Makin’ Moonshine

Makin’ Moonshine

An interview with Erik Burke
by Ali Alonso

Before we began filming for Project Moonshine last summer, we had to watch different documentaries for exposure to different types of techniques, camera angles, etc. Let me tell you, we watched some amazing pieces of work, like Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers and Five Obstructions by Lars von Trier. A week later, Burke showed us his doc (now that we were expert film critics, we had expectations beyond those of any mere mortal). I don’t know what it was about it, but looking back now, it sticks out as one of the best films I watched all summer.

In the doc, Burke travels by way of Highway 50 across Nevada to Gurdon , Arkansas to meet an enigma in the tagging world, buZ Blurr. He and his friend Derek ride their bikes through thick and thin, which is one of the best ways, in my meaningless opinion, I have ever seen any filmmaker “set the stage.” When they get to Gurdon, they meet buZ and get into his head with various stories from when he was a youngin’, and as soon as you know it, they’re heading back with experiences that you are almost grateful to be a part of even if you were only observing them a thousand miles away and sitting in a dark theatre.

From the film, you can tell that Burke is one of the most interesting guys you’ll ever meet, filled with stories that any normal person could only experience through imagination. Not that Burke is lacking in the imagination department, as his many mural projects can show you. From the hour we spent with him this summer and the few e-mails we exchanged (I couldn’t interview him in person because he’s apparently in Estonia(!) so yeah), he’s a guy out there to enjoy himself, and everything else “just is.”

Ali- Why did you make Road to Colossus?

Erik- I had to! On almost all of my projects I have this uh-oh feeling where an idea happens, becomes incubated, and then demands to escape. In the meantime I had been tip-toeing around video without ever having a project that really fit it. After beginning my correspondence with buZ and then planning the trip it just felt like the medium of choice to document the overall project. But the bare-bones reasoning for making a video was purely to document buZ and the ideas associated with myth in a medium that could best mirror the experience.

A- What did you hope to accomplish with the documentary?
E- At first I was naively hoping to accomplish two things with the film. First, to spread awareness of the history of railroad markings and secondly to shatter stereotypes of the typical graffiti artist. But after I returned to Earth, I realized all I really wanted to accomplish was to illuminate the life of an extraordinary man. Because after processing the initial allure of the Colossus of Roads marking, I came to find a deeper story where I could only scratch the surface. In this story, there’s a man torn between here and there, permanence and ephemera, tradition and experimentation, life and death. And in his own way he found a means to escape the ‘author’s situation’ by using the railroad and the postal network as his conduit for creative expression. So perhaps, I hope that people can use buZ’s creative approach to life, to shatter their own demons.

A- What were buZ blurr’s reactions to the film, did he have any reservations about it, and were there any conditions you had to agree to in order to film?
E- buZ is always giving me shit about it. Saying things like, “You think people care about an old washed up tagger?”, and “You shouldn’t waste your time on me.” His pessimism continually surfaces, but I know that inside he is happy and proud of the film. There never was any reservation on buZ or [buZ’s wife] Emmy’s part in the filming. They opened up their house to us like an all-you-can-eat visual buffet. The only reservations were my own feelings of intrusion. I did my best to move past this ingrained response, but being an honest witness of reality is an impossibility with these core sensations. Besides, when the lens has four edges and a stop button, I don’t think you are ever presenting an uncensored experience.

A- Do you have any funny stories from the road or the time you spent with buZ that didn’t make it in the film?
E- This is what I was talking about. There are so many moments that turn into digital dust or even more, aren’t documented to begin with. The quintessential scene was on the last day of riding. About an hour’s ride from Gurdon a huge rainstorm started pouring on us. We mainlined it, umbrella-less with sights on doormats. We rode into Gurdon, wetter than physically possible. We were crossing puddles that passed our pedals and everyone was looking at us from the inside of fogged glass storefronts. We found buZ’s house because there are only about 3 streets in Gurdon and he happened to live on Main Street. We knocked on the door, dripping from every square inch of our body as an imaginary camera from over our shoulders tracked out on an amazing Crewdson-like dolly shot. buZ opened the door and was speechless. The rain just kept dripping from us like we had an internal fountain blasting until he hollered back at Emmy, “Grab a towel…no, make that a lot of towels.” Derek and I also had a crazy night in the main Little Rock train yard that I wish I had filmed for the bone-chilling sounds. I’ve never worked in a yard that was so active and so huge. I’ll stop at just those two although I can ramble on and on.

A- What are your current projects?

E- Lately, I have been painting a mural for the Las Vegas Airport. Aside from that, I have been studying the minimalist murals of Communist block housing in Tallinn, Estonia and helping my girlfriend with a documentary about Soviet military bases in Estonia being erased from memory.

A- Are you planning on making another documentary?

E- No plans, although Dan Ruby and I had been kicking around the idea of making one about deaf rappers who freestyle using sign language. Of course the obvious clichéd title is ‘So Deaf’.

A- What are you doing in Estonia? Are you filming the endeavors?

E- I’m mostly visiting my girlfriend and spending my savings. But I love it and recommend that everyone follow my lead by retiring first and working later. After all, social security isn’t going to exist by the time we’re old enough to reap the benefits of it. So I’m traveling and listening to the history. But most of my time is spent at the harbor in Tallinn. I’ve been converting an abandoned German shipping port into a livable Museum. I call it my studio and work there everyday painting and building. I’m hoping to finish the space and then open it up to the 30+ people that live nearby in utter squalor. It’s going to be a gift for them in exchange for the Russian practice they give me. And, I’m not filming anything. Life just is.