Joey Skaggs

Interviewed by Scott Lauinger

Visual Opinion (VO)

Published by the School of Visual Arts

New York, New York

March, 2000, Volume 6, Number 5

In 1976, readers of the Village Voice read an ad for a "Cat House for Dogs" promising sexual gratification for your dog for $50. The ad was followed by press releases to major news outlets announcing the new venture. The result was a flood of incoming phone calls to the dog pimp, a mysterious figure by the name of Joey Skaggs. Some calls were from people asking if they could have sex with the dogs. The news spread and generated outrage from the ASPCA, the Bureau of Animal Affairs, The NYPD Vice Squad, the Mayor's office, and coverage by sources from Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue to WABC. The WABC coverage led to a subpoena from the Attorney General's office for Mr. Skaggs. The gig was up. The authorities had successfully closed down this threat to humanity and the world could go on living. But then Mr. Skaggs held a press conference at the Attorney General's office announcing that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax, that the naivete of the media who bought in to it had been recorded for history and that this whole performance was indeed the chosen medium of art of one man, Joey Skaggs.

Mr. Skaggs, is an SVA alumnus and sometimes SVA teacher whose body of work over 34 years includes hoaxes at the expense of Entertainment Tonight, Geraldo, the National Enquirer, and projects with descriptions such as Hippie Bus Tour of Queens, Fame Exchange with John and Yoko, Celebrity Sperm Bank, Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda, Windsurfing from Hawaii to California, Fish Condos, Bad Guys Talent Management Agency, Brooklyn Bridge Lottery, Maqdananda: the Psychic Attorney, and the recent Rudy Doody happening in Washington Square Park.

VO: Joey, can you state what it is exactly that you do?

Joey Skaggs: That question usually depends on who's asking and how I feel at the moment. One of my favorite responses is that I'm a proctologist. I deal with assholes every day. (I usually leave a long pause after this statement and stare at the questioner.)

But since that's not the answer you're looking for...

I'm a fine artist who has chosen to use the media as his medium, as a painter would use a canvas. I started out as a painter and explored other media. I quickly realized the difference between the creative process and the business of art. Dealing with the pretentious art world was unacceptable to me. So instead of knocking on the front door asking for admittance, I empowered myself and took control.

I use various techniques that combine fine art, commercial art, public relations and advertising to create a social, political, and/or satirical statement. My pieces are hoaxes/pranks, or theatrical performances. But they're not performed in conventional theaters. Instead they unfold to an unsuspecting public in the world arena.

I create elaborate, detailed, bogus realities designed to fool the news media and the public. I deal with social issues, self righteously pointing out what I perceive to be hype, hypocrisy, prejudice, stereotypical thinking and other societal ills.

I do this in three stages. The first is the "hook" during which I promote a concept (a cat house for dogs, a fat squad, a portable confessional booth, etc.).

The second stage is the "line." This is where I document the phenomenon of miscommunication -- who falls for it and who puts what spin on it to serve what agenda. I record all of my incoming phone calls. I keep a log. I hire press-clipping services for print and electronic news media, and, in my alias, I conduct bogus interviews promoting the prank. I appear on television shows and provide radio and newspaper interviews.

The third stage is the "sinker." This is when I reveal the truth and document how the news media deals with being deceived. Do they admit it to their audience? Do they trivialize me or the prank, dismissing it? Do they attack me? Or, do they admit their irresponsibility and examine the issues brought forth in the concept?

I collect and archive the entire life of the performance, both my own documentation and as it is portrayed in the news media. This then constitutes my work of art.

For the last 34 years I've been able to continuously generate front page international news stories, in many cases repeatedly fooling the same news outlets (CNN, ABC, NBC, UPI, AP, etc.).

This art form allows me to communicate in a provocative and hopefully meaningful way to a larger audience than one would find at a traditional exhibition or performance hall.

VO: Do you have a manifesto?

Joey Skaggs: As far as a manifesto goes -- a manifesto is something that evolves as a person evolves. For more detail, I suggest that the curious take a look at my Web site at I have stated my intent and ethical stance in the "Manifesto" section. More than a manifesto, I would call it a description of the art of the prank.

VO: In a time when media is THE industry and an exceptionally growing one at that, how are you coping with the growing outlets for you're work?

Joey Skaggs: The media is my arena/playground/workplace. And it certainly has the potential to be everyone or anyone's arena/playground/workplace. But that means that there's more shit to sift through to find content and value. On the positive side, there's more opportunity for artists who have rejected the traditional art world, or who have been rejected by it, to have a creative outlet and potentially, a global audience.

VO: You said that you get a lot of E-mail from internet "graffiti artists," so to speak, and you just worked with ESPO. Is there a connection between you and the graffiti world?

Joey Skaggs: My work has striking similarities in that I "tag" the media and it's not appreciated by the conventional establishment. However, the work is very different from graffiti art.

As an artist I'm constantly dealing with the struggle to destroy something and in the process to create something. But, I'm attempting to destroy values and beliefs, myths and propaganda. I do not condone the destruction of private or public property or someone else's art by unimaginative, hostile tagging. It's not the hostile part that is offensive to me. It's the unimaginative part. I believe there are many more creative ways to make a statement and be heard and seen. Getting attention without a well thought-out statement or plan is unacceptable to me.

Also, I'm not interested in being busted, fined, jailed, or not able to work for fear of being caught in a legal loop. I avoid being incarcerated at all costs. This is an incentive for me. I strive to be provocative, iconoclastic, and in-your-face without doing things that are illegal and will lead to incarceration -- if I can help it. Basically because it's non productive. Not to say that I'm unwilling to be arrested. I just don't want to be stopped.

I want to make it clear that as an artist/teacher/activist I applaud all individuals who seek a creative process to express themselves, their philosophies, ideals, discontents, needs, and wishes. But, as in all things, there's good, bad, mediocre, and great.

Both pranks and graffiti art can be considered juvenile bad-boy art. For the most part they're both "fuck-you, here I am in your face, I don't buy your bullshit" art. But my criterion for getting attention is that it be a thoughtful expression that's exciting and inspiring and well executed. Otherwise it's just a missed opportunity.

VO: Is the current media environment ripe for the plucking or too apathetic to care? What I mean is, you've been doing this since the late 60's, in what ways have you seen the reaction to your work change in that time?

JS: As ironic as this may sound, I haven't seen a great change in the reaction to my work. And I am grateful. My intent has always been to provoke. And I would hope that my work is always met with interest, shock, and/or outrage and that it becomes a subject of meaningful discussion. Passive acceptance is the death of any artist.

VO: You've made the prank an act of artistic willpower. What's the difference between what you do and the work of a scam artist or a con-artist?

JS: The difference is the intent.

VO: The pranks you do, especially your earlier work, are pranks that anybody could pull off if they just had the will. With this in mind, what advice do you have for the kids?

JS: This is an insulting statement, you asshole. It's not just the will. It's imagination. Oops. I just slipped into my role as proctologist. Sorry.

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© 2000 Joey Skaggs