sky dylan robbins

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Move Over, Cupcakes: The Religieuse Has Arrived

Want to open a bakery in New York? If you want to be successful, you’d better have cupcakes on hand (or, at least, that’s what everybody says). Crumbs, Sprinkles, Butter Lane — ever since the gals of Sex and the City stepped foot in Magnolia, it was as if the cupcake had come to determine dessert shop success. So when French pastry chef Dominique Ansel — formerly of gastro-mecca Daniel — decided to open a patisserie last year, he was, naturally, advised to give cupcakes some thought. And he did…sort of. He liked the possibility they offered; their ability to chameleon into the star spot on any pastry shelf. They were adaptable: add some color, adorn with tschotskes, and — voilà! — your [insert holiday here] treat is served.

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PLAY KICKSTARTER NOW LIVE! 12 kids + 12 cameras = time to PLAY! Take a look, share, and by all means feel free to pitch in!

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Strumming Along With Musician Andrew Bird 

Once upon a time (the mid 90s) in a gloriously music-laden land (Chicago), a lanky, sharp-witted, sharp-featured tenderfoot (Andrew Bird) graduated from Northwestern’s acclaimed music conservatory and dove into the sea of indie rock. Inhabited by hard-edged musicians who took pride in their lack of skill and almost-affected amateurishness, it was about passion — forget technique. Live shows were supposed to be truly live, and in-concert mistakes were nothing less than standard. “Experience the sound in its raw, unadulterated form,” they’d say. And Bird — despite his “super-trained” background — fit right in, rolling with the sonic tides to the eventual mid-ocean calm of celebrated musician status. 

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The Fine Art of Coffee Portraiture

Here’s more evidence to back up all those studies on boredom inspiring creativity: Meet Mike Breach, barista extraordinaire, who “paints” everything — and everyone — into his lattes. "I’m an esspressionist," he proudly proclaims. Just last year, Breach was idling away his customer-less hours in the back of a hotel kitchen with only a dormant espresso machine for company. He was “so, so bored.” So he taught himself how to inscribe ornate hearts in coffee foam, with a bamboo skewer as his paintbrush. “People got so excited about it!” says Breach. He took it further; out came the teddy bears (“the girls just love those”), a portrait of that hotel boss (“I didn’t show it to him, but my coworkers and I laughed about it”), and Salvador Dalì, and Edward Scissorhands, and Beyoncé.

We’re at the Smile To-Go, and he’s frothing some milk behind the counter; the shushing of the machine almost drowns out his words. He reflects. “It’s like, if something is lacking, you’ve got to find a way to make it exciting and fun. Right? I mean, I’m so happy that my old job was so boring! Otherwise I wouldn’t be making these! And this is just the beginning. I want to start a movement.” The milk is now pillowy, foamy-soft — perfect for the latte Breach is about to pour. He stares into his empty chestnut-colored canvas, and suddenly looks up. “I’ve been wanting to try Snoop. Let’s do that, yea?” 

Sky Dylan-Robbins

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Wall Dogs: The Midair Muralists Who Paint New York

It’s 8am in Soho, the thermometer reads just above freezing, and the sky is bleak. Taxis splash down the streets; New Yorkers stride with their heads down, leaping over puddles, carelessly bumping into each other. Everyone wants to get out of the cold, out of the rain, into the warmth.

Ten stories above — on a long, skinny platform hanging from the facade of a building at Canal and Mercer in downtown Manhattan — it’s a different story. Climbers’ ropes secured around their torsos, Jason Coatney and Armando Balmaceda stand in a melange of open paint cans and brushes. These two muralists of Colossal Media, the largest hand-painted advertising company in America, are heavily layered in sweatshirts and raincoats. But in this industry, c’est la vie. Paintbrushes in their fingerless-gloved hands, earbuds in their ears — “I like to start out with Miles Davis in the morning,” Coatney smiles, his breath visible in the frigid air — they begin yet another workday in the sky.

It’s the third morning at this location, and the duo are on track, despite the rain, to complete a 30x18-foot mural — commissioned by Etsy to advertise a holiday pop-up shop — by the next evening’s deadline. Coatney carefully bends down, dipping the tip of his brush into a ruddy orange. “It’s a really weird mix of things that makes an artist like a wall dog,” he says.

Some say the origins of the term is derogatory. “Wall dogs” were the unofficial names of the men who were, almost literally, chained to outdoor facades to hand paint the enormous signs still decorating the faded exteriors of today’s landmarked buildings. But these days, the name is a sign of professional pride.

Before vinyl posters printed and hung by a couple guys and a crane became the norm, this was the way big-city advertising was done. Common practice in the decades before the Great Depression, painting these signs took days, perhaps weeks, of hard labor and skills that took years to hone.

Despite a couple updates (they now use motorized pulley systems to raise the building rigs, instead of pulling them up themselves), Colossal is carrying on the tradition, just as their predecessors did more than a century before. Paul Lindahl and Adrian Moeller cofounded the company nine years ago (a third cofounder tragically passed away in a subway accident) by pooling together their savings, a few thousand dollars, and leasing a large wall on 14th Street and 6th Avenue. “Hanging banners is faster; there are less variables. Everyone just told us to take a hike,” recalls Lindahl. Finally, months later, someone bit –- Rockstar Games, of Grand Theft Auto fame -– and they were so taken with the medium that they commissioned Colossal to paint 30 walls.

Moeller chuckles proudly as he talks about the past. “For the first few jobs, we couldn’t even afford a pounce machine,” the little contraption that burns holes into the life-size sketch they make for each job. They’ll spread this out and rub it with charcoal dust to get a faint outline when they’re on the rig, to help get the proportions right. “So Paul used a thumbtack. You can imagine, that’s a lot of holes to make for a 20x30 foot wall.”

No more thumbtacks. Today, Colossal is a $10 million company, with over 150 walls around the country and 30 wall dogs to fill them. “It takes years and years of practice,” emphasizes Coatney, still on the Etsy rig, who’s been doing this for 15 years. The rain has abated, and he’s added the finishing touches to the “always handpaint” lettering of the Colossal insignia. He pauses, his brush hovering in midair. “There are a lot of talented people waiting to get up here, you know? A lot of talented people.”

Sky Dylan-Robbins

8

Table Manners: Turning Restaurant Stationery into Art

When New York-based artist Jay Batlle dines out, he’s still on the clock. Of course, he’s at the restaurant to feast and imbibe and commune with friends. Upon the meal’s consummation, however, he poses a question he’s been regularly asking restaurant staffers for the past decade. They oblige, and a blank sheet of the venue’s stationary is carefully placed in his hands. He’ll return home, and on it, in watercolor and pen and wine and coffee grounds, he’ll express his thoughts — on the evening, the atmosphere, the idea of decadence and societal consumption and what fine dining has become.

Batlle (pronounced “Battle”) chronicles this gastronomic collection, The Stationery Series, on his tumblr, Restaurant Restaurant. He eventually plans to turn it into a three-volume book, but he’s not stopping anytime soon. Here, we talk to the artist about New York cuisine, Balthazar, and pouring wine down the drain. 

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Art + Rap + The Internet = Yung Jake

This story was produced in partnership with MTV Hive.

He was supposed to look directly at the interviewer, not at the video camera, please. But Yung Jake — internet incarnate, rapper, memester, artiste of the online world — found it frustratingly difficult to make eye contact with a human being. As he was talking, his gaze kept shifting back to the lens, then down to the iPhone nestled in his palm. He sighed. “I’m just more interested in interacting with the virtual world than I am with real people.”

Yung Jake won’t admit his age (“I’m young yung”), where he grew up, (“all over”), or how he should be artistically categorized (“I call myself whatever world wants to accept me”). Something like 10 years ago, this might have been a freakish way to publicly define oneself. But today, in a world in which screens are hot and people are, well, not, such a proclamation is legitimate, on trend, and, increasingly, more normal than not. 

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The Paddling Machine: Berlin-Style Ping Pong

A couple years back, Allan Hough went to Berlin and came back to San Francisco a changed man. He had a snappier wrist. A lager-filled belly. And he was inspired. Why don’t we play ping pong the way they do in Berlin? he pondered. It sounded silly — but this is a man who takes ping pong seriously.

On a recent afternoon, Hough is leaning against a pool table, arms crossed, staring into the corner of his cluttered, Christmas light-laden garage in San Francisco’s Mission district. In a chaos of surfboards and bike wheels and beer cozies and wooden chairs, two emerald slabs — the gigantic halves of a brand new ping pong table — are neatly propped up against the far wall. “I think we’ll use the new one tonight,” he says matter-of-factly.

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Trapped in the Tumblr Closet: Chilly Gonzales

Chilly Gonzales is a musical genius. Or so he says. This alt-rocker cum piano virtuoso (née Jason Beck) freely admits the name’s just a front — a brand that calls attention to the persona one adopts as performance artist — and prefers to err on the side of outrageous in his work.

Gonzo was born in Canada, lives in Paris, and collaborates regularly with the likes of Feist, Daft Punk, and Drake. He raps while he plays, wears bedroom garb during performances (imagine the juxtaposition of his bathrobe and slippers to the rigid penguin suits of his accompanying orchestras), and broke a Guinness World Record a few years back (for the longest concert by a solo artist — 27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds). His stuff is moving and soulful; he’s turning young people on to the power of the orchestra. And when the orchestra’s rapidly aging current audience is dead and gone in a few decades? The concert halls will be filled with Chilly fans, he predicts. We don’t doubt it. 

— Sky Dylan-Robbins

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At Dirty & Rowdy, California Wines Made Simple

This story was co-published in partnership with Bon Appetit.

One late, breezy Southern evening in 2009, Hardy Wallace — a Massachusetts-born oenophile, working in marketing at Kodak — was sitting at his desk when the phone rang. It was his boss, who was deeply sorry to inform Hardy that times were tough and — like most of his marketing pals at an already troubled Georgia company — he was going to be let go. Hardy vividly remembers the call — his manager’s sympathetic tone, his own ‘thank you’ back to a company he’d been a part of for years. “And then I told him, this was the best day of my life.”

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Heavy Leather: Strapping Rockstars Since 2008

Brooklyn native and heavy rocker Rachael Becker was just doing her thing — rising in the ranks at a fashion label, making the rounds at metal fests, fixing up her aqua blue motorcycle — until one day when her pals, jamming together in her living room, asked if she’d outfit them with leather guitar straps. Then everything changed. Rachael indeed strapped those friends; after all, she was well-versed in the leather arts from a previous apprenticeship. She made a few extra to throw on Ebay because well, why not?

The orders began flooding in. Rachael quit her job, invested in some heavy-duty equipment, crossed the East River to sift through rawhides in the fashion district, and lo, Heavy Leather NYC was born.

Based in Brooklyn (where else?), Rachael equips music-making masters — Cat Stevens, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, and Slash, to name but a few — with leather straps that help their rock flow. “Sometimes I still can’t believe it,” she chuckled, cutting into a piece of hide with her Exacto. "I didn’t know it, but it’s what I’ve always wanted to do."