did 21 months for forging Basquiats, then moved to China…
“I never liked Basquiat’s work much… I just knew instinctively it was something I could for — an easy way to make a quick 20 grand.”
The first thing that catches Alfredo Martinez’ attention outside Beijing’s hulking Military Museum is a 400-foot-long Scud missile on a trailer to the right of the entrance. “The Russians didn’t have GPS, so these are just guided by gyroscopes, which means they’re ‘guided’ in the sense that they’ll land anywhere from two to five miles from their target.” A quick discourse on gyro synchronous orbits comes next, followed by an anecdote from the two and half years Martinez spent at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for forging Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, among other things. While incarcerated he met a Georgian who’d been the first mate on a Russian nuclear submarine before becoming a Brighton Beach mobster. In the navy the Georgian had been an overachiever and wanted to get everything shipshape so he examined the housings of the missiles only to find out the crew had siphoned off the alcohol from the gyroscopes and replaced it with urine and seawater. What would have happened if the missiles had been launched? “It would have looked like a Roman candle.”
Climbing aboard a nearby Chinese copy of a Russian PT boat equipped with roughhewn Exocert water skimming missiles that resemble a high school metal shop project, he’s quick to point out a Type 90 twin-35mm anti-aircraft Chinese copy of a Swiss Oerlikon Bofors gun with a feed way for three bullets. “It operates like a gigantic zip gun, the spring wraps around the barrel, and you have to crank it to cock it. It’s all hydraulic.” The gun’s chair is small, Chinese size, and makes the 6’3” Martinez look monstrous, especially compared to the diminutive Chinese children running around the boat. A former Army corporal, convicted felon, instigator of and participant in Mad Max-like junk jousting tournaments in New York’s Joseph Petrosino Square in the early 1990s, and an artist who fabricates working guns, he has been curating shows and making new art in China for a year. A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who’s decamped to the People’s Republic partly for its psychic resemblance to the more chaotic and rougher New York of yore, he has a sophisticated cosmopolitan aspect to his character that belies his childlike obsession with guns. He’s also sarcastic and ironical, two decidedly “Western” rhetorical strategies that sometimes seem utterly foreign in China, as well as possessed of a cutting, occasionally extremely corny wit. When asked, “How’d you get to China?” he deadpans “On a plane” and when told a French friend had enthused that some Martinez drawings he’d seen in Paris were “hallucinant” and “amazing” he says, “Me and Jerry Lewis, big in France.”
I ask him if he was into Janes reference book as a kid and he rolls his eyes to indicate the question is so obvious it’s undeserving of an answer. “I first saw Janes when I was seven, around the time I started drawing. I never progressed to drawing naked girls.” Besides Janes, how does he know so much about guns? “I grew up in a bad neighborhood.” Sunset Park, where he later ended up serving time. There were also the rewards of Reading, Pennsylvania, the comparatively idyllic community to which Martinez moved with his family as a teenager. A man who worked for Lyndon LaRouche was investigating some overdue military reference books from the public library that had disappeared, leading him to 16-year-old Alfredo. They became friends, and with that came the gift of a huge collection of gun magazines.
Martinez looks around the deck the PT boat, studying details and musing, “This is what the U.S. is worried about, these kinds of boats attacking shipping. It’s 1950s technology that still poses a danger and they’ll still be dangerous in one hundred years. They’re cheap, tough to spot, and it’s easy to train the crews. It’s the naval equipment of a pistol—you can still assassinate someone with a pistol and you can take out an aircraft carrier with one of these.” Martinez seems fascinated and amused by all the “old technology dangers” in the world that are just as terrifying and destructive as the more spectacular ones governments tend to emphasize.
Inside the museum’s grand hall, the centerpiece is an upright V-2 that doesn’t appear very different from the Scud outside. Arrayed around it are sundry fighter planes, tanks, and other military vehicles, all appearing a bit worse for the wear. Their shabbiness is striking considering this is the country’s biggest military museum. We inspect a Chinese equivalent of the M1 tank, a modernization of the Russian T-72. “These have a larger turret. Everybody hated how small the T-72 turret was. Have you ever seen a tank soldier? They’re like four feet tall. That’s a T-62, like the tank from the famous Tiananmen Square photo.” Then it’s on to some rumination on the problem of Explosively Formed Penetrators defeating the M1’s armor. “They’re a copper disc shaped like a lens in a can with plastic explosives, about the size of a can of baked beans. A doorbell chime beam sets it off and the explosion forms a core of molten copper that slices through the cobalt armor like butter. The army lost over one hundred tanks in Iraq, and now they all stay on base. The appeal of the Striker Brigades is they’re much cheaper than tanks but they still have a gun that’s big enough to fuck with people. My main fixation is anything that has a gun.”
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