,” a Soho gallery exhibition of mostly New York–based artists that Celso curated—the higher of Deuce’s two pieces was listed at $2,200.

“Twenty-two hundred bucks? That’s crazy,” Deuce says, scanning the price list this past Thursday afternoon at the Pure Project gallery on Mulberry. His jeans, Converse sneakers, and backpack are flecked with paint. “I told them to sell it for, like, $600. That’s way too expensive.”

Yes, Deuce Seven is back in New York. But just until the end of the month. “There’s more work to do here,” he explains. “Before things get hectic. Y’know, in the summer, with more people outside, more cops and shit.” In New York, there tends to be a lull in graffiti and street art during the winter months because it’s too cold to hang outside. For a kid from Minnesota, though, that’s an advantage. “It’s a little bit warmer here in New York, so it’s easier for me to sit there with a brush and freeze.”

On this visit, Deuce has already gotten drunk and painted near the Riviera Gallery, where he’d gone to see the work of another street artist, Matthew Rodriguez. He spent last Saturday painting inside Staten Island’s abandoned Seaview Hospital.

Deuce’s paintings sometimes look like Hindu gods, giant insects, or charmed snakes, often with Asian or Native American influences. “Some people say they see mosquitoes,” he adds. “Or cats.” To create such colorful pieces, he carries between eight and 10 spray cans in his bag on nights when he’s planning to paint. “On this trip to New York, I have like 50 cans of paint. Last time I came here, I didn’t have that much paint at all. This time it’s like serious,” he says, pushing his bicycle down Mulberry Street. “I’m not gonna do as much in Williamsburg this time. I did enough already. My stuff needs to be all over New York, everyplace. Like on this street. Over there, underneath that scaffolding and shit.”

photo: Chad Griffithi

Back in Minnesota, someone once actually removed the side of an abandoned train car he’d painted and posted a pic of the detached metal piece on Flickr. Then last November at the Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis, when Deuce had his first solo show, one of the local articles written as a preview focused on his locomotive work. “At the railroad, they put the article up at the break room, so we had people employed by the railroads come in and buy some of his work,” recalls Suzy Greenberg, executive director of the Soo Visual Arts Center. All but three or four of the 35 pieces in that show sold—the most expensive went for $800. Greenberg thinks part of Deuce’s success is his accessibility. “His work appeals to so many different types of people.”

Since Deuce hasn’t held a job in a year and a half, painting has pretty much been his means of survival—the Soo VAC show paid for his Amtrak trips to New York. Back in Minnesota, he just moved out of his apartment: “I found a place where I can stay for free if I paint their house as a trade.” After that, he plans to hit the road again. “I’ll be hopping trains around Minnesota as soon as I go back. I go overnight with a bag of paint and come home the next day. Paint a bunch of trains and come back. And then in May I’ll hop trains to Seattle—hoping to stay there a month and then go to San Francisco. From there, I might go to Vancouver.”

In the three or four years he’s been painting the streets, Deuce has never been caught. “I’ve been arrested for other stuff, when I was younger, but not painting.” He explains that he chose his moniker for a couple reasons: 27 is his lucky number, and “a lot of great artists and musicians died when they were 27—Basquiat, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix.

“It’d be cool, I think, to go at 27,” Deuce says. He pauses, then changes his mind. “No, I hope not.”