How to draw your politics

As Molly Crabapple releases her memoir, the decade’s most anarchic illustrator schools us in creating reportage art that kicks back against injustice

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From "Drawing Blood" by Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapplevia mollycrabapple.com

Molly Crabapple, journalist and artist, has always been naturally defiant and skeptical. Growing up on Long Island, she started making art as a child, scribbling headless cheerleaders and angry drawings of teachers into her notebooks. She was always politically engaged, too, writing letters to anarchist and environmentalist prisoners she’d find in the back of Maximum Rocknroll while in middle school. But only in recent years have her artwork and politics started to really collide, after the life-changing experience of making art around Occupy Wall Street. From there, she has proceeded to chart a unique and powerful path as an artist and journalist, often combing her mediums in unprecedented and compelling ways: reportage art covering Guantanamo Bay, illustrated articles depicting scenes from the Syrian War, video op-eds on the realities of police brutality and the prison industrial complex.

“Before Occupy, I had this fear that if I made art that was explicitly political it would be preachy, shitty propaganda,” she says. “And it would feel like a lie to me. I felt like I wasn’t clever enough or intellectual enough to do that. And then Occupy provided this space, this opening, and this feeling of welcome.” Her time spent at Occupy Wall Street is documented in her new memoir Drawing Blood, which reflects widely on her robust story: her childhood, post-high school travels through Europe, her life as a SuicideGirl and model for sketchy photographers, her job as the house artist at a New York City nightclub.

Crabapple’s fearless work is embedded with her volumes of life experiences, deeply critical of the inequalities of the world today and understanding of the systems of money and control that maintain the status quo. If there’s a common thread weaving throughout her work, it perhaps all acts to shine light on “really smart, rebellious people who are being kicked around by the world, and perhaps they want to kick it back,” she said at her book’s launch event in Brooklyn this week.

KNOW YOUR HISTORY

“I’m a total fucking nerd. I read so much. I’m obsessed with history. And taking my historical dorkery and translating that into images is absolutely crucial to what I do … One piece I did, which was wheat-pasted all over the country, was in 2012 for the May Day General Strike. It’s a picture of a Latina woman striking a match. I was really sick of the image of the beefy, male proletarian worker. And I felt like that was a little out of date for America. I felt like Latina women were actually a lot of the faces of the American proletariat. And so I wanted to represent someone like that. I had her striking a match because I had heard about the Match Girls Strike in London in the 19th century. Which was when these young women, some of them really children, were making matches, something that can be very toxic because of the phosphorous. They were working in these unventilated places, and getting horrible deformities, their jaws were getting diseased and rotting off. And they had this massive strike and they won. I thought it was amazing—you strike a match, workers do as well. I played with that.”

DO RESEARCH, AND BREAK IT DOWN VISUALLY

“In that piece, I also put in a black cat because black cats are a symbol of wildcat strikes. And also because I had a black cat and she was evil. So I thought of that intellectually first, and then I broke it down visually … I really love people like Hieronymus Bosch, who would very literally illustrate proverbs, and bible verse, but do it in a way that was perverse and surrealist. When I did Shell Games, that was how I approached things. I would take something, like the presence of graffiti all over Athens, and then make my central figure covered with that graffiti. Or I would remember the orange police nets at Occupy, used to kettle protesters, and I would give the central female figure a collar made of those nets. I would take all of these symbols and I would remix them, kind of like how when you wake up from a dream, and bits of the dream are still clinging to your eyelids.”

FIND WHAT MAKES YOU ANGRY

“Find something that makes you angry, and draw it. Artists are mocking creatures. A lot of us, when we were in school, would draw mean pictures of our teachers. I think the best political work comes out of mockery or it comes out of love. So, take your rage, and take your love, take what makes you angry and what you think is shit, and draw from those things. And then it will be real.”

“I would take all of these symbols and I would remix them, kind of like when you wake up from a dream, and bits of the dream are still clinging to your eyelids” – Molly Crabapple

USE THE INTERNET BUT DON’T BE BEHOLDEN TO ONE PLATFORM

“The internet is the most transformative technology of our era. And no transformative technology is ever wholly good or bad. The printing press is not wholly good or bad. TV is not wholly good or bad. They just are… I think if I had any advice for young people and young artists on the internet today, it’s never let one platform wholly own you. Never think about being the biggest Etsy seller, or the biggest Facebook person, or the biggest Vine or whatever. If you do, once that company changes their algorithms or their policies, you’re fucked. You’re at their mercy. Think about being the biggest YOU. And use platforms as best you can for that.”

KNOW WHAT GROUPS AND ISSUES SPEAK TO YOU, AND GO TO THEM

“Find groups you like, that are doing stuff you like, and find issues that speak to you. Do work that’s as true and real as you can.”

Drawing Blood is out now from Harper Collins USA

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