My name is Bobby Sheehan. I am a filmmaker and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who was born into poverty on the Bowery in NYC. The Bowery has been romanticized as a creative hub for artists of all kinds to pursue their dreams; but for those of us who were born there, it was a place to escape from.
In 2002, I had a stroke. It came on suddenly and was severe enough to bring me to death’s door. I wasn’t panicked about dying, but I remember feeling profoundly sad that my three young children wouldn’t know their father. I don’t know my father; not because he died young, but because he chose being a drunk over being a father. After surviving this brush with mortality, I started going through my early photography and film work so my children would have a visual history of their father in case something else happened to me. And that’s how the Bowery Boy docuseries was born.
By the early 2000s, I had asked thousands of people to trust me with their stories. Now it was time to trust myself with my own. Bowery Boy is the story of my life in nine episodes (and counting), but it’s also a historical document of the music, art, photography, cinema, and societal tragedies that defined NYC from 1960 to the present – all witnessed though my own lens.
The truth is, I was lucky enough to be around for one of the greatest – and most accessible – periods in American art history. Andy Warhol kicked art off its precious pedestal in the early sixties, and an artistic revolution was underway by the time I was a teenager. I found my artistic voice in the mid-seventies, when punk rock was born at CBGB on the Bowery. Photographing the bands that exploded onto the NYC music scene with my vintage Nikon camera, I became a fixture at all the punk clubs (Dee Dee Ramone even gave me the nickname “Rockin’ Bobby”). Eventually, these photographs got me a full-ride scholarship to NYU.
Then it happened. The NYC art scene of the eighties became one of the most significant cultural movements of the 20th Century. Except this movement wasn't born in galleries or museums. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf started painting on walls and subway trains, only to become the biggest art stars in the world – more or less overnight. Even Andy Warhol was rejuvenated by collaborating with these youngsters.
Because it happened in my own backyard, I thought this kind of cultural revolution was an everyday occurrence. When Andy Warhol asked to work with me after seeing one of my art film installations at Parachute Clothing in Soho, I didn't think it was an extraordinary event. It was just what happened in NYC in the eighties.
Despite how gloriously it started, the decade ended tragically. By the dawn of the nineties, AIDS had destroyed the momentum of the NYC art scene. Of course, the city’s artistic survivors continue to evolve. I consider myself one of those artists, and carry my love for the arts with me as I continue to create. Although I've been creating for a lifetime, I know my best work is in front of me.
So yes, Bowery Boy is about my creative journey – but it’s more than that, too. It’s an exploration of the circumstances and choices that led not only myself, but several luminaries of the NYC art and music scene in the seventies and eighties whom I’ve interviewed, to live a life of creativity. To that end, it’s a master class in how to become not only a successful filmmaker, but any kind of professional artist – regardless of what your background might be. It’s also a story of the indomitable human spirit, and how my enduring love of life and passion for the creative process has enabled me to overcome poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction, and class discrimination. My hope is that anyone who engages with Bowery Boy feels strengthened in their resolve to not only survive, but to thrive – and to respect this life that we’ve all been given.
As a kid from the Bowery who made good, I consider myself the luckiest person in the world. I am sober from drugs and alcohol. I’m married to the love of my life, who also happens to be my creative and business partner. I have three exceptional children. And I get to make things for a living: from features to documentaries to TV shows to commercials. As a photographer and filmmaker, I have had the good fortune to document some of the greatest minds of our time – from artists to therapists to spiritual leaders. Seeing them in all their authenticity – and capturing that through a lens – is my art as well as my therapy.
I’m not sentimental, and I would never endeavor to document my life’s journey if I didn’t think there was something inherently useful about telling my story. If you’re a creative person, Bowery Boy can give you the practical tools you need to turn your creativity into a business. If you’re a businessperson, Bowery Boy can help you tap into your creativity for a more rewarding life.
Who else is Bowery Boy for? Anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. Anyone contemplating or currently pursuing a career in the arts. Anyone who’s ever struggled with substance abuse disorder, suicidal ideation, loss, trauma, or their own identity. Bowery Boy is also a great resource for pop culture buffs hungry for a document from NYC's hallowed Punk Rock/New Wave/No Wave era, as well as LGBTQ+ artists and scholars.
If you’re in love with life like I am, then you’re a Bowery Boy. If you’re ready to become your authentic self, then you’re a Bowery Boy. If you’re inclined to accept life’s challenges with a sense of hope, purpose, and resilience, then you’re a Bowery Boy. Because Bowery Boy is also a way of life – a philosophy that can be boiled down to: "Life is traumatic, but the creative act makes it less so.”
So, if you’re ready to make this journey, take my hand. Let’s get the fuck out of the Bowery.
– Bobby Sheehan, AKA Bowery Boy