The Making of Urban Agitpop

Kanye meets Soviet propaganda design in Margarita Korol's tribute to the famous hip-hop artist
Kanye meets Soviet propaganda design in Margarita Korol’s tribute to the famous hip-hop artist (all images courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — The self-proclaimed title of “urban pop artist” suits Margarita Korol well. As the one-woman artist/president of her creative practice, Korol blatantly straddles the world of commercial, pop, and fine art, and she’s as much at home in being distributed at Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park as she is in a new video for Chicago-based rapper Chella H. Is it pop art, or pop propaganda, or does it even matter? The phrase “What Would Warhol Say?” (WWWS) comes to mind, and then I wonder if my categories of what makes something art need to once again become even broader. For example, Sophia Wallace’s project Cliteracy: 100 Natural Laws, in which the artist plastered the 100 laws of the clit across New York City, comes to mind. Is that urban pop art, subversive feminist messaging, or straight up clit propaganda? Like Korol’s illustrations, this slippery slope is one reason this type of work is worth revisiting.

Her work focuses mostly on commercial illustration, book covers, teaser videos, artwork for albums and music-focused endeavors, and publications such as Bluecanvas Magazine. Her aesthetic comes out of being the daughter of a Soviet Jewish refugee growing up in America, and is very much influenced by the curious commingling of hip-hop and Ukrainian cultures. Korol quotes John F. Kennedy, whose ideas are very much in line with her philosophy of being an artist: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” Korol’s work exists best outside of the white cube and on the streets. We got into a conversation via email about her projects, meeting in the middle to see what truths we could arrive at.

Alicia Eler: Tell me about yourself and your aesthetic, which seems most influenced by your upbringing as the daughter of (a Soviet Jewish) refugee in the U.S. What does being “American” mean, to you? What do you think of the American Dream? How is your work influenced by American hip-hop/rap and Ukrainian culture? 

Margarita Korol: I’m an artist at my design studio Urban Pop Art Projects, mainly based in Chicago, but also in NYC and LA. I run off to other cities every couple of months for exhibits and projects with musicians and publications. I feel privileged to be able to own the artist identity, since had my mother’s family not fought as activists to leave the Soviet Union, I’d probably have to work as an engineer or a hooker.

As a child immigrant, I saw firsthand my family’s struggle to get from oppression as third-rate citizens in the Soviet Union to establishing a comfortable life for themselves in Chicago. To borrow from a recent Canadian settler, “Started from the bottom now we here” really resonates to me as an immigrant song, and I think it’s important for Americans (that is, people whose ancestors shlepped over here for the sake of their legacies’ pursuits of happiness) to be conscious of that history of acceleration from bad to better in their own lineage. That to me defines the pursuit of the American Dream, whether the fruits of that manifest as a green lawn, gold teeth, or eudaemonia. So, being American means taking responsibility for the great freedoms afforded us, then and now, and contributing to the greater good with the resources we have.

Margarita Korol's desing for the Propaglasnost! Campaign for the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, promoting active democracy and political transparency
Margarita Korol’s desing for the Propaglasnost! Campaign for the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, promoting active democracy and political transparency

I don’t see America as ideally being a melting pot, which to me implies assimilation, but as what an anthropology professor once so eloquently put it, a tossed salad. And that’s what you get in urban centers. I’m going to go ahead and highlight my favorite part of living and working in a city as an artist by referencing Cheers, the still-in-vogue sitcom: You’ve got a big bar, and in it, you’ve got people with all sorts of backgrounds expressing themselves how they see fit. And you better believe that Carla’s going to loudly take issue with Diane if her experience as a waitress and mother of eight negates academic theorizing. And that’s beautiful. It’s not about the talker or the artist, but about the integrity of ideas and discourse. Being contextualized in a bigger conversation that allows for multiple socioeconomic viewpoints like you have in a city is critical if you’re going to make work that’s relevant as an artist or musician.

AE: You were named the best new visual artist of 2013 by the Chicago Reader. What was your response? Did this take you by surprise?

MK: I was voted in by Chicagoans, not just the magazine staff, so I’m grateful for this democratic display by urban pop art fans! Also, the Chicago Reader is the most awake publication in the city, and receiving a hat tip from them is a real honor.

AE: I enjoyed your piece in Tablet Magazine about how Kanye helped you find your voice. I definitely grew up in the 90s listening to rap by Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, TLC and the like, yet I see the sexism in their lyrics of course. And as a culturally Jewish person, I always feel a little self-conscious when I identify with black rappers, whose life experiences were obviously far from my upbringing in the Jewish ‘hood of Skokie (though not a practicing Jew, I did practice observing others walk the streets during Shabbot).  But perhaps it’s moreso about the emotion behind the lyrics, and identifying with that pain of not quite fitting in or being “different.” What do you think? How do you feel about being very much influenced by 90s rap and making it a part of your urban pop artist aesthetic? 

MK: Don’t feel self-conscious. And anybody who makes you feel excluded from the culture of the music that moves you is being an asshole, even if it’s you yourself.

Being part of hip hop culture as a consumer is recognizing that you are indeed a human who likes to celebrate individual agency. A human who wants to understand struggles with class and race affecting humans. A human who does not view urban poverty as “their” problem but as “our” problem. Yeah, we’re all different, but at the end of the day, we’re all in this thing together. Places without economic and ethnic diversity have always given me the creeps, I think it’s the resting level of oblivion to life beyond a singular socioeconomic demographic.

In its nature, hip hop is confrontational, and you have to be ready for that as an audience to be able to consider and enjoy it. But that’s my jam as an artist who makes propaganda art that is intended to uplift individuals in their struggles to check and balance the systems that control them. 

Margarita Korol's design for Chicago-based rapper Chella H
Margarita Korol’s design for Chicago-based rapper Chella H

AE: Which brings me to my next question: You’re working with a Chicago-based rapper named Chella H who speaks very honestly about her experience growing up on the South Side Chicago neighborhood Low End, which is a rough hood to say the least. How’d you two hook up? What are you working on for her? And, how do you think your connection to hip-hop culture and music informs your work with Chella?

MK: I’ve been a fan of Chella through her radio play on Chicago’s Finest Hip Hop station WGCI. I’m so into how raw and unapologetically this strong woman throws down like no other. She really takes ownership of her body, her roots, and best of all her libido. And she’s got mad flow.

We linked up earlier in the year at Reggie’s on the South side for a video interview I conducted for this weed blog. Chella and I hit it off right away — I’d like to think we bonded over urban pop art, but I’m pretty sure it was the cake. I guess the blog was gonna finish editing the video but then they got high . . . but ever since then I’ve been designer mermaid on Chella’s #mermaidmafia team.

Artwork for music I’m vibing on is definitely where urban pop art shines most vibrantly. I think the soulfulness really translates. We’re cranking out album art, swag, and promo art all the time. I also had a cameo in her Versace remix video where I got to shake it for a couple seconds at the lyric, “I keep a white girl on my team, but I do not b fucking with molly.” Definitely happy to be part of that PSA.

AE: What’s it like for you being a female artist/entrepreneur? How long have you been running your own company, and would you recommend that aspiring artists go for it on their own like you have?  

MK: I really think the world would be a better place if more artists were in charge. I’ve been Artist President of Urban Pop Art Projects since 2007. Running this thing has probably made the most use of my multifaceted chops as a promoter, salesperson, web designer, entrepreneur, and most importantly activist.

Margarita Korol's illustration of Milton Glaser for Bluecanvas Magazine
Margarita Korol’s illustration of Milton Glaser for Bluecanvas Magazine

While I recognize the necessity of paying the bills how ever you need to, I’ve long believed that your craft should always be your Plan A. It takes courage to push through with that conviction, but it seems like a failsafe way of making sure you don’t have a midlife crisis.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview Milton Glaser for Bluecanvas Magazine, and I want to echo his advice to aspiring artists: do your work. Don’t aspire, do—make business cards with “artist” or whatever best communicates your optimal self and own it. If you want to make art for musicians you love, do it. If you don’t want to work at your cubicle job, quit. Be confident in your ability to be okay and to reach your potential as an artist and as a citizen with a voice. Don’t be selfish with your work and exploit your skills for the greater good. You owe it to the world.

Margarita Korol’s portfolio lives on

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