@pastelpapi is the account exposing our attention-seeking selves
It only takes a five second scroll through Instagram to stumble across a thirst trap, but for LA-based illustrator @pastelpapi these aren’t just images, they’re inspiration. The young, semi-anonymous artist first began sketching out flowers and inanimate objects in art classes a few years ago, but when he finally downloaded Instagram, his focus began to shift. “In high school, I honestly wasn’t online much, but then I found these artists that were drawing men,” he says, citing accounts like @ccimoroni12 and @tomtaylorillustrated as inspiration. “It was never something I really saw myself doing, but over time that changed.”
Now his account is filled with digitally-rendered muscle men in thongs, jockstraps, and not much else. He describes his art as “Latino appreciation” – a personal brand evident in his Instagram handle, which fuses the Spanish words for ‘cake’ and ‘daddy’ – which he shares on a regular basis to his captive audience of more than 7,000 Instagram followers.
This following has also translated into a part-time job fulfilling commissions for clients, which he manages with the help of his boyfriend. “When people started messaging and asking if I charge for my work I was in shock,” he laughs. “I thought I was really terrible! I didn’t want to overcharge them so I would ask for $10 which really isn’t much, but for me, it might as well have been $100 because I was being paid for something I genuinely loved.” Like many young artists, he funnelled this small profit back into his passion and bought himself an iPad to upgrade his work. “I actually uploaded some pictures from my archive back onto my grid so people could see the progression from 2016 to now,” explaining his desire to reassure budding illustrators that practice really does make perfect.
His work is also inadvertently political, as most queer art tends to be. Illustrators like Tom of Finland have blazed trails through queer history by drawing hyper-masculine couples fucking one another to disrupt gay male stereotypes, whereas the overtones of same-sex desire in David Hockney’s work were subtly radical in the context of 1960s Britain, which was only just warming up to decriminalising gay sex. It’s not just stills either; from Vaginal Davis to David Hoyle, the history of performance art has been hugely enhanced by queer and trans pioneers.
Papi maintains that there’s no specific political goal to his art, but even posting sexually-charged images is subversive in today’s age of sanitised social media. “Censorship is definitely a blow,” he laments, citing Tumblr’s crackdown on adult content and Instagram’s unpredictable guidelines – all it takes is one rogue follower and a report to get even relatively tame images pulled. “I’ve done maybe one or two drawings where you can see penis, and honestly I have thought about posting more nudity on my story. But I’ve seen other accounts get shut down for less and I’ve gained a following now. I’m not ready to risk it.”
He’s also realising that LGBTQ artists in particular face automatic pressure to create positive, expansive representation of their community. “It has been pointed out to me that I draw a lot of Latin men, or men who are obviously in shape,” he says of conversations he’s had with followers online. “A lot of the time I go for them because they create good photos and not just because they’re good-looking, but I do see why people question that.” Although he bills his art as Latino appreciation, he’s aware of the importance of representation. “It ties into the way that people expect it from magazines – art can play a part in shifting perceptions of beauty, so I do know that incorporating more diverse bodies would be good. Not every one of my followers is a muscular Latino guy in his twenties, so people will appreciate it more if the drawings looked more like them.”
This is particularly important in the wider context of queer issues today: body-shaming and femme-shaming are especially prevalent, and sexual racism has been proven to rear its ugly head frequently on queer dating apps. More specifically, gay men suffer eating disorders and low self-esteem at a higher rate than straight men, indicating that gay body standards are more rigid. Instagram, with its filters and its follower counts, arguably perpetuates this.
“I definitely do see that exclusion,” concurs Papi. “I have a personal account and you see that men get attention and retweets because of their bodies, whereas if you aren’t good looking you have to be funnier, to be kinder, to try harder. I realise that without knowing I might have contributed to that narrative, but obviously outside of my art I don’t feel that way.”
Although he reinforces his desire to hone his craft and take less paid work, this year saw him land a high-profile client in the form of Azealia Banks, who tapped him to design the packaging for her CheapyXO ‘Muscle Mike’ soap after he responded to her Instagram story call for submissions.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I threw my hat in the ring,” he explains. “After some back and forth she agreed my ‘muscle men’ aesthetic would make me perfect for this (to quote her loosely), so I drew out possible designs based on the cartoon-based aesthetics of her other soaps. She wanted to go a little more corporate and professional, so I tried again. I was on the brink of giving up, but then to my surprise she loved the last attempt. Seeing it in production and being sold around the world is amazing – I feel so proud. I guess that’s as close to a legacy I can get for now!”
Successes like these prove that Instagram is still a valuable tool for young artists, but strict censorship policies are discouraging queer creators in particular from pushing boundaries. Papi’s sexed-up muscle men might not be flashing all of their digital flesh, but he says that some posts do get flagged and that there seems no way of preducting which posts will be targeted. For now, his brand of ilustrated erotica is continuing the legacy of LGBTQ artists who sketched queer fantasies, but it also acts as a kind of cultural commentary: his work depicts the limits of gay beauty standards uncritically, forming a grid of digital desire which inadvertently shows what gay men want today.