Hustle, Hustle, Hustle
From KPBS and PRX, this is Port of Entry…
Where we tell cross-border stories that connect us...
I’m Alan Lilienthal.
And quick warning, there are curse words in today’s episode. A lot of them.
There’s also some mentions of suicide.
So, if you have young kids listening right now, or those things bother you, you may want to sit this one out.
Art Pusher Clip 85 When I was 12
When I was like 12 years old, it got real dark.
Art Pusher Clip 85 When I was 12
And so I would just leave. I'd take care of them and make sure they were good. And then I would live my life as a junior adult. You know, I'd go out and skate with my homies and I try to figure out how to keep myself sane.
Seth Skating Sound
BEAT This is Seth Sullivan…
And the people Seth’s talking about taking care of as a 12-year-old..?
Were his parents…
Who, at the time, were struggling with intense drug addictions.
Art Pusher Clip 30 Would Get Drugs For His Parents
As long as they were good. Right. As long as they had their medication, which was me going out and getting their medications most of the time...
Kinsee: What was the medication?
It was all prescription stuff. It was all pills and injected but it’s uh...
Alan: That’s a big responsibility for a 12 year old.
Well...now... I look back at it now. But for me, if I wanted to go skate, I had to do that first. So it wasn't like a responsibility at all. It was my obligation. Like it was...
Alan: Like a chore.
It was, oh, you want to go skate at 2? Okay, well, you know what? You got to get this done. You got to get us food and you got to get us this, and then you can go and take off. Sometimes, sometimes I'd have cash to do it. Sometimes I got fronted the stuff and we had to figure out how to pay for it later. But it was, it was always fight or flight. BEAT Swell
Art Pusher Clip 28 To Seth, His Life Was Normal To me. It was always normal. We would go through all the strife and go through all this bullshit. You just fix it. You know, you just go and you do something about it. You don't cry about it. You know, you just fix that shit. And so...Art Pusher Clip 31 Had To Become a Hustler
We had no money. So I was like, well, what the fuck are we going to do? Because these dudes are going to die on me. They would go through withdrawals….and it was, it was they're going to die on me, bro. Like it was, it was so I, uh, so I was like, I need to hustle. BEAT
That need to hustle?
It pretty quickly led Seth... to trouble. BEAT
Art Pusher Follow Clip 2 Billboard Clip It was right after 9/11. So the border security had intensified..
So once we get to the border and, the dog, immediately alerts them to the fact that there's something in the car.
I felt this just anxious, this dark, this sick feeling.
when they start digging down deeper into the engine of the car, they're able to find the compartment
And so they pull these packages out. that's when they started talking about me getting 10 to 15 years, me being the head of some sort of illicit operation and it sank in that my life was about to change drastically. And so I watched as they pull the packages out and I watched as they bust one open.
I was devastated. ….I was just so let down, because these people were my friends.
A lot of times, someone like Seth…
A guy with a really challenging childhood and no dependable adults in his life...
Dudes like that….sometimes get tossed aside...
Discarded by a pretty cold justice system that doesn’t really have the time or patience it takes to understand or even care....about why an 18-year-old might be resorting to smuggling drugs through an international border….
BEAT Bump to fade
But for Seth…that difficult upbringing and the inner hustle it built..
When Seth eventually learned how to channel it all...
He became the GOAT at thrifting...he is brilliant when it comes to finding broken or thrown-away things and turning them into absolute treasures….Art Pusher Clip 75 See Tijuana In What He Does When you see what I do, it's, it's definitely a byproduct of living in the city. It's definitely a byproduct of living here, dude. It's not like, because it was, it was, it was a hustle. Like it didn't start off as, oh, I want to be an artist. Not at all, do it. It started off as I want to fucking survive. And I don't want to be depressed because I don't want to shoot myself.BEAT Transition
I mean... Seth could have just thrown his life away at 18 when he got busted for drug smuggling…
But he didn’t.
Instead...just like the discarded gems he finds…
Seth saw value in himself…and gave himself a chance at a second life.
Art Pusher Clip 72 Called Himself An Artist
Alan: When did you start considering yourself an artist? Not just hustler?
When I had the balls to say it for the first time
Art Pusher Clip 75 See Tijuana In What He Does
I do a lot of different things. It's just, this is what makes me feel good. I sing, I dance. I fucking, I write hip-hop. I do all kinds of weird shit. That makes me feel good. But I only do that because of that, because it's therapy. It's medicine for me, it's not, it's not, it's not a hustle anymore. Does that make sense? And the only way I've been able to get it to work is by doing it enough, you know, just keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it
Today’s story…. Kicks off our new season of Port of Entry.
It’s a season focused on artists... and musicians…. who have turned pain...into superpowers…
More on Seth’s cross-border story…
After the break...
Nos vemos muy pronto.
Estamos de vuelta.
Auction Stereo Clip 9Kinsee: What time is it?
It's 10:30. It’s time to start…
Kinsee: Oh, ok, I'll let you do your work.
OK. Thank you. Buenos Dias...good morning.
This past summer, my producer Kinsee Morlan showed up to an auction at a huge warehouse outside of downtown San Diego.
About a dozen people stood outside of a locked gate… then rushed in when a staffer officially opened the auction.
Auction Stereo Clip 3 Opening The GateAuction Stereo Clip 4 People Walking IN
Behind the gate… was a sea of second-hand furniture, clothes, exercise equipment, refrigerators and other used items that would soon be auctioned off to the highest bidders.
Auction Stereo Clip 11
Kinsee: Do you see anything here today that you like?
Oh yeah, I see. Oh, oh, a whole lot.
Kinsee: You want to show me?
Yeah, sure. Like all this, all this stuff over here, any of these things like these cabinets and these cabinets right here, this beautiful dining room table with the chairs right here. And then same thing like with this other, the other piece, like this beautiful table and chairs.
Auction Stereo Clip 5
Kinsee: It’s like barely used…
Well, yeah, well, I don't like the word “used.” We got to say previously enjoyed.
Kinsee: Ahhh. I like it. Rebranding.
This is Daniel.
He’s one of the biggest buyers of second-hand goods at auctions north of the border.
Which makes him one of the biggest resellers south of it.
Auction Clip 6 Big Time Buyer Intro
Oh, I do it by the truckloads
Auction Stereo Clip 1
Okay. Vamanos. Let’s go! Dame….30, 30, 30. How much? Give me 25...viente cinco….. I say 25, 30, 30….
Auction Clip 13 Bidding On Stuff
See... right now, they're bidding on this stuff. That refrigerator went. A hundred bucks. It probably works. Somebody probably figured out it works and everything. So 15, 20 bucks for the stove.
Auction Clip 15 Does Auction in English and Spanish
He does it in English and Spanish because most of the people only speak Spanish, but there's you got it's multicultural look at it. You know
Auction Stereo Clip
Auction Stereo Clip 2 BUMP
Daniel didn’t want to give us his last name...by the way..
In part...because he’s a businessman in Tijuana and he says that makes him a target for crime.
He says he also wants to remain somewhat unknown to his competitors bidding on goods at these auctions...
Anyway...Daniel buys used things at auctions like this one at Father Joe’s in San Diego…
Then he and his fleet of drivers take the goods to the Port of Entry in San Ysidro...
Where they’re required to pay an 18 percent tax of the estimated value of the goods to the Mexican government before they can cross…
Then Daniel sells the stuff at his huge second-hand store in Tijuana.
Auction Clip 7 Trying to Find New Home For Old Things My whole goal. My whole thing is like I tell all the people over here is: keep the landfill stuff down. And it's not, we're not taking trash down to Mexico. But what it is, we're just trying to keep stuff down, uh, and try and supply people with stuff that can be reusable; upcycled, I guess you could say.
Daniel...by the way…. says the pandemic has totally rocked this corner of the cross-border world.
Not as many people are donating stuff…
Not as many people are buying “previously enjoyed” items anymore….
And...The majority of the folks who used to cross to buy stuff can’t cross right now because the border is still closed to Mexican citizens with tourist visas…
Auction Clip 9 Pandemic Has Hit This World Hard
Like... usually on a day like this today… you can't see through the radio, but this would be a big crowd of people. Yeah. But you’re only seeing a handful right now.
Auction Stereo Clip bump and out
Seth Sullivan...better known as ArtPusher on Instagram…
Used to be one of those people lining up outside the gate at that auction in San Diego most mornings…
Art Pusher Clip 64 Always Going 300 MPH
And I would get up in the morning dude. And this is when I just started smoking weed, bro. So I would take a blunt to the dome by myself, like a G of fucking very strong medical marijuana. And then I would drink a cup of coffee. BEAT Art Pusher Clip 64 Always Going 300 MPH So I would show up to this auction, fucking just going, just YOOOWWW! And everybody, everybody at the auction…. my friends would have to tell him that no, Seth doesn't smoke crack dude. They would always be like, dude, does Seth smoke meth or crack or something? And He’s like no, that's just how he is.
Ha. So yeah..
Fueled by caffeine, cannabis and his contagious natural enthusiasm…
Seth got really good at being able to quickly spot the really valuable stuff amid the…. not-so-valuable stuff.
Art Pusher Clip 65 Becomes Good At Auctions
And so it became part of a lifestyle like this whole going to the auctions and buying and selling. Like I started meeting other people, doing it as a profession. So I started learning the hustle of the auctions, especially because auctions are complicated. Like you have to, you really have to know what you're doing. It's not just lifting up your hand at a price. Like people there are seasoned will drop things on you at a really elevated price. So you spend all your money and you don't come back. Like it's the craziest thing. Did you think you're doing good and shit. And then you look at your pockets, you've got one couch, you're out 400 bucks and didn't make any money that day. And so I started really getting to know the auctions and how to work that.
Auction Stereo Last
So...yeah...Seth became a “picker.”
A person who finds second-hand things at auctions, thrift stores and estate sales.
Then refurbishes those things and gives them a second life…
Seth’s buyers were mostly resellers...people who own higher-end antique stores or sell furniture and art directly to collectors...Art Pusher Clip 58 Becomes Really Good at Picking
I figured out that resellers were the easiest people to sell to because they always had a budget to buy because they needed to have inventory. once you have a store, you don't have the time that it takes to pick on your own. So all these stores rely on pickers. People like me that are a middleman between basically the garbage dump and the millionaire.
Seth quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the best pickers at the border.
Because his rough childhood essentially groomed him for this kind of hustle.
Seth is at the top of his game.
He went from being a picker with an eye for good design..
To being one of the top interior designers at the border.
Art Pusher Clip 94 Starts The tour
Kinsee: Alright, so where do you want to start for the tour?
Over the summer, Seth took my producer Kinsee and I on a tour of Hotel Lafayette…BEAT
A hotel on Revolucion in downtown Tijuana where he’s heading up the interior design work…
Art Pusher Clip 11 Tour of the Hotel beginsThis piece of furniture in the entrance, this is multiple pieces, like seven pieces of furniture. They got deconstructed and rebuilt to make the front desk. The television is also wood, so it just happened to fit right in there. And we're hooking this up to an original Nintendo on wireless controllers. So if you sit here and you're waiting for your room and you can play Mario.
The interior of the hotel shows off a lot of the salvaged things that Seth has turned from trash into design treasure...
We started right past the entrance...where Seth created this beautiful and nostalgic front desk.
Remember those wooden entertainment centers from the 80s and 90s? where our boxy TVs and nintendos would go in our childhood homes?
Imagine a bunch of those pieced into one single structure that looks like a front desk where the concierge stands.
Art Pusher Clip 11 Tour of the Hotel begins
So, so I think, I think that the whole key about this place was to make it fun, kitschy and quirky.
Art Pusher Clip 91 Play with feelings
It's a commercial space. It's not someone's private home. So you can play with other people's feelings at the same time. Right. Which, which I think is great about commercial spaces. Cause you're not designing it for the customer. You know, you're designing it for their customers.
Next, Seth showed us a big mirror he designed for the hotel lobby.
Art Pusher Clip 12 Turns On the Magical Mirror
Kinsee: There's something going on behind this mirror. For sure.
At first, it looked sorta like a basic large mirror.
Just a big rectangle with a frame covered in a collage of old San Diego Union Tribune newspaper clippings from decades ago…
Art Pusher Mirror Ambi
Alan: I can kinda see something on the other side.
But when we got up close… Kinsee and I could tell there was something more going on...
BEAT FADE Art Pusher Clip 12 Turns On the Magical Mirror
Alan: I Definitely want to see it now.
Alan and Kinse: Whoa. Whew. Wow.
Kinsee: Ok, what do you see?
Alan: Well first the first thing that hit me with, like, I was looking into infinity, like I, for some reason it just expanded the space a lot, but there's these. Kind of old school, Mexican mariachi type dolls…
Alan: Hanging in the depths of the mirror that you wouldn't have seen if it's not turned on.
Kinse: Oh my god. That’s amazing
Alan: That’s so rad
Art Pusher Clip 13 on The Story Behind the Mirror The whole thing with this one was to bring something in that really spoke of Avenida Revolucion. And to me, when I was a kid, dude, seeing these things...colorful...and then the vendors would always entertain the kids with them when they're walking by and they would tell you how they guilt trip your parents into buying you one. And so those things always rung a bell in my head. it's fun. It's, it's cartoony, it's playful….
Seth showed us a few more special things...whimsical, beautiful, very colorful things….
And explained his process, which he says is sorta like a “call and response” game he plays with the space…
My musician mind likened it to the process of musical improvisation..
Art Pusher Clip 17 Art Pusher Explains His Freestyle Jazz Process
What I do: I didn't study art. I didn't study design. So a lot of it I call it, “The plan is there is no plan.” So a lot of it literally is freestyle dude. So we figure out what materials we have. We look at the spaces and it's my, it's a complicated way to do it, but it's my favorite way to do it because you feel the space before you start messing with it. Um, I've worked with a plan before I've worked with architectural plans before, and sometimes when you have too much of a plan, you don't really work the bones, you know
Alan: Soft plans…
Soft plans, I like it...But you don't work the bones of the project.
Alan: So it’s like jazz...you don't have a map really?
So it’s like you said, dude has been kind of like this jazz thing to where, not just me, but the other, the other, the other, um, contractors that are coming in are kind of doing the same thing and it's worked out beautifully, dude, you know?
BEAT Bump to Fade
So, how did Seth get here?
How did he go from drug pusher to “Art Pusher”?
How did he become the guy who gets some of the most exciting design gigs on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border?
Seth’s story actually starts with his blue eyes and light skin…
And an identity that inevitably leads to a little confusion….and a lot of curiosity.
Art Pusher Clip 22 Seth Born in Tijuana
Alan: Let's start at the beginning.
You're not a traditional Tijuanense, but you really are. You're like the most representative of most people that I know. But where were you born? Where did your life start?
Seth: Tijuana. Yeah. Yeah, it was in Tijuana. It’s real. Yeah, I was really born here.
Most people don't believe they always like..., but wait, like, so wait. They're like, so why do you speak Spanish? And I'm like, whoa, I was born here. I was raised here and I been here about like almost 30 years, but it's so weird. It's so weird. But like your parents are like, so your mom's Mexican. No, no, no, no, no, no. So your dad 's Mexican. No, no, no, no. So it gets confusing, but yes, I feel like I'm very TJ.
Alan: Yeah, you are the most, that is the most TJ thing, like your parents are from somewhere else and you are in TJ.
So yeah, Seth’s parents are from the U.S.
Exactly why they moved to Tijuana?... Is a bit fuzzy in Seth’s brain…
But he says Tijuana’s alternative medicine scene was booming at the time…
Which made the city attractive to his parents, who had started dipping their toes in things like meditation and relaxation techniques…
Art Pusher Clip 23 Parents Came to Practice Alternative Medicine They ended up in TJ. My father got offered a medical facility….it was like a hot Springs in TJ and they used to treat a lot of people for terminal illnesses. They would come in for cancer. They would come in for all kinds of incurable things that apparently on the side of the border of people were getting well. And so he ended up on this side of the border back in the seventies, they love Mexico and they ended up staying down here.. Art Pusher Clip 24 How His Dad Ended Up in Tijuana
And I don't know if it's because of the freedom that they had. But Tijuana back in that time, bro was, it was a fast-moving city that had a bunch of money and it showed it and it spent it on itself and it was a different place than it is right now. You know, it's just, it just felt different.
Seth says, early on, his parents found quick success.
And...he felt in awe of them.
Art Pusher Clip 45 Looked Up To HIs ParentsMy mom was fucking, she was brilliant, bro. She could take a book, digest it in a couple of days, 500 pages. She would just rifle through it and then she would narrate it to my dad because my dad didn't like to read. So. And then you would look at this eccentric dude, right. Which was my dad, which was incredibly accomplished in my eyes. I would watch this person give these incredibly sick people therapy, bro. And they would come out better and all he did was talk to him and teach him how to meditate.
For years, the niche that Seth’s parents found really worked.
Money was flowing in…
And things were good for his family…
Art Pusher Clip 25 Things Were Good Then They Weren't
Going to really nice parties going to….having a beautiful home. Like my parents have a great car and fucking having things that, that you just didn't see everyday to me, it was normal because that's how we grew up. He had a bunch of friends that worked for the consulate and everybody was moving and shaking and...
Art Pusher Clip 25 Things Were Good Then They Weren't
It didn't get to his head, but it kind of, I was a fish out of water, bro. He was an American dude that didn't speak any Spanish. He always walked around with an interpreter. If he didn't have an interpreter, I was his interpreter. And so him, he loved the city
Art Pusher Clip 25 Things Were Good Then They Weren't
But I feel like , in Tijuana if you don't eat, you get eaten.
Art Pusher Clip 25 Things Were Good Then They Weren't
And I feel like he got eaten.
Art Pusher Clip 25 Things Were Good Then They Weren't So they just went through...they spiraled into a deep depression and they both got addicted to prescription medications and it just started spiraling down from there but..
Little-kid Seth didn’t want to hang out in his own house very much during that time…
Instead...he found himself a skateboard-sized escape hatch.
Art Pusher Clip 26 Skateboarding Saved His Life
Skateboarding... that saved my life, bro. I skateboarded through all of TJ and that's how I’d get away from my home. Those are the best memories I have dude.
Art Pusher Clip 46 More ON Love of Skateboarding
What skateboarding does for you is that you fall and you get back up, you fall and you back up. So I really do. I feel like skateboarding if I hadn't had that shit and I wouldn't have learned to every time you fall and it hurts, you gotta get back up. I bro, I don't think I know. I, I literally say skateboarding saved my life.
When Seth was outside skating the streets of Tijuana…
Everything was fine…
But inside his home with his parents…
Things were totally falling apart.
But instead of crumbling alongside everything else…
Seth eventually stepped up...
And started….to hustle..
Art Pusher Clip 42 Going to Action Sports Convention in SD
You remember ASR? Do y'all ever remember action sports, retail convention? Yeah.
So we would cross all these TJ skater. Kids would cross to ASR was a big skateboarding. It was an action sports retail, and it was the biggest skateboarding convention in the world.
And so you could go and you could meet all the pros, all the vendors, you could see all the big companies. And so we would make up each lane and say that, should I share those? We would make up these fucking business cards. Do this, said that we own skate shops. We were fucking 1516, bro. And we would go with our business card to the head desk and the head desk. They would trade your business card for it. They would sign you up you'd register. And then they'd give you a badge. Well, bro, having an ASR batch was like, I don't even know how to explain it to you. You would go in there and you would come out of there with a hundred Thrasher magazines. Cause every vendor would hook you up with something boards, shoes, shirts, and that's where you would go to try and get sponsored. So we would go with dollars. Sponsor me Dave's with a fucking dream dude, coming from DJ, knowing we're going to Sandy, we're going to California. This is where all the big shit is. And we would take our sponsor and retains and see what happened. I remember I got a sponsor out of San Francisco. This company called elevate trucks..these terrible trucks, bro. But they sponsored me bro. And they gave me a pair of trucks. And so that's what we do. And I would bring back all this product that we would get gifted. And I would set up a little, like a little shop at the skate park and we would sell. And that's what we did. We figured out how to hustle. BEAT FADE
So, the hustler part of Seth was born…
But the skating thing wasn’t pullin in enough cash…
Seth still needed a day job to help pay all the bills.
Art Pusher Clip 32 Started Crossing Drugs
So….and I needed to make cash, bro. So I get offered this hustle by one of my friends and he's like, dude, why don't we put on you? You see what we do? Why don't you do that with us?
What his friends did, though….
Was smuggling drugs across the border.
Seth’s 18-year-old brain rationalized the work...
BEAT FADE IN
Art Pusher Clip 33 Because of Upbringing, Didn't Understand Consequences
So I understood, but I didn't get it. Like it wasn't a physical thing in my brain that said red alert. This is...regardless of whether it's right or wrong...this is going to put you in a shit situation if you're not careful.
BEAT Seth essentially became a drug smuggler.
Crossing weed through the port of entry from Tijuana to San Diego.
He got away with it, a bunch of times…
...But eventually his luck ran out.
So I take off that morning. Um, it's fucking freezing….and I'm headed to meet this person with this car that has whatever, I didn't know. I get there. I'd never met the person that was driving. …..we get to the border. I can tell she's super nervous…..And when we get to the border, she loses it.
She, she starts telling a story about how we'd been weeks in Mexico. There was not one piece of luggage in the car. That's when I started sweating.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 3
The car had just been washed. There's not even a speck of dust in the car. And that's when the officer opens the trunk. Now, as soon as he opens the trunk, he looks through the window and I can tell he's looking at us. And then he comes over and he starts questioning us. He's like, well, if you've been there for two weeks, he's like, why don't you have anything in the car? And she didn't know what to say. So she starts trying to make up the story. She fumbles through it. Super nervous. The dude knows something's up. He's puts the little secondary tag on the window, sends us to secondary.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 4still I've heard all these stories about people getting caught with weed for the first time at the border. And I'm still not nervous. I'm still not scared. I still know. I don't even think I know it's going to be a slap on the wrist.
From there...it didn’t take long for the drug dogs to find what was hidden in a secret compartment built into the car.
So they handcuffed me to a steel table and I'm watching, as this goes down and I look over at her, I can tell she's going to immediately just start spilling this soup.
So they find this compartment that I didn't know, existed behind the engine of the car. And they start yanking on something that's attached to a cord and they pull the cord out and there's multiple bricks attached to the court. It's like a system. Right.
…. And when they bust that shit open, I could tell real quick that shit wasn't weed.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 5they dug into the packages and they realized it was cocaine, that's when my fucking. I, my God, I didn't know what was going on. I felt deceived. I felt sad. BEAT
Seth got convicted and sent to prison in San Diego.
Walking through the rows of cells that first time…
He remembers thinking he needed to act as tough as possible.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 6You can see up, like at least four or five stories where there's all these dudes, all walks of life, staring down at the new, at the newcomers coming into this prison. Well, I was 147 pounds soaking fucking wet dude. I was as little noodle of a person and I was, I saw myself as prey. Like as soon as I walked in, the first thing that you know is like, you better knock out. The first motherfucker said something stupid because you got to set your place like that. What I've been told, what, what I heard, what I've seen in the movies. And so the first thing I hear is I hear this guy, Europe I'll take the little blonde one. And I was like, oh, And so I walk in and some dude grabs me by the shoulder. And so immediately I turned around with my fist up and he puts his hand on my forehead and he's like, chill, Seth. And I was like Seth??. And I look over it and it's one of my fucking neighbors who was in there for the same thing.And he goes, bro, you're so lucky. He's like you eat already.
Compared to his stressful home life…
Seth says his time behind bars was actually, sorta therapeutic…
Art Pusher Clip 94 Prison was therapy When I went to prison, bro, it was so much better than being at home. Like real talk, bro is so much better than being at home.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 7These two dudes fucking adopted me as like they're they could. I was so skinny. They called me stick boy, I was sticking up, Hey, Steve boy, what up? Stick by. And so they were so worried about me being like this little frail thing that they were like, we're going to start a training, like a training thing for stick boy. So I got up every morning at five 30 in the morning, and I would do a thousand pushups in an hour with these dudes. And I would do that every day until I get do them like nothing. And once they realized that I was going to be good, that I had the personality that would get me through my situation. Um, they sent me on my way,BEAT
Art Pusher Clip 95 Worked Out in Prison
I came out of jail. I was 147 pounds when I went in, I came out looking like fucking Bruce Lee bro. Cause all we did was worked out.
Three years later...Seth got released from prison...he was 21…
And he says he felt both physically and mentally stronger.
But...when he crossed the border back into Tijuana...
He found himself right back in a bad situation…
He found that his parents had sunk even deeper into their addictions.
Art Pusher Clip 34 When He Got Out of Detention
And when I came back out of that was when they were at their worst point.
Art Pusher Clip 36 Gets Busted Again
About a couple months later, dad decides to shoot himself. He was done.
Art Pusher Clip 36 Gets Busted Again He's like, you know what, Seth, I can't take it anymore. I can't, I can't be here anymore. This shit's way too loud. He was an intellect. He was always used to having things flowing right in some way or another. So when things weren't flowing and he didn't have money and he didn't know what to do because he felt powerless and he's in a country that's not his country, bro. And so...it got to the point where he ends up shooting himself. Mom gets real bad. Dude. Mom has a heart attack. And so I go out to do the same thing while he's used to doing right. So I go to the pharmacies, I get all their shit. Um, I purchased it with some fucking, some wonk, weird ass prescription that wasn't even legit. They ended up selling me all this shit. And then, um, I come out of the pharmacy with a jacket...I had this military jacket with all these little hidden pockets and shit because that’s what you did. And I had stuffed everything in my jackets because that's what you did. And so I come out and I get approached by two officers. Right. And they're like, Hey, guero, can we talk, can we talk to you? I was like, no, it was so that keynote speak to him in Spanish. And I'm like, what do you need?
The cops put him in cuffs.
Art Pusher Clip 37 Might Get Sent Back to Prison
And so back in the day they had this thing….they had this police truck that was parked right by the border. And it was basically like a, like a little command center. I don't know what the fuck you call it like this little police truck, no? So these dudes are laughing. They fucking scored. They're about to, they're about to put me in jail, bro.
And so I get into this, this, uh, little command truck, um, handcuffed. They put all the stuff out on the table. They're telling me, I'm looking at years, bro. Looking at 10 years in jail, bro….
We’ll continue Seth’s border story….
After a quick break…
No quieres perderse esto..
Estamos de vuelta.
Ok, so there was Seth…
Cuffed...sitting in that mobile police center in Tijuana..
And he decided to tell one of the police officers why he had all those prescription drugs….
Art Pusher Clip 38 Seth Gets A Lucky Break
So I explained to him the situation. I explained to him that, that my mom was addicted to two different types of medications and that she, if I didn't get the shit back to her, she was going to go through withdrawals and was going to be a real fucked up situation. My dad had just shot himself. She just had a heart attack. I was like, bro, I swear to you, this isn't me being shady. This is just me living my life. And so…
So listen to this, bro. This is the most powerful fucking thing, dude. Out of the back of this truck, the door opens and this dude goes, he's like, where'd your dad shoot himself? And I was like, Cacho. He's like, oh dude, I was there. He's like, I was there yesterday. He's lik. take the cuffs off of him,” bro. They took the cuffs off of me. They gave me all the medication back and they sent me fucking home, homie..
Alan: Whew...just from sharing your story.
So...Seth avoided what might have been a decade behind bars…
And...he was….beyond relieved.
But it’s not like all his problems were solved right then and there in that lucky moment.
Because his mom was in real bad shape…
So, with some money from his grandma, Seth figured out how to use their U.S. citizenship status..
And he had his mom transported from their house in Tijuana to a hospital on the other side of the border in San Diego.
Again, Seth was relieved…
But also sick with anxiety about how he was gonna pay the hospital bills.
Art Pusher Clip 39 Nurse Helps Him Out
First night in the hospital, dude. I'm bawling my eyes out, dude. One of the nurses comes over and she's like, can I help you? And I was like, I don't know. She's like, have you filled out your insurance papers? And I was like, dude, we don't have insurance. And she's like, well, can you tell me what's going on? And so I sat down, I explained what there was this older Mexican lady dude. And she's like, Nicole, I'm a, I'm a help. You she's like, you're going to have to sign a lot of papers, but we're going to get this shit done. And bro, that fucking lady sat down with a stack of like fucking, I don't know, a hundred sheets of paper. And she just made me sign shit. And by a week later, my mom was fully insured, bro. Like we didn't have to worry about anything. Everything was taken care of. So it went from, it was this rollercoaster of just these wild things dude, and all they were lessons. It was just me trying to keep my eyes open to try and learn from the shit because if not, dude, it would have broken me.
What doesn’t break though?
Sometimes, it just gets better at bending.
And Seth...he became really good at bending.BEAT FADE
With his dad gone and his mom being cared for in a hospital…
Seth was free to focus on himself.
And that’s when he found his creative/maker side….
Art Pusher Clip 43 Starts Making Candles My mom taught me how to make candles when I was younger. And I realized that I liked the process of making them. So I figured out how to make a mold. My mom told me about this day, where her and my dad were on the beach making sand candles. And that memory always stayed in my mind. She told me that they made a tent with sheets and in this tent they made a dip in the sand and they took a bunch of candles and they melted them out on their little fire. And then you wet the sanity. It becomes a mold. So you suspended. Your, um, your wicks in there and you can make this organic natural shape mode. Well, I figured out how to put an object into those moments. So I would take a piece of driftwood and I would use that as my base. And then I would build the candle around it. When you pulled the whole thing out of the sand, you had this sculptural piece of wood attached to this beautiful candle. And so they're really different.
Seth got some impressive mileage out of those candles…
But...he still needed a day job ...
And...despite the felony on his record, he was able to score some good gigs…
And, in every job he took, he almost always excelled.
He eventually found what he thought might be his true calling…
When he got hired at a high-end hotel in downtown San Diego as a concierge…
Art Pusher Clip 54 On Being A Concierge To Quitting Jobs Forever That was like shooting fish in a barrel, bro. The tips were astronomical and all we had to do was be connected enough to get these people what they wanted...
But...queue the existential crisis.
Seth says he was making more money than he had ever dreamed of as a kid who grew up hustling in Tijuana...
But he wasn’t feeling...fulfilled….
So…. when his grandma passed and left him a little over 30 grand...
Seth quit his job and decided he’d take some time to figure out what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life.
That financial cushion, though, didn’t last Seth long enough to ponder his life options.
Art Pusher Clip 55 Blew All The Money I'd never had money like that before. And so I just threw it away. Like I literally threw that shit
Alan: Classic like rapper story…
It was totally, it was low-budget rapper, dude. Whooo! Just fucking blow that shit!
It was back to hustling for Seth.
Art Pusher Clip 56 Art Pusher 1.0 Is Born: Found New HustleAnd so it got to the point to where, I had no money for rent. What am I going to do? Well, I had collected all these things to make my house look good, right. So I wanted to have, if I was going to have a home, I wanted to curate it with stuff that I liked. So I bought all this mid century modern stuff. And, but it wasn't, it was, I had spent maybe a thousand bucks dude to pimp out my house. when I ran out of money, I looked through all this stuff and I said, I'm gonna sell all this shit. And I was able to make 10 times my money, bro, all this thrifted stuff. So a coffee table was probably like 80 bucks and I refinished it and I sold it for like five, 600 bucks. And I sold all my stuff and I was left with nothing. And that's when I realized this is going to be my hustle.
Art Pusher...was born.
Seth quickly rose through the ranks of pickers…
Art Pusher Clip 59 Border Picking Like I've gone and taken high-end furniture from recycling places here in TJ dude, because since they don't know here what it is either, it came across the border as something really important. But once it got here, it's just another object. That's either metal or wood or what are we use it for? Because here...for the longest time, things had to be useful. Like for it to be valuable, it had to be useful. So I started realizing that and I would go around dude, to all these salvage yards, finding all these things that were coming from the U.S. And I would either restore them or just drive them right back across the border and just drop them off with who actually knew what they were. But they, but they'd left the United States with the person not knowing what they were either.
Art Pusher Clip 57 ON The Buy Sell Hustle So that's what I did, dude. I started digging different galleries, boutiques in LA that, that, that bought antiques hard to find things. And I just found clients for different things that I liked. So like NAC romance in LA, you know, which is this store that sells oddities and fucking metal, weird medical things and bones and shit like that. Like anything that I would find I would take to them. And then anything mid century take to this dude or anything, um, architectural salvage would take to this person because I realized that it was something incredibly rewarding. If, and if I did it right, profit margins were astronomical, dude. Like if I knew how to buy and I knew how to sell, like your margins were like, nothing else, dude. You're not doubling your money. Sometimes you're 30 timesing in your money, bro. Sometimes you're buying a sculpture for 10 bucks and selling it for 300 bucks Art Pusher Clip 79 Gotta Know The Provenance But you can't just be selling something. You got to know where it came from. You got to know who made it, you got to know what year, what series, what style, if this color's rare. And so that became really important, especially in furniture. Because yeah, it could be from the sixties or seventies. Yeah. It could be modern and cool, but there's certain pieces out there. Those those relics, like those, those, my precious, like those things, you know, that you only find one.
Luckily for Seth...he’d been trained to know some of this stuff early on…
His mom actually taught him how to recognize quality in old things.
Art Pusher Clip 88 Mom Taught Him To Look For Quality
We would go as a kid, I would go to thrift stores, estate sales, mostly in San Diego. We lived in Tijuana. She would take me to school in San Diego. When I was little, I went to kindergarten over there. And every, every time that we would cross the border, she had to hit a bookstore, an antique furniture store and a thrift shop. And so she taught me instead of looking at brand names and instead of looking at, how to explain this, like the information behind a product. So if you look at, if you look at something by Fendi or Gucci or Prada, or a really nice piece of furniture, like you can see the craftsmanship. Like it's not only, you can see it. So she taught me about craftsmanship. Art Pusher Clip 94 Turn Into Something NEW
Like it's not only, you can see it. So she taught me about craftsmanship. So he taught me about materials. She taught me about time that it would take to build anything. She'll be like, okay, Seth, look at this nail. Now she would be like, look at how it's placed in the hole. Look at how it didn't dent the wood and look at how long look at how many nails and look at how long it took and look. So I started learning about materials and I realized that if you collect things that are already made well, you'll be able to turn them into something
Seth’s new career was taking off…
And so...was his love life…
It was around this time that he met Alexis, the woman who would become his wife…
Art Pusher Clip 65 Meet Cute MomentMeeting her was really interesting because I see this Korean girl, right. She's she's she's Asian and her first thing was the Spanish. So I was like, oh shit, it's kind of like me. Right. Because I didn't, you know, I definitely don't look Mexican. And my first language was Spanish and my culture was very Mexican and so was hers. And so, uh, so it was just, it was very cool. We got this cool little click.
Somehow...Seth convinced Alexis to quit her stable, adult-y job as a banker..
And instead help him turn his knack for buying and selling goods...into launching an interior design company.
Seth says he had a solid plan for the business…
A plan...that relied...on his stool.
Art Pusher Clip 67 His Stool Sample
This is what I called this stool. Bro, I’d call it my stool sample and it was a stool on it's actually called the primero stool. And it's the first piece of furniture that I designed. And, um, and we were able to, to produce like produce this store in volume and I would take this one store. I was the only one I had and I'd be like, Hey, can I show you my stool sample? And they, and that would get me in the door. Right. And so I would go with different architects until this one, dude. He. I went to go show this architect, this stool. And he's like, dude, it's really cool. He's like, will you sell me a pair?
And I was like, nah, I can't sell you a pair, but it needs to be like for a project, I can sell you in volumes so that I can sell it to you. And so I left all fucking broken down dude, and I had no money for no money, no plan. The stool was my plan. And as I was walking out of this architectural firm, I catch up with this other dude and he goes, Hey, where'd you get that? So another architect that was having a meeting there that day and I was like, well, I made it. He's like, well, can you make a lot of them? And I was like, fuc yeah, I can. And those stools ended up in Kettner Exchange.
Kettner Exchange, by the way...is a really popular, fancy restaurant in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego…
And...after that….The magic of word-of-mouth marketing did its thing.
With help from Alexis, the two of them built a successful cross-border interior design business. BEAT
Eventually, they moved from San Diego back to Tijuana to make the business work better.
Art Pusher Clip 74 Moved With Wife To Tijuana And I realized that our life was going to be fabricating here in Mexico, or at least building things here in Mexico that we take back to the U.S. because I was way more resourceful over here that I was over there, over there. Over there...like….You talk to me and you hear the way that it speaks English, and you would just assume that I would be like a fish in water over there, but I'm not pro like it's completely foreign to me. Like, I mean, I, I got a weird American upbringing in Tijuana because I was raised by American parents. But, but it wasn't, it wasn't, it wasn't the culture of being in the states. So, so I came back here and then it was kind of that sink or swim moment, you know, where I started getting jobs here, which was incredibly difficult because nobody wanted to pay right. They want what you do, but they don't want to pay for it. And so it was, it's been really difficult to convince this side of the border, that what I do is worth, you know, it's like an exchange and it's like an even exchange. And, um, and so I would just go back across the border and I would offer my job, my work over there and then I would live over here. And then we'd I, bro, I don't even know it was such an organic thing. It was such a, it was such a like every day was just hustle, hustle, hustle. I was also in and never taking any time off and still struggling. And, but it started becoming like that whole struggle, not struggle became like emotion and. And that's why Tijuana became so valuable in what I do.
Seth says so many aspects of his life at the border… from navigating two cultures and wrong assumptions about his identity….to spending hours and hours waiting to cross into the U.S….. ….to becoming scrappy at a young age in order to survive his childhood….has 100 percent made him who he is.
Art Pusher Clip 90 Border Made Him Who He Is
The border is definitely dude, even, even the patience that waiting through that fucking border has given me, bro, like everything about the border dude. I get asked all the time. He said, what if you were raised in the states, you think you'd be the same? Fuck no. I mean, who knows what I'd be, but I wouldn't be this, you know? And I like this, you know? So yeah, dude, this is being from the quantities fucking, it's been for me a way to be proud of proud of what I am, you know, because it's been a fucking struggle, bro. It's... it's been wild. So..
Back on our tour of that hotel in Tijuana…
The one Seth was in the middle of designing when we met up last summer…
Seth pointed out some of the pieces he thinks are really special…
Art Pusher Clip 20 Mom Influence and Tennis Chandelier So when I started looking at rackets, I realized that these wooden tennis, tennis rackets were steam bent
...He’s really proud of his own artwork he made specifically for the hotel…like the chandelier made of tennis rackets hanging over the front desk…It’s really more of a hanging sculpture than a light fixture...
Art Pusher Clip 20 Mom Influence and Tennis Chandelier
Like it's, it's all wood that's bent in a mold, but it still would like an and wood. You can always either sand it, refinish it, retouch it. And so when I started thinking about building things, I was like, okay, start collecting things that are, that are good on their own. And then they'll always look good as a constellation. So the rackets came as part of a collection, part of this ridiculous hoarding thing that I do. And I have probably over 700 rackets in my possession waiting for a large sculpture. And so when it came time to build a chandelier for the, for the entrance of the hotel, I started digging through all my stuff like, which is I get in panic mode. Like when we start a project, I really don't know what to do. And the first thing I look at is, okay, what can we purchase? What can we do? And for this one, I was like, wait a minute, dude, this needs to be time where you really dig through yourself and dig through your stuff and you build what you talk. Like just time to walk the walk now. So I went through my stuff and I found my rackets and it just made sense. It made sense that the four-inch the three inch bulb looked like a tennis ball. It made sense that it, that by putting the collection together, it looked like the tennis ball was in play and. And, and the taking the object out of context is what makes it so playful. So one thing that I try to implement and to, to design that we do is called it's constant conversation, always giving someone something to talk about, and that way your project speaks on its own without having to necessarily market what you're doing. So the space kind of talks for itself. Um, and so this was part of that. And now how can I give someone something to talk about? And that felt like something you'd talk about.
Another conversation piece by Seth?
A metal sculpture hanging in the hotel’s stairwell that he made out of rusted metal dustbins…
Art Pusher Clip 21 On Dust Pan Sculptures And Nature Math Inspiration
So these are all dust pans that never got sold. And, uh, I bought over 150 dust bands from this dude and he contacted me because he didn't want these things to go to the trash he's like set dude, bro, can you come and do something with these bleeds? So I went into this warehouse, bought all these dustpans. I bought a bunch of, these things you squished tortillas with. I bought a bunch of tortilleras...which we're going to build another sculpture in here for it. But, um, but again, this is just me picking from my inventory and, and trying to figure out how to re appreciate these things as art..
More and more...Seth has started stretching out the definition of design…
By putting his own original artworks into his projects and blurring the line between artist and designer.
And….people are really liking what they see…BEAT
Art Pusher Clip 68 Becoming An Artist
I'm just out here being a cowboy dude. And then I realized I could do it. I was like, okay, let me recommend this. And then I would put this piece of art in there and they'd be like, who made that? Well, Seth made it. And then I started becoming an artist because then I was now making things that were mine, but I was placing them in commercial projects with big budgets.
Seth still likes doing the design projects…
But, recently, he started realizing that what he likes even more…
Is making his own art and music.
One of the first, but really huge steps to Seth shedding his designer skin and becoming an artist…
Was what he calls “the purge.”
After years and years of being a picker, he had amassed warehouses filled with used things he collected.
It took him months to sort through everything and get rid of most of it.
He says it was a super painful process.
But once he let go of things instead of dreaming about one day giving those things a second life…
He felt...sorta...reborn himself….
Art Pusher Clip 77 The Purge Was For Mental Health And I just, I purged and I, and I made my surrounding smaller, because that gave me a center of focus.Art Pusher Clip 62 Helped Him heal So it helped me heal like a lot of things, like a lot of dependency that I had on things, because I was attached to things. Because that's what my parents did. That's what I watched them do. They just hoarded shit like that’s what they did. And so it was a cool thing. I started being able to kind of like work on myself through getting rid of things that were incredibly hard to get rid of.
Art Pusher Clip 78 Hasn't Stopped Picking Yet, But Tries Hard
Kinsee: Have you been able to stop picking and collecting?
Seth: No. No. That's a permanent illness. You know what though? I toned it. I toned it down hard. Like before I would leave that. And there's never an hour to get home. If there's a thrift store, must stop. If there's a fucking style on stop. And I don't do that anymore, like I realized that the, now my focus is creating things. So if I'm know if there’s a sale I'm going to stop and if I buy anything, it's going to be materials, but it's not going to be, it's not gonna be something to flip because I already got what I needed to get from that, which was all the inspiration of so many years of touching so many objects, realizing that other people had made all these incredible things that I admired. So now my whole thing is me making things that I admire.
Seth is starting to navigate his new career path as an artist and maybe even a musician...he’s actually recording a song of his for the first time ever this month.
He says as he moves forward in his life, he finds himself thinking back...about his past and his parents a lot…
He sees their influences all the time… in his design work and now in his artwork and music, too…
Seth’s mom passed away back in 2018…her years of drug abuse finally took their toll.
Art Pusher Follow Clip 8
I was holding her hand when she died. And it was just difficult because she kept screaming. No, like she didn't want to go,
and it was, oh God, dude. It was just, and she was in the middle of a very loud scream when she just went, dude. Hey. It was just this, it fucking sounds terrible to say, but it was just such a relief, right? , because it was such a difficult situation. It was hard because it was my mom, but I realized this was part of her path and I had to be okay with that. But it's just everything behind. It was so hard to kind of detangle emotionally for me to figure the fuck out to where I could be okay with it. And I'm still trying to figure out if I'm okay with the way that all of that went down, but it doesn't matter. It is what it is. I'm very grateful for being what I am as a byproduct of all this shit.
Seth... says he thinks about his parents all the time….
...he constantly sees their fingerprints in everything he does.
Art Pusher Clip 40 He Loved His Parents
They were beautiful people. There were cool people. But life and whatever, the way that they looked at it got the best of it, you know? But, but again, going back to feeling TJ that it's that shit. I mean, it felt very, TJ felt very TJ. Just the struggle of being here, you know, the struggle of living here, surviving here, trying to do something, you know, with your life that feels, it doesn't feel like you're not doing anything, you know?
Art Pusher Clip 93 Ending
So. I'm ready. I'm ready.
Alan: Bring it on...
Alan: So when you were doing the pre you becoming an artist, I guess like when you were doing the more viewing it as more of a hustle, I guess, like buying stuff and reselling it and stuff like that you had no. Did you consider yourself an artist? Like did he, what were you thinking you wanted to make at some point design your own stuff?
Seth: I was just trying to survive.
I was just trying to survive and go and try to do something that didn't feel like it was sucking my soul.
Art Pusher Clip 71 Needs to Do something fullfiling
So...for me, I started realizing that there's gotta be something more, dude. You get one ride in this fucking meat suit. Right. And...
Art Pusher Clip 72 Called Himself An Artist
...the more context, the more idea, the more thought I put into my things, I realized that the more information people receive from them. So I started taking it serious because of that. I was like, dude, if you're going to be doing shit out in the world, you better do that shit. Right. Because people are paying attention. So now I take it a little more serious. So that shit made me feel better about myself, bro. Like for real, for real, it started making me feel better about myself because for the longest time I was like, fuck, what, what am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?It took years, it took till I was probably like a couple of years ago, maybe three, four years ago, maybe where I said, you know what dude? And people would ask him that I'm an artist.
Art Pusher Clip 73 Sure He's An Artist Now
But now I'm committed to it before I wasn't committed to it because I wasn't sure you know…. But now I'm sure.
BEAT Bump To FADE You can see photos of Seth’s artwork and design on his instagram page...he’s @artpusher
While you’re there, follow us at portofentry pod.
And we mentioned suicide in today’s episode. If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.
Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the co-producer and director of sound design. Alisa Barba is our editor. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content. I’m your host, Alan Lilienthal. This program is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."
Thanks for listening.
But, of course, those objects don’t move themselves. The whole cross-border, second-hand world involves people like Seth Sullivan, aka “Art Pusher,” one of the best-known “pickers” in the borderlands.
Seth is a fireball who’s been through a lot in his cross-border life. But his struggles have only fueled him to keep going and growing.
Today’s story kicks off a new season of "Port of Entry" focused on artists and musicians who’ve turned pain into superpowers.
Follow Art Pusher on Instagram.
“Port of Entry'' is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the co-producer and director of sound design. Alisa Barba is our editor. Lisa Morrisette-Zapp is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content.
This program is made possible, in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.