By Erica Stella
On my walk to the R train, I pass the Big Blue Wall on Fourth Avenue, near 77th Street. The Herbst funeral home once stood here, but it was torn down more than a decade ago, and the space has been an overgrown empty lot ever since. The blue painted plywood that encloses it caught the occasional tag, but in July 2017, it started to catch something else—anti-Trump street art, first in the form of 45 with a mouth shaped to excrete what actually comes out of it. I was excited to see such gutsy political artwork, even more so in my own neighborhood. Tucked in the lower right-hand corner of each of the five original wheatpasted prints was a word—“SWITCH.”
The next month, my mysterious new neighbor was at it again, with 50 new images of the president, still pursing his lips like a butthole, pasted overnight on the same plywood wall, just a few panels down. (It didn’t last for long: a Trump supporter covered over every piece with a Trump/Kaiser Wilhelm II mash-up. The remnants of this beef still remain.) In the fall of that year, the artist posted a really big portrait, printed on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper and taped together. Marking in late January the first anniversary of the Women’s March and the beginning of the Resistance, the artist struck again, this time with two Handmaidens spraypainting the phrase “Shithole President”; the artist was clearly on a mission—and not about to stop. I recently tracked down Switch, and we discussed the artist’s intentions and the stories behind the public statements.
Steering clear of identifying subjects, how long you have lived in Bay Ridge, and what’s your background as an artist?
I moved to Bay Ridge three years ago, but I’ve been living in Brooklyn and NYC for almost fifteen years. I wasn’t born in this country but became a naturalized citizen when I was about 8-years-old and grew up in the tristate area. About as long as I can remember, I was drawing and painting. Both of my parents were artists, and oddly enough my father’s art in the 80s centered largely around political satire.
That must have been an influence on your recent pieces you’ve pasted on the streets. Has your art always been political?
Actually, my dad’s work wasn’t an influence in any conscious way, but if it has bled through via my subconscious, that’s cool; I think he’d be pumped about that. Art has a habit of doing that. And no, my art has never been political, but after the extremes of the last year plus, the first piece went up and just came out of me. The more recent one with the Handmaids was a bit more deliberate.
When I saw the photo of that piece on Hey Ridge’s Facebook page, you were compared to Banksy. How influential was Exit Through the Gift Shop on the direction you wanted to take your artwork?
I mean, I can’t think of higher praise. But I also wonder if people comparing my work to his is just that that’s the name and work people most recognize, versus because my work in any way actually resembles his at all. I mean, I’ll take it, though! I loved Exit Through the Gift Shop, and that influenced some writing I do in my life, which, looking back, I think in turn the writing made me increasingly curious about daring to try my hand at street art. So by way of my writing, yeah, it pushed me in that direction. But I’ve always admired good art, whether it was on the street or on canvas, wherever.
Are there other street artists out there that you admire?
I’m obsessed with Swoon right now. But I’m sure I’ll start collecting favorites as I continue to go down this road; it may change.
What are three places you like to grab a bite in Bay Ridge?
Tanoreen, The Family Store and a toss up between Campania and The Brooklyn Firefly, for pizza. Mostly I cook at home, though.
What about your favorite coffee spot?
I couldn’t reveal that because I frequent it way too much, but it’s one of the newer additions to the neighborhood.
Is it all political figures you take umbrage with, or is there something in particular about this president that gets under your skin?
I know it sounds hyperbolic to say, but I think Fox News is the worst thing to have happened to us. When you break it down—its influence over the last 20 years or so, and then the masterful perpetuation of misinformation and the grip it has on such a significant portion of the population—it’s positively stunning, the ripple effect of awfulness that it has had and continues to have. People actually believe it’s news, and that in itself is an affront to our democracy. And the Republican Party, with increasingly rare exceptions, is in my estimation comprised of soulless hypocritical goons, entirely driven by greed and a fundamental lack of empathy so great that it is tantamount to crisis. But 45? Forty-five is an abomination beyond description. Well, not beyond description—I think my portrait of him captures him well enough.
You’ve told me that you encourage feedback on your work. What has your experience been like, and do you think anyone has gone too far?
Sure, I’m open enough. I mean, the truth is that how people feel about my work is none of my business; it’s theirs. But, yeah, of course I’m down to hear thoughts. Whether good or bad, especially in this context, it’s great. I weighed my options before I pasted in Bay Ridge versus other neighborhoods. I knew I could paste in Red Hook or Bushwick; I’m sure I would have, and will get, a proverbial fist-bump appreciation from whoever walks by it. But till recently, Bay Ridge was a pretty red district, which surprised and disturbed me, especially when I moved here. I knew that (1) there was relatively little to no street art here, and in my opinion the area would benefit from good art, and (2) it would likely ruffle some feathers, actually start a conversation instead of just perpetuate that echo chamber we keep finding ourselves in. This was the only way I could think of to somehow do something, anything, in the face of the horror show we are living in these days.
And it worked: Within days of that first round of posting of Butthole 45, some pro-Trumpster wrote hateful things all over it, then tore it all down. When I came back with 50 more copies of it, whoever they are came back and carefully covered each of them up with a, like, General Trump, like an elegant fake framed painting of him. If they hadn’t bothered to so carefully cover each and every one of mine—if they had, say, placed it next to my work—I’d have thought it was a fellow dissenter mocking him. But the fact that they so went out of their way to cover my work tells me that was a pro-Trump, defensive response. So, in turn I caricatured their precious Kaiser. I was hoping to keep that little rivalry up; who knows, maybe the pro-Trump artist will come back with some funny stuff. I liked that. The other thing I noticed was that the asshole on his mouth would be the first thing that people would tear down, and most recently “Shithole President” was covered up. I understand that people might find my work offensive. I totally get that. I find him to be fundamentally offensive, so I get it.
Erica Stella is the editor of Sold Magazine, a daily online news forum “by artists for artists.” She has been living in Bay Ridge and documenting street art in NYC since 2012.