Inside the Channel 1 showroom at 220 State Street in New Haven, Lou Cox leans back onto a black futon, spreading out his legs and stroking his black scruff with one hand while pulling absentmindedly at the threads of his camouflage print pants with the other. Around him are glass display cases filled with bottles of spray paint, skateboarder wheels, and trucker hats bearing the name of the shop. Mounted on the plain brown walls are large, spray-painted canvases depicting baseball players, their black silhouettes outlined by neon greens and yellows. The current exhibit, the Negro League Art Show, celebrates seven successful African American baseball teams from the 1920s in honor of Black History Month.
Cox classifies Channel 1 as a skate shop/art gallery, a status that is confirmed by the words “skate” and “create” that arch over the front window. The store blends the boundary between the two worlds, featuring the works of pop surrealists and underground graffiti artists, many of whom are skateboarders.
A native of New Haven, Cox first opened the showroom in 2005 after spending years trying to figure out how to channel his creative energy. After high school he attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan but dropped out halfway through his sophomore year. “I was going to a creative school and not being creative,” he explains. After a series of jobs in New York City he returned to New Haven in the early nineties and found that the city no longer offered the same opportunities for kids that he remembered from his youth.
Cox visited Coogan Pavillion in Edgerton Park, a place he had visited as a child, which was now abandoned and left with a decaying ice-skating rink. An avid skateboarder, he spent the next two years erecting what was, at the time, the second public skate park in the state.
But for someone who likes to innovate, Cox took an unexpected career turn; he spent the next three-and-a-half years driving a truck, a job he chose because of its mindlessness. It gave him the perfect opportunity to formulate his ideas. “I knew I wanted to create a shop built around the community,” he says, “one that would grow and change organically with the community. Not one that came into the community.” After he left his job driving trucks, Cox returned to New Haven. This time he didn’t pursue his own artistic skills and instead looked at those of his skater friends who sculpted or did graffiti in their spare time. The problem wasn’t a lack of talent but, rather, the nonexistent market for those abilities. “All the guys were going to New York or Boston trying to break into the art scene there,” he says. “We were losing talent, culturally speaking.” Although Cox is quick to point out that Channel 1 has attracted some of the most celebrated underground artists from New York and Boston, he maintains that the store’s goal is to act as a launching pad for local talent.
Channel 1 provided exactly that for Silas Finch, a well-known skateboarder who came to the showroom one day and asked to put on an exhibit. Cox had never before seen any of his art. Silas brought him to his van, opened up a small side compartment, and took out a model of a motorcycle, crafted from bits and pieces that had been bolted together. “Found art! It’s like a puzzle, like Jenga!” Cox says of Finch’s work. For the first time he sits up straight and begins to gesture excitedly with his hands, “It’s like, yeah, yeah! Everything bolts together, no glue! You name somethin’, and he can make somethin’ out of it. Seriously, name somethin’!” he challenges, quickly pulling out his iPhone and opening up Finch’s webpage, complete with pieces sculpted out of everything from old piano keys to newspaper pages.
Just as Cox had hoped, the store has continued to develop a give-and-take relationship with the community, and he has established a collective that consists of graffiti artists, sculptors, spoken word artists, breakdancers, and rappers. The only requirement for joining the collective is good character and a willingness to give to the community in some way. “Most people look at graffiti as being vandalism,” Cox says. “We’ve kept that down to [a] minimum and given kids an opportunity to do something else.” Cox has visited high schools throughout the state and worked with art classes to construct graffiti murals. “Kids listen because we’re cooler. Well, we’re presumably cooler,” he says with a grin. “Naw, naw. We’re cooler.”
A tattooed and heavily pierced man enters the store, and Cox stands up to clap him on the back. The man’s father owns Orangeside Luncheonette, a restaurant known for its recent creation of the square doughnut. Cox is in the process of creating vinyl graphics to decorate the store. “See, it’s hip to be square!” Cox calls out laughing, in reference to the doughnuts. But he could just as easily be talking about Channel 1, his very own square peg in a round whole.