A Q&A with Plastic Jesus, as part of the California Summer series. The artist talked with us about stirring up controversy, celebrity culture, and the ethics of street art.
The Street Preacher: Plastic Jesus on Stirring Up Controversy, Celebrity Culture, and the Ethics of Street Art
[California Summer Series]
Written by T.K. Mills
Even before I flew out to Los Angeles, I was familiar with the work of Plastic Jesus, thanks to a viral photo of his Weinstein sculpture. In the wake of #MeToo, the piece created quite a stir. I reached out to the artist via instagram, not expecting much of a response given his 100k followers.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Plastic Jesus was an amiable Brit, who invited me over to his studio for a chat. As chance would have it, his studio-mate was none other than Padhia – Unfuk Yourself.
After some coffee and pleasantries, the two of us sat down and got talking about stirring up controversy, celebrity culture, and the ethics of street art.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
TK Mills: Where does the name ‘Plastic Jesus’ come from?
Plastic Jesus: I came to LA in 2007. I come from the UK where — obviously there’s religion there, but people don’t tend to display it in the same way they do in the US. I was driving around LA, and I noticed people were driving around with little plastic Jesus characters on their dashboard. And I’m thinking, if you’re religious, do you really need a $5 figure in your car to remind you of what Jesus should look like? So that was why I initially thought it would be a good name. Plus, obviously, a lot of what I do is illegal so I needed something to cover my identity. Hence the name.
But then, it took on other meanings. A plastic Jesus figure is something that’s fake, but reminds you of your morality and your ethics, which is in a way what I try to do with my art. Get people to think about their stance, their opinion, or their ethics.
You were a news photographer from the U.K. What brought you to Los Angeles?
Yes, that’s right, I was a news photographer. I was the founder of an agency just outside of London. We did news-stories for worldwide organizations, magazines, and so on. We covered conflicts, war, big celebrity stories, and all that kind of stuff. And that’s really why I came to LA. I came out here in 2016 on an assignment. Basically, I was walking along Sunset boulevard on a sunny afternoon — I think it was November — where in London, it would have been wet and gray. I thought, yeah I quite like this. So I moved out here as a news photographer.
When did you start doing street art? Was there an overlap with your news career?
There was an overlap, but it was a pretty clean break. I was quite surprised how quickly my street art took off. The reason the transition happened is that I was becoming more and more disillusioned with news photography and news reporting. It was becoming so biased toward celebrity. So I thought maybe I should reinvent myself as some other type of photographer out here in LA. I decided to do a creative portfolio, so I could show people how imaginative I could be.
One of the first shoots I did was with a buddy of mine, dressed in a hoodie with some low-key lighting. About that time there were some pretty major riots going on in London. The shoot kind of progressed to an idea — to, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do a riot scene with everybody dressed as Banksy’s Flower Thrower?’ A piece of graffiti that everybody knows. So instead of a riot scene, I worked to just reconstruct that one shot. Using the image and recreating it with a real person as a photograph. I got great feedback. And then developed that into about 20 images, with Banksy stencils recreated as photographs. These went viral online and got picked up everywhere.
For me it was good practice, a good learning process, because I tried to get the photos to be as close to the original images as I could. Not just the clothes and the poses but even down to where the light came from. I looked at the image and considered angles, thinking would the viewer be seeing this as waist-high, head-high, or whatever. So I reverse engineered Banksy’s stencils.
I’ve always been a great fan of Banksy. How he can encapsulate a political or social commentary within a simple, sometimes single color, stencil. He’s a genius. Having been a news photographer for twenty plus years, you always want to get a message out there. The photo series gave me the idea… to start using street art. That’s how the transition happened.
When was the year you began street art?
Early 2013. The first image I did was a stencil of Lance Armstrong connected to an IV drip. It was around the time he was doing his Oprah Winfrey confession. Having spent many years as a news photographer, it taught me many things. One was how to create an image that was impactful in a simplistic way. I’d go on assignment for days, or even weeks, where I’d need to capture one image to convey a whole story. The backstory, the human cost, the politics. Working in news media for all those years also gave me the logistical means. I had all the major news editors from several different organization from several different countries, in my cell phone. It helped me get the pictures and messages out there.
Did your friends know about your street art life?
It was a bit of a secret. Only family and close friends know. I still try to keep it secret. It’s part of the culture. And a lot of what I do is illegal, and if the city wants to throw the book at you they can. I’ve had friend who’ve gone to jail. I’ve had buddies put up a 40-foot billboard no problem, and then you go paint love and peace on an electrical box and you go to jail for it. Crazy, y’know?
You started with stencils, but have expanded to other mediums. Tell me about the evolution of your style.
I started with stencils but I’ve always been somebody who likes physically making something with their hands. Even as a child in freezing cold winter, I’d be in the garage knocking pieces of wood together making stuff. So for me, sculptures, street installations, whatever you want to call them, were what I loved doing. There’s a quirk on installations. And sometimes it’s not something big, but just something small and clever.
Recently, I had these bulletproof vests that I put in Target in their ‘Back-to-School’ section. I bought half-a-dozen of them and put them [in the store] with a price tag. Well you might ask, ‘where’s the art in that?’ but that’s the kind of stuff I love doing. Stencils are very authentic in terms of street art. Going out and putting it up on a wall. It carries a clear message. You’re creating an image, a message, on someone else’s property — the man, as it were.
You did a sculpture of Harvey Weinstein after the #MeToo movement. The sculpture went viral. Could you tell me about the process of how that came together?
Since I’ve started, I’ve tried to do an Oscar statue each year. For the Weinstein piece I collaborated with Ginger, who I also worked with on the Kanye West statue. When I was thinking of ideas, I knew it had to be Weinstein, because it was the biggest story in Hollywood. I was talking it over with Ginger, and Ginger actually came up with the idea of ‘why don’t we make it a seat, so people can come up and sit next to him?’ Brilliant Idea.
So we created this life-size sculpture and molded it for the body and Ginger took the parts and did a great job fabricating the face. It was a bit rushed for time. I wanted to get it out a week before the Oscars, but it came to the day before. It was 6pm and I was waiting in a hotel room until 3am, waiting to pick up the finished piece and drive to LA with it. Crazy trying to get it out at the right time.
That piece got the reaction we wanted. When you come up with a piece that’s controversial, you never know how your audience will react. Will they like it, will they hate it, will it be offensive to people affected by the story? A year before the story broke, if you could sit next to Harvey Weinstein, you would be in awe of this hugely powerful movie mogul. But now that the story broke, which was incredibly uncomfortable for everybody to read and see, people were like ‘ooh I don’t want to sit next to him.’ Sitting there, feeling uncomfortable. Which is wanted I wanted to do, to show people how it would feel being seated next to a monster.
As an artist, do you feel a responsibility to strike at these societal taboos? Especially in terms of street art, there’s a socio-political undertone. How has this shaped your art and your outlook?
It totally influences me. Now with the political situation in the US, I’m finding it difficult to focus on anything else. Going back to photojournalism, photojournalism is generally reacted, and in the same way, so is my art. With my art, I try to address viewpoints or opinions that a lot of people won’t say because they don’t know how to convey it. That’s where the inspiration behind the work comes from.
Another piece of yours that went viral was ‘Stop Making Stupid People Famous.’ How’d that come about?
That phrase has now been viewed, tweeted, and liked probably millions of times now from all over the world. Whenever it gets posted, people inevitably end up tagging celebrities, the Kardashians or whatever. But it was never intended as that.
In 2008, I wrote a comment piece for [a newspaper.] The piece was about how mainstream media was becoming a reality TV show. The article was critical of the way the news covered celebrities. Y’know, you have companies who were once heavyweight, serious newspapers covering gossip. At the time, it was Britney Spears meltdown. In the piece, I argued that if we want better quality media, we should stop making stupid people famous. So rather than be a criticism of celebrities, it was really a criticism of us. Because we are the ones buying the magazines, looking up the websites, flipping through the tabloids, following them on social media. So that’s where that really came about.
I started doing street art in 2013, and I thought it would be a poignant stencil to put up around town. In fact, Miley Cyrus has a canvas with it.
Hollywood, LA, Celebrity Culture. How do you think Los Angelenos really feel about fame?
It’s superficial on one level, but when you get so many people who are critical of Hollywood, it shifts the dynamic. I have Hollywood casting agents who follow me and comment on my posts. They are casting the most trivial reality shows, and they love my work. Vacuous, empty celebrity — that sells. We’re all so critical of politics and fame, but if we weren’t all spending 3-4 hours a day on social media reacting to it, they wouldn’t put it out there. So again, we’re creating that culture.
What are some other projects you’ve worked on?
I like the product bombing. One was an early piece I did called Plastic Box Version 1.2. I got a small molded boxes from radio shack, put rubber feet on them, took a BestBuy price tag, stuck it on them, and it put them on a shelf. Put this useless plastic box on the shelf alongside their electronics. One of the pieces was on the shelf for 5 days.
It was a good fun piece. You’re catching out all these stories, but there was a serious message. As a news photographer, I was always a gadget freak. I had a palm pilot, iPack… And you’d buy all this stuff, and it wouldn’t work., the batteries would be dead, or whatever. That’s what this piece is about — you’ll buy any shit if it’s marketed well. I actually got some messages from people at BestBuy who wanted to buy this. As a street artist, I try to do my work ethically, so if I can create as little damage as possible and still get a message out, sometimes getting positive feedback from the people I’m ‘attacking,’ then great.
Also, I did one on Melrose with a 12-foot-long lines of cocaine and an 8-foot-high dollar bill sticking out of the ground. That was good fun, but again, there’s a serious message behind it.
What are your thoughts on the ‘ethics’ of street art?
For me, the purpose of doing illegal art, is a message in itself. I’m not looking for approval from the city or the government or some higher power. Taking that responsibility for what you do, is to me, a major part of what street art is about. The city of LA will approve you for a permit to paint electrical boxes now. But I don’t have a message that the city would want to approve. Kinda, ‘fuck you, I can put what I want out.’ You know, you’re driving down the freeway and there’s billboards, advertisements, and propaganda — buy this product, drink this alcohol, even stuff for guns. And it’s okay for them to broadcast that. There’s religious propaganda — even if you’re not religious, you’re forced to accept other people’s religious morals. The illegality and subversives-ness is kinda overblown, but who the fuck really owns a wall?
There’s a wall here on Melrose, where I would paint some art and a few days later it would be painted over. Later, I drove back and saw it was painted over again but with a sign that said, ‘advertise here.’ So fuck it. It’s okay for an alcohol advert, or some banking shit — the biggest, most corrupt institution — but I can’t put a stencil saying love and peace to inspire people?
How do you think money influences art? Do you make a living solely off your art?
I do make a living off my art. It’s tough. I have 100k followers, but it’s still tough paying bills at the end of the month. I sell stuff either directly to collectors or through galleries. They contact me through social media. And you never know if they’re some penniless student in their dorm room or a multimillionaire.
To monetize, you have to sell. I think every artist goes through that natural progression of creating art because they feel it, and then they start selling it, either through a gallery or an agent, who tells them ‘well you could sell more if you did more of this, or x, y, z.’ I had that. A gallery came up to me and told me, ‘oh you should paint nice stuff, not so many negative things.’ And, fuck, what do they want me to do? Portraits of Marilyn Monroe?
I don’t care. In that, I want to have integrity in what I do. I’ve done some stuff that I’m not proud of… a couple commissions where people came to me, and told me to paint a way. I’m not proud of those pieces, although you do have to have one eye on the commercial side, because in the end you need to make a living. The big street art installations that I do would probably never sell anyway. But that’s good. That’s what carries my political and social messages. But I also do canvases for collectors.
Galleries… are a filter. They control who sees and buys your art. Social media has no filter. Anybody can follow you or find you. It’s interesting because you need to attract and communicate with a vast demographic of people. You also need to be mindful about who you sell to. Because you can sell a canvas to someone who makes millions a year, and then just leaves it in storage hoping it’ll increase in value… and then there’s someone who’s working minimum wage and spends months saving up to buy one of your pieces. Obviously, the penniless student who will truly appreciate my work is who I would rather sell to.
Anything else you’d like people to know about you, your art, or your career?
As a journalist, I do a lot of media because I know it’s important. If I go out and do a piece, and a couple thousand people see it, that’s great. But if I do an interview or whatever, and I can reach more, that’s even better. As a photojournalist I recognize the power of media and how to use it.
The reason my art gets so much pick-up is probably down to two things. Firstly, as someone who was a journalist, I’m very good at creating something that’s controversial, but not too controversial that it’s distasteful. My art is on that edge. So it engages people, but it doesn’t piss them off.
Logistically, as well, I have a bunch of reports in my contacts. When I started out, there was a story that came out that ISIS was using child soldiers. So I created a piece called ‘War Child.’ A child with a teddy bear in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. I went and painted that on a wall on Melrose. And I knew, if I took pictures and sent them out to organizations captioned ‘Plastic Jesus has painted a new stencil…’ no one would give a shit. So instead, I sent out photos with the caption, ‘Is the newest Banksy?’ I came back later that morning and there were two TV news trucks and a crowd of people arriving… So it’s all about that caption, that hook that will get people engaged.
Another example of that is the Kanye West statue I did in 2015. Life-size Kanye with his arms outstretched and a crown of thorns. I was curious to see the reaction from Kanye fans, because some of them are also quite religious. So for many a statue of Kanye as Jesus was double blasphemy. The feedback came into a couple camps. Some people thought it was awesome because Kanye has this God-like status. Some of the hip-hop blogs had some amusing commentary. Funny enough, Ozzy Osbourne reached out to me and asked how much for it, and I said $50,000. And he said ‘fuck off.’ So that was that.
Since last summer when we conducted this interview, Plastic Jesus has kept a relatively low profile. Mostly he’s been working on commissions for clients, though he is also putting together a clothing collection and planning a series of pop ups.
However, with the 91st Oscar Awards this weekend, the artist was sure not to miss his annual tradition. This year, the statue centered around Kevin Hart, and the backlash to his homophobic comments. Out on the boulevard, Plastic Jesus created a statue in his likeness holding a rainbow flag – titled: Hollow Apology.