I first saw Dustin Spagnola’s work in the Grand River Creative Corridor of Detroit. Ever since Trump was elected in November, I’ve been increasingly interested in the reactions of the artistic community to our newly charged political and social atmosphere. I reached out to Dustin Spagnola to get his thoughts on the current climate and he took some time out to talk to me.
The conversation below has been edited for length.
Gypsy Queen: It seems that the piece that you’re best known for is the mural of Bush holding the mask of Obama. And then I saw different one you made of Hitler holding a mask of Trump. A reviewer said these two pieces look like “old boss same as the new boss.” Is that fair?
Dustin Spagnola: Yep.
GQ: And in that case, what’s the point if all we’re doing is repeating ourselves?
Spagnola: That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know. I can tell you about those images, which might be an easier way to understand what I think about that kind of stuff.
GQ: Yes, please.
Spagnola: So those images are based off a piece of poster art created in 1968 in Paris, France during the student uprising at the Sorbonne. The students took over their art department and printing room and they made a bunch of political art and someone made a print that was an image of Hitler holding a mask of de Gaulle, the French president.
When Obama got elected, I decided to make an image of Bush holding an Obama mask, which was really signifying “same shit, different day” but also, I felt it was a much softer critique of the system than comparing the president to Hitler, whom we universally view not as a person but as a monster.
I was really surprised at the kick-back that got because a lot of people were really upset about it. And I voted for Obama twice. Obama was a president who did a lot of good things and a lot of bad things and he was a leftist and a talking head, a visionary. And there’s also a cult of personality attached to him. So a lot of people got really upset about me comparing Obama to Bush, which I found very interesting personally. I feel that as a free thinker and someone who tries to have an open mind about things, comparing one president to the next is not exactly a big jump, to say the least. It’s kind of a logical linear progression.
So when Trump got elected, a bunch of people around me were obviously very upset and I thought “Well, it’s a great time to make some political art”, which is one of the things that I really love to do. So I decided to just recreate the poster that I based the Bush Obama image on. I replaced de Gaulle’s face with Trump’s face and I literally used the exact original image of Hitler to pay homage to that original image.
And maybe to answer your bigger question about what the artists think, I have to say that most artists are leftists, and a lot of them are leftists who actually fall very far on the left end of the spectrum, like me and a lot of people that I know who are really more like radicals or anarchists. And we look at the two party system and it looks like business as usual and we think “Well this shit doesn’t work for anyone, except for the people in charge.” I think most of the population doesn’t really have as extreme or radical of views as we do but I think that’s the root of our problem. I think there’s a hierarchy in place that is very very unfair, to say the least.
GQ: So when you paint something that’s very pointedly political, especially when you’re recreating something or paying homage to it, are you looking for a particular reaction? Or just a reaction? In your ideal world, what do people do when they see your artwork?
Spagnola: I can’t really speak for anyone else but for me it’s about contributing to a dialogue and making images that resonate with people. We live in the United States and I’m allowed to think whatever way I want to and I’m allowed to say whatever I want and I’m allowed to paint pictures of whatever I want. For me the conversation that I’m interested in having is just throwing that shit out there and letting other people talk about it.
Sometimes I make things that aren’t political and I hope that those things affect people also. I hope they make people feel a certain way, that it makes someone’s day better or gives them an opportunity to stop for a moment and take a picture. Or maybe it inspires someone to paint something of their own.
I would hope that on some level the images spur conversation and dialogue between people that I don’t know. That I’ll never even meet.
GQ: You paint street art, which I use as a very broad umbrella term for painted public art outside, but then you also show in galleries and museums and you have fine art canvases for sale. Do you prefer one mode of expression to another?
Spagnola: It’s a good thing to have art, whether it’s on a canvas or on a wall. And for me, I enjoy traveling and I like painting pictures and murals, I like seeing murals, I enjoy street art and graffiti. But I also really enjoy canvases and galleries and museums. I like showing in them and I feel like they’re kinda two sides of the same coin. Galleries and museums are certainly not the be-all-end-all of the art world. I think in a lot of ways street art and the internet surpass them.
Street art fits in a different context and reaches more people and people engage with it differently. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead a life style where I can choose to get in my vehicle and go to another state and paint a wall and meet people there who paint or organize events around painting. I’ve personally really been welcomed into a lot of communities that I don’t think I would have met otherwise and I’ve made great friends. And there’s something really awesome about that.
GQ: I feel that the internet has had a lot to do with the rise of what I call the street art revolution, which is the current outpouring of public painted art everywhere all over the world, because the internet has extended the reach of the average person. For instance, I can see things in Moscow without ever going there.
Spagnola: Right. The internet makes everything more accessible to the common viewer. But remember that graffiti and murals and street art all existed prior to the internet. And people have been fans of it for a long time, even pre-internet. But with the rise of the internet and cell phones that are computers with cameras in your pocket, now people can engage in and regurgitate “the spectacle”, as Guy Debord would say.
We see it and we want to understand it, and we want to be a part of it and interact with it but then really we just take a picture of it and put it on Instagram.
It makes us feel like we’re doing something because we get positive feed back from our peers. And that’s cool. But it’s like I was saying before, I hope that one of the other things that happens is that people talk. That they consider the images and then decide to make their own.
GQ: When you’ve been invited to paint, have you ever had people put parameters on your subject matter?
Spagnola: All the time. People love to say “no sex, no violence, no politics.” All the time.
GQ: Do you abide by that?
Spagnola: Yeah, usually. That’s why a lot of my public work isn’t political. I painted a lot of tigers because I was trying to find a subject that was interesting to me. And tigers are beautiful and interesting but I probably would have been painting pictures of cops shooting black people or something. Because that’s the reality.
GQ: When did you get started painting publicly?
Spagnola: Maybe around 2009 or 2011? I went down to Miami to do a gallery show, and I saw a lot of murals and that got me excited about painting murals. Just seeing the scale that people were working on. You can paint things that are 30’ high and 60’ wide and immerse the viewer and it really changes the experience of the viewer. Because if it were a 2’ x 4’ painting, it might be a really nice painting but it’s just not going to do the same thing.
GQ: Like the difference between seeing a painting in a museum and seeing a replica in a book. Even if the replica is perfect, the scale makes all the difference.
Spagnola: yeah, scale is really important.
GQ: You use your real name, Dustin Spagnola, to tag your street art murals. Have you ever felt you needed anonymity or wanted to choose a name that wasn’t your name?
Spagnola: No. I thought about it but it just seemed kind of fake to me. I’m not a graffiti kid and that’s what graffiti kids do. I’m not out breaking the law. I don’t like cops so I give them no reasons to talk to me. In general, I paint in spots where I have permission. And I know it’s not romantic or cool in the eyes of a lot of people who enjoy graffiti but that’s pretty ok. I’m just a normal person who is realistic about shit.
GQ: You live in Asheville NC. Is there a good-sized artistic community there?
Spagnola: Oh yes. Most people here are artists, of different stripes, and this town is rapidly gentrifying. There are a lot of people moving here who aren’t artists and property values changing drastically. But this community has largely been shaped by the people who are artists. It’s a good place to paint. You can get a wall here pretty easily if you want.
GQ: What’s next for you?
Spagnola: I’m in the middle of learning to make films right now. I’m actually working on a short film at the moment and I’m going out to do some filming next week. Not that I’m giving anything else up but I’m learning a new medium. Because I want to.
Thanks so much for talking to me, Dustin. It was a pleasure and you gave me some interesting things to think about.
Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures used in this piece were borrowed from Dustin Spagnola’s website with his permission.