Billy Al Bengston

SPECTACLE 8

Billy Al Bengston

Photos: Bennet Perez
Words: Garrett Leight & Billy Al Bengston

The life of Billy Al Bengston (aka Moondoggie) would read like something out of a fantasy novel if it were set in 1950s California. He’s lived a life of mythical proportions, whether it’s dodging the war by ingesting copious amounts of peyote, surfing big waves for twenty years without knowing how to swim, winning motocross races at the Los Angeles Speedway, or hanging with Andy Warhol and creating extremely valuable art from his studio in Venice. Whether you’ve heard of him or not, he’s certainly left his mark on our culture. And either way, it’s not like he would give a shit if you had. Quite frankly, for me to sit here and put his life in perspective feels like a fool’s errand. Everything about him speaks for itself, whether it’s his work or his words. He’s a product of his environment and more importantly his experiences. Kansas born and California bred, Billy is a legend and a Venice original. They just don’t make ‘em like him anymore. And that’s what makes him so special.

ON SURFING

“Most of my surfer friends were living down south so I came up to Malibu in 1951 and I said ‘Wait a fuckin’ minute, this is happening.’ I didn’t even learn to swim until I was 40. I was rescued many times. I managed to have good friends that way. I had prehensile toes and I could do pullouts like you can’t believe. I couldn’t swim, but I could bodysurf damn near anything. I don’t know how. As far as I know I was the first person to ride Puerto Escondido. It was way beyond my capability. I assure you that wave would take you to the bottom. And that was a lifesaver, because I’d push off the bottom and climb all the way to the top. In the 80s I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so angry. If you blow a wave, who the fuck cares, there’s another one coming. Well maybe not. When I surfed, we’d get out of the water if there were more than five people out. But I left the country because they wanted me to be a stunt surfer on ‘Gidget,’ and I said ‘Fuck you.’”

ON EUROPE

“In 1957 I went to Europe and I landed in Copenhagen with $20 in my pocket and stayed in Europe for six months. I met this real asshole who had a Vespa and was going to Spain. He told me to get on the back and that was the first time I was on a motor scooter. I ended up in Ibiza. I rented the coolest pad right in the harbor. There was a little cantina and a dead end alley. It had a fireplace and a toilet and cost $5 a month. A friend of mine showed me how to make money. I was sort of cute at that time and girls liked me and they had to change money. So I said, ‘I’ll change your money. I’ll give you a better rate.’ So I’d take their money and go talk to the Algerians and trade with them. The spread was really big, like 40 or 50 percent higher. And they didn’t want to fuck with the Algerians I tell ya. I made enough money to buy a motor scooter in Italy and ran out of money there.”

I left the country because they wanted me to be a stunt surfer on ‘Gidget,’ and I said ‘Fuck you.’


ON RACING

“I talked my way into racing. They said, ‘You’ll never make it. Fuckin’ artist can’t do that.’ I was so full of myself you can’t fuckin believe. I would get in my El Camino, I’d go out to Ascot, and the bike would already be there. There’d be the tuner and the pusher. I’d go put my leathers on and dick around. Lights would get dark, and then they would turn on. The guy would start the motorcycle for ya, pat you on the back and away ya go. And that was it. You had to go like a son of bitch out there. I mean the first couple weeks I did it, I said, ‘You can’t do this shit.’ I mean you’re riding a motorcycle that has nothing in it but motor and tires. No brakes, no nothing. You’d go to the corner, flip the throttle and go sideways. But I did a couple weeks and I got pretty good pretty fast. I got good enough to win everything. Then some little fuck came out of nowhere and passed me. I figured he’s either better than me or he’s gonna fall down. That’s how it goes.”

ON GETTING YOUR ASS KICKED

“I’d go to Kansas and they’d kick my ass because I was a city slicker and I’d come here and they’d kick my ass because I was a hick. If you called yourself an artist in those days, you got your ass kicked too. I got in a lot of scuffles when I was a kid. They never lasted long. I could outrun ‘em or I had other tricks. Once I had two guys come after me and I picked up one of those mesh trash cans and knocked ‘em both out with one throw.”

ON OTHER ARTISTS

“Basquiat sucks. Emotionally and artistically. But he’s cute, and towards the end of his life he hung around with Andy a little bit. And Andy was the first person I ever met that talked about fame. When I was in New York, he attached himself to me. When I had a show in the early 60s first thing he said to me was, ‘Oh Billy you’re gonna be so famous’ and I said, ‘That’s the last fucking thing I want.’ I mean I was going around with a few movie stars at the time and you couldn’t go anywhere. You had these scum hanging on ya all the time. Anyway, I said, ‘Why would you wanna be famous?’ and he said, ‘Cuz you make so much money,’ and I said, ‘Well, what are ya gonna do with all the money?’ Well he showed us what he did with all the money. He died. You have to hang around with all those assholes you don’t wanna hang around with.”

ON DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

“Are you shooting digital? You know, that’s not even photography. People always say they got some photos, but no, they should say they got some digital images. It isn’t photography. It’s a different process entirely. I’m not saying it isn’t better. I’m just saying it’s different. Go ahead man, shoot in the dark. I don’t usually like people shooting me. I don’t like people knowing about me. I don’t want people to case the joint. I’ve lived here sort of underground for a long fuckin’ time.”

ON ABBOT KINNEY

“You know that trendy coffee espresso place on Abbot Kinney that used to be occupied by a silk screen printer. He had it for years. He did a lot of my silk screening. And he paid $50 a month. I don’t know how in the world that street caught on. I don’t get it. Where’s the parking? I don’t get it. There’s no good restaurants there. When I moved here, Abbot Kinney was absolutely nothing. It was actually West Washington. Hal’s was the first restaurant. And that sort of brought a lot of people in. There used to be a few good restaurants, but there’s nothing now. When I first moved here, there were two places to eat: Murray’s BBQ on Brooks and Main Street. You had to be completely unafraid of black people. Murray kept a gun behind his counter. Larry Bell and I went there all the time.”

ON WORK

“Ken Price told me, ‘The only thing you have to do to outrage people is anything.’ Which I think is the best thing you could possibly tell somebody. I had two influences that were really stunning, a guy named Peter Voulkos and Saburo Hasegawa, who was a national treasure in calligraphy. He taught different than anybody. I’d go to his art class and he’d give ya one piece a paper and then another piece of paper and he’d say, ‘Make a composition.’ You had to think. His criticisms were always funny. And I knew I really did it to him one time. He was looking at all these other ones and you couldn’t understand him anyway and he got mine and he just started laughing. You don’t work to sell. You work to turn on yourself and other people around you that you respect.”

DIGITAL BILLY