Plastic Jesus is the UK born artist who is unapologetically sparking conversation regarding America’s current state of political and social unrest. Currently residing in Los Angeles, many know him as the artist who built a tiny wall around Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Others know him as the person responsible for the ‘No Kardashian Parking’ signs that mysteriously appeared all over Los Angeles or his infamous stenciled piece reminding us all to ‘Stop Making Stupid People Famous’. However, in the close-knit LA art scene Plastic Jesus is regarded as a provocateur and deeply respected member of the art community. It seems that as an artist, his goal is to activate minds and engage those who are open for discussion. His anonymity has made his famous overnight installations all the more powerful in their statements. The exciting and often controversial nature of his work has fueled the dialogue for some of the country’s biggest cultural and political issues. We were fortunate enough to have a one-on-one with him to take a closer look at the state of the world, his passion for art and it’s impact on the world around him. -Raven Duran
Can we talk about how you made it here to Los Angeles?
I came out here in 2005 for a job. I was working on Sunset Boulevard. I traded London’s cold rainy weather for LA. My dad and brother were already living here. I literally went home and packed my bags. I came out here as a news photographer with an interest in culture but almost from a negative point of view.
When did you get into street art?
I kind of got into street art by accident. I was looking for other areas of photography that might generate interest for me. I thought I’ll get some studio time, do some good portraits. I did a picture for a friend of mine. It was very low key and nice. He was dressed in a black hoodie; a very dark, sinister picture. It was about the same time as the London riots were going, four years ago or so. Rioters were dressed up in hoodies. That would be a cool piece. So, I thought I know what I’ll do. I’ll use real people. So, I did that. I created.
I remember the last time we sat down and talked we thinking, where is America going? And now we’re here. I was thrilled when I saw the Trump wall installation pop up on my Snapchat. I was thrilled about that and I couldn’t wait to talk to you about it.
Right! Well the first ones I did were the ‘No Trump’ signs. Obviously I think Donald Trump is pretty unpalatable as a president. But I wanted to do something more than just a localized piece of art or statement. Before I did the ‘No Kardashian’ parking signs around LA and they got picked up by the media. And I thought these next signs needed to be national, so I just reached out to some collaborators across the country and other artists and I arranged to ship them five or six signs each with hardware and installation instructions. I told them that they needed to be put up on a certain date and time and I left it down to them and they did an amazing job. One guy had one in the shadow of the congress building, just literally in the shadow. There was one outside Trump Towers as well. The only negative thing about that was if you recall back to that day, Ted Cruz was still in the campaign for the nomination. So I got all these messages from Ted Cruz supporters like, “yeah Ted Cruz for President!” That was not the idea. They missed the point but it was quite funny.
Then I spurred on to do the wall and I wanted to do something different. There had been other artists that had done caricatures of Trump, focusing on his hair or his mannerisms but I wanted to do something very impactful. I’ll be quite honest with you, it wasn’t like weeks and weeks of thinking about something to do and coming up with plans and doing drawings. It was literally a five minute idea where I landed on doing the wall. The original idea was for it to be a star shaped wall to match the star shape exactly but when I got to the studio I realized that my woodwork is too bad so it ended up just being that square wall. And as an artist you’re always thinking, will this people get this? I went up down to do the install with Unfuck Yourself (another artist in my studio) and from the moment we put it down a crowd started forming around it. It was obvious that they got it straight away.
It seems that people are turning to artists like yourself looking for some kind of relief. When something like your wall insulation comes up along with these other pieces of art it feels in a sense that you artists are the people’s voice.
Since time began satire has been a good way of connecting with people and vocalizing things. I think that’s what art can do way more than an opinion piece or comment piece or even a T.V. show (other than parodies like Saturday Night Live). I think a visual piece of art can have a greater connection because you can stand there for some time to ponder and think about it versus a joke or T.V. sketches because when it’s done you just quickly move on. So I think you’re right — it’s a good way for artists to connect with the underbelly of feeling that’s out there.
What is your reason for keeping this anonymous air about you?
Two reasons. I mean, firstly and foremost is that street art is illegal. So, I do less illegal stuff. That’s the first thing. Also, I find it frustrating that Banksy puts a new piece up. The first two paragraphs will be about the piece. The next six paragraphs will be “Who is Banksy?” Rumor and assumption about who he is, his background, etc. With me, I don’t want the art to be about me. I want it to be about the piece.
So, it’s kind of difficult in a way to maintain that because it’s kind of come back to bite Banksy in a way. It doesn’t matter what the piece is. It’s the question, the fact that he’s elusive. So, I mean I do it because I want the focus to be on the piece not the fact that is me that is creating it. I don’t usually sign my pieces because it’s not really important. I just want people to see the pieces. Take me away from it.
Ironically despite your anonymity you’ve gotten quite a lot of attention from mainstream media regarding your past work and the ‘No Kardashian’ signs.
I have nothing against the Kardashians. They’re doing very well at what they do. I have a thing against the media for making them what they are. And that piece was done [parking sign] because I knew it would get a lot of media attention. And it was done really to criticize mainstream media. They should be spending their time looking at situations in the Middle East and Europe and refugees. Instead the front page picture will be a picture of a Kardashian shopping on Melrose.
And the irony of it is I was getting calls and one in particular from USA Today who wanted to know about the Kardashian parking signs. So I said to her yeah, it’s really a statement about how the mainstream media is concentrating on reality, celebrity culture rather than issues they should be addressing in the news. So, I’m criticizing mainstream media and they put in the piece. It’s about you, you fucking dumbass.
I got an email from this woman to say that she didn’t agree with my Kardashian parking signs. And it kind of opened my eyes. I, like anybody need my eyes open as much if not more than anybody else.
And she wrote an email in which she basically said to me, “my mother was dying from cancer. And, you know, through the day it would be all this heavy weight on my shoulders. I’d get home from work or from the hospital or from the hospice and I’d put the Kardashians on and it was an escape for me and I think your criticism is very unfair.” And I can see that. Let’s have things that are an escape for us but let’s not let them dominate the culture and the media.
We are the ones making these people famous. We chose them. It’s also about us. Stop making stupid people famous. So, it’s both sides of the coin, it’s also intended to criticize us as people and as consumers.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think when important things are happening in the media your followers are waiting to see what you’re going to say. Do you think they know now that you will eventually surface with something?
You’re quite right they do. Before I did the Trump signs and the Trump wall I was getting messages (and I apologize in advance to anybody that sent me one of these messages as I don’t want to offend anyone. But there’s one thing that I’ve discussed with other artists as well that we really hate and that is when somebody says, “you know what you should do…” and then continues with their ideas. Well if you think it’s a great idea, get out there and do it. And I don’t mean that in a rude way. I mean you have these ideas and opinions that come from inside you so go out and do them. The kind of pressure I have is self-inflicted in a way, but I don’t want to do something that’s mediocre. I want to do something where people think “why the fuck didn’t I think of that?” That’s what I always aim to do. So I wasn’t just going to go and do some stencils of Donald Trump. I wanted to do something different.
Do you think there’s a disconnect from people and the world politics?
The fact is so many people think that politics are too complex for the common person. They believe they can’t possibly scratch the surface. I think that has happened over a period of time when you look back through the history of politics. And I’m not talking about distant history. I’m talking about even in the last 30, 40, 50 years where the little man is almost insignificant. In the UK, there’s a point to be made that [politicians] are our representatives. They work for us. Not the other way around. I think so many people have lost sight of that. You vote once every five years or four years. You get a few people knocking on your door and they bombard you with emails and so on. You’re under the impression that that’s your only involvement and exposure to politics because there’s nothing else you can possibly do to change the world.
In general you had a pretty very impactful year. What’ve you done this year?
I’ve done the two Trump pieces, the Oscar stripper and also the Oscar fountain. As well as the two cocaine pieces. The stripper one I created to criticize the culture in Hollywood where so many (mainly young girls but men as well) come here to act, sing, dance and then they find very little opportunity other than getting into the adult entertainment industry in one way or another. Now that’s fine if that’s your career choice — I know some girls who work in the industry myself and it was a choice for them. My piece was moreso a criticism of a system which often leaves people with no options. In fact that it is in some way almost a career boost if you do go that direction. I discussed the issue with my friends and some dancers at clubs (a few of which are in the adult movie business) and they were hugely supportive of it. So yeah it needs to get out there because so many people are led down that path and they don’t particularly want it as it wasn’t their intention. Now I did the piece and it received good response and was picked up by media and social media and so on and then it all went quiet for about three weeks. Then I got this message on Instagram from a woman called Jackie the Stripper. Now, Jackie the Stripper was offended by my piece because for her it was a career choice (I don’t think she read the caption that went along with the piece or the news interviews I’ve given about the piece) and she thought it was demeaning to women that are strippers. I think to paraphrase her own words I was “clearly somebody who hated women and couldn’t get laid”. Which was not not the point but the interesting thing was that after that there was an absolute torrent of haters on my social media that were also strippers as well. I wish she would’ve come to me and spoken to me about it or just asked my opinion and we could have had a conversation about that but instead she reached out to all the strippers she knew and got them coming to my social media to post some comment on it. Which I thought was quite amusing. [All the comments] are out there if you have a look at them on Instagram.
I enjoy creating a dialogue with people and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Trump supporter or you’re racist or whatever. If you want to have a dialogue with me, fine. I think an intelligent conversation is what I promote.
Speaking of having dialogue with your followers or people who are seeing your pieces and want to talk to you and respond to them — how do you pick and choose who you engage with?
I try to engage with most people to be honest. There are a few people who I have blocked from my feed for being just flat out racists and fascists. I must say there’s been some people who’ve commented on pieces that are Trump supporters responding with something that is pretty hateful and insulting, perhaps about me or my work or art in general. But I engage with them and after several messages going back and forth I’m able to give them my point of view and we end up with this kind of mutual respect. Because let’s face it a difference of opinion is exactly what makes a democracy and it’s a fact that a lot of these differences aren’t being heard and aren’t being respected. This is part of the problem where we are currently with these extreme views being mainstream. But I do try to engage with everybody.
When I did the Trump piece I got quite a number of attacks from Trump supporters that were quite insulting, but I think what they probably didn’t realize is that I’m British and we do insults way better than anybody else. So it didn’t mean a lot.
How do you feel now today with the state of where we are as a society in general.
You know I think there needs to be a kind of awakening. There’s so many people out there subscribing to good podcasts, reading good books about a more fulfilling, beneficial and valuable life but they’re taking this in and they’re looking at social media comments and liking and liking and liking. We start having the need to apply ourselves. Myself and my girlfriend we’ve banned social media use from eight o’clock at night till eight o’clock in the morning and to think you’re there at home with your loved one and a social media message from a complete stranger is more important than what that person standing five feet away from you is saying. And that’s really where we are and it’s all down to the fact that we’re constantly looking for validation. We’re looking for validation from outside ourselves and outside our immediate family. I put a social media post up a while ago I was traveling and I got a post up and it was going quite well and got a thousand likes or something like this. And I was checking it every five minutes, “oh I’m up to 1,100 likes” and I thought, well how many likes do I want? And from that I put up a post that read, how many likes would it take for me to feel perfect? Because whatever it is it’s not enough. I think it’s kind of where we are really with the validation that we’re looking for from outside. How many people there are perhaps in a certain political mindset at the moment agreeing to it because it will validate them with other people that appear to have the same mindset. And really deep down they don’t believe the principles and opinions to which they’re subscribing. I think we need to be take more action and be more aware and conscious of what we’re doing and apply those bases to our lives.
Another social media thing I put out said, “if I spent less time reading inspirational posts on social media and actually got off my ass and did shit I’d be unstoppable” because we’re all reading this good stuff and we just do nothing.
It’s so true I feel like we’re all online advocates something. But it poses the question, when was the last time that we actually did something purposeful in the real world other than for ourselves?
Can you imagine switching off social media for 24-48 hours or even 7 days a month. You know for most people it’s become integrated in their lives.
I’m happy to hear you say that you made that post regarding the amount of likes it requires to feel good. Because most people would think, Plastic Jesus doesn’t need social media or that you don’t care but we’re human and we’re all subjected to the same type of social conditioning. We feel like we have to do something and we find ourselves exhibiting new behaviors without even realizing we’re doing it. Then suddenly we have that moment of clarity where we think wait a second, why do I care? Why do I care what these strangers think of me? We all do it, so I think it’s refreshing to hear you say that you’ve experienced that as well as the subsequent moment of clarity.
I had a situation awhile ago when I put a post up that was getting a lot of negative reactions from people and it was creating a certain amount of anxiety within me. I was almost addictively checking social media to see if more comments would cure the anxiety which in fact made it worse. That’s what we’re doing. I heard something interesting recently which was, how many times do we post a certain thing on social media simply because we think it’s what people expect from us? I’m guilty of it. I hold my hand up totally for that. What will the people that follow my art and like my art think about this post? Is it witty? It it clever? Whatever. I mean I do it, I think we can all admit to doing it.
I think people like your art because oftentimes you’re saying what people are thinking and feeling. You’re not really afraid to put those things out there even if you do get the negative reaction and even though it does affect you (because you’re human) you still say it. I also like what you said, if you have an idea go out and do it yourself. Why should someone wait for you to do it?
We’re all creative. At what stage do we stop being creative? It’s still there. I had an Instagram conversation with a follower the other day and she said she likes doing sketches but she mainly does them for herself because other people criticize them and it upsets her. I assume she’s in her mid-teens or something like that, perhaps with some confidence issues (from our conversation it certainly sounded like it). I told her that it doesn’t matter if you’re doing sketches and showing them to friends at school or college or neighbors or brothers and sisters or if you’re an artist who’s producing canvases for international buyers. It still hurts the same, so go on and fucking do it anyway. It’s going to hurt you if you’re selling fifty thousand dollar canvases so do it now and get used to it. So many people are creative and they come up with new ideas. I’m not saying go do it yourself because I don’t want to do it — but find your own voice.
Imagine if we all were that expressive. Most times there are so many things that we want to say but the fear of what people will think about us stops us from expressing ourselves. I find more people are moving and in action now but it took society getting here in order for us to start moving our feet.
There’s been a wake up call and realized what happens if we just sit back and let this this train crash, and by that I mean the whole political train not just by any one policy or candidate. We need to be aware of what’s happening to our country and our world in general. It’s ours, not theirs.
What is your direction for 2017?
My direction for this year is going to be somewhat different. I must admit like so many artists I’ve been so engaged with the political crap that’s going and once you’re distracted by that it’s difficult to think creatively about anything else. I was reluctant last year to put other pieces of art out there because I think in this extremely heavy political climate if I just do a picture which means something socially or culturally but is effectively a cute picture, people will just think it’s frivolous and that I’m just selling out. You look at some of the pieces I’ve done in the past like a piece called ‘Envy’ which is a little boy and his bike sitting next to a Ferrari or the boy painting over the cellar which says “graffiti is a crime” they don’t mean anything huge in a political aspect. They’re just nice images and I think if I could use those now I would be considered to be somewhat frivolous and shallow. I think myself and other artists may go back to producing more fun pieces this year. I’m also looking at the opportunities there are in terms of Plastic Jesus as a brand. I think it’s got huge potential to brand with clothing, apparel, accessories and things like that. Every week I’ll get an email from a t-shirt manufacturer and I’ve avoided those up to now because I want to make sure they’re right for the brand. I don’t want to be selling t-shirts for $7 on every street corner. I want to do something that appeals to the kind of audience I have with a subversive nature and finger up to the man kind of feeling — so it has to be right with what I’m doing.
I think in the wake of what’s going on politically that might be quite welcome for your fans to breathe a little and wear it and express themselves that way.
I started out doing less heavyweight political pieces and it’s the situation that we’re in now that’s really driven me that way and I don’t regret that for one minute. I just wish I could lighten up occasionally