By Art Martori, October 2015 Issue.
It’s a steady Tuesday evening at the Royale Lounge when I catch up with downtown Phoenix artist and designer Ruben Gonzales. We’re drinking steadily as the winding, fuzzy-growing-fuzzier conversation lands on the day Gonzales’ patchwork of creative efforts finally coalesced into 11th Monk3y Industries, his combined studio, retail spot and co-op in the arts district on Grand Avenue.
I’m leaning in close to hear. It’s one of those interludes at the Royale when someone jealously feeds a buck into the jukebox and the usual silence in the shadowy bar is replaced by a rowdy norteño jam.
“That day changed a lot in my life,” Gonzales remembers between pulls on a sweating bottle of Miller High Life.
That day was in the summer of 2013. Gonzales was hustling to prepare for a trip to Havasupai Falls. The break was much needed. He’d recently scrambled to submit a last-minute application to the non-profit group Seed Spot, hoping for startup funding to get 11th Monk3y off the ground. But instead, he received a form letter denying the application.
In his mind, Gonzales was already enjoying the cool water just a few hours away.
But then his phone started blowing up.
The first call, as it turned out, was from Seed Spot. Due to a glitch in the software used to review applications, Gonzales’ bid had gone unnoticed at first. But they’d finally seen it, and they really wanted to talk.
Calling on the other line was the renowned T-shirt designer Johnny Earle (aka Johnny Cupcakes). Earle was bringing his signature cupcake-and-crossbones apparel to town from Los Angeles, and his search for a display space had created quite the buzz throughout the downtown Phoenix art scene. He’d heard about what Gonzales was doing at the time. And he wanted to show at his place.
In less than an hour, Gonzales had gotten a nod from a very established underground artist and was well on his way toward seed funding. And there was still the trip to Havasupai Falls.
“I was like, ‘F*ck yeah!’” laughs Gonzales, now 36, and bearing an impressive nose ring and dark, stylishly combed-over hair.
Gate 11, Flight 11
What started out as a way to earn a few extra bucks to support his hobby eventually grew to become a successful business that employs local artists and designers, and produces work for some of the most well-known entities in metro Phoenix, and beyond.
Gonzales hopes to grow 11th Monk3y into a place where aspiring creatives can learn the skills of their trades and get support from someone who’s learned, the hard way, how to make things happen.
“Our goal is to help incubate small hobbyists and or people who want to own a small business,” Gonzales said. “It lets the creator or the artist know, ‘Is this something I want to do? Or is this just my hobby that I’ll do every six months?’”
He’s at the Royale with friend and 11th Monk3y employee Jason Simons, 30, a recent transplant from South Dakota with a background in fabrication, manufacturing and bicycle mechanics. Simons is somewhat reserved, knocking back beers at a noticeably slower pace. Of a recently completed project that required long days often running into the night, he simply notes, “It’s just easier with two people.”
11th Monk3y takes up half of a red-brick storefront on Grand Avenue at Fillmore Street, south of art-scene landmarks such as Bikini Lounge, Bragg’s Pie Factory and ThirdSpace, where Grand gets just a little sketchier with the foot traffic off Van Buren.
According to Gonzales, the quirky name for his operation came to him almost subliminally.
“The number 11 I see and remember from my life all the time,” he explains. “I look at my phone, it’s 11:11. I get in line, and I’m number 11. I was getting on an airplane one time, and it was gate 11, flight 11.”
Married To Business
The front rooms of 11th Monk3y are dedicated to retail and screen printing; entering the place you immediately see racks of distinctly urban apparel: hats bearing stylized monkey heads, or shirts with bold screen-printed such words as HERO or C*NT. They’re also a licensed dealer of single-speed and fixed-gear bicycles from Tempe-based State Bicycle Co. and Pure Fix Cycles, out of Los Angeles.
Managing the screen-printing part of the shop is Michelle Meyer, an animated, attractive 23-year-old who met Gonzales through Seed Spot. She started out as an unpaid intern working her way through a fine arts degree at Arizona State University. But after her internship ended and she graduated, Gonzales had reached a point where he could afford to pay her.
Meyer remembers hearing about 11th Monk3y when the internship opened up. She was the only applicant.
“I remember reading the email, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is awesome,” she said. “Then time got away from me, but it was always in the back of my mind. I started thinking, “What am I doing this summer?”
Behind the retail space at 11th Monk3y is a large workshop where Gonzales and Simons design and build just about anything you could imagine. Recent projects include a photo booth ordered by Instagram, outdoor furniture for the Space Between park at First and Fillmore Streets, and a super-slick folding art table for one n ten.
Gonzales admits this do-it-all approach can snap up all his free time.
“My life right now is super chaotic in the best way,” he said. “We bitch and moan sometimes, but at the end of the day, when we look back and see what we’re building and who we’re building it for, it’s very rewarding.”
When I ask about dating, going out and having fun, Gonzales just laughs.
“Well, I’m married to my business. That’s probably the number-one reason I’m single,” he admits. “We’re the plumber with the leaky faucet because we’re always out fixing everyone else’s.”
B-Boy At Work
One weekend, I drop by 11th Monk3y when the crew is finishing up the art table for one n ten. It’s nearly complete by the time I get there. Much like a Murphy bed, the art table mounts to a wall. Folded up, panes on the underside display artwork or act as a whiteboard for dry-erase markers. Folded down, the table offers a sturdy, flat surface for working, and myriad shelves and drawers for storing supplies. Simons is using a cutting wheel to shape the panes while Gonzales lowers and raises the table’s brushed-metal frame to ensure smooth operation.
He explains how the design came to him during the brief silences when Simons shuts off the cutting wheel to check and re-check his work. The signature look of many of his pieces, Gonzales explains, with dark wood contrasting lighter metal, is called “upcycled industrial.” They typically hunt around for reclaimed material or, if that fails, seek donations or just swing by the local lumber yard.
“Everything is designed on how I would use it and what the functionality should be,” Gonzales said. “If it’s something that I wouldn’t use, I wouldn’t design it for the client. It has to serve two purposes when we build furniture or art pieces. Visually, to us, we want them to be aesthetically pleasing. They also need to be functional. Even if it’s an art piece, we want you to be able to walk up to it, touch it, move it, interact with it.”
It’s a little funny to see Gonzales today, bouncing around the country and working insane hours, once you learn a little bit about his history. He didn’t have much to do with art and design until 2009, when one evening, strapped for cash, he sat down in his mom’s kitchen, fired up his laptop and started teaching himself graphic design via YouTube videos.
His true passion since high school had been b-boying – breakdancing, as it’s also called – where opposing crews of dancers square off in competitions to perform elaborate moves like Indian Steps, Bicycle Pumps and Baby Freezes. The clothing b-boys wore always struck him as unique and stylish, Gonzales remembers, but also a bit spendy for urban kids. He saw an opportunity.
“The clothing was really cool. It just wasn’t that affordable. B-boys are broke,” he said. “And so when the concerts came around, I was like, ‘I can do this.’ I wanted to make it affordable and let the community have input on the designs.”
So, Gonzales began printing and selling his T-shirt designs at b-boy competitions. Then he was selling so many he needed racks to display them. So he taught himself how to fabricate metal racks. Then people buying T-shirts started asking where they could buy the racks. So Gonzales got into custom fabrication.
He was off and running.
“I realized there was a market for me to make a little bit of side cash,” he remembers. “At the same time, I needed to make racks for my clothes. It kinda all started snowballing from one thing to the next, from shirts, to racks, to bicycles, to custom fabrication.”
Home, Sweet Home
One of Gonzales’ greatest points of pride – aside from his 19-year career as a b-boy and his burgeoning enterprise – is his hometown. He’s quick to distinguish that he’s not quite a Phoenix native. Rather, he was born in Tolleson, Ariz., and is a product of Tolleson Union High School.
Growing up, the population there was about 4,500, which Gonzales describes as “very churchy, very Hispanic.” He admits to getting into a little trouble during his teenage years, but underlying that was always a deep love for his hometown.
“Everything was in Tolleson. If they had a college, I would’ve went to that [one],” Gonzales said. “Everything was just small, family oriented. It’s a small farm town for sure.”
Now, on Grand Avenue, he again seems to have found a place he’s reluctant to outgrow, although that might be inevitable given the trajectory he’s on today.
Gonzales admits the Grand Avenue scene does have a history of peaks and valleys – with the sudden closures of places like The Paper Heart, Chez Nous and Paisley Violin – and a big part of him would like to be among the people whose success finally establishes Grand as a lasting arts enclave. His relationship with Phoenix is complicated, Gonzales laughs.
“It’s not my forever home, but it’s where my heart is. I have a love-hate relationship with Phoenix, just like a lot of natives do,” he said. “You don’t really have to struggle here. You do it in New York or L.A. and you mess up, you probably have to move back home. Here you can keep failing until you don’t fail anymore.”