Non-Self-Promoting L.A. Graffiti Artist Steals Self-Promotional Material

Interview by Adam Baran

BUTT first featured the work of underground gay graffiti artist ‘prvtdncr’ in issue 20, the LA issue, back in 2007. Since then, the artist, whose name is an internet-style abbreviation of ‘private dancer’, the title of Tina Turner’s classic solo album, has continued making funny homo sex-themed public art. His latest project has been stealing and recreating a series of homemade posters by an erotic masseuse/sex worker that have been popping up in East L.A. I called him in his studio to talk about the project. Though he’s very secretive about his true identity (à la Banksy), he’s very articulate when describing his process.

Adam: Can you tell me the history of how you first came to do these posters?
prvtdncr: I was Elysian Park, which is a kind of cruising area, and I noticed these little business cards advertising massage services taped to the trees. I thought it was a curious way to advertise.
Right, taped to a tree. (laughing)
But it also caught my eye. I was like, wow, this is interesting. Fast forward six months, I’m driving and I see one of his signs, literally on a pole next to the freeway, and I thought, who the hell would do that? I drove by it every day, and I would see it and think it was interesting. Eventually I just stole the damn thing because I wanted it. When I got it home afterwards, I realized it was the same guy who did the business card and thought, holy shit, he’s really moved on! Later, I stole another one. Then I felt really bad because thought I was taking down this guy’s livelihood, preventing him from getting anymore business. I decided to make copies and actually make them better than his originals. I made them bigger and used glitter to bump it up a little. I started making copies and putting them right back where I took down his original posters.
And then you photographed those?
Exactly. First I would document his poster, steal it, and then put a copy up.
So you didn’t really veer from his style at all?
No, I would copy them as closely as possible, and I did in a couple different ways. Sometimes I would do like a projection and try to copy it, but I eventually got to the point where I started to just do them freehand. I would have his poster on the wall of my studio, and just do a freehand copy of it, to kind of maintain his loose tweaker style. In a way it was like an art practice for me to try to capture his style, but without it being an exact copy. It was not hard to be honest with you.
The stylistic choices you made are very subtle, right?
Right, exactly. I wanted it to have the casual feel, where they wouldn’t necessarily know what was a copy and what was an original, other than like I said, mine tended to be a little bigger, and with glitter. I viewed it was as a dialogue between him and I, so the ultimate mind fuck for him would be, ‘Wait a minute that’s not the poster I put up, it looks exactly like it, only now its different.’ I even called him a couple times since I figured the natural evolution of this dialogue would be to just go get a massage to see him in his studio. I called him a couple times, and sent him an email, and he asking to meet up at three in the morning. Then I thought, well that confirms my tweaker idea, but I’m not really available at three in the morning, you know what I mean, and definitely not to go into East L.A. to get a massage. But I then became hesitant to meet him because I wanted our dialogue to be through the art. I was nervous that somehow, someway there would be some clue that I would give off, and he would know I was the one doing the posters.
I’m getting all these flashes of mail art, fluxus, and graffiti art combined. You never told him when you were calling, ‘Oh I’m the one who changes your posters’?
No, no. He asked me, the first time I called him he said, ‘Where did you get my number.’ I said, ‘Oh I saw one of your posters.’ He was like, ‘Where which one?’ I told him exactly where, so already I was kind of like, ‘Oh gosh he’s asking questions back to me.’ It probably, on some level, freaked him out that someone was doing it, but he was probably just as curious about me as I was about him. I decided not to pursue it further. Plus it to me it was this: I like to work on the streets, and a lot of what I do is out in the public. I like to put it up and let it live on its own out there, and I don’t necessarily need it to go further. It’s there for whoever is coming by, whoever is seeing, however they want to experience it. For me, once I’ve put up the copy and taken the photograph, I’m done. I didn’t need to go get that poster. I would get thrilled when I found one and it would still be up. At that point the project was at completion for me.
Maybe when people read this or what have you, and see them, you could have your posters disappearing and people making their own to put up.
Mine have disappeared, and I’ve always wondered if someone stole them for the same reason I stole his.
It’s interesting how queerness has a history that often relates to theft, I think.
I’m not opposed to stealing. I have no issues with that in this kind of realm because I figure that once it’s up, it’s a free for all. It becomes public property in weird way. Also I think what’s significant is all of this activity is taking place in East Los Angeles, which is not a gay community by any means. It’s sort of almost quaint, it’s like this is a family area, a cholo gangbang area, anything but an area you would expect to see a men-for-men’s massage poster, and just that idea alone is exciting to me, to interject homosexuality, and basically ‘hookerdom,’ into this type of community. A lot of my work is about catching people by surprise and jarring them out of their everyday existence, making them think, making them laugh, and so this was like such a natural fit for me.
While what you’re doing makes the posters more visible and in some ways more artistic, do you feel that if you’re putting glitter on this guy’s poster, perhaps that might turn people off to whatever kind hooker massage kind of thing this guy is doing? People might think, ‘Oh who is this queeny guy who gives massages and puts glitter on his posters?’
I view his posters as being valuable, and that’s why I stole them. I look at them as folk art, this kind of rare thing that happens sometimes where somebody is not making this for artistic purposes, but it is clearly an artistic thing. Even how he can’t get all his phone number on one line, how ‘massage’ spills over to the next line. To me that is the beauty of it, there’s like a real organic, raw, natural approach to it.
It’s Twombly-esque in a weird way.
Exactly. To me that’s what’s so great about them, that they served a purpose but were clearly done fast, with the purpose of just doing them and getting them up. If it was done for an artistic reason, ‘massage’ would be all on one line, the phone number would be on one line, weird little things like that. In making copies, really my goal was just to keep that information out in the world. I was very aware that my copies didn’t even hold a candle to his. Mine weren’t folk art, mine were different. Mine were not what his were, they didn’t have the essence and the intention behind it. Whether he got more clients from my side, who knows. But it really just became something where I thought, ‘well at least I’m not going in the wrong direction with him.’ The glitter does definitely add another layer to it, and to the untrained eye you wouldn’t necessarily know it, but between him and I, he knew it.
Interesting, you’re making art for one person in a weird way, but you’re exhibiting it as public art.
And exhibiting it on a freeway! One day I was driving by it and I thought, thousands and thousands and thousands of people drive by this each and every day. If you multiply that by how many days it’s up or how many weeks it’s up, to me it’s the private gone public. That is a huge part of my work, taking the most private aspects of our lives, or my life, and putting it out there for everybody. Taking a secret and making it a public thing. To me that it was exactly that, this private kind of thing. Really it was a dialogue between him and I, making it public. To Joe Schmo just driving by, he’s not going to know it’s a different poster.
How long have you been making work like this?
I’ve been doing the graffiti work for years and years and years, but I’ve been working on this particular project for about six months.
Do you have another full-time job?
Yeah.
Do we not want to talk about that?
I generally don’t, because I want to separate my art life from my work life. I deliberately use ‘Private Dancer’ because part of the fun for me is to have a private life.
What is your private life like?
In what way?
But what is it in your private world that you want to make public?
The most exciting part, for me, is duality. I love that you would meet me as a human being and know me in a certain way, and might even know me for awhile, and then discover, ‘Oh my gosh, you have this whole other thing.’ I’m happy to have conversations with people like you about my artwork, but if you met me in the world, I don’t promote it. I don’t talk about it openly. I’m the opposite of a bullshit self-promoting artist.
What is next? Is this what you’re focused on now?
This is a project that I feel is completed, and will probably exhibit within the next year. I’ve worked on it for six months and made enough and did enough copies and put it out in the world. Currently, I’m doing much more painting in the studio. I still do graffiti work, I still work out in public, but I also have been working in the studio doing more painting. In a weird way this was a bridge. I went from doing graffiti to drawings and collage, and now I’ve gone into painting much more. I love painting and I love how physical it is, and these men-for-men’s posters were really a way of loosening up and being free and doing some kind of paintings. In a lot of ways now I’ve transitioned into being a more traditional studio painter, but my stuff is completely filthy, let’s get real. The bottom line is, the thread through my work is filth, it’s sexual, and the private gone public.

End