I was invited to come to New York and paint a mural for World Pride mural project, coinciding with the Stonewall 50th Anniversary, they planned to paint 50 queer themed murals across the city. This is an account of the design, meaning and process of making the mural, as well as the trip to NYC and all that surrounded it. Let me know if you actually make it to the end cus you deserve a cookie.
I knew immediately I wanted my mural to focus on poc trans visibility. It is a constant conversation in the queer community to raise up and protect poc trans voices, particularly around Pride, when much corporate publicising of Pride focuses on white male voices and vulnerable minorities within our own community are forgotten (ironically, considering that is what we say the hetero-majority do to us….). As a white male-presenting person myself, its not always the easiest space to navigate sensitively and appropriately, but I just try and keep myself open to learning and involve other people as much as possible so that they are agents in their own representation. I’ve recently started my video series, ‘Painterview’, where I live paint and interview subjects, and this idea came from wanting to give the subjects space and platform to share their own narrative in their own voice, rather than just be shown through my painting lens.
I was invited last minute so I had like 1 week from being asked to fly out and start painting. Not uncommon with murals and creative projects in general, but stressful for a recovering perfectionist nonetheless. Its funny how organisations want months of notice from you, but then they give you a fraction of that time. I’m glad that I was available, since within a few weeks I had also been on a mural trip to Mexico, vended DragCon LA and done my biggest mural to date 50ftx60ft. Busy times. How anyone holds down a job whilst trying to crack the mural/art world is beyond me. Once I had another mural festival in Texas ask me to come out with 1 day notice I mean… Anyway so I decided straight away on black trans NYC drag artist @Peppermint247 . Peppermint is a prominent and loved figure in the queer community, a black trans trailblazer in entertainment, and a strong yet compassionate activist. So she seemed a perfect fit and symbol. For a week I frantically tried to contact her team to get her on board, not knowing whether I’d be able to reach them (famous figures and their teams are constantly bombarded by messages and requests). eventually making contact through a journalist friend @OnTheSpotEva (thanks love!). I shared the design with Peppermints’ team and they were 100% on board. The project paid a small amount, so in-keeping with the message of the mural and my own feelings about Pride and vulnerable minorities, I decided to donate my payment to Princess Janae Place – a charity in NYC that focuses on queer poc trans homelessness. At the time I was a new artist, still living below the USA poverty line, but I felt so strongly about the principle that it seemed the right thing to do.
Painting the actual mural was pretty smooth. Shoutout to assistant @Miishab super nice and a great artist herself. I’d only used a big lift like this once before so that was fun and definitely made me feel like a real muralist. The ornamentation and texture of the wall was really stark and varied, but instead of working with/around it due to time restrictions I decided to just paint over it and at least keep the main details flat, and it doesn’t obstruct the image too much in the end. At this point in my mural style I was trying to capture the same essence of my small spray paint canvas paintings – the chaotic abstracted shapes and textures, honed in by the sharp facial feature details. It never really worked to my satisfaction, as with murals you can’t really create chaos, its so large that everything has to be manually applied and so at least to my eyes feels too controlled. Its also effected by the optics of distance and how that effects how we view images. Even fire extinguishers or drip cannons have limitations. If I had continued down this path I’m sure I could have found a way to create the illusion of chaos on a large scale, and I had some ideas brewing, but since then I’ve changed direction anyway in my style. So aesthetically like all my pieces I see this as a stepping stone towards a the next one, and I appreciate it more for Peppermint, the statement and context, rather than the aesthetic. I wanted to uplift and shine the beauty of trans-ness, through the commonly used phrase and hashtag Trans Is Beautiful, but then also show the strength and defiance through ‘Resist the Cistem’. To me this duality is what Pride is – a beautiful fun celebration of queerness, but also a political protest stemmed from a human rights riot. Much trans representation in media is about ‘passing’ and being palateable to hetero-normative audiences, and for trans women about traditional femininity, so including the less traditionally ‘pretty’ expression also was to celebrate trans-ness not just for this heternormative idea of beauty, but for any and all image or emotion. You are valid and beautiful whether or not you align with traditional ideas of beauty. And the teeth bared expression itself reminds me of a strong lioness, it inspires me. So the left is to uplift and the right to inspire. I’m not sure if other people read into this level of reflection and meaning to my paintings, but there’s a lot of thought behind them, perhaps too much as I can easily get analysis paralysis towards my own work and ideas.
During the painting of the project it became apparent that many of the artists, including the most publicised like the feature in the New York Times, were not queer identifying and barely adapted their work to be queer-themed, or were greeting card level engagement with queer experience like ‘Love is Love’… This was very disappointing to me, especially considering the issues of Pride being straight-washed in general, this seemed to play straight into it. Especially the New York Times coverage and who they chose to include, which seemed to go on Instagram followers and New York reputation rather than queer visibility and messaging. I met the New York Times photographer at my site whilst she was photographing a non-queer artist “with no connection to the queer community” next to me. She spent hours photographing him and his piece, and didn’t take a single photo of my piece of Peppermint next to it. This hit me hard to see such a clear example of poc trans being ignored, which was the exact point of doing the mural in the first place. I talked to her about it and she said her editor tells her who to photograph, and I talked to the festival organisers who said they wanted it to be iincluded and were surprised also that it was not. Of course also my own ego also took a hit, and as a new artist I thought being in the NY Times was a good opportunity. Its often hard to disentangle different emotions like this, some more justified than others, and made me reflect a lot on ego and myself. Many activists I know speak as much for their own ego as they do for their cause, which often leads to unintentionally harmful consequences, so I think its important for us all to constantly check ourselves in this regard. I think its impossible to remove one’s own ego entirely, so their is always going to be a grey area. Since this project I’ve learnt a lot more about the unfortunate business-driven nature of publications, and as my career has grown I’m not so desperate for every opportunity or disappointed when I miss them. Desperation is the worst trait to have in business, and it keeps many artists exploited for even their whole careers, since its so hard to get to a point where you feel stable enough to act in any other way. Being OK with saying No to an opportunity is the only way to hold your ground. For this reason also I didn’t say anything to the organisers about how I felt about the low queer representation in the muralist lineup. I spoke up on other issues that occurred, but if it were me now I would speak up more. I know there are other people who felt the same who similarly did not stand up and make a noise about it, in spite of having big issues with it. I myself was afraid of being difficult and not being asked to work again for making a fuss, i.e. desperation. But also even when I could see issues, I also wanted to appreciate the good that was happening and not make assumptions. So it was a conflicting and challenging period. Also for this reason I didn’t give the organisers the opportunity to explain to me their point of view and reasons. They had the tough ask to recruit 50 muralists capable of creating large scale quality work many of which needed to be from New York. There are many queer muralists, but most do not make it obvious in their work, perhaps to remain more universaly palateable and saleable. (Its been a huge issue for me that I am so up front about my work and self being queer, often missing out on work because of it. Which is another reason why I felt so disappointed that a rare queer mural project was less queer than I would have wanted it). When I was helping LA Pride locate muralists, I myself had to message painters I knew just to clarify if they identified as queer or not cus even I wasn’t sure. Dusty Rebel @QueerStreetArt is making a documentary about Queer Street Art and has spent years researching and compiling queer identifying street artists. So its not an easy task to do. And I’m sure there are countless forces that I’m unaware of that determine who is chosen for projects. Its very easy to be critical of others when we are not in their shoes, and I’ve never organised a mural festival so I have no idea the challenges and sacrifices that must be made. A big lesson about ‘how the world works’ I learnt early on is that many magazine features are actually paid for by the artist, rather than based on merit and interest. Vogue approached me to be one of their top pick artists, if only I pay $500. So essentially money, advertising and sales is a constant influence in the world, even when people pretend its not. Is Matthew Ma-whatshisname really People’s sexiest man alive, or does he just have a new calvin klein ad coming out soon… This is not to say that money necessarily played a role in the lineup, but just that I am aware of my own ignorance and I can’t say why the lineup was the way that it was. Anyway I digress.
Some of the artists in the NYC project do identify strongly as allies – such as with queer family members – and usually this was reflected in their work being more visible and representative. And a decent percentage of the other artists were overtly queer identifying like me, @JillyBallistic (whose work was painted over the next day…), and Justin Russo (who was included in the NY Times article, you can see me and my painting slivered next to it haha).
It is also possible to argue that one doesn’t need to be of a demographic in order to make art to represent them. I myself was painting Peppermint, and we don’t have gender, race or nationality in common. But we do identify both as members of the queer community, and I involved her in the process and got her consent for the image. So relatedly, the non queer muralists in the lineup could have done collaborations with queer-identifying artists – on the design and/or mural process. Many artists, particularly queer, are put off doing murals because of the public nature, the vulnerability, and the many mental/physical/financial challenges of creating them – so this project could have been an opportunity for the ‘allies’ to support queer artists to overcome those obstacles. And the fact that didn’t occur with this project did inspire me to suggest it to LA Pride during their consultation with me about creating a similar mural project (which didn’t happen cus of corona anyway. Again I’m not the perfect example of appropriate representation, but we all just try our best and accept criticism when we get it. I once had a poc trans woman cry at my gallery show and express so much gratitude to me for creating a space in which she felt seen and accepted, but then later we also had a discussion about whether my work was appropriation and exploitative, and the steps I could take to counteract that – such as by supporting poc trans artists to be in the gallery show with me, leveraging my privilege to not just represent them but for them to be able to represent themselves. Whilst it was hard in some ways to hear this at the time and part of me wanted to reject it and defend my sense of morality – I actually hold that conversation very close to me and I am so glad we had it. Criticism does not need to be something to be afraid of or rejected – it can be helpful, helping us grow and giving us a perspective that we wouldn’t have otherwise known. Of course its important to balance it out with positivity and support, so that we don’t become too cynical and perfectionist. I believe that almost everything in life is about finding the appropriate balance between dualities. So even in the way that I am writing now, I have my criticisms of the queer representation in this mural project, but I also appreciate the work and positive elements, as well as being aware of what I don’t know, of what may not be possible at this moment in time.
This is my perspective now a year later, but at the time I was very conflicted and often upset and frustrated. So in the end I chose to just focus on doing what I knew I could do, by making my piece as loud and proud as I could – writing trans is beautiful and resist the cistem, even though I prefer to not usually use direct text, and by donating my personal payment. I am by no means a perfect queer community member, but I am learning everyday and I try my best to stick by my values, even when its hard or I could make countless reasons not to. What guides me often is that we are all just doing our best, and that no one is at their core from their own perception ‘evil’, but we all just do what we believe is right and is within our capabilities.
My favourite experience of the trip was meeting and spending time with @DustyRebel. I’d learnt of his documentary through a gay street artist EDES @bobbybrowndown in Copenhagen. Edes and I were both painting at Meeting of Styles Copenhagen, the organisers had put us both on the most visible wall facing Tivoli, as an ‘in your face’ move to the public – Edes painted giant cumming rainbow dicks, and I painted a romantic scene of two queer friends from Berlin (later someone tagged over it ‘Fuck Gays’, but I told myself they meant to write ‘I want to fuck gays’ and ran out of paint). Dusty invited me to stay with him and his partner in New York during the NYC World Pride project – I learned they have a near revolving door of queer street artists staying with them – the last two nights I moved to a hostel to make room for the next one! They have a beautiful basement apartment in Brooklyn, filled with small paintings by queer street artists Dusty had met, and a private jungle garden round back – a rare tranquil natural space for NYC. The streets were lined with trees and we walked around a large park nearby. I had been to NYC once before, but was drunk most of the time including the plane ride over, so couldn’t remember it very well, so I was surprised at how green and spacious it was. Dusty interviewed and shot me for his documentary, and I got to meet other queer street artists through him that were also in New York for projects – @DivaDogLA , @JillyBalistic, @SurianiArt, @HomoRiot. Suriani makes large drag wheatpastes and I had seen his work before online – Dusty, Suriani and I all watched the newest episode of Drag Race, and it felt such a beautiful moment of queer creative connection. I remember watching YouTuber’s when I was a teenager and wondering how all the prominent ones seemed to be friends – and this felt like the drag street art version of that! haha.
Later in LA, Homo Riot curated the Queer Streets exhibition at In Heroes We Trust Gallery, which featured all of these artists and even more who I now too count as friends like Jeremy Novy and Hugo Gyrl. So this Dusty and this NYC trip really kickstarted me connecting with other queer street artists, for which I’m so grateful.
I didn’t have a lot of time outside of painting, but I still got to explore New York a bit. I met up with an instagram artist friend Everdeen Jones for the first time irl, and we walked around the whole of Manhattan – from Times Square, to a psychic palm reader (I bought the $10 special so she whizzed thru it in about 20 seconds lol), to a rooftop bar where I pretended I was Meg Ryan, to an outdoor Pride concert. I wanted to see Mean Girls the musical but had left it too late to get tickets in time. Someday! I was new to living in LA at this point and I had just had a very weird experience where one of my first friends there somehow thought that we were dating, in spite of there never being anything close to romantic between us and me communicating very directly. And it turns out he had contacted Everdeen online about me, even though Everdeen and I had never met either… Very odd. For a good few months I worried about coming back to my studio / technically-home to find my paintings burned, or about who else they were contacting and saying who knows what about me. I’m still not sure how or why they knew who Everdeen was or contacted them, but thankfully it seems to have come to nothing. Everdeen and I talked about murals and he has since started painting queer murals himself! Another one for the team! Maybe by next World Pride we can have a 100% queer muralist roster.
I also met Vanessa Dub who had found me on Instagram and wanted to help me get more drag murals painted in New York (come through instagram with the irl socialness) and we went to an amazing drag show at The House Of Yes, which I was pretty sure I had just seen on an episode of High Maintenance – and ANNA MANOTRONIC from Scissor Sisters was the drag show judge! My teenage gay heart did a backflip. Flashbacks to me and my friends in London dancing around our living room in silly costumes to Lets Have a Kiki.
The site was just down the street from the famous queer and drag bar 3 Dollar Bill – which meant various queens like Miz Cracker, Meatball and Peppermint herself went to see the mural in the coming weeks. I went to meet the 3 Dollar Bill staff and would have followed up on another mural with them if I had returned to New York for Drag Con but alas I did not. Some day!
One day whilst painting up on the lift I happened to look down at the exact moment that a friend from university in England passed by. I always think I see people I know in crowds and it turns out to just be someone that looks ever so slightly vaguely like them. But this time it actually was him! And he was still living in England and only visiting for a short holiday and went to the next door bar on an unexpected whim, so the probability of this was so freakishly low. I love small world experiences like that.
The Bushwick Collective Block Party – a famous street art mini festival – was happening the same weekend coincidentally, so I went to go see people painting there and met some nice painters. One of them, @SurfaceOfBeauty , has since become a close painter friend of mine and a constant source of inspiration. In my life I have had a lot of social anxiety and shyness, so its a relatively new thing for me to go up and talk to random people in this way, so it gives me a lot of confidence to recognise the pay-off that happens when you put yourself out there and overcome your anxieties – the friendships that can be made and experiences to be had, the life to live. The security of saying ‘I’m painting at another festival too’ definitely helps, just like other securities of mutual friends or being at the same party. But I’m working towards feeling comfortable without these small securities, its an on-going process but I feel good about the progress I’ve made. Anyway I digress again.
End of blog, here’s your cookie!