Behind a working-class neighborhood bungalow, just steps from Detroit's city limits, painter, sculptor, photographer, videographer, musician and sometime crust-punk Daniel "DeMaggs" DeMaggio is working on his latest piece: landscaping and gardening. See, the twentysomething has been rolled up in the cuff of society since his teens, so, yeah, he's kinda rebellious. He's also off-kilter, intellectually curious and has snaked around local art and music fringes since high school, battling to balance druggy abstraction and an obsession with disciplined patterns. Today, he looks comfortable in dirt, happy even.
"I'm always on the verge of economic collapse," DeMaggio says, adding that though his reclusive "on-the-cheap" lifestyle leaves him vulnerable, he's found time to celebrate himself, which is very new for him. He also "suggests" that he has a reputation around town, but eludes further detail.
More about this DeMaggs guy: Between learning Slavic in order to continue to flirt with a girl who left for Bulgaria ("God knows what she's doing right now!"), DeMaggio's reunited with his dad, saw the dismantling of the ManDudeGuyBro art collective, fought an ugly disease, got laid off, started a band, saw the untimely death of a best friend, and, in the face of madness, found some peace of mind. All in the last couple years.
Metro Times caught up with DeMaggio as he weeded his lawn and examined various larvae.
METRO TIMES: What exactly was ManDudeGuyBro all about?
DEMAGGS: It was a house in Ferndale I lived in for a year with a bunch of odd kids, myself being odd. There was a Pakistani, three Indian kids, Native American, black, Irish, everything — I'm Sicilian and Polish. The idea was to join as artists and live in a house of art. Getting that house together with those people was art in itself. I think immersing in cultures different from my own was great art. Like a lot of families around here, I was raised in a house of lingering prejudice and because of it I was always paranoid 'cause I was white.
MT: You felt "other" because you're white?
DEMAGGS: I was made really paranoid by it. My family was coming from a religious place and sent me to Catholic school. I think a big part of religion is being made paranoid by other religions and cultures, and the people who take it most serious are the most afraid. Since that all came clear, a major goal of mine has been to experience everything I was brought up to think was taboo.
MT: The MDGB house is where you first felt like you fit in?
DEMAGGS: There and at the College for Creative Studies, where I was finally with weirdo art kids like me. A lot of people I went to school with were traveling the world and people were telling me, "You gotta get somewhere and do something!" Well, where the fuck do I go? What the fuck do I do? I was getting very self-critical, started abusing substances. ManDude broke all that shit down and became my alternative family. Finally, my rambunctious bloodlust was satisfied.
DEMAGGS: I had some anger and frustration and, well, we got a lot of that out. When I learned I had a disease and was facing some serious surgery, it was the ultimate doom. I was running away from shit.
MT: Running away from what?
DEMAGGS: Self-loathing and inferiority played a big part, as did social awkwardness and sexual frustration. I was overanalyzing the panic I was feeling, so I took a bunch of trips to shake up my spirit, which helped the stir-craziness.
MT: What was the best part of living there?
DEMAGGS: The ManDude house allowed us to meet each other's friends, harbor traveling artists, and I think it multiplied all of us by each other's values. We all learned a few tricks from each other. It was because of that house that we met Phreddy Wischusen from the Crofoot and ARC in Pontiac who allotted us a ton of paid work and opportunity in a variety of venues.
MT: What was the downside?
DEMAGGS: I lived there illegally and in fear of being caught by the landlord. And Linus, my cat, wasn't allowed there. The lowest point was my terrifying struggle with HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
MT: What happened to MDGB?
DEMAGGS: There was a one-year lease and the year was almost over. It wasn't till the end of that year that people were like, "Hey, let's start a design company!" We wanted to do something with some sort of artful purpose, but by that time I was hiding my shit around town in inconspicuous places. Then Himarsh Sharma [an integral member of MDGB] went and established himself in Boston. Linus and me went off to Ann Arbor to get reacquainted with my father.
MT:What happened there?
DEMAGGS: My dad and I hadn't had a relationship for years and it was great to get back into each other's lives, but Ann Arbor was where I wasn't supposed to be. Plus, Linus really didn't get together with his dogs. I stopped doing music — that was the catalyst that drove me back to Detroit. I needed a change — using substances wasn't doing it at that point.
MT: Do "substances" help or hinder your work?
DEMAGGS: I think they're beneficial. Even when I was completely sober, I was doing some ridiculous shit that would jet off into weird tangents that would lead to nowhere.
MT: Did moving back to Detroit get you back on track?
DEMAGGS: It wasn't long before I realized such amazing shit surrounded me here! The people, the events, the artists, the music ... Everything in Detroit, from riding the bus to hangin' in Hamtramck, is what I love.
MT: Is your shit together now?
DEMAGGS: No, not yet. I think I can contradict myself day to day, because the shit that gets to me will always be there — it sneaks up from time to time — but what I'm finding is that the more I associate myself with good people and good stuff, good things are happening.
MT: What are you working on now?
DEMAGGS: Aside from my garden and music, I've been dealing with working within the parameters of geometry. I'm working on a method of applying grid designs to industrial-sized objects or devices. The wall mural is a constant work in progress.
MT: How did the mural get started?
DEMAGGS: There's a bar in the basement with a really old painting on the wall behind it — it's probably been there forever. We wanted to do something with the walls down there but people started getting wasted and drew dicks and liquor bottles and wrote weird poetry on 'em, so I started over in my bedroom. I wanted to have as many shapes as possible. If I go all the way with it, maybe it could stay there forever, just like the painting behind the bar.
MT: Where do you want to see your work?
DEMAGGS: Schools, laboratories, homes, in the wilderness, floating in the atmosphere kinda like a rainbow. I'm really interested in doing murals in schools though. Maybe I got shady eyes or something, but so far I don't think the people I approach really trust me. I'm like, "I'm not insane! I'm not going to fuck things up, I swear!"
MT: You mentioned earlier that local musician-artist Shawn Knight made quite an impact on you.
DEMAGGS: Shawn is this weird and totally lovable guy who just makes the world so much better — he's cultural glue. The music is great and silly and the art is amazing; he works hard and energetically to explore engaging visuals.
MT: You know, Detroit has another notable Dan DeMaggio?
DEMAGGS: [laughs] There's a strange lore there. What's really weird is that, from what I've heard, we both have an important Susan DeMaggio in our lives, mine being my mother. Sadly, we actually haven't yet met face to face. I actually heard that he declined to interview me ... a couple of times.
MT: I've seen these crazy pictures of you in a costume you made that's nearly indescribable — some sort of a surreal paper monster. Do you have a name for it?
DEMAGGS: Nah, I just wanted to make a spectacle out of something that you could visually engage in. And I wanted to raise that question: What is art and what can it be? The other thing with that piece is that I wanted to work with recycled material — garbage. I do some pretty serious garbage picking. Not only is it easy to work with raw garbage but there's a raw, utilitarian aesthetic you can achieve.
MT: What's it made out of?
DEMAGGS: (laughs) Um, a vast collection of old Metro Times and Real Detroit issues. It's really about pattern integrity. I started out using regular paper, but I'd wear it to dance parties and it'd become a nasty, wet and mushy fuckin' thing. I started to dig more into patterns and how you can achieve linkage buy using patterns instead of other adhesive materials. I ended up borrowing from the Mossi mask method, from the Wan Liuli, Ouagadougou style.
MT: What do you love most about that piece?
DEMAGGS: That if I sit down or lay down, I'm instantly — the human form completely disappears.
MT: What about the music front?
DEMAGGS: I'm doing some recording right now with one of my roommates who plays the clarinet. She's really very good. I want to sample some of what she does and work with that.
MT: What's the name of the band?
DEMAGGS: I don't know — we're still playing around with that. Names are kind of stupid. Some of the names are Loving My Education, Dream Snacks, shit like that. We're trying to increase the functionality of the whole joke band name thing.
MT: What else do you want to record?
DEMAGGS: I want to record my grandpa — get his stories on stuff that went down during the riots. He's got this great voice and, during that time, was a health inspector. The thing is that he's always talking in exaggeration and overamplifies everything. I have started to record him a bit already and it was amazing, he totally came out of the shell he was in and refocused on life; he was really alive. Hey, have you ever met that guy Burkey?
MT: Burkey? Can't say I have …
DEMAGGS: He's a cook at Inn Season, that vegetarian place in Royal Oak. He also cuts trees, trains in martial arts, does woodwork, makes his own weapons and tools …
MT: Sounds like an interesting guy.
DEMAGGS: Yeah, man. He gets into sensory deprivation and leads these intense military-driven punk rock exercise routines. His place is like a haven for crust punks.
MT: You consider yourself a crust punk?
DEMAGGS: Only when it suits me.
MT: So, how'd you meet this guy?
DEMAGGS: I think I was at an anarchist potluck. I wanted to learn more about myself. I had this romanticized notion that I'd join the Coast Guard and when I'd tell that to people they'd tell me, "You should just go to Burkey's House of Pain."
MT: What'd you do there?
DEMAGGS: It's like a weird alternative summer camp. It's pretty brutal, man. He puts you through drills that firemen and football players go through. Up to the point of meeting Burkey, I had never felt like I was going to puke and shit myself at the same time. The man's a gladiator.
MT: What's one thing you learned from the guy?
DEMAGGS: How to throw tricky punches.
Alan Schuerman "Heat Death" Directed and animated by DeMaggs:
"Help! Joiya" Directed and animated by DeMaggs. Music by Joiya:Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]