21 questions

Duke Riley Once Owned H.P. Lovecraft’s Front Tooth

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Courtesy of the subject

New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Duke Riley is an artist (and the founder of East River Tattoo) who creates work about urban waterways, local lore, and maritime history, which has included opening a bar on an island in Dead Horse Bay, building a full-scale replica of the first U.S. submarine, and staging a performance with pigeons fitted with LED lights. His latest project involved collecting trash from beaches in the Northeast and turning them into sculptures for “Death to the Living, Long Live Trash,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that’s open through April 2023.

Name: Duke Riley
Age: 50
Neighborhood: Red Hook
Occupation: Artist

What’s hanging above your couch?
Well, I’ve mostly been living on my boat, so the term couch is a bit generous. But there are some fishing rods and some old oil-burning lamps.

What’s the first job you had in New York?
The first job I had in New York was with my friend Adi Da Cunha in 1997. We would pick furniture out of the trash, then strip it and paint it in his tiny shop on Franklin Street all week long. On Sundays, we would load it all into a U-Haul and sell it at a flea market either in Chelsea or up by the Natural History museum. Provided things went well, we’d drive around Manhattan on Sunday night and fill the empty U-Haul back up with a new batch of discarded furniture to do it all again the next week.

What color are you always drawn to?
I really like dark blues, teal greens, and bright fluorescent reds. Maybe the bright red has something to do with looking for channel markers when I’m out on the water.

What work of art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
When I was younger, I was briefly in possession of H.P. Lovecraft’s front tooth that was gifted to me by some grave robbers while I was living in Providence. I showed it to this goth girl that I was trying to impress at a party and she snatched it out of my palm and swallowed it right in front of me.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Is there time travel? Because if there is, I’d like to hang out with Pete the bartender at Melody Lanes bowling alley in the ’70s.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
I’m currently scrubbing the cockpit of the boat as I answer these questions aloud.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
I try to own as few things as possible, but the things I do own I tend to own multiple versions of because I’m constantly misplacing things.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?
The Noble Maritime Collection in Staten Island.

What do you always have next to your computer?
I almost never have a computer near me and rarely remember where I last left mine. It’s usually under a pile of laundry in my apartment or under the passenger seat of my car.

Where is the best view of the city?
From the water? I would say Belmont / U Thant Island. From the land, I would say the abandoned grain terminal in Red Hook or the top of the water tower in Greenpoint.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
All calendars should start on Mondays, not Sundays.

What’s one thing you would change about your field?
I think it’s insane that artists don’t receive resale royalties on their work, and I’m working hard to try to change that.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I’ve lived in Red Hook for 25 years, and I have no desire to live anywhere else.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
Adderall, reading glasses, Zig pens, arch supports, and Tiger Balm.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I’ve never really felt stuck while preparing for a show. When I feel like I’m burning out on drawing, I’ll switch to working on video. When I’m exhausted from video, I’ll switch to making scrimshaw or a sculptural project.

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent?
My very first apartment was at 100 Kent Street in Greenpoint. It was a beautiful one-bedroom apartment. My rent was $500 a month, and even though it was split between my partner and me, at the time it seemed extremely expensive in comparison to my previous living arrangement in Providence, which was $25 a month (and inside a pigeon coop). The landlord raised the rent to $550, so I moved out.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
As crowded as New York City is, if you venture out anywhere into New York Harbor at night, you can be incredibly far away from all other people in minutes. Sometimes I do this in a kayak, sometimes in a tiny sailing dinghy, and sometimes I swim. My studio in the Navy Yard is usually empty on the weekends. It’s not unusual to go an entire day without seeing another person.

Worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
I had a high-school guidance counselor tell me that because I liked working with my hands I should consider going to air-conditioning-repair school.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back?
One time I was on one of those party fishing boats out of Sheepshead Bay. I caught the tiniest blue fish, and my friends were all making jokes about it. This little kid asked me if he could have it. Later on in the night, they passed a hat around the boat, and everyone threw in 20 bucks. The boat was absolutely packed, so the pot grew to be about a $1,200 prize for the biggest fish. Somehow, no one had caught any other fish for the rest of the night, and the kid walked off with the $1,200 and my tiny blue fish. He didn’t even look at me.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?
For lunch, the stuffed calamari at Ferdinando’s. Dinnertime, I go around the corner and see Neil at Petite Crevette.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
“He was recently under investigation for the still-unsolved burglary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

More From This Series

See All
Duke Riley Once Owned H.P. Lovecraft’s Front Tooth