It's hard to say who would be more excited by the sight of Mark “Huck” Gee's art studio: an 8-year-old kid or an art collector from SOMA.
The British-born Gee specializes in limited-edition runs of designer toys, like the series that sold at Barneys in New York for $300 a pop. His trademark Skullhead figures — some in fashionable suits, some in samurai costumes — peer down from the shelves of his studio, along with vinyl toys made by other artists in the burgeoning “urban vinyl” scene. Gee has come of age with that scene in San Francisco, one of the epicenters of the Asian-influenced toy movement. The growing demand for the toys is fueled both by kids who like the punkish, anime aesthetic and by obsessive collectors looking for something to complement their Star Wars action figures.
Gee spent more than a decade as one of the city's legions of struggling artists, with a 9-to-5 job and graffiti excursions at night. Nowadays, the characters in his sketchbook end up as 12-inch plastic figures instead of decorating the side of a boxcar, and in January he finally quit his day job. Yet the “Save Huck” T-shirt he's sporting belies that success — the overgrown kid who creates twisted superheroes is now in need of help himself.
The 32-year-old artist is a victim of youthful indiscretion combined with post-9/11 paranoia. Although Gee has lived in California since he was 7, he never became a naturalized citizen. And now, just when the art world is embracing him with open arms, the U.S. immigration authorities have decided to deport him for a goofy teenage crime committed 15 years ago. “You hear the facts and say, 'You've got to be kidding me,'” he says. “But they're not; they're deadly serious.”
Gee got the shocking news this past fall when he came home from a grand tour through Asia, meeting artists in Japan and Hong Kong who inspired his work. “I had the time of my life digging around underground toy shops in Tokyo,” he says. “Then I came back to the U.S., and crashed and burned.” When he walked into the Customs hall at San Francisco International airport, exhausted and bedraggled after a 17-hour flight, the Homeland Security officers were waiting for him.
With new databases screening all passengers at international airports, resident aliens who have previously traveled abroad freely are now getting snagged for old crimes and visa infractions and are being deported in record numbers. In the four years after the September 11 attacks, the annual number of “removal” proceedings went up from roughly 230,000 to 324,000. “We have far more comprehensive security checks now than before 9/11,” says Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “People who return to the country after a trip abroad, this is when their past is likely to catch up with them, if it hasn't already.”
Gee's problems stem from one evening in 1991, when he was lurking on the edge of a high school football game in the Southern California town where he grew up. He had some booze in his backpack, and less than a gram of weed tucked in his sock. When he passed off the baggie to an acquaintance for $5, a nearby cop swooped down for the arrest. The news kept getting worse: because the buyer was under 18, Gee was charged with an aggravated felony: the sale of marijuana to a minor. After a guilty plea and six months of work release and Narcotics Anonymous, Gee moved to San Francisco for a fresh start in 1993.
But at SFO this past September, no fresh starts for the emerging artist were allowed. In the newly paranoid eyes of the law, Gee is a convicted felon and drug trafficker. The Homeland Security officer spent several hours questioning him, and Gee told them everything: “I thought, 'I got nothing to hide, this is in my past.'” He says that no one mentioned that his status as a U.S. resident was hanging in the balance, or advised him to get a lawyer. That happened three weeks later, when Gee went downtown for a second interview and learned that his adopted country was ready to show him the door.
Gee's next hearing is in June, when he'll plead his case before an administrative judge. If the decision goes against him, and if he loses his appeals, he faces the prospect of being returned to England, which he hasn't visited since he was 16. His wife, an American citizen, would likely go with him, but whether her two sons would accompany them is an open question.
Without being asked, the community of toy aficionados has rallied around Huck to raise money for his legal fees. Kid Robot, the Haight Street toy maker and retailer Gee is affiliated with, is selling Save Huck T-shirts. A skateboard shop in Milwaukee hosted a designer toy show benefit in February, and this week another benefit show opens in London. “Two or three people started this 'Save Huck' thing,” Gee says. “They said, 'Look, we're going to do a fund-raiser and we're going to give you the money, whether you like it or not.'” Gee says he'll have enough money to pay the lawyers, with some left over to donate.
The immigration authorities are still holding Gee's British passport, so he's postponing the 2007 world tour he was planning, with gallery shows proposed in Manchester, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. He still hopes for a happy ending, and keeps distracted with weekly trips to Toys “R” Us “for inspiration.” A long list of custom projects keeps him busy in the studio, where he works surrounded by Skullheads, samurais, geishas, and space invaders. To Gee, it feels like home.