Mad Mark’s Castle, Albany Bulb

Mike GristAbandoned Art, Grafitti, Ruins / Haikyo, USA, World Ruins 5 Comments

Mad Mark’s Castle is a glorious achievement, a hand-built faerie castle made of scavenged rebar, concrete and plaster that stands proudly atop the Albany Bulb in San Francisco Bay, offering a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 2000 and adopted ever since as an ever-changing graffiti canvas by the numerous artists haunting the Bulb, it remains a stunning piece of one-man art in itself, and the culmination of ‘Mad’ Mark (Marc)’s life’s work.

Mad Mark’s Castle by Peter Merts.

Mad Mark’s Castle interior (Great Hall) by Peter Merts.

I’ve never been to the Albany Bulb or even to San Francisco- I heard about the Castle from a reader of my book Mr. Ruins, which features a similar kind of castle, built on a similar kind of wasteland from similar waste materials like rebar and concrete, by a similarly mentally-damaged and homeless man (akin to Marc) for purposes both cosmic and un-explainable.

This real-world parallel to the events of my story intrigued me- not only for the parallel but also because I have always loved ruins and follies and crazy constructions. When I discovered the Gankutsu cave in Japan– a complex ‘hotel’ cave carved into solid rock by a single man with a chisel- I was likewise fascinated.

So I asked my reader Pamela Deering for more details, and she really came up with the goods. It turns out she knew Marc well, had spoken with him often in his heyday through the 80s and 90s, and could even shed some light on why he’d built what he’d built. Pamela shared pictures with me and stories, which spurred me on to research Marc and his creation further. There isn’t much on internet about him though. Some photos, some stories, but there the tale ends.

But let’s start at the beginning, in Pamela’s own words:

“Madman Mark […] was a denizen of the Albany Bulb for years, back when there was a fairly well-developed homeless encampment there. (later chased out by the city, of course.) I knew him fairly well at one time, but that was before he built the tower. I don’t know what became of him. He had a fairly sad story: he was young and with a lot of promise, then he was hit by a car and was very badly hurt. He told me he had a steel plate in his head. (another semi-parallel to the book, actually.) He was never, uh, he wasn’t quite right, after that, that was clear. But he still had the remains of a high intelligence that seemed to have lost its way. One of those people that had a lot of crackpot theories — or maybe they weren’t. Hard to tell.”

Some background- the Albany Bulb was constructed as a landfill site on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, started in 1939 when the Santa Fe Railroad blew up coastal hills to build the Golden Gate Fields racetrack, and shoveled the debris into the Bay to create parking lots.

Dumping continued sporadically after that, with the bulb forming as a globular landfill hill at the end of a narrow peninsula causeway in 1963, when the City of Albany and Santa Fe signed a contract to dispose of construction waste. Thus the ‘bulb’ is made primarily of demolished concrete and rebar- the twisted ruins of which still jut organically from the upper layer of clay like desiccated bones.

Dumping ended in 1983 when environmental Save the Bay legal efforts forced it to end. From that point forward, the homeless and the artists moved in, and the Albany Bulb became a kind of artistic homeless commune paying host to some 60 souls at its peak (Wikipedia). These Bulb-denizens took joy and pride in developing their own amenities and beautifying their trash-pile island with mural, stencil, graffiti and sculpture art.

One notable feature was the Landfillian Free Library, constructed later in 2006, run by Jimbow the Hobow, a friendly and cheerful librarian. According to Montgomery Rene who met him and toured the library in 2009:

“The Landfillian Free Library could, for all purposes, serve as The Albany Bulb Historical Society. Maintained by a friendly, smiley man, Jimbow the Hobow. You are encouraged to borrow and contribute both books and conversation, knowledge and compassion, and, for a certainty, smiles and beer. Jimbow is a welcoming librarian and poet. You will not be disappointed with his conversation and book collection.” (ArtSlant)

Of course, Jimbow and any others living on the Bulb, most likely along with Marc, are long gone now, ever since Albany City Council voted to evict them in 2013, ultimately offering a $3000 incentive if they would leave their homes. Some of them had lived there for up to 20 years.

But back to Pamela, and back to Marc:

“To get to the castle, you have to get to a parking lot that is behind the racetrack. This lot is at the bottom of Marin Street in Albany, but it is very confusing trying to get there because of a lot of freeway cloverleaf stuff. If you don’t know, Albany is the city immediately north of Berkeley, California. Next exit on the freeway. I went to google maps to try and get you a clear route, and discovered to my amazement that “Mad Mark’s Castle” is actually on the map! Amazing! That makes me happy — poor guy always felt like his life and potential was so suddenly and unfairly interrupted by a disaster that was not his fault. And now he has achieved something, uh, concrete. No pun intended. .. okay, yes it was.”

Mad Mark’s Castle even marked on Google Maps.

You can clearly see the Golden Gate Fields racecourse here- clearing which began construction of the Bulb via landfill.

Mad Mark’s Castle and Forecourt by Peter Merts.

Mad Mark’s Castle and Viewing Platform by Peter Merts.

Mad Mark’s Castle and Entrance Hall by Peter Merts.

Mad Mark’s Castle with Occupants, and possible Marc himself in front (source unknown)

Continuing with Pamela:

“I have a strong suspicion that the bearded guy in the foreground of the pic [above] is Mad Mark himself, especially as he is holding a sort of introductory hand out towards the castle. To explain how I met him, I must first tell you that although I came from a suburban California family and did very well in school, I came of age in the 1980s, and was more interested in music and art than in a stifling career in an office somewhere being someone I am not. So I spent much of my youth having a band, falling in love (mostly disastrously), and moving house a lot. […]

I had a large circle of friends who lived at the [Albany Bulb] encampment which was literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, and one of them was Mad Marc. (research informs me that he spelled it with a “c.” Never knew that.) I will tell you about the most interesting of his theories, one of the most lucid and internally consistent: he believed that many physical disorders or even disease could be treated by shining light of various colors into the retina of the eye. This was in the mid 1990s.”

To interrupt Pamela here, my research pointed up a few other unusual beliefs Marc held, one in particular being that Marc built the ‘Fairy Castle’ entirely by night. He held conspiracy theories on the subject, and perhaps believed he was being watched, though he may have been trying to sidestep the local authorities, who had cracked down hard on the ‘homeless’ population there in 1999.

In that earlier attempt to sweep the Bulb of its inhabitants, Marc’s castle had survived demolition (along with all other constructions) only because he petitioned it be considered a piece of art rather than a dwelling. It seems he alone was successful.

Every account I read of him described how he was clearly an intelligent man (, Pamela goes on to describe this hauntingly:

“What made Marc’s situation so tragic is that you could clearly see that he was trying to be the person he was, and his brain was trying to work in its accustomed way, but was sabotaged by the physical damage which left him with serious impediments to maintaining a linear train of thought. A good idea would be derailed by countless detours and cognitive cul-de-sacs, and unfortunately the end result was that he sounded crazy; but really he wasn’t, not entirely.

“He would have a notebook full of clippings and notes and xeroxed pages, everything related, but his power to collate it all into a coherent conclusion had gone. Hard to watch, because the process of collecting salient data, hooking it up through experience and intuitive leaps, and then pulling out that brilliant idea, is difficult for the best of us, and we are subject to the same danger of being swamped by too much information. Without a steel plate in our heads.”

? Mad Mark’s Castle Servant’s Entrance by Peter Merts.

Mad Mark’s Castle Turret Steps by Peter Merts.

Another tale of Marc’s adventures on Albany Bulb comes from Persis M. Karim, as written about in Bay Nature magazine in 2002:

“After making your way around the westernmost point of the Bulb (either by circling the lagoon or by way of the hillside), you reach a small cove where two shipwrecked, lopsided boats lie hauntingly broken and decaying in the shallow, muddy water. Mark says he lived in one of these boats until an ‘authority’ shot a hole in it and sank it.”

It makes me think of something from the book Swallows and Amazons. Or perhaps even the Lord of the Flies, but not so negative. From all that I’ve read the Albany Bulb in the 80s and 90s sounds like a very genteel and kind commune/camp, stocked with out-sized characters very happy to give you a tour, give you a free book, or stand around chatting about the art.

I don’t know Marc and am sure that I never will, but hearing the real life recollections from Pamela, and reading up on the place, it gives me some of the feeling I used to get when walking through ruins in Japan, taking photos, experiencing some leftover fragment of the life remaining in the place, now left behind. Every thing we build leaves a trace of us behind. Though Marc’s castle is now bedecked with an ever-changing facade of graffiti art, it is still his.

He is in there, along with all the disjointed thoughts he was thinking as he wove rebar together and filled it in with pounded and damp concrete, under the light of the moon with the San Francisco Bay waters lapping off the pier nearby. In its final shape there is something of the struggle he faced as he fought for control over the disparate, broken parts of his mind.

I find something oddly comforting in that, and I always have. There’s something comforting that, as of December 2016, Mad Mark’s Castle still stands.

Mad Mark’s Castle in Fresh Regalia (photo credit)

Mad Mark’s Castle when the Squid Came (photo credit)

Mad Mark’s Castle as Seen by Drone in 2014 (video credit)

Comments 5

  1. Hello Michael – – what a beautiful story in memory of Marc – sculptor-builder -artist from the Albany bulb in it’s hey day. I live in Albany – on and off for 25 years and the bulb is such a gem of wonderment. If you hadn’t already heard, the man in the photo above, standing next to Marc’s Castle, is none other than Osha Neumann, author and sculptor. He is most famous, at the bulb any way, for making the female figure/sculpture at the descent of the northern end of the bulb, as part of the SNIFF art collective. Osha is also well known for his murals – especially the one near People’s park in Berkeley, the one on the side of La Pena, and at least one other on the side of Willard school. He most recently wrote, “”Doodling on the Titanic – The Making of Art in a World on the Brink,” (Sudden Sun Press, Berkeley, Ca), as well as two other books from his years as an activist in New York. He is interviewed and featured in the documentary, “The Commune,” on Netflix, about an experimental collective commune in the 1970s at Black Bear Ranch – where well known actor/activist, Peter Coyote also stayed. Osha has been involved with historical tours at the bulb over the years. He is an incredibly generous creative and supportive person. He also happens to be a successful lawyer and political activist for homeless in Berkeley. I am close friends with Osha’s step-son, graphic artist, Diallo McLinn. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece on Marc, Castle Maker. Without stories like this, art history, especially, gets lost or forgotten, and thank you for getting interviews and researching this. So important! – Brigid (Kennedy) Acuna, Albany, Ca

  2. I was best friends with Marc in junior high at Martin Luther King, Jr. then at Berkeley High School. We took a LOT of acid back then, and he started developing a lot of personally crafted theories about Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. He was an insanely daring bmx bike rider and broke his led badly while jumping his bike on acid. The accident gave him a permanent limp. He was also a huge motorcycle fan. He started having delusional thoughts at around 18 and chose homelessness in the early 80s, but became a talented baker at Narsai’s in Kensington, nonetheless, for some years. He was always extremely smart, but in a funny, self-styled way. He had a lot of physical and mental abuse as a child from his father. His mother and grandparents gave up on him by age 19 or so. The Herculean effort he put into that castle is so quintessentially “Marc.” I used to see him on his bike, around town, the last time around 2013. I was amazed how physically fit he was, still with full head of blond hair, though his face was quite aged from hard living and sun and maybe drug use. He was spottily lucid at the time. I hope he is still alive and happy. Thanks for your great article! – Matt

  3. I visited The Bulb for my first time a couple of months ago on ‘accident’. I live in the Sacramento area and had never heard of it or the rich history and incredible impact it had on people. Moreover, the people and groups who made The Bulb. I immediately found and watched Bum’s Paradise in an attempt to get more up close to perspectives and lives there. The castle story and Marc stick with me. I am a layperson who doesn’t personally know any of the people connected to The Bulb and I don’t know much about art. However there is something very human in all of the layers and complexity in and around The Bulb that I’m drawn to. I just want to thank you for your post as well as the those who commented on it.

  4. I lived in west Oakland in the apartment above Marc. I moved about half a year ago but I am certain he still lives there. I also knew him from the bulb but much later on in the late 2000s and I was a real young kid then, dodging my P.O. and trying to avoid getting found by CPS. Marc always had awesome stories and boy is it a small world that I just so happened to cross paths so many years later remembering the landfill and what a true sanctuary it was. I lived for many years at the Gilman and University encampments and really the community that I had briefly witnessed at the bulb was clearly no longer. It was dog eat dog and no body seemed to have that sense of family anymore. It broke my heart because being estranged from my own family, I sought one in these people and a lot of those people let me down. I remember listening in awe at the community and creativity that was able to happen at the landfill. Despite those disappointments I experienced, there are still people I consider my family and needless to say most of them were long time residents of the landfill. They reminded me that I had potential, they encouraged me to write and make art unapologetically and reminded me I was important and loved, something I didn’t really get growing up. If you are interested in maybe meeting Marc, I can talk to him but I can’t guarantee anything. As a fellow writer though, I have to say I don’t really believe in coincidences and I think part of the parallels in your book to his life are a sign that you should meet. Thats just me though. I left my email so I am open to help you facilitate a meeting with him if you are both open to it. What you choose to do is entirely up to you. I’ll leave it at that

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