November, 2005

The Last Gallery Au Go-Go Story Ever Told

November 27th, 2005

I wrote the first news story about Gallery Au Go-Go, Dirk Vermin’s three-year experiment as a semi-permanent gallery curator. He took the half of his Maryland Parkway tattoo parlor, Pussykat Tattoos, which was being leased by a photographer as her studio, and turned it into an honest-to-Sid Vicious art gallery.

It was a labour of love for the local punk rock legend and tattoo artist, something borne of a genuine desire to provide an artistic outlet for other artists that felt estranged from the increasingly insular Arts District scene happening downtown. He expected to make no real profit from the gallery, asking only a minimal commission from his featured artists to help cover things like free beer and bologna sandwiches.

“If we do OK, I’ll be happy,” Vermin told me before the gallery opened in May 2002, “it will have been a successful venture.”

Familiar names in the local art scene today – Mark T. Zeilman, Iceberg Slick, Dray, Carrie McCutcheon – all had early showings at Vermin’s gallery, often when other venues would refuse to show an artist. Dray was one of those, who ran into friction with an early showing at the Winchester Community Center. The first show of his arts collective, Five Finger Miscount, at Gallery Au Go-Go also featured the work of urban muralist and underground comic creator Vezun, who told me he had difficulty getting his work into stores because of the negative image many people hold of graffiti artists.

“People don’t want to touch that kind of stuff,” he said.

I owe as much to Gallery Au Go-Go as the artists whose careers were jump-started by Vermin’s flexibility and resolve to go against the grain. I was writing mostly about local music and nightlife for the CityLife before the gallery opened. But I’d known Vermin for years, both from the music scene (where he appears irregularly with his self-named punk band) and from sitting on the receiving end of his tattoo gun. That, and I’m pretty sure he was at my wedding. So I had an inside track on the forthcoming gallery, which gave me an opportunity to write my first “art” column for the weekly paper.

From there, Gallery Au Go-Go and underground art became somewhat of my “beat.” From May 2002 until Dec. 2003, I reported on a subject about which I knew little to start, but I learned a lot quickly. While the CityLife’s official art writer covered mainstream venues, new artists, new galleries and mainly new shows at Gallery Au Go-Go were my domain, sometimes to his chagrin.

In the last year or so, buzz has died down surrounding Vermin’s gallery. My guess is that the more defined focus on downtown as the official Arts District for the city has somewhat sucked the air out from beneath Gallery Au Go-Go’s wings. The artists that used to find refuge in the welcoming cinder-block walls of the tattoo parlor-cum-art gallery are now living in and operating their own studios downtown, or filling up space in places like the Art Bar. Once-legendary fire-code-breaking opening receptions at Gallery Au Go-Go became more quiet affairs, the same 25 people or so showing up at every opening.

Vermin did the noble thing – he left on a high note, before the gallery could become completely inconsequential. And judging by the amount of press the gallery’s closing received – major features in the Review-Journal, Sun, CityLife and Weekly – the influence of Gallery Au Go-Go on the local community remained strong to its end.

I attended the closing bash, appropriately named “Gallery Au Go-Go Must Be Destroyed!” Vermin seemed to be genuinely happy, almost relieved. He told me that he plans to claim the gallery space for himself, expanding his office by about 10 feet and creating a completely revamped tattooing studio, complete with custom stone tile and stainless steel fixtures.

“No more of this pink and black stuff,” Vermin said, pointing to his garishly adorned tattooing space.

You can read the papers for details about Vermin’s upcoming book about the 1980s punk scene in Vegas (which we’ve been talking about for three years), or about his plans to curate shows at other galleries downtown. I won’t reiterate. But I will say a last goodbye to the place that gave a proper shove-off to the local arts scene, to many an artist’s career, and to this journalist’s portfolio. Or, in true Vermin form:

“Fuck you, too.”