Turns That Matter

Finding efficiency with sculptor Tyrome Tripoli.

Light / Dark

On a sticky spring day, sculptor Tyrome Tripoli is discussing regional cuisine in his Bushwick studio. “Mexican food isn’t necessarily better in California,” he says thoughtfully, bespectacled and unusually tan for May, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, a purple long sleeve, and dark-blue work pants. “It’s just made by people from a different part of Mexico than those who migrated to New York. It’s reflected in the dialect of Spanish spoken and in their cuisine.” 

This is a somewhat scandalous remark for a California native. And while he’s not of Mexican heritage, he couches his perspective in culinary endeavors traced back to his youth. Growing up in Corona Del Mar on LA-style burritos, he attended UC San Diego for a lesson in Baja grinds, which was followed by 10 years in San Francisco with a steady diet of Mission fare. His extensive travels through Mexico for the “real thing” further developed his consideration of what we call “Mexican food.” He seems qualified to be making this assessment—a position many on the West Coast find outlandish.

My stomach starts to growl while walking around his studio, a storefront property built in 1899 with residential units he rents out in the back. Tripoli’s trademark—colorful assemblages of recycled plastics, light in both palette and mood—adorn the walls and floors. Their playful whimsy is situated amongst starker metalwork of sharp, winding ellipses and extended hyperbolas. In his commissioned pieces, he also discovers ways of incorporating ornamental elements of art nouveau and surrealism, whether he’s designing a bar or restaurant interior, outfitting church gates, creating an offbeat bike rack, or protecting a flowerbed from urinating dogs and pedestrians. His various site-specific sculptures, when fastened to public and private spaces, become permanent installations attached to the city in ways that will outlast him. His work expresses a considered, Gothic lyricism not unlike something out of a Tim Burton film. 

In the forge: “Metalworking liberated me,” says Tripoli. “It’s really fast and spontaneous—a crisis situation, like surfing.” Photo by Axel Dupeux.

Tripoli catches me staring at an arrangement of drift plastic, impossibly faded by the sun, salt, and sea. “Each piece is a fit, a part of the puzzle, like putting molecules together in organic chemistry,” he suggests, “while using the found object to model the efficiency of nature.” 

A biochemistry degree continues to inform his work 30 years later, as does his childhood scavenging the bedrock of Little Corona, a beach just south of Wedge in Newport Beach. “I like the resourcefulness of working within my means,” he says. “I’m the guy who makes the bong to smoke with when there aren’t papers, or who will build a driftwood shelter on the beach for shade.”

His interest in metalwork and furniture design began during high school, when he taught himself to weld and build mosaic tables. Later, he used the craft as a way “to stop thinking about enzymes” during the stressful molecular, premed years. These days, plastic sculpture has taken on that role of relaxation now that metals are back in the forefront of his output. “So much of time and space [is] represented in trash,” he laments while discussing the history of garbage in relation to his own work. “Plastic is the majority these days. I brought plastic into my metal studio so it wouldn’t be so gray—to bring color back into my experience and to get rid of the function of metalwork,” which he says pays the bills and better suits his demeanor. 

“It’s easier to hide the mistakes with the raw finish and sharper edges [when working with metal]. With wood it’s almost like a precious stone. If the cut is wrong, the grain is wrong, and then you’ve messed the whole thing up. There’s a lot of pressure. It’s consequential and you can’t go back. With metalwork it’s inherently structural. You don’t have to worry about cutting it too short because you can always add a piece on or grind a piece back. Nobody knows and you haven’t interrupted the structural integrity.” He laughs with relief. “Metalworking liberated me. It’s really fast and spontaneous—a crisis situation, like surfing. When you’re riding a wave, you’re not going to stop and write something on a sticky note. Your mind is not wandering. You’re hyper- focused. You’re hunting.”

Tripoli first came to surfing in the 1980s, when his sister’s boyfriend let him borrow his board but insisted on pushing him into waves—something he still finds embarrassing and antithetical to the surf experience. He believes in the importance of catching one’s own waves, even if it’s whitewater. Being pushed into a wave is, existentially, a disservice.

Hyped on riding bombing Blacks and the reefs in La Jolla during college, he bought an around-the-world ticket upon graduation and set off to surf heavy lefts in Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Sumbawa, and Tahiti before returning to San Francisco for a biotech job—“a last hurrah in science,” he jokes. He then tells of the afternoon when, on his way to surf Ocean Beach, all that changed. 

“I bumped into a guy on Fulton [Street] selling this wacky, homemade furniture that blew my mind,” he says. “I stopped to talk and found out about a studio share with 15 other artists who all worked for themselves. Up until that point, I’d been caught up with the idea of being a doctor. Instead, I got a studio.” 

Inspired, Tripoli gained the confidence to start his own furniture-making business. After working for a number of years, however, he balked at the prospect of going into production and applied for a creative grant through Recology, the waste-management company headquartered in San Francisco. To his surprise, he won and was awarded a spot in the San Francisco Refuse and Recycle Artist in Residence Program, where he immersed himself in big-tech garbage before taking off again—this time to Europe—to continue his “best lefts in the world tour,” visiting Mundaka, Saint-Leu, and Mauritius while also making art and showing it in Italy, Romania, and Germany. A friend encouraged him to visit Sicily to connect with other Tripolis. However, after a few hours of inquiries he got the impression that nobody cared that they shared the same last name. He returned to his camper van to discover a rideable wave at the local break.

I offer to take him to lunch and he suggests “the best Mexican spot in Brooklyn: Nene’s Deli,” a family-owned grocery nearby with a lineage he’s followed since its inception. It’s on the way to Gallery Petite, a space he opened in 2015 to showcase his own projects and those of the area’s art community. He grabs his skateboard and we walk to the corner, where a local artist friend stops us and says he’s left a piece of artwork at the gallery from a recent show and asks to tag along and pick it up. Crossing the street, a cyclist with a European accent recognizes Tripoli, circles back, and asks if the gallery is open and if he can quickly view the current show. He, too, joins our brigade, and we set off down Wilson Avenue.

M55 Gallery, Manhattan, New York: FUEL, 2007, recycled white plastics, 6 inches × 7 feet × 25 feet. COMBUSTION, 2007, recycled red and green plastics, 8 feet × 12 feet × 7 feet. EXHAUST, 2007, recycled black plastics and blown glass, 9 feet × 4 feet × 12 feet. Photos courtesy of the artist.
Detail view: COMBUSTION.

Gallery Petite is the site of Tripoli’s original studio and, like his current studio, is a mixed-use property with residential units attached. The gallery is also located next to Carmenta’s, a no-frills yet elevated old-school Italian deli with homemade pastas and excellent sandwiches, which presents us with a dilemma. “Should we go there instead?” Tripoli asks. The smell of garlic and aged cheeses has us yearning for instant gratification. We can’t change course now, though. Our conversation has us fiending for birria. Plus, it’s rare that a Californian endorses a New York Mexican establishment.

We set out again, but not before noticing a brand-new skateboard that’s been left at the bus stop just as the bus is pulling away. Tripoli runs back to the gallery to write a Post-It to leave at the stop, letting the board’s owner know it will be safely stored in the gallery if they should come back for it. (Later that night, I get a text from Tripoli outlining how the kid who left the board had called, and they were meeting the following day.) 

We finally get to Nene’s. It’s after lunch and the line is short. We score a table outside in the shade and tuck into our food before the after-school crowd arrives. “That community aspect,” Tripoli says between bites of his burrito, “is why I ended up here in Bushwick. It reminded me of San Francisco in the early 1990s— a neighborhood filled with people who have to make art. Circulating creative energy is so good for the mind and spirit, right behind food and sleep. I’m really serving the people and it’s carried me for 30 years. I’m always doing something different, still stretching my imagination, still improving my skills, and still surfing. The work, to me, is actually the good thing. Take the stairs. You gotta use it or you’ll lose it. Your brain, your body, and your imagination.”

Tripoli. Photo by Axel Dupeux.
Tripoli has acclimated to New York’s surfscape like a native. Post-session, Rockaway. Photo by Susannah Ray.

A few weeks after our burrito, we meet in Rockaway for a surf and a burger. At 55, Tripoli’s still a stylish goofyfoot with old-school power-surfing leanings, riding thrusters and yearning to do “turns that matter.” The surf is small, but he’s streaking across the beach on set waves, cross-stepping, creeping up, and cutting back—total involvement of classic and contemporary surf style. He has a bungalow near Rippers, an oceanfront concession known for their Hard Body burger (double meat, double cheese), frozen sangria, live music, and deejays. The proprietor, Chris Parachini—an artist and the notorious mastermind behind Roberta’s Pizza (named after his mom)—is the original anchor tenant in Bushwick, revitalizing an otherwise overlooked part of Brooklyn. He’s known Tripoli since he first moved to New York. 

“Ty lives as close to the pure surfer/artist ideal as anyone I’ve ever known,” Parachini says. “Whether it’s his work, parenting, or conversation, he’s doing it naturally, with a certain kind of glee, and it’s always beautiful.”

[Feature photo caption: RUBBER HIGHWAY, 2002, recycled black neoprene rubber and fasteners, 14 × 23 inches. Photo by Tom Seawell]