On the Cusp of Being Seedy: A Conversation with Artist Robert Burczy!
A few months ago we here at Life in Hoboken wondered aloud about the phrase Hoboken, no jokin’ and mentioned artist Robert Burczy, who once lived in Hoboken and spread his art all over its streets. Burczy noticed and commented on the article, confirming that fellow artist Paul Divone coined the phrase and touching on a few other subjects from the article.
Since Burczy was a huge part of Hoboken back in the 1990s and early 2000s, we reached out to him to have a conversation about art, living in Hoboken back in The Day, and anything else he wanted to talk about.
LIH: You moved to Hoboken in the early 1990s—what was the town like back then, both in terms of the artistic vibe you've discussed previously and just the day-to-day (i.e., crime, police, neighbors, noise, etc.).
Burczy: The town was still on the cusp of being seedy. I remember back in the early 90’s a SNL skit with Jon Lovitz making fun of Hoboken. You could find rents for around $200 past Willow Avenue. Every block you had a bar were you could eat cheap and drink good beer. The vibe at the time came with great freedom. I never went further that 4 blocks to date another artist.
LIH: Much of your work done while you lived here seemed to take inspiration directly from the culture of the town itself—I’m thinking of your Poster Art work. Would you say Hoboken itself was the subject of some of your work from the time?
Burczy: Yes, Hoboken was present in everything I did. From finding wood to paint on, to having a local junk man look for thrown out picture frames in the garbage for me and things to paint on. Wood pallets were a good source of my work.
LIH: You commented on my essay about Paul Divone and the phrase “Hoboken, No Jokin’” (thanks for the clarification), and you expressed surprise that Divone isn’t better-known. Any other artists from your time in Hoboken you’re surprised haven't gotten bigger?
Burczy: That’s the roll of the dice, fame on so on. I think the magic to life is when you get older you start to turn into every thing you ever wanted. Fame is so abstract. One is famous because one is. The art of an artist doing his craft is the pay off and has always been. It’s just you not might be showered with notoriety and wealth.
LIH: You moved away in 2011. Was it the changing vibe of the town, the rising rent, or something else that inspired the move? Would you ever move back, or is “your” Hoboken dead and gone?
Burczy: Rents started killing a lot. The thing with today’s New York City is that Mayor DeBlasio thinks that cheap rents would be the direction that the city should go in. A town still has to have a pulse. Sadly NYC for however it merits will never be like it use to be; Hoboken is the same way.
LIH: You've talked about how your teachers at home taught you nothing of value for your art, and how the artistic community that thrived in Hoboken (as well as the access to Manhattan) really began your education. What advice would you have for aspiring artists?
Burczy: My advice would be, an artist’s life is great if you can get through the first 20 years.
LIH: The article you commented on touches on the issues of transience, and how people can be a huge part of a community and then be largely forgotten shortly thereafter. Aside from you and Divone, what other artists should Hoboken make an effort to honor and remember as part of its shared history?
Burczy: First of all the rise of the Internet has certainly all put the kibosh on the sense of community. But that’s the flow, here now gone later. A sign of a healthy community was the work done by people who you never met and who left it better off when they move or passed on. That takes decades to nurture.
LIH: Your Poster Art was genius in a lot of ways, almost Banksy-ish or even Warhol in how it took something people saw every day and subverted it. Much of your other work seems much more abstract and less “pop”—is that an evolution or have you always worked in a variety of styles?
Burczy: Styles are mistakes done on a larger scale.
LIH: I moved here in 2001 (from Jersey City) and there's always been a bit of friction between the newcomers and the old-school Hobokenites. Was it the same when you arrived, or was Hoboken more welcoming? Or am I imagining it all?
Burczy: Newcomers are never welcome. The original folks will tolerate you to a point. Even they expect good and honest results. That means that some time you have to stop being the artist that you think you are and just be as normal to them as you can.
LIH: The Hoboken Walking Tour stops outside my house, so I’ve basically memorized the speech the guide gives. The tour has a focus on architecture and history—what (if any) artistic spots could be added to it?
Burczy: I’m sure that everything that I was familiar with by now is long gone.
We’re grateful to Robert Burczy for taking the time to answer our questions. You arrive in a place and it’s difficult to keep in mind that decades and centuries and generations of history have preceded you—just as it can be difficult to accept that the place will continue to change around you with or without your permission. Eventually, as Burczy says, everything that you are familiar with will be long gone.
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