When a US-based British designer found himself facing deportation for a long-forgotten misdemeanour, members of the design community came to the rescue with an exhibition and online auction in his honour.
Mark Tudor Gee (aka Huck) was born in 1973 in Newcastle, but has lived in the US since the age of eight. Huck moved to San Francisco at 18, where he became ensconced in the Bay Area hip-hop scene, cultivating skills as a graffiti artist, illustrator and toy designer. Studying the work of artist Miyamoto Musahi, Huck developed a distinctive style he describes as "a little graffiti mixed with feudal Japanese culture and the bold lines and shapes of modern Japanese illustration."
Things were going well for Huck until October 2005 when, on returning from a trip to Asia, he had a run-in with the US Department of Homeland Security. Never having applied for citizenship, Huck had a British passport and was living on a Green Card. While he'd been away, his past had come back to haunt him.
"When I was 18 I was arrested for selling $5-worth of marijuana to a friend of a friend who happened to be younger than me - a minor," Huck admits. "It was a petty crime that I thought I'd paid my dues for a long, long time ago."
From bad to worse
Although he'd spent time on probation for the misdemeanour, and was fully reformed, Huck was labelled as an aggravated felon, a drug trafficker and was threatened with deportation from the country in which he'd lived for 24 years.
The situation was made worse by the fact that he was married and responsible for his wife's two young children, and Huck needed help. In order to avoid being thrown out of the country, he would need expensive legal representation. Simon Pollard, journalist for online toy magazine Vinyl Abuse, remembers how he first heard about Huck's plight. "Tado told me about it," says Pollard. "They had been asked to proofread his story on his website and we agreed that we should definitely try to do something about it."
Pollard was keen to do more than just rattling a collection tin. Instead, he decided to put together a collection of work with a view to getting it exhibited and auctioned to benefit Huck's legal fund. All that was needed was a theme, and the inspiration came from Huck himself.
"We wanted to take something from him and give it back to him," says Pollard. "The theme of the exhibition is based on asking artists to be inspired by what Huck has done. Gee Whizz - A Japanese Need for Speed: Samurai And Fast Cars covers both Huck's Japanese-inspired work and also his work on custom race cars."
Pollard posted the brief on the Vinyl Abuse forums and was quickly deluged with responses from illustrators, toy designers and sculptors. Pollard began planning the show, and set deadlines for the artists. He originally planned to include 20 artists, but this number soon swelled to 35 in the week preceding the event. A venue was found at the Old Truman Brewery site in London's fashionable Brick Lane.
As the work flowed in, Pollard was impressed with the way people responded to the challenge. "Kenn Munk's piece of a Huck Gee skull on a hunter's-style plinth was a stand-out piece for me because it was the perfect response to the brief."
Crossing the divide
Gee Whizz also attracted work from artists outside of the custom toy community, such as sculptor Wilfrid Wood, who created an intricately detailed biker figure. "It was good because it gave him a different platform to exhibit his work. He's more established in the traditional artworld," says Pollard. Even Huck contributed. "We were really pleased to get work from Huck himself," continues Pollard, "and his dummy [a customisable toy platform like the Qee] custom Ninja was outstanding."
One of the things that made the exhibition so successful was that its appeal crossed barriers of generation and the divide of high art and pop culture. "The more mature people would be into the Wilfrid Wood piece and the Hello Von image, whereas the younger crowd would go for things like the Tugamind Triptych," says Pollard. However, the exhibition wasn't a place for grandstanding, as Pollard explains: "Overall it was very dignified. There was no one bit that was better than others. Nobody was showing off, which is fitting for a fundraiser."
Gee Whizz raised approximately £1,200 from sales, but many of the more expensive items were reserved for an online auction. "We wanted to preserve some for the toy market we knew would visit Vinyl Abuse." says Pollard.
So how does Huck feel about the success of the exhibition and auction? "I have been blown away by the support and I am very grateful for the amazing community I am a part of," he says. "If anything, these fundraisers were too damn successful. Any and all extra funds are going to be forwarded on to another cause."
As well as raising the profile of Huck's cause, the exhibition did wonders for the custom toy community. "The people who were buying stuff were a real mixed bag," says Pollard. "Some knew about the vinyl toy world and others just liked the idea of a fun, nice-looking and affordable piece of art. I hope we've opened a few eyes."