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T Q&A

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Kyle Kulakowski boldly defies the standards of good taste. He's taken up painting on black-velvet canvases--not images of Elvis or waterfalls or tigers, but images of something that he's passionate about: video games. He says it's like going back to his roots: Growing up in Connecticut, there wasn't much else to do during the winter but stay inside and play video games on Atari. By day, he works at a Web site company, but by night, he plays lots of video games--and paints. For more information, e-mail him or visit his Web site.

What possessed you to start painting video games, of all things, on black velvet?

I was walking through South Tucson one day, and I found this stack of, like, 10 paintings, I think it was out in the desert, of this woman crying. It started to rain, and I picked up one of the canvases, and I used it as an umbrella while I walked home. I got home, and my roommate was like, "Hey, you should do that--but more importantly, you should go back and get some more of those paintings." So I returned there after the sun went down, and they were all gone; it was just, like, one of those magic moments in the desert. You can currently find one of those exact paintings at The Surly Wench.

So, you found that painting in the desert, and then what?

I got one of these. (Produces a tiny book about black-velvet art.)

Where'd you get this?

From one of those little beginner starter kits you get at, like, Borders. The book has a great overview of the history of the art. Oddly enough, back in the day, it was evidently a really respected art form--like, in the Vatican, they still have some black-velvet paintings of Jesus, you know, in the beginning.

Like a serious black-velvet Jesus?

Like a serious black-velvet Jesus, and these things now are worth some major coin. The kit itself wasn't too hot--the paints were dry, but the book itself really was inspiring, and I could learn about the art and the history and tradition, and, of course, learn about Edgar.

Who's Edgar?

Edgar Leeteg. Back in 1920s, he first was a billboard painter, and then one day, he stole some paints from work, moved to Tahiti and used those paints to paint on black velvet. He started making some really basic beach scenes and portraits of Polynesian girls, and he used to trade them to bartenders for drinks and stuff. Then, this big, huge investment banker sees one of his paintings in this pawn shop. ... The owner told him about this guy named Edgar in a bar, and he basically seeks (Leeteg) out and goes to the bar. And the banker is wearing this Hawaiian shirt, and he goes up to Edgar and says, "Will you make one of those paintings for me?" And Edgar says, "Yeah, I'll do it for one of those shirts." So, the banker gives Edgar his shirt and basically becomes like his patron, and from then on, all Edgar does is make this art. I did a lot of research before I started this crazy idea.

So why video games? Why not Elvis or Jesus?

One day, I just realized that a lot of those old Atari games have a natural black background, so all you have to do is just paint on there, and you'll get a perfect replica of the original screen as it is in the arcade, or the Atari system.

Anything else you want to paint? Ever tried flowers?

I got a request to do a Polynesian-girl-style portrait.

Like a hula girl?

Yeah. She has long, straight hair, so she's gonna do it topless, you know, with her hair and chains all draped over her.

Chains?

Like, necklaces. We'll see how that goes. Also, I finished a painting that was a wedding gift that someone commissioned me to do, which was Adventure from Atari.

A wedding gift?

Yeah, actually, it was the bride that wanted it.

How do you decide which games you want to paint?

I like to do really off-the-wall ones, like Grim Fandango; it's a really artistic game, very Spanish-influenced. The crazy thing is, I started doing those games, and I did the Dragon's Lair, and I did the Pac-Man, and then other gamers were like, "Hey, you should do Psychonauts." The game is really wild. It's hard to explain the plot of the game, but there's an entire level of being in the mind of being a black-velvet artist who's in an insane asylum, and--get this--he can never finish a painting. He just paints a purple bull and a green matador over and over again. His entire mind is like a black-velvet painting. Everything is black-light reactive; there's like this purple bull running around this black-velvet town. ... It's hanging up at the Dapper (Grooming) Lounge.

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