(Image Credit: Dylan + Jeni)
Break Room 86 is an 80s-themed club in LA where you can play Pac-Man, eat Twinkies, and sing your heart out to karaoke rock guitar anthems. I popped in for a visit with Dub Williams, an IT professional by day and LA-based painter/mash-up artist (with a passion for arcade games) by night.
Fittingly for a speakeasy/underground club-style experience, the entrance is down an alleyway leading to a loading dock. A host greeted us, and guided us down the kitchen hallways of The Line Hotel, where Roy Choi reigns supreme with his restaurant Pot.
Suddently, the host turned back, and pushed hard on an 80s candy vending machine; yes, it was a false door. It swung open to reveal the club, which was decked out in neon signs, John Hughes movie-era high school lockers, Pepsi dispensing machines, and a phone box similar to the one in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
General Manager Ian Ford met us by the DJ booth for a tour of the private karaoke rooms. Naturally, the walls are covered in disco glitter balls, vintage vinyl behind plexiglas, and reel-to-reel tape decks, an homage to the recording studios up in the Hollywood Hills.
Ford moved to LA from San Francisco to act, but fell into clubland jobs between auditions and ended up working at, then managing, some of the hottest night spots in the city, including Cinespace, Russia-themed Bar Lubitsch, Hyde Sunset, and now Break Room 86.
When he’s not at the club, he’s on a fast bike speeding up the canyons, judging from his Instagram feed.
“We protect the privacy of our guests,” he told PCMag, “so can’t tell you who has come through those doors, but we’ve had many memorable nights, including the one when Clive Farrington, lead singer of the band When in Rome, showed up to do an impromptu performance of his hit ‘The Promise’ to a backing track he had on his iPhone.”
After the tour ended, Ford returned to the front of house, while Dub—a nom de plume he uses to keep his professional and artistic life separate—and I made our way back to the main club. After a few rounds of Donkey Kong on the arcade machines, we found a table in front of a video wall playing a loop of classic Max Headroom and Blondie videos to discuss LA’s geek scene.
Thanks for coming to check out Break Room 86 with me. What’s your first impression?
I’m seriously impressed with how well they nailed the 80’s vibe. All the small details will definitely keep me coming back. I’d turn up the lights to ogle every one of those cassettes lining the walls from ceiling to floor if I could.
What other nerd hangouts do you frequent in LA?
As far as traditional geekery goes, there are the big conventions like E3 and LA Comic Con of course, but you can’t even say the word without mentioning Meltdown Comics on Sunset. I’ve gone there for comedy shows, podcast tapings, art shows, open mics, zine drawing nights, and even sometimes just to buy comics. LA has no shortage of geekery but Meltdown has gotta be the biggest planet in our solar system.
How did you end up in LA?
I was on the other side of the country, working as a database analyst, and one day the boss just walks up and says “Hey don’t you think it would be cool to live in Los Angeles for two years on the company’s dime?” Turns out they’d just landed a big tech contract. Three months after that I was smack dab in the middle of Hollywood. LA is a place that so many people dream of moving to, but I never even really considered living here before it happened.
What do you do in your tech day job today?
I still work a lot with database reporting, which usually makes people’s eyes glaze over when I talk about it, but I actually really enjoy it.
At PCMag we dig databases.
Gotcha (laughs). Reports are like little puzzles to me. You start with an end result in mind and you’ve got a box of parts and some tools and you have to figure out how to get there. They’re also self-contained bits of code, which is nice. You get a feeling of authorship that’s not as prominent when you’re just making edits to a zillion-line code base alongside a team of other people.
What was your first computer?
An IBM PC. My dad got one early and I can still remember the MS-DOS commands and playing stuff like Jumpman and Bruce Lee, booting them up off 5.25-inch floppies.
First games console?
My first gaming console was the Atari 2600, and technically it’s older than me by one year. It was something my dad bought before I was even born, so it was there from the start even before Nintendo came along. I still have one of the original joysticks I kept for display along with my favorite two games for it: River Raid and Pitfall.
I met Atari god Nolan Bushnell, albeit briefly, at his son Brent Bushnell’s Two-Bit Circus nights of mad decadence.
What was that like?
I’m embarrassed to admit I was so taken with the lifesize VR Pong game taking place, I forgot to geek out correctly.
First picture palace memory?
The first movie ever, in the theater, was Return of the Jedi at age four, but I was only in it for the toys. I also saw all sorts of inappropriate stuff on bootleg VHS, for reasons we shan’t go into, way too young. Robocop at 9 stands out in my memory, for obvious reasons.
Let’s talk about your art life: when did you start making stuff?
I always just kept my drawing as a private hobby and it stayed that way until social media came along.
Then people found your work online.
I joined Instagram in 2011, and it was the very first time anyone was able to see what I was drawing. They were only things that I drew on scrap paper or in the margins of meeting notes, but people liked them and encouraged me. One day I got a comment: “I’m a big fan of your work” and it was like a switch in my head got flipped on. It didn’t matter that I would never have called myself an artist at that point, I had a ‘fan of my work’ which therefore meant I already WAS one.
One of those really good life moments.
I guess I just needed that little bit of logic to defeat my own insecurity. This was right before coming to LA. In fact, I had decided I’d put everything except my art supplies into storage and explore my creative impulse whenever I could. It turns out I couldn’t have primed myself better for life in LA.
You’re best known for painstakingly hand painting accurate characters onto cash, as in, how shall we put this? “Money mashups” which might not be appreciated by the Federal Reserve?
The idea of working with currency actually developed from making stickers. There’s a tradition in street-art of drawing on the Priority Mail labels that they give away for free at the post office and then sticking them up in the street. There’s this little core of rebellion there that I love—using government-supplied paper for art, instead of its intended purpose.
At some point, it clicked that money was also really nothing but government-supplied paper, so I started playing around with that as a medium. It came back to a really simple place in my current work, but that rebellious core is still a big part of why I’m not just painting canvas. I’ve also recently started a new series called “Smugsbunny” on the street-art front.
When was your first show? How did it feel? Validating? Weird?
My very first show was one of those group art shows where you pay $15 per piece to hang your stuff on the wall, and then you come back and stand next to it all night trying to sell it. I’d found the artist call on Craigslist and looking back I honestly think they would hang a turd on the wall as long as you paid your fifteen bucks. It didn’t matter at the time, I remember driving home from Chinatown after dropping off my work, rolling down the windows and whooping with joy at the top of my lungs.
Since then you’ve been in a ton of proper art shows and have been exhibited by the Bruce Lurie Gallery, the art luminary responsible for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first show, at the request of Leo Castelli.
I was astonished when he contacted me.
The big time beckons.
It took years before my work hung in anything resembling a “real” gallery, but that first night is still one of my happiest memories.
What’s next for you?
I have some commissions from people who support my artwork to complete, then gearing up for more shows in the fall. And continuing to show up to the day job to keep it all going.
It’s late. I’m off home. You staying?
One last game of Donkey Kong?
Break Room 86, at 630 S Ardmore Ave, is open Tues – Sat, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.