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Can Anti-Trump Artists Make Protest Art Great Again?

Protesters against Trump rallying in New York City on April 14, 2016 (photo by mal3k/Flickr)
Protesters against Trump rallying in New York City on April 14, 2016 (photo by mal3k/Flickr)

Trump has a micropenis. Trump is a pile of poop with a toupee. Trump is a barf bag. Trump has a face made of menstrual blood. When it comes to depictions of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the more grotesque, the better.

No other presidential election in recent memory has inspired such vitriolic protest art. Sure, Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment sparked an excellent satirical portrait in 2012, and 2008 was the year of gun-toting, bikini-clad Sarah Palin caricatures. But that was all comparatively tame. The no-holds-barred climate of Trump’s cartoonishly insane campaign permeates its corresponding protest art, as well as the reactions to that art. Unlike Illma Gore, the artist who drew Donald Trump with a micropenis, none of those earlier artists got punched in the face by people who disliked their work. None had to camouflage their work to deter potential attackers, as the artists who turned a former Trump campaign bus into an anti-Trump art project recently did. When the outcome of all of this is censorship or physical violence, it’s certainly disturbing — but it can also serve as fodder. If artists can draw anything positive from Trump’s hate-mongering campaign, it’s the opportunity to make protest art great again.

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Sarah Levy, “#Bloody Trump” (2015) (courtesy the artist)

The first question these artists must confront: How does one parody such a flaming self-parody? With blood and poop, according to some. In anti-Trump art, bodily fluids and grotesque anatomies have become something of a theme, turning the candidate’s own crass rhetoric against him. After the first Republican presidential debate, artist Sarah Levy painted a portrait of Trump using her own menstrual blood and tampon. The likeness, in shades of rust red and brown, is uncanny. Titled “Wherever,” it was a response to Trump’s attack on debate moderator and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. “You could see blood coming out of her eyes, coming out of her wherever,” Trump said to CNN. Revealing the painterly potential of a taboo medium, the portrait packs a double punch, responding both to Trump’s misogyny and, more generally, to what the artist called “menstrual shame … related to the overall body shame that many girls and women in our society are raised to feel as a matter of course.”

Illma Gore, "Make America Great Again" (2016) (courtesy the artist)
Illma Gore, “Make America Great Again” (2016) (courtesy the artist)

After the short-fingered vulgariandefended the size of his manhood in another debate, Los Angeles–based artist Illma Gore drew a nude portrait of Trump with a micropenis. Titled “Make America Great Again,” the pencil illustration featuring a smaller-than-average member provoked a massive response. When the drawing made its way out of the private Facebook group in which Gore had shared it, the artist was suspended from the social media service. Trump’s team then threatened to sue Gore. She received death threats online, and later, she claimed, a Trump supporter punched her in the face while she was walking in LA. It all exemplifies the underestimated power of a mere pencil drawing to provoke extreme reactions, even in an image-saturated society. The drawing, which at least one person has turned into a tattoo, is currently on view at Maddox Gallery in London, priced at an astounding $1.4 million. Undeterred by threats, Gore has continued her anti-Trump work with a new piece: a white picket fence on the Mexico-Arizona border, adorned with a comically heavy-handed sign that reads “For Sale: American Dream.” 

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Hanksy, “Dump Trump” (2016) (image via Hansky)

Similarly blunt is street artist Hanksy’s “Dump Trump,” a project that began with a mural depicting the nominee as a steaming pile of poop in a yellow wig. After first painting the mural on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Hanksy launched “Dump Across America,” a web-based campaign offering freely downloadable buttons, yard signs, and banners emblazoned with the painting of Trump-as-poop. “Print, post, protest,” Hanksy urges. Now, “Dump Trump” signs pepper anti-Trump rallies across the country, and earlier this month, Hanksy opened the Dump Trump Protest Shop, a pop-up store in Soho that, for a day, hawked anti-Trump stickers, signs, and, best of all, portraits of the candidate made with actual dog feces collected from around Trump Tower. It was a fitting response to a man who claims that his wife, Melania, never poops.

“Dump Trump” pairs nicely with British artist Lydia Leith’s “Donald Trump airsickness bag,” a puke bag emblazoned with a cartoon of the shouting real estate developer next to the phrase “Make America Regurgitate Again.” Below it a line reads: “Keep this handy in November 2016.”

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t.Rutt, “T.RUMP BUS” (2016) (image courtesy t.Rutt)

These scatological artworks provide much-needed comic relief in the face of looming neo-fascism. But, while funny in a Beavis and Butt-head way, most are one-liners, not likely to challenge anyone’s thinking about the election. 

The T.RUMP Bus, on the other hand, is perhaps the most nuanced political art piece to emerge from this campaign cycle. Late last year, leftist art collective t.Rutt purchased a former Trump campaign bus on Craigslist and transformed it into an art project against him. Since February, they’ve been driving the transformed bus to rallies across the country. The vehicle’s political message is cryptic: One side reads “T.RUMP: Make Fruit Punch Great Again”; another side reads “T.RUTT: #WomenTrumpTrump.” At first glance, it still looks like a Trump campaign bus.

This makes it function like a Trojan Horse: Trump supporters will enthusiastically approach the bus for selfies, only to slowly realize that “Make Fruit Punch Great Again” is not the Republican nominee’s real slogan. On the flip side, confused anti-Trumpers have vandalized the bus, mistaking it for the enemy, which has led the artists to disguise the vehicle.

The Trump tombstone in Central Park (photo via @sachinrb/Instagram)
Brian Whiteley, Trump tombstone in Central Park (2016) (photo via @sachinrb/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

The muddiness of its message lets the bus at least attempt to do what much protest art fails to: spark dialogue between members of opposing parties. Instead of preaching to the choir, t.Rutt tries to slyly engage both sides of the political spectrum. The difference between protest art and propaganda can be hazy, but it becomes clearer when an artist actively seeks to foster conversation instead of insult matches, to unite rather than divide. 

As the race continues and Trump’s nomination looks increasingly assured, plenty more artists are responding to the Republican candidate in their work. One anonymous artist, who later came forward as Brian Whiteley, erected a tombstone in Central Park carved with the real estate mogul’s name, birth year, and the epitaph, “MADE AMERICA HATE AGAIN.” (It was swiftly removed by park officials, and Whiteley was interrogated by the Secret Service and the NYPD.) LA-based street artist Plastic Jesus has made free, printable “NO TRUMP ANY TIME” parking signs available online, urging people to turn their neighborhoods into Trump-free zones.

“ No Trump” signs appear in cities across the USA. - Signs spotted in New York, LA, Chicago, DC and Miami. - Outside Trump Building in New York - One sign is a stones throw from The Congress building. - A sign is outside Trump Tower in Chicago There has been a lot of protests about presidential favorite Donald Trump’s campaign but none as official looking as this. Days after the controversial GOP candidate cruised to victory in the New York primaries official looking “No Trump Anytime” signs have appeared in cities across the USA. The metal signs have be spotted in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Miami. It’s believed that the signs are not official sanctioned parking restrictions but instead are the work of controversial Los Angeles based street artist PLASTIC JESUS. In April 2015 the artist installed “No Kardashian Parking” signs around Hollywood a move that was widely commended by the general public. He also gained notoriety for his cocaine snorting oscars statue placed on Hollywood Blvd a few days before the 2015 Oscar ceremony. The former photo-journalist has become known for his guerrilla style street art. The signs first appeared over the weekend are located on some of the most famous location and busiest streets including Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, under the shadow of the congress building in Washington DC, and Union Station . There is even a sign outside Trump Tower in Chicago and a number of other Trump properties.
Plastic Jesus, “No Trump” signs (2016) (image via Plastic Jesus)

The bulk of the existing Trump protest art is driven by visual punchlines and shareability, which might seem necessary in an age of social media. “[In] today’s click-bait culture, art can pry its way into the media spotlight—which, if seized, has the potential to start a conversation and say things that need to be said,” Levy, painter of “Bloody Trump,” wrote of her work. Pieces that rely on online distribution, like “Dump Trump” and “No Trump Anytime,” are examples of the upside of this often suffocating culture. Freely downloadable protest artworks offer members of the public a means of peacefully expressing what can feel like impotent rage at the state of political affairs. 

But in part because of its pandering to clickbait culture, much anti-Trump art falls short of conveying the very real threats behind the Republican nominee’s evil clown mask. In a climate where xenophobia and neo-fascist rhetoric are seeping into the mainstream, we need more than arty memes. The seriousness of Trump’s bigotry should provoke an equal and opposite reaction from political artists. With all due respect to the beautifully detailed micropenis drawing, the Trump protest art movement is waiting for its “Guernica.”

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