Private Property. Do Not Enter.
This is one of the most alluring signs. I enter.
It’s all very fascinating. Is it a trailer park, is it a junk yard, or is it a museum?
The road is wide and covered in pale gravel, bleached broken up corals, and faded wet carpets. From the entrance to the end is probably a hundred feet. There are six or seven shabby old trailers on both sides hidden beneath trees I’ve never seen before and surrounded by huge piles of junk. I am almost convinced that this place has been abandoned ages ago and there is no one living here. No signs of life.
The road ends in the sea like a boat ramp. There is an improvised wooden pier, a yellow houseboat on the left and a grey house on pillars on the right sticking out of the water. The sea is calm here and in the distance lays a mangrove island and a small anchorage where a few sailboats quietly rest. An idyllic scene reminiscent of some distant past, forever lost, my dear Hemingway.
This place can only be possible in Stock Island, I tell myself. In this poor neighborhood divided in small fenced in trailer compounds, like decrepit ancient campgrounds, one can see all sorts of strange dwellings. And this one surpasses them all. There are mountains of junk taller than the trailers.
But as I slow down and inspect closely, I realize things have been carefully placed, the junk has been meticulously arranged. The discovery enlightens me. The place morphs in my mind like a rock becoming a turtle. The junk transforms into artworks. The trash is now found objects. The piles- installations and sculptures. Yes, this is a bizarre offbeat museum, a lunatic gallery, and I am thrilled!
Art is all around me. Barbarous, paranoid, psychopathic art; crying, roaring, and laughing at me. What a discovery, what a luck, what a fortune!
Then, as I celebrate, a creature appears. Riding some weird contraption that blends with the place and soon disappears among fishing nets and fake flowers, an old, very old guy with a straw hat slowly approaches and says nothing. I say, Hi.
I figure, this must be the artist, and his noble steed. And it is.
His name is Monkey Tom.
(He once had a monkey named Igor, but the pet died stung by a scorpion. Someone later told me, that Igor actually was killed in a bar fight.)
Monkey Tom showed me around, and we talked for a bit. I went back and visited a few more times, and we talked even more. His life is a saga full of love and betrayal, adventure and glory, and there are articles even books written about him. But that doesn’t mean he is famous, or rich, not in the sense you might think.
In Stock Island where he presently lives, everyone knows him. He is the local celebrity. But he is not at the least known in Key West where the galleries are and the tourists with money willing to buy „local“ arts. But that’s ok, his paintings are not what the tourist requires anyway: colorful seascapes, palm trees, and flowers. His are of bizarre creatures with three eyes, old men with white beards and faces covered in fish scales, ghost shrimp boats, sea monsters, and storms. He paints on whatever is lying around.Old paddles, driftwood, turtle shells, coconuts…
And he would exchange an artwork for a good meal or two. In fact, a girl I met at the Rusty Anchor restaurant, Inka, has an extensive collection of Monkey Tom paintings which she bought from him whenever he needed some cash and a bowl of soup. The whole restaurant is decorated by his artworks.
Later, in a mechanic’s shop where Ivo was going to pick up some spare parts for the engine, I recognized Monkey Tom’s paintings all over the walls. Marc, the mechanic, collects them and has hundreds of them. He also receives Monkey Tom’s mail and helps him when needed…
I must end this post here, although I wanted to show you all the details of Monkey Tom’s place and his paintings… Oh, well, I will do this next time.
Monkey Tom has a website with lots of details about his past life and his artistic explorations. Check it out. www.monkeytom.org